Blunting the Political Edge

By J. S. Tissainayagam

The LTTE has taken swift steps to set up offices in the government controlled areas after signing the ceasefire agreement, which demonstrates its hopes of functioning as a visible political entity in contrast to its sojourn underground that was forced upon it by war, law and government paranoia.

Though conventional wisdom in the south regards the Tigers entering the political mainstream with an exaggerated show of disdain, it has been nothing but the LTTE’s hardheaded and unromantic approach to politics that has kept it intact as an organisation. It was political clarity that gave the LTTE resilience to resist RAW infiltration, bogus peace moves by the former Sri Lanka government and sustained international pressure to destroy it politically and militarily.

Though the LTTE has never entered electoral politics despite forming the PFLT and using the EROS briefly as a front after the 1989 general elections, the pro-LTTE media and independent Tamil voices, both in Tamil and English, have succeeded in transmitting the Tigers’ positions on a number of issues. Besides, extensive politicisation of the public has taken place in the ‘un-cleared’ areas.

Previous attempts at conflict resolution through negotiations - in 1989 and 1994 - found the LTTE in a woefully inadequate position to push forward its political agenda in a sustained manner. This was both because it devalued the intrinsic importance of politicising the public and did not have the necessary wherewithal to do so anyway. However, changing political realities and the slow, but relentless disintegration of obstacles to the free flow of information, have put paid to that.

The absence of a proper ceasefire agreement during the last round of talks also made it very difficult for the LTTE to legitimise its political role among the Tamil people. Whatever politicisation the Tigers carried out was portrayed by the mainstream media as an attempt to undermine the talks by infiltrating the government controlled areas and breaking the peace.

This time around however there is no ambiguity about the political role the LTTE wishes to play in the northeast. Though it has to adhere to stipulations within framework of the agreement, it has been given the go ahead by the government and the Norwegian facilitators to involve itself in political activity.

But the Tigers are aware that the ideas the government entertains at present about building its own short-term relations with the Tamil people of the northeast facilitated by the ceasefire agreement, has connotations that goes against a just, long-term settlement of the ethnic conflict. This is one important reason for the establishment of LTTE offices in Vavuniya to be followed by others elsewhere.

During conflict it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between genuine attempts at building bridges between warring parties and to using these bridges as a part of a politico-military strategy to weaken or undermine the enemy. The government’s attempt at building bridges by lifting the economic blockade and promoting investment and development in the northeast, is one such.

The government, as per the ceasefire agreement, has agreed to allow all items except those specifically restricted, into the ‘un-cleared’ areas. Similarly, the north, which was not enjoying an adequate supply of consumer goods despite being a ‘cleared’ area, is better off today than before, though all the hurdles obstructing a free flow of goods are yet to be removed.

Besides, the National Chamber of Commerce Sri Lanka, foreign diplomats and NGOs have visited the place to see how they kick-start the development process there. Already certain amount of aid and investment has begun to flow in.

But we have to ask ourselves why? Why is a government that is reluctant to withdraw the PTA and obviously looks the other way except for mild chastisement at the regular and intense harassment by the security forces on civilians, so keen on promoting investment, trade and higher standards of living in the northeast? Why the shopping malls when around 100,000 IDPs are yet to be resettled?

One reason is that the merchant princes of the south want to invest and trade in the northeast and bring its public into the commercial mainstream from which they were shut out during the past 20 years except for brief interregnums. This agenda is for profits, which though frowned upon by moralists, is aggressive capitalism at work.

But while the peace dividend in the south will come in the form of profits, the idea here is that the dividends for the northeast will be in the form of well-stocked malls with goodies open for consumption. And, in order to satisfy the demand that will be created when the shelves are full, adequate incomes have to be forthcoming to the potential consumer. Hence the moves to promote trade and investment that inevitably bring in its wake employment opportunities and better incomes.

While the above are the tangible benefits that will arise with better commerce and investment, another ‘dividend’ of this strategy is that it will lure the Tamils from their present state of rebellion into peaceful consumers living the good life with scarcely a thought for politics.

History abounds with examples where luxury has corrupted a people into surrender and sloth. The idea here is that when the public interests itself in consumption, it gets preoccupied with making money and when it is devoted to making money, it eschews politics.

The contemporary world too is replete with examples of money blunting the edge of political consciousness. Certain countries in South-East Asia are among them where governments have managed to stay in power by basically increasing the per capita incomes of their populations. The bloodbath that overthrew the regime in Indonesia and the war in East Timor, show how difficult it is for political freedom to be achieved in countries with thriving economies.

The application of this strategy in Sri Lanka is seen in the quantity of potential investment, both governmental and non-governmental, earmarked for Jaffna and the north after the ceasefire agreement was signed. The north has traditionally had a strong and comparatively large middle-class, where both a market for such goods has been available and the infrastructure to sustain such investment. Even if much of the traditional middle-class is dispersed today, there is that class, which has grown rich with foreign remittances to whom the game of consumption appeals greatly.

Though this strategy could work, local history itself is the best example of how such agendas do not work all the time. The political work and armed rebellion for a separate state began to dominate the consciousness of youth of the northeast in the 1970s. Though one of the main causes for the armed rebellion was loss of economic opportunities through standardisation of marks for entry into universities, one cannot forget that farming, the mainstay of the Jaffna economy was thriving in the 1970s. Therefore, saying that people stay away from radical politics when experiencing economic prosperity is not always true.

The government’s motive of enthralling the consumers of the northeast with goodies, a well-maintained infrastructure and jobs is one important reason for the LTTE to launch its political campaign among the Tamil people. It is to argue that though a ceasefire is on the ground, it does not mean that Tamil political grievances have been met.

On April 3, Poovanan, head of the LTTE’s civil administration division, speaking at the opening of the LTTE’s Vavuniya political office stated that the event was the first step in the organisation’s political work. He said such political work was not party-based propaganda for elections. The goal of the LTTE was to work with the people and propagate its policies. What is important is Poovanan’s remark that the LTTE stood for ‘peace, but with freedom.’

The question is whether this season of peace is going to usher in apathy for political freedom. If Tamils are won over by economic prosperity not keeping in mind the political goals which they have fought for over 20 years, the next move by the state will be to dismantle the LTTE’s military machine and then to begin the process of ethnic assimilation. At that point even economic prosperity for which the Tamils prostituted themselves will be denied to them and there will be no one to resist.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader [14 April 2002]