The Proscription Problematique

By: D. B. S. Jeyaraj

“The main issue for the commencement of talks with the LTTE is the international and local ban on the LTTE. The LTTE has stated that if it were to come for talks, the ban imposed on the organization locally should be lifted. On the other hand international opinion stresses on the need to commence talks towards achieving a political solution... We have no right to play around [with] this last chance we have to achieve peace in Sri Lanka. We also have no right to indulge in narrow political aims making use of the ban on the LTTE... We are not prepared to let go of this last chance for peace. Deep thought is necessary on the local ban of the LTTE in view of this backdrop.”

- Ranil Wickremesinghe in policy statement of January 22, 2002

More than 40 years ago in the mid-fifties, the Island of Ceylon was torn apart politically by the Sinhala as sole official language issue. The opposing viewpoints found symbolic expression in the ‘Sri’ issue. The old system of motor vehicle licenses based on the colonial method of using letters from the word Ceylon was done away with. Instead of using ‘alien’ letters from the English alphabet, a national substitute was envisaged. It was going to be the letter ‘Sri’ and numerals on new number plates.

But whose Sri? The rising tide of supremacist consciousness that deemed the Island as the sole-exclusive preserve of the Sinhala majority saw to it that the ‘Sri’ in question was from the Sinhala alphabet. The Tamils resented and protested. There is no ‘Sri’ letter in the authentic Tamil alphabet of 247 letters. There are however some Sanskrit derived ‘grantha’ letters in use. ‘Sri’ was one of those. So the Tamils demanding parity of status for their mother tongue also wanted equality in ‘Sri’s. When the newly formed Ceylon Transport Board sent buses with the new ‘Sinhala Sri’ number plates to the Northeast the Federal Party protested and commenced a tar brush campaign against the ‘Sinhala Sri’. Southern extremists reacted by tarring Tamil letters in signboards in the Sinhala areas. This saw Tamils tarring all Sinhala letters in official name boards.

Burning Issue

The situation deteriorated and the conflict became literally and metaphorically a burning issue when large-scale violence erupted in 1958. Tamils were burnt alive and so were their residences, businesses and places of worship. A notorious example being the immolation of the Brahmin priest at the Panadura temple. The tragic incident was discussed with horror by Tamil people in all parts of the Island. It was this event that had a profound impact on a four-year-old Tamil child growing up in the coastal town of Valvettithurai. That boy grew up into a leader of an armed Tamil movement seeking justice for the Tamils and became a legend in his lifetime. He acknowledged in later interviews that it was the impact of the Panadura incident that instilled into him an avenging consciousness against Sinhala tyranny. That boy was none other than Velupillai Pirabakaran.

The passion and fury generated by the ‘Sri’ conflict may have created an impression that this was one issue where no compromise was possible at any point of time. The ‘Sri’ like the constitutional clause about a ‘unitary’ state was entrenched in Sinhala nationalist consciousness and any attempt to amend it would result in the Sinhala people exploding again was the feeling. Yet what happened? After more than three decades there emerged a common man of the Sinhala masses as executive president of Sri Lanka. Ranasinghe Premadasa had no qualms about changing the vehicle number plate system from the existing ‘Sri’ formula. No volcanoes erupted and no rivers of blood flowed. A seemingly intractable issue of the past became totally irrelevant in the present.

More heat than light

Many of our current problems too would no doubt suffer the same fate as that of the ‘Sri’ controversy with the passage of time. What is required is a bold, imaginative and sincere political leadership on both sides of the ethnic divide. The people must be informed correctly that unless a typical course of action however unpopular in the present was adopted, the future would be disastrously bleak. The entrenched unitary constitution clause for example may seem sacrosanct at present. Nevertheless the unitary state has to go if the state is to be restructured on federal lines to ensure the durable unity of the country in the future. Likewise another ‘symbolic’ issue, like the ‘Sri’ generating more heat than light, is the Problematique of Proscription.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe dealt with this issue in the policy statement made by him in parliament on January 22. Some comments articulated by Wickremesinghe in this regard suggested that he was prepared to consider the de-proscribing of the LTTE at a point of time when it became definite that continuous proscription would jeopardise the peace process. “The main issue for the commencement of talks with the LTTE is the international and local ban on the LTTE. The LTTE has stated that if it were to come for talks the ban imposed on the organisation locally should be lifted. On the other hand international opinion stresses on the need to commence talks towards achieving a political solution...We have no right to play around [with] this last chance we have to achieve peace in Sri Lanka. We also have no right to indulge in narrow political aims making use of the ban on the LTTE...We are not prepared to let go of this last chance for peace. Deep thought is necessary on the local ban of the LTTE in view of this backdrop,” he said.

Encouraging sign

Wickremesinghe’s sentiments evoked a responsive chord in the ranks of Tuscany. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam political adviser and accredited chief negotiator Anton Balasingham welcomed the decision to review the ban imposed in Sri Lanka on the LTTE. Balasingham referred to Wickremesinghe’s comment “Deep thought is necessary on the local ban of the LTTE in view of this backdrop” as “an encouraging sign of the new government’s commitment to end the ethnic conflict”. Speaking to the ‘tamilnet’ website, Balasingham stated, “The de-proscription of the LTTE will be a recognition of the legitimacy of the Tamil people’s struggle. It is not a concession by the government but an acknowledgement of our position as the authentic representatives of the Tamil people.”

Balasingham also had a harsh remark about ex-foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who warned Wickremesinghe in parliament, “on the question of de-proscribing the LTTE any precipitate action should be avoided and the government should bear in mind international practice in the face of impending talks with banned organisations”. Balasingham pointed out that the Oslo facilitated peace process collapsed last year after Kadirgamar “out of personal dislike for the then special envoy, now special adviser to the Norwegian foreign ministry Erik Solheim, successfully insisted on his removal”. Balasingham went on to say “Mr. Kadirgamar wasted his career by obsessively pursuing this single issue of proscribing the LTTE. In doing so he has contributed considerably to the intractability of the ethnic problem. More concerned now with his personal pride than what is best for the people of Sri Lanka, Mr. Kadirgamar seems determined to thwart the brightening prospects for negotiations”.

Kadirgamar was not alone in expressing opposition to anticipated de-proscription. His leader Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is also harping on the same issue. There is every possibility that the People’s Alliance will exploit this issue for narrow political gain in the future. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Sihala Urumaya are already doing so. Wickremesinghe was obviously referring to these opportunistic elements with no thought of the future wellbeing of the country when he said, “We have no right to play around this last chance we have to achieve peace in Sri Lanka. We also have no right to indulge in narrow political aims making use of the ban on the LTTE”. Whatever the opposition may say, there is no disputing the fact that the question of de-proscription is symbolically emotive rather than being of practical value.

The issue of banning the LTTE first arose in 1978 when the Tigers sent a public letter to the Colombo Tamil daily Virakesari claiming credit for several exploits, including the killing of CID Inspector Bastianpillai. The proscription of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and other similar organisations ordinance was passed. This was repealed in 1979, when the Prevention of Terrorism (temporary provisions) Act was passed. Initially in force for three years the PTA was made part of permanent law in 1982. In 1983 the 6th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing separatism was passed. These laws along with emergency law provisions became the instruments through which repression was unleashed on the Tamil people.

The oppressive measures only succeeded in driving the Tamil people into the hands of the Liberation Tigers. Contrary to misguided expectations in the South that legal banning and military persecution would destroy the Tigers the opposite happened. The LTTE numbering only 30 full-time cadres in July 1983 has expanded considerably. Today it is one of the most formidable guerrilla organizations possessing attributes of a conventional army and navy. Recent developments like the ‘Pongu Thamil Eluchchi’ (Tamil upsurge demonstration) and the mandate obtained by the Tamil national alliance have shown that the LTTE is now the premier politico-military organization of the Tamil people. This phenomenon is proof enough that legal proscription by an oppressive regime cannot undermine a national liberation movement.

The LTTE was formally banned on October 11, 1987, when the truce brought about by the Indo-Lanka accord broke down. Thereafter the ban was revoked when Premadasa initiated a political dialogue with the LTTE in 1989. The LTTE registered its political front as an approved political party. Soon hostilities resumed. The ban however was not re-imposed despite the raging war. Kumaratunge also did not impose proscription when the 100-day ceasefire collapsed and fighting commenced on April 18th 1995. The ban was imposed in 1998 January when the Dalada Maligawa was attacked. This was not the first time the tooth temple was attacked. The JVP did so in the late eighties but it was already banned then. The 1998 ban was of a political and symbolic nature than militaristic.

Proscription politics

Kumaratunga continued to play proscription politics when she tried to prevent opposition parties ganging up against her in parliament last year. When the emergency extension seemed doomed as a result of changed political configurations, she tried to exploit Sinhala fears by saying that the LTTE ban would cease if the emergency lapsed. As a last resort, she utilised PTA regulations and banned the LTTE again just as the emergency lapsed because of non-extension. Some lawyers have said that such a ban was not legally permissible. The ban however has not been challenged on those grounds so far. Thus it is obvious that a politically bankrupt PA and its cronies are trying to prop up the proscription issue for political oxygen.

The proscription issue acquired a further dimension when Kadirgamar tried to play to the Sinhala gallery over this issue. Realising that there was a growing International trend against global terrorism in the post-cold war world, Kadirgamar shrewdly and unscrupulously hitched his wagon to that star. He began to pursue a single item policy of urging international bans on the LTTE as the chief ingredient of his foreign policy. Kadirgamar began pandering to the domestic constituency by propagating an image that he was responsible for getting the LTTE banned on foreign soil. Soon Kumaratunge also got on to the same bandwagon. The PA bereft of any tangible achievement in governance was reduced to the sorry plight of proclaiming triumphs abroad in combating the LTTE.

This international trend against terrorism has received fresh impetus after the September 11 events. The LTTE banned in the USA in 1997 and Britain in 2001 now faces restrictions in Canada and Australia too. Other western nations may also ban the LTTE. Hopes are raised in Sri Lanka that these bans could eliminate the fund raising capacity of the LTTE in these countries. The simplistic expectation is that the Tigers would be starved of funds in due course.

The reality is that while such bans may affect fund raising to some degree it will not extinguish it. New, covert methods and devices would come into force. Also expatriate funds are not the sole money supply for Tiger coffers. After the Afghanistan war some Sinhala hawks indulged in flights of fancy about western nations bombing the jungles of Mullaitheevu into ashes. These elements are of the misguided belief that if Sri Lanka relaxes the ban the international community would also relax the ban. Curiously some Tamil circles also share this belief.

There has been an unfortunate tendency among Tamil circles to swallow Kadirgamar’s propaganda. They think that the western nations have acceded to Kadirgamar. So there is a simple hope that if the ban in Sri Lanka were relaxed then western nations would also follow suit. On the other hand some Sinhala circles believe that hasty action in removing the ban could affect western approaches. The fear is that if the peace process collapses and war erupts Colombo would have foolishly foreclosed the option of enlisting active western support against the LTTE on the pretext of fighting global terror. If Sri Lanka removes the ban then this resource would dry up forever is the nagging doubt.

Simple logic entails that it would not be so. Colombo can always re-impose the ban if necessary. The truth however is entirely different. Despite Kadirgamar’s propaganda and the naiveté displayed in believing it, western nations have banned and may ban the LTTE for reasons of their own and not for Colombo’s sake. This is something that even the LTTE has not grasped fully, if the ‘great heroes’ speech by Prabakharan is any indicator. Western nations concept of terrorism and the policy imperatives in banning terrorists on their soil is dictated by their self-interests and not by developments on foreign soil. A case in point would be Canada issuing a security certificate and deporting a former bodyguard of Yassir Arafat some years ago at a time when the PLO had become respectable and acceptable as legitimate rulers of the Palestinian authority.

Instead of buying into Kadirgamar’s propaganda the western powers have a different agenda smacking of double standards for Sri Lanka. The LTTE is banned on their soil as ‘terrorists’ but the advice proffered to Colombo is ‘negotiate with the Tigers’. The USA and India came down heavily on the Kumaratunge regime when it bombed Pooneryn instead of continuing the peace process last year. As far as the west is concerned, it is a case of ‘no compromise’ with the ‘Islamic terrorists’ but exerting pressure on Sri Lanka to talk to its own ‘Tamil terrorists’. The underlying reasons for this is, international awareness that the root cause of the Sri Lankan crisis is Sinhala hegemonism and that the nature of the Tamil cause is just. It is only some of the methods employed by the LTTE that is ‘terroristic’. Moreover, the west knows that there can be no overwhelming military solution when the motivating force of the Tamil struggle is the goal of national liberation.

Difficult questions

So the ‘big’ guys who have bankrolled this long South Asian war want both sides to jaw-jaw and not war-war. Puzzled Sinhala hawks query, “why ask us to talk to the same people who you say are terrorists on your soil?” Likewise perplexed Tigers ask, “why ban us on your soil, when you are urging Colombo to negotiate with us as representatives of the Tamil people?” Difficult questions indeed to answer. The redeeming factor however is that the perceived double standards are for peace and not war. Thus, the overall good possible through this approach negates the blatant hypocrisy. In any case it’s time that the Sinhala and Tamil people stop this internecine warfare and arrest the downslide to self-destruction.

All this brings us therefore to the negotiating table. The LTTE wants de-proscription as a pre-requisite and not pre-condition. There are three reasons for this. The first has something to do with Kadirgamar. When Britain was contemplating a ban on LTTE Kadirgamar started a high profile campaign urging that proscription. The Tiger ideologue Balasingham conveyed a simple message to the erstwhile foreign minister through Erik Solheim. “If you persist in pursuing this course of action we will demand that Sri Lanka remove the ban if and when talks take place”, was the essence of that message. The point was to deter Kadirgamar. It would be incongruous for Sri Lanka to lift the ban after urging Britain to ban it. If Colombo persisted there would be no talks. So if Kadirgamar had any sense he would stop urging the ban.

But no one judged Kadirgamar and his government correctly. The PA was not keen on genuine talks at all. So if proscription would prevent talks, so be it and let the country go to hell.

Another underestimated factor was the extent of Kadirgamar’s vanity. He simply wanted to reap undeserved kudos. Any government worth its salt would have simply dissociated itself publicly from the international banning saying it was not its concern. It could have advocated it discreetly. Instead Kadirgamar chose to trumpet his campaign. Several diplomats in Colombo advised him not to do so pointing out that his government would have to talk to the Tigers at some point and that the proscription issue would be a problem then. But to no avail, as Kadirgamar was determined to prevent talks and also gain cheap popularity in the process.

So when the British ban came into force and the peace process progressed, the LTTE raised the issue of de-proscription as it had warned earlier. It remained consistent on this and even during the interregnum between Peace Process Four and Five reiterated that notwithstanding any regime change all future dialogue would be possible only after de-proscription. The other two reasons for this insistence are inter-connected and related. In an international environment where the LTTE in its perception is being labelled as terrorist for different reasons the organisation has no choice but to insist that at least on its native soil it must be de-proscribed. The more the international community bans the LTTE, the more the Tigers will demand de-proscription.

State terrorism

This course of action will be backed completely by the Sri Lankan Tamils regardless of political persuasion. This then is the third reason. As far as the Tamils are concerned their biggest problem in the past has been ‘state terrorism’ and not ‘LTTE terrorism’. If the state can be regarded as pure as snow despite the bloody track record, then the LTTE can also be absolved. No self-respecting Tamil will submit to a position where talks begin between a ‘legal’ government and an ‘illegal’ LTTE. Due to a variety of reasons the LTTE has emerged as the accepted representatives of the Tamil people. Therefore when talks begin there must be parity of status. So the LTTE must be de-proscribed. The Tamil struggle for equality will not allow the people to accept anything less.

This therefore brings us to a position where the LTTE must be de-proscribed for talks to begin. Let us remember that the PA refused to ban the LTTE even while asking western nations to ban it. This was because it knew that talks were not possible with a banned entity. The LTTE was not banned in Sri Lanka when the US designated it as terrorist in 1997. The PA ban, that too an executive order and not a legislative enactment came only in 1998. The main concern therefore should be for the country at large to stop making a fetish out of proscription and relax it to pave the way for peace talks.

Courtesy: The Sunday Leader [27 January 2002]