‘CONCESSIONS’ AND ‘GOODWILL GESTURES’
De-proscription: A Litmus Test for Ranil
By J. S. Tissainayagam
Among the reactions thrown up by Velupillai Pirabhakaran’s press conference in Kilinochchi are what ‘concessions’ the LTTE is prepared to make in response to the ‘gestures of goodwill’ that have been extended to the Tamils and the Tigers by the UNF government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
This followed the sentiments that Prabhakaran and Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham expressed on issues such as the interim council, activation of LTTE political offices in the ‘cleared’ areas and of course the controversial de-proscription.
To the south, ever watchful of the LTTE in fear apparently that it would renege on negotiating a political solution and go back to war, the UNF has already ‘conceded’ too much. And that it has done so without demanding reciprocation from the other party.
‘Concession’ is perhaps the word most over-used and least understood in the relations the Sri Lankan state has with the Tamils. What should be enjoyed by right by all communities in Sri Lanka have become ‘special privileges’ when it comes to the Tamils because governments in the past systematically withheld them and the moment those restrictions were suspended the suspension was publicised as a ‘concession.’ It is in this context that we have to see ‘concessions’ such as doing away with the pass system in Vavuniya and Mannar, the economic blockade of the Wanni and registration of Tamil tenants in Colombo.
It has to be clearly understood that even if these are called ‘concessions’ for the sake of argument, there is a clear distinction between what is ‘conceded’ to the Tamils and to the LTTE. This is important because the Sri Lankan mind tends to confuse the two.
As mentioned earlier, among these so-called ‘concessions’ is the lifting of the economic blockade. This move does not in any way benefit the LTTE, it only benefits the Tamil people in the north-east - especially those in ‘un-cleared’ portions of the Wanni.
In the wake of lifting the economic ban, there has been a tremendous outpouring of sentiment to develop the northeast and diplomats, NGO officials and bureaucrats have expressed enthusiasm in doing so. To those who have watched the ethnic war progress over the past 20 years, this rings kind of odd.
This column in the April 7 issue of The Sunday Leader expressed misgivings about a possible motive behind the exercise of economically developing the northeast. It pointed out that investment in war devastated areas and rebuilding infrastructure (opening and repairing the A9) is a way to blunt the edge of Tamil political consciousness and a tried and tested tactic of counter-insurgency in other countries to dilute support to rebellion through the allure of filthy lucre.
So the opening of the A9, lifting the economic blockade and pushing investments in the northeast has a tactical side to them. Therefore though it is touted as a ‘concession’ to the Tamils, it has implications other than what it is innocently taken to be.
Another move by the government that is interpreted by south as a ‘concession’ is the proposal to de-proscribe the LTTE. This, if it is successfully executed by the UNF, will be the first substantial gesture that the government is serious about negotiating with the LTTE towards a political solution to the ethnic conflict. And this gesture will benefit the LTTE directly more than it will benefit the Tamils in general.
The importance of the de-proscription was reiterated by Balasingham, where he stated that the LTTE would brook no compromise on the issue and the lifting of the ban should be complete and unqualified. He went to add that the Tigers would use this to negotiate the lifting of the ban on them by other countries.
It is by realising that the south interprets the de-proscription as a huge ‘concession’ to the LTTE that opposition to the peace process is mobilising itself. Be it President Chandrika Kumaratunga expressing her dismay at the proscription being lifted before talks commence, or the JVP and the Sinhala parties readying themselves for a sustained street campaign, to parties opposed to negotiations between the UNF and LTTE de-proscription is the issue with which to stoke the flames.
Though de-proscription per se means lifting the legal strictures on the LTTE enabling the Sri Lankan government to recognise it and treat it as being on par as a future negotiating partner, today de-proscription has taken on much greater significance than anything it has to do with the law. It has become the best litmus test of whether Ranil Wickremesinghe can actually deliver.
In all peace processes wheels are set in motion towards a certain objective. They seem to move well but suddenly grind to a halt. That is over contentious issues that block the forward movement. In 1994, the earliest indication that the Kumaratunga government would not be able to deliver the goods came when it could not get the better of its own armed forces when it came to sending food to the Wanni.
The army that was not in favour of a political solution refused point blank to suspend the economic blockade and to carry out government orders. It was the first substantial opposition that Kumaratunga met on the road to peace and she caved in.
Therefore the de-proscription issue has now taken on a visage that is larger than itself. More than permitting the LTTE to participate as an equal partner in talks, it has become a test for Wickremesinghe. Does he have the spunk to stand up against his detractors and deliver, or will he wilt under pressure like his wily predecessor on whose hypocrisy he and his party have had much to say.
Courtesy: Sunday Leader [21 April 2002]