India holds the key to peace in Lanka?

The Independent,
[ Sat Dec 10, 1999]

Does India hold the key to peace and stability in Sri Lanka? One has to arrive at such a conclusion after reading reported interviews and speeches by the leading political players of the country. They have dispassionately told time and again, that any initiative for a third party mediated negotiated settlement must have the approval and the blessings of India. It is very intriguing to note such appeals forthcoming, when India has not openly declared its position about the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, who was responsible for the doomed Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987, the successive Indian governments purposely avoided showing any interest in the ethnic conflict, other than issues connected with trade and bilateral relations. India’s posture of such nature, though intriguing, is something understandable.

It is a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious country. Since the country of late continues to face aggressive terrorist activities in the North-East frontier states and in Bihar, a destabilizing factor is challenging the unified nature of the country. On top of it, India now focuses its attention on issues such as the Kashmir, Kargil conflict and the most daring intrusion of Islamic militants supported by Pakistan’s intelligence services and the armed forces led by Pakistan’s new Chief Executive’ Pervez Musharraf. After the demolition of the Babur Masjid (Babri Mosque) in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, by the Sangh-Parivar, threat to its secularist nature is growing in an alarming proportion.

After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, even the successive state governments in Tamil Nadu has distanced itself from the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It seems that Tamil Nadu has exhausted its warmth towards their Tamil brethren and their sufferings. Therefore, the Union Government of India is not in any dilemma, unlike that of Rajiv Gandhi’s period, to worry about any spin-off effects of any calculated isolation and disregard for the sufferings of the Tamils. India, in the recent years, has abandoned its earlier attitude, but gradually has adopted a policy of good neighbourly relationship, and fostering mutual interest with the Sri Lankan Government to fight terrorism and secession.

Today, India’s concerns are no longer the concerns of the Tamils of Tamil Nadu, but desist from interfering with its neighbour in the southern tip, even though she is poised to apply the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, which is still an international legal instrument, that remains in force. Despite its latest change in attitude, Sri Lankan leaders request India to play a crucial role in easing the tension to bring about peace and stability, a contradictory position.

Ranil Wickremasinghe, the leader of the opposition and the leader of the United National Party (UNP), who is one of the main contenders for presidency, in an interview about his agenda for peace and reconciliation, said that no solution would be possible without the involvement of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

He added that, choosing a third party for mediation must have the approval of India. Whilst emphasizing the importance of India’s approval for choosing the third party, he further added that the third party mediator could be a European nation. In this particular interview, Ranil Wickremasinghe did not elaborate as to why he seeks the approval of India in choosing a third party mediator in negotiating with the LTTE to bring about a political settlement. He also failed to explain his rationale for not considering selecting India to be third party to mediate the negotiations.

According to Ranil Wickremasinghe, India’s role in assuring and guaranteeing peace in a war-torn country is very vital. Again, Anton Balasingham, ideologue and Political Adviser to LTTE, recently addressing “Maaveerar Naal” (Heroes Day) meeting in London, stressed the importance of India to the Tamil struggle. He went a step ahead and said that LTTE was not opposed to India’s interest. He scoffed at the general fear when he made a hypothetical statement, that in case Tamil Eelam is achieved, the Tamils in India too would demand a separate state. He said that this is a baseless allegation. He clarified that the Tamil people in India are not being starved, bombed and persecuted. He also posed a question, therefore, why would they want a separate state?

Recently, a spokesman from the LTTE International Secretariat in London, who wishes to remain anonymous, told this writer that, his organization attaches great importance to India and would willingly accept India’s mediation in the peace negotiation. He added, in recent years they could observe a major shift in India’s policy towards the LTTE. 'We were never against the interest of India, but in any bilateral issues, our views must have a sympathetic hearing, instead of being simply ignored, as in the past.' In case India shows reluctance to be a leading player, LTTE welcomes the mediation of any one of the Scandinavian countries, but again that particular country has to be approved by India.

They dismissed several countries when suggested by this writer, as party to the conflict by providing the Sri Lankan government with arms, ammunition, training and funds needed to continue the war. Whilst LTTE and Ranil Wickremasinghe attaches importance to India’s role in the mediation, last Sunday issues of all the leading dailies and weeklies of Sri Lanka, came out with a news story, captioned, “New Delhi demonstrators demand, hand over Prabakaran to India,” with the sole intention of warning India to keep off Sri Lankan affairs.

It was a cleverly crafted news item, planted with mischievous intent to confuse the general public. As usual, Sri Lankan press, controlled by the majority community owners and the Government, purposely gave a twist to a low-key player in the national politics of India.

According to the newspaper reports, “The All India Anti Terrorist Front (AIAFT) led by Maninder Jeet Singh Bitta, a former President of the Youth Congress and a former cabinet minister from Punjab, staged a demonstration in front of the Sri Lankan High Commission, New Delhi, to express his solidarity with the efforts of the Sri Lankan Government to eliminate terrorism.” According to the press report, he also handed over a memorandum to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner. The memorandum demanded the extradition of Velupillai Prabakaran, the Tiger Supremo, to try him according to the law, for the alleged assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Similar obnoxious reporting, emanating from the vested groups with deliberate intent to twist the political scenarios, are common not only in Sri Lanka, but also in the advanced Western countries.

Recently, George Mitchell, former US Senate Majority leader and the person who successfully mediated the North Ireland conflict and clinched the Good Friday Agreement, lamented over the role of the British and international press corps. He described how the press stood in the way, laying road-blocks in his search for a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland. He revealed that, earlier he used to conduct meetings with the parties in a drab government office building, just outside Belfast. He said that those meetings ended very briefly and once the meetings ended, the leaders were besieged by the media, trying to pin them down with a hundred What-if scenarios. He added, that when he moved his meeting venue in October to London, with relative privacy, without interruption, and no pressure forthcoming from the media, a conducive atmosphere emerged, which led to the successful conclusion of peace, that has eluded the Northern Ireland people for well over a period of 1000 years.

George Mitchell recalled his days in the US Senate, where he served as the Majority Leader for six years and Bob Dole, the Republican, was his opposite number, the Minority Leader. He stressed that both of them disagreed daily on issues, but never exchanged a harsh word publicly or privately. “We trusted each other, and we knew that compromise is necessary if the Senate and our democracy is to function. We tried hard and not always successfully, to place the national interest first. That is the message - that compromise need not mean failure or weakness. Rather it could be based on strength and self confidence, and benefit the larger society.”

Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, personal desires, ego and lust for power take the driver’s seat in the political affairs of the country, therefore, room for compromise, mutual trust and the question of political adjustment were never in the card. As the Presidential election draws nearer, more than 300 election related violent incidents were reported. Attempts and allegation of targeting the life of the candidates are reported regularly.

Recently, the Opposition leader survived narrowly a bomb blast, a criminal attempt on his life. Already allegations are surfacing about the criminal gangs attacking the offices of the opposition candidates. Acts of intimidations, challenges and personal insinuations are traded on a regular basis, by the candidates, who contest in the election for the highest executive office in the country. This shows the decadence of political morality, also the integrity in the midst of political leaders. Mistrust is prevalent, even the incumbent president has failed to clear mistrust which would have earlier created a climate conducive to a negotiated political settlement of the ethnic conflict. Ethnic conflict is dominating the election agenda of the country. Up to date, no acceptable proposal has been put up, that would ensure a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Each presidential candidate blubbers about proposals which are logically unacceptable to the aggrieved party, the Tamils. Cleavages between the ethnic groups deepen, whilst Tamils the minority group are resigned to their fate and look towards the international community for an East Timor formula referendum to ascertain their aspirations and legitimate rights in a country where their basic legitimacy of survival is arbitrarily confiscated.

It is regrettable, up to date, not even one single leader from the majority community showed any keen interest in studying the problems confronting the Tamils and so far has not forwarded any concrete resolution to solve conflict politically, with a view to bringing about a lasting peace in the country. Instead, when the Tamils concentrated on their demand for their legitimate rights, the government resorted to military solution to tone down and subdue them.

Since independence leaders have failed to enact laws to forbid inflammatory speeches, writings and activities that promote communal discrimination in the country with a view to making a congenial climate for national integration and unity. As Sinhalese hegemony prevails, Tamils, the national minority in the country are slowly and steadily and forcibly relegated to live at the mercy of the majority community.

Gradually, when the Tamils began to resist all forms of imposed discriminatory resolutions and concessions, in turn the government leaders for fear of loosing their vote banks began to adopt dishonest postures by legalizing discriminatory measures to deprive with equal opportunities to the national minorities. Intransigency, chauvinism and churlishness prevail, which has led to fratricidal protracted war, where several thousands of innocent lives are lost. At regular intervals, Human Rights groups confront the government with issues regarding thousands of involuntary disappearances, but so far these disappearances remain an unanswered mystery. It shows the government’s unwillingness and inability to solve the ongoing conflict.

This has prolonged the misery of a section of the people in the country. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, wrote in the London based “The Economist” about the “Two Concepts of Sovereignty,” by laying emphasis,

“If states bent on criminal behaviour know that frontiers are not an absolute defence -- that the (Security) Council will take action to halt the gravest crimes against humanity -- then they will not embark on such a course, assuming they can get away with it. The charter requires the council to be the defender of the ‘common interest’. Unless it is seen to be so--in an era of human rights, interdependence and globalization -- there is a danger that others will seek to take its place.”

UN secretary-general, gave his thoughts on the international intervention in humanitarian crisis, and the changes needed for the next century.

“The tragedy of East Timor, coming so soon after that of Kosovo, has focused attention once again on the need for timely intervention by the international community, when death and suffering are being inflicted on large numbers of people, and when the state nominally in charge is unable or unwilling to stop it.”

During the last 54th UN General Assembly session, Kofi Annan and several European leaders made impassioned plea, for the international community to adopt more a contingent definition, wherein the systematic violation of human rights by a state would constitute legitimate grounds for outside military intervention, to restore human values as well as to re-establish the most cherish democratic order. At the back drop of the above emerging new vision on the degrading humanitarian situation, India is supposed to hold the key to a durable peace in Sri Lanka, as parties to the conflict strongly believes, has to take into consideration the continuously worsening situation, to act decisively, also to bring about an end to the ethnic conflict.

Unlike in its earlier attempt in 1987, India has to act cautiously not to impose its own conflict resolutions, but has to study the crisis in full by consultation and consensus, before assisting parties to the conflict to reach any resolution. A pragmatic approach is the need of the hour. Talks with the LTTE are necessary to end the conflict, even if Prabakaran is wanted in India for any alleged crime.

As its international commitment, India has to assist in any honest endeavor to find an acceptable solution to the festering ethnic conflict.

International communities hope that there will never be a vacillation on this score by India and it would play its role in resolving the ethnic crisis. At present a lame duck government is in power, but once the Presidential election is over by 21 December, a new set of players is expected to emerge in the political arena. Again the international community should not allow these new players to experiment with any new chauvinistic approach in solving the ethnic conflict with a new kind of military adventurism.

It was unfortunate that the world was mischievously misled by the “war for peace,” the chauvinistic strategy adopted by the present government propagated as a very sound conflict resolution.

A war is a conflict carried on by force of arms, as between nations or between parties within a country. As the result of any armed hostility or active military operation, would result in a party emerging victorious, whilst the other, the loser being subjugated, but never to be a panacea for peace and stability. Therefore, when a state declares war against a section of its citizenry, the net result would be, death, destruction, misery and subjugation. Why numerous Western countries including United States of America, United Kingdom decided to go along with this regime by providing lethal weapons for genocide against the Tamil?

Intriguing questions, but the soul searching rest only with the international community in the dawn of the new millennium. Since 1972, ethnic conflict ravages on in Sri Lanka, where, 13,000 government soldiers lost their lives, more than 15,000 Tamil militants including LTTE cadres killed, approximately 2000 Indian forces lost their lives, according to an independent survey, 60,000 innocent Tamils were meted out with extra judicial killings, nearly 2000 Tamils involuntarily disappeared and more than 2 million internally displaced. Death and destruction are the order of the day in a country where successive governments administer the country under Emergency regulations continuously since 1972, at times with a very brief respite.

K. T. Rajasingham

Courtesy: The Independent, Bangladesh, December 10 1999.