Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Politics of solutions

by Dr S Sathananthan, March 15, 2009

But the logic of territorial conquest works against a political solution to the Tamil Question. As a Sinhalese nationalist who vehemently opposed devolution of power put it frankly, “why should we fight and win after sacrificing so many Sinhalese lives and then give the north and east back to Tamils?” Speaking to the press on 10 March 2009 Tilvin Silva, General Secretary of the Sinhalese-extremist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), was more specific: “granting land powers to provincial councils meant the handing over of land -- which was secured by the security forces at great cost -- back to the separatists and the granting of police powers meant the legitimizing of their armed struggle”; and he rejected both. In other words, the Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacist State’s pursuit of total victory on the battlefield is effectively closing the political space for reform and precluding inclusive power-sharing with the Tamil people.

The “mental trap” of counter-insurgency is to “meet danger with force.” President Mahinda Rajapakse’s Sinhalese regime fell headlong into the trap and lunged to neutralise the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) entirely by force. His brother and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse – a retired Army Colonel and guiding hand of the exclusively military strategy – pompously outlined the three-phase battle plan to a Sinhalese journalist. “The first stage of military operations would end after all rebel territory was seized…the next would be to mop up remaining resistance and seize all guerrilla weaponry. The final phase would be to ensure stability”; and added: “I would not say we have defeated the Tigers completely until we have completed all three phases of our operation." The objectives of the first two phases are clear. In the final one, to ensure a nebulous “stability”, he explained, “we're not going to leave any room for them to come back.”

The obvious tactic here is to divide and rule. On the political front, those Tamils who are pathologically opposed to the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement, many of whom suffer acute self-delusions of Machiavellian proportions, have desperately advised the regime it is in its enlightened self-interest to introduce a devolution proposal to drive a political wedge between the Tamil people and the LTTE to POLITICALLY SEPARATE the two. This is of course part of the well known counterinsurgency strategy of depriving popular support for the resistance movement – in this instance, to isolate the fish (LTTE) from its friendly and sustaining water (Tamil people).

About 15 years ago, in 1994, D Sithardthan of the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) treacherously advised the Sinhalese UNP regime to work towards a “political solution”; because "then only the LTTE can be alienated from the masses and then only LTTE can be defeated or weakened". The following year, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was more pro-active. The party, with M Sivasithamparam in the lead, propped up Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Peoples Alliance (PA) minority government in parliament. Rather than vote with the Opposition and bring down the rabidly anti-Tamil regime, they repeatedly voted with the PA to extend emergency rule and assist its war budget through parliament to release funds for the Sinhalese army, which was lurching towards the Jaffna peninsula to decimate Tamils’ military power. TULF parliamentarians and other collaborating Tamil MPs met at a five-star hotel in Colombo in September 1995 to review “progress”. They approvingly concluded “it was necessary for the Government to counter the LTTE” and mouthed the counterinsurgency propaganda that the Tamil people are separate from the LTTE and pleaded that Kumaratunga must ensure that “Tamil civilians were not unduly affected by any Government action”. In December, TULF quislings, led by the late Neelan Tiruchelvam, ecstatically welcomed the “defeat” of the LTTE. They pleaded an alleged Tamil pennant – the Nandi Standard – the party helpfully provided must be flown together with the Lion Flag at the “victory celebrations” in Jaffna because, they argued, the Sinhalese army’s conquest is also a triumph for the vast majority of peace-loving Tamils. The army condescended and, with disdain, hoisted that flag well behind and at a non-polluting distance from the Lion Flag.

Between 1996 and 2000 the TULF virtually begged the Kumaratunga regime repeatedly to put forward a political proposal the party could take back to the Tamils. But Sinhalese leaders, blinded by anti-Tamil chauvinism, refused to oblige.

After the conflict escalated in 2006, Tamil politicians resurrected their treacherous politics. On 26 January 2008 R Sampanthan, formerly TULF and now with the Federal Party (FP) and Parliamentary Group Leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), extended his party’s assistance to isolate the LTTE through a political initiative: “Governments have to…come up with a proposal which constitutes a challenge to the LTTE. And if they are not ready to accept them [sic] then it becomes our duty to take it up on behalf of the people. We will not fail in that.”

About six months later, a Sinhalese academic-turned-diplomat, Dayan Jayatilleka, struggled to educate the Rajapakse regime; he asserted, for “winning the peace” the “successful military track has to be paralleled by a political one.” Predictably United States Ambassador in Colombo Robert Blake too advised, “the Government could further isolate and weaken the LTTE if it articulates now its vision for a political solution”.

But the logic of territorial conquest works against a political solution to the Tamil Question. As a Sinhalese nationalist who vehemently opposed devolution of power put it frankly, “why should we fight and win after sacrificing so many Sinhalese lives and then give the north and east back to Tamils?” Speaking to the press on 10 March 2009 Tilvin Silva, General Secretary of the Sinhalese-extremist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), was more specific: “granting land powers to provincial councils meant the handing over of land -- which was secured by the security forces at great cost -- back to the separatists and the granting of police powers meant the legitimizing of their armed struggle”; and he rejected both. In other words, the Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacist State’s pursuit of total victory on the battlefield is effectively closing the political space for reform and precluding inclusive power-sharing with the Tamil people.

How, then, does the Rajapakse regime intend “to ensure stability” while the Tamil people continue to remain an alienated and aggrieved nation? How does it hope to prevent the LTTE resurging with the backing of the Tamil people? Especially since the Sinhalese Army Commander Sarath Fonseka conceded in July 2008 that a military victory cannot mean the total annihilation of the LTTE. “The LTTE might survive another even two decades with about 1000 cadres. But”, he said, “we will not be fighting in the same manner. It might continue as an insurgency forever.” He clearly implied a strategy of containment must be operationalised.

The regime and its armed forces are fully aware of the importance of isolating the Tamil people from the LTTE cadres, as the Defence Secretary obliquely explained, to “not…leave any room for them to come back”. But their military mindset, both the cause and product of the very battlefield advances that forces opposed to the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement urged the regime to pursue foreclosed the political options to inveigle Tamils away from the LTTE. Moreover, political interventions let loose social processes the parade grounds traditions cannot comprehend or control. Instead, the militarised regime prefers to PHYSICALLY SEPARATE the Tamil people from the LTTE guerrillas; draconian policing and barbed wire barricades are their cup of tea. Thus their military-cum-security option is a two-pronged tactic of registration of Tamil households with the police and setting up “welfare villages”.

Today the police have comprehensive information about the exact number and composition of virtually every Tamil household outside the conflict areas in the country. Information about any visitor – friend or relative – is swiftly passed on to the police by Sinhalese neighbours who double as vigilantes and the police invariably pick up the outsiders and cruelly treat them as potential LTTE suspects. The regime is deterring contact between Tamil civilians and LTTE through naked repression. Tamils suspected to be sympathetic to the nationalist cause are abducted by the dreaded White Van to drive the point home, that even an emotional identification with the LTTE will invite the wrath of the regime.

Within conflict areas, Tamils displaced from their homes by the regime’s military onslaught as well as ethnic cleansing are being herded by the army into “internment camps” enclosed in barbed wire, which the regime euphemistically calls “welfare villages”. The BBC News 13 February 2009 used the term “concentration camps” when reporting on the army-run camps in which Tamils will be detained against their will almost indefinitely. The British cannot be far wrong. They had pioneered the strategy in Kenya of de-populating entire villages and incarcerating the Kikuyu people in “detention camps” to break contact between them and the Mau Mau guerrillas. The US army brutally herded the South Vietnamese rural population into “Strategic Hamlets” – a sanitised term for concentration camps – crafted by the CIA to sever all links between the people and their liberation army and to isolate the guerrillas. In both instances, the strategy spectacularly failed. Those hoping for success in Sri Lanka seem to draw inspiration from Britain’s “fortified village programme” that helped defeat the anti-colonial resistance in Malaya. But they conveniently ignore that, unlike in Kenya and Vietnam, the resistance in Malaya was almost exclusively carried out by the minority Chinese ethnic group and that it sought to expel British colonialism from the whole of Malaya without the support of the majority Malays who more often than not detested the Chinese minority. Had the Malaysian Chinese fought to set up an independent State of their own – as Muslims had done successfully in British India – perhaps their history would have unfolded differently.

Undeterred by the failure of British and American internment strategies, the Rajapakse regime has set up concentration camps in Jaffna and Vanni and is bombing Tamils in Vanni to drive them into the camps. More about the strategy later.

For the moment, we note there are compelling reasons why comparisons have been drawn between Vanni and the Gaza Strip. But it is more appropriate to think of the Rajapakse regime transforming the north and the east into the equivalents of the West Bank and Gaza respectively. The difficulty the regime faces is that Tamils are not Palestinians, Sinhalese are not Jews and India is certainly not Saudi Arabia.