Tamil Guardian Interview with Mr. Anton Balasingham

In his first full interview since returning from the Vanni in April, Mr. Anton Balasingham, the Liberation Tigersí chief negotiator and political advisor, spoke at length to Tamil Guardian staff writers about the prospects for peace in Sri Lanka, the dichotomy in the core issues between the two sides, and the emerging dynamics in the south which threaten the Norwegian initiative.

TAMIL GUARDIAN staff writers met with Mr. Anton at his residence in south London this week amidst deepening gloom surrounding the Norwegian peace initiative in Sri Lanka, and in the wake of increasing hard line statements from the Sri Lankan government and rising tensions in the Tamil areas of Lanka, brought about by renewed friction between the populace and members of Sri Lankaís armed forces.

With Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe seeming to also adopt President Chandrika Kumaratungaís hostile positions with regards to de-proscribing the LTTE and establishing an interim administration for the Tamil areas, we asked Mr. Balasingham about his assessment of the state of the Norwegian peace initiative and the LTTEís perspective on recent developments.

Tamil Guardian: What is your assessment of the current peace process in Sri Lanka? Why is there a delay in the resumption of peace negotiations to be held in Thailand in June?

Mr Balasingham: The positive element in the peace process is that the cease-fire agreement entered into by the parties in conflict i.e. Sri Lanka government and the LTTE, has been holding for the last four months without any major incidents of truce violations.

The cardinal objective of the truce agreement is to bring an end to armed hostilities and to establish a congenial situation conducive for peace negotiations. The terms and conditions and a set of goodwill measures enunciated in the ceasefire document are aimed at de-escalation and restoration of normalcy in the war torn Tamil homeland. The truce agreement also seeks to remove the conditions of oppression imposed on the Tamil civilian masses under a rigid military occupation and to improve their conditions of existence.

As a party to the cease agreement, we are unhappy that some of the terms and conditions as well as some measures aimed at normalcy in Tamil areas are not fully implemented. The military personnel are still occupying temples, schools, colleges and public buildings in defiance of the time-frames stipulated in the truce. Some of the Hindu temples are historical holy sites which are sacred to our people and the reluctance shown by the Sinhala armed forces to vacate these places of worship has angered the Tamil people and is destroying their confidence in the peace process.

In blatant violation of the conditions of ceasefire the armed forces refuse to [remove] barriers and check points in densely populated cities and towns and to continue to intimidate and harass civilians. There have been incidents of violence committed by the armed forces against LTTE members and Tamil civilians in the eastern province.

The ceasefire document stipulates that unarmed LTTE members will be permitted freedom of movement in the northeast for political activities. But the Sri Lanka government has imposed stringent conditions for the freedom of movement of our cadres in the islets off Jaffna where 35,000 Tamils live. Similarly the Sri Lankan navy is refusing to remove all restrictions on fishing even after the timeframe of 90 days has lapsed which continues to affect seriously the conditions of existence of our fishermen. To put it briefly, the Sri Lankan armed forces are not cooperating in the task of implementing the ceasefire accord and adopting an intransigent and hostile attitude towards the LTTE and the Tamil civilians.

The non-implementation of the terms and conditions of the ceasefire is causing delay in the resumption of peace negotiations. A proper and systematic de-escalation of the conflict and the restoration of normalcy in the war affected Tamil region which are essential prerequisites for peace negotiations, can only be realised by the smooth implementation of the truce agreement.

In our view, the ceasefire should be strengthened and stabilised since it is on a strong foundation of peace that political negotiations should take place. We are disappointed over the lack of concern and inclination on the part of the Sri Lankan government in the process of de-escalation and stabilisation of peace, which is seriously undermining the confidence of our people in the peace process.

TG: It is widely rumoured in the political circles that the armed forces are deliberately resisting the implementation of the ceasefire agreement since President Kumaratunga, who is the commander-in-chief of the Sri Lankan armed forces, has not signed the truce accord. What is your comment?

AB: Maybe there is an element of truth in this rumour. We are well aware that President Kumaratunga is deadly opposed to the terms and conditions of the ceasefire as well as for confidence building measures aimed at de-escalation and restoration of normalcy. For more than seven years she has been adopting a ruthless policy of military repression and subjugation of the Tamils. She was responsible for the intensification of the war and the rigid economic embargo on the Tamils. She has a pathological hatred for the LTTE and is opposed to a negotiated political settlement with the LTTE. She threatened openly to abrogate the truce accord claiming that the agreement was a betrayal of the country. In view of her ultra-nationalist and hawkish attitude on the Tamil national question, one can safely assume that President Kumaratunga is capable of creating difficulties for the current peace process. But as far as we are concerned this is a problem of cohabitation between Ranilís administration and the Presidency. We would be happy if there is constructive cohabitation between the Premier and the President and the ceasefire agreement, the very foundation upon which the peace process rests, is fully implemented.

TG: President Kumaratunga, though extremely critical of the ceasefire agreement, maintained a noninterventionist attitude in the early stages of the truce, has now become very assertive and interventionist in her approach towards the peace process. Furthermore, there seems to be a growing consensus between Ranil and Chandrika in stipulating conditions for the LTTE i.e. on matters of fixing date for talks, de-proscription and interim administration. What is your view on this matter?

AB: We are deeply disappointed to note that Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe is back tracking on the crucial issues of de-proscription and interim administration. President Kumaratunga may have prevailed upon Ranil to take a hard-line attitude towards the LTTE, an approach she adopted during her bloody and savage military campaign against the Tamils which brought unprecedented death and destruction in the Tamil homeland and led the entire country to a total economic disaster. The intervention of Kumaratunga and her misguided strategy of imposing unacceptable preconditions have definitely slowed down the peace process and generated a state of impasse.

For years the LTTE leadership has called for a process of de-escalation based on a stable ceasefire, which would lead to restoration of normalcy in the Tamil homeland followed by de-proscription of the organisation as necessary prerequisites for the commencement of peace negotiations. The request for unconditional de-proscription represents the collective will and desire of the entire Tamil people who want the participation of the LTTE in the peace talks as their authentic and legitimate representatives. We anticipated that Ranilís administration would take a bold step to de-proscribe our organisation to satisfy the aspirations of the Tamils and to promote the peace process. But we are disappointed to note that the government has imposed a precondition linking the date for the commencement of talks with the possible de-proscription. Furthermore, some cabinet ministers have commented that de-proscription can only be considered at a stage when the talks progress satisfactorily, a similar position taken by the President. This is a clear indication that Ranilís administration is reneging on its original position under the influence of Kumaratunga and Kadirgamar thereby impeding the peace effort.

Ranilís government has also shifted its original position with regard to the proposal to establish an interim administration in the northeast to facilitate the LTTE to enter into the democratic political mainstream. Chandrika seems to have successfully impressed upon Ranil to consider the interim administration only after finding a permanent resolution to the contentious core issues underlying the ethnic conflict, a theme that she persistently adopted and miserably failed.

The proposal for an interim administrative setup was originally mooted by the Government of India following the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord to permit the participation of the LTTE in the administration of the northeast for a short period prior to the proposed provincial council scheme was given proper constitutional form. The interim setup did not materialise as a consequence of the delaying tactics of the former President Jayawardene. Mr Wickremesinghe, who openly campaigned for the establishment of the interim administration and got the mandate from the people in the parliamentary elections, has reneged from his position. He now proposes that core issues should be taken up for discussion in search of a permanent solution.

Resolution of the core issues or rather the fundamentals underlying the Tamil national question requires fundamental constitutional reforms leading to a radical restructuring of the state system. This is an enormously difficult and time consuming task. Pragmatically, it is also an impossible task when powerful sections of the Maha Sangha and nationalist political forces entrenched in chauvinistic ideology are opposed to any radical form of power sharing with the Tamils. Furthermore, Ranilís administration, with limited political authority subordinated to an all powerful presidential rule cannot undertake this monumental task involving a fundamental structural transformation of the state. It is precisely for these reasons that we mooted the proposal for an interim solution for the Tamil speaking northeast following a programme of ceasefire, de-escalation and restoration of normalcy. An interim solution is also intended to create the necessary time and space to consolidate peace and mutual trust between the estranged communities and to undertake the crucial task of constructing the war wrecked economy. Ranilís administration was favourably disposed to the idea of an interim solution realising the practical logic behind the proposal. Unfortunately he has now shifted from his original position on the advice of the President. This is going to create serious difficulties for Ranil since his government is incapable of addressing and redressing the core issues behind the Tamil question.

TG: What are the core issues underlying the ethnic conflict? Why do you think that Ranilís administration is incapable of resolving them?

AB: First of all I should point out that the Sinhalese and the Tamils have different perceptions with regard to the fundamental issues underlying the Tamil national question.

Based on an over simplified appraisal of the problems of the past, the majoritarian view among the Sinhalese is that the Tamils have a set of grievances as a consequence of discrimination against language, education and employment. These issues can be addressed and resolved according to this general perception of the Sinhalese, by granting limited devolution in a politico administrative framework under a unitary state system. In so far as the hard-line nationalists are concerned there is no ethnic problem. For them the Tamil political struggle is nothing other than a phenomenon of terrorism which has to be crushed by military means.

As far as the LTTE, as well as the vast majority of the Tamils, are concerned they have a fundamentally different perception with regard to substantive or core issues of the ethnic conflict. The Tamils view the Sinhala state oppression with its unique and lengthy history extending to a period of half a century, in a different mode.

For them, the Sinhalese state oppression is not constituted with isolated acts of discrimination and injustice based on prejudice, but rather a devious, calculated scheme aimed at the destruction of the basic foundations of the Tamil nation i.e. its language, culture, education, economic life and homeland.

In other words, the Sinhala oppression has been genocidal in intent since it was aimed to destroy the national identity of the Tamil people. This realisation based on the historical reality of state repression, radically transformed the objective of the Tamil political agitation from demands for equal rights into a concrete struggle for Tamil homeland and for the right to national self-determination.

The mode of struggle itself underwent a fundamental transformation from peaceful nonviolent agitation into an armed liberation struggle. A concrete and objective analysis of the evolutionary history of the Tamil political struggle would reveal that the demand for the recognition of the Tamil homeland, the quest for Tamil national identity and the right to self-determination are the substantive core issues or rather, the fundamentals behind the Tamil national question. These are not abstract theoretical constructs of political science or vague legal principles in international law as some Sinhalese intellectuals posit, but rather concrete political demands evolved through historical political struggles to secure the inalienable rights of the Tamil people. Tamil homeland is not a conceptual construct or a vague notion expressing an unattainable aspiration. Rather it is an objective existential reality grounded on the material history of the Tamil speaking people (Tamils and Muslims) who have lived and toiled for centuries in a distinct, contiguous territory of the northeast over which they have an inalienable right to ownership.

The demand for the recognition of Tamil national identity is also not an abstract theoretical problem but rather a concrete political quest of the Tamil people grounded on a bloody history of repression and resistance. The Tamils as a distinct people with a unique language, culture, history and economic life and historically constituted territories of their own, form themselves as a national formation. The Tamil aspiration to maintain and perpetuate their unique nationality is a fair and legitimate demand that constitutes itself as one of the core issues of the Tamil national question.

We have already clarified our position with regard to the Tamil right to self-determination. We hold the view that the Tamils have the right to both internal and external aspects of self-determination. The Tamils would examine a proposal for a fully autonomous Tamil homeland with a system of self-government in realisation of their inalienable right to internal self-determination. But if Sri Lanka denies the right to internal self-determination and continues to subject the Tamils to genocidal oppression they will certainly attempt to realise it externally by struggling for secession, political independence and statehood.

We do not think that Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe has the necessary political authority to deal with the core issues as perceived by the Tamils underlying the Tamil national question. His theory of one nation, one country and one people is the very negation of the core demands of the Tamils for a homeland, national identity and the right to self-determination. The only practical approach accessible to Ranil is to work out an interim politico administrative setup offering an opportunity for the LTTE to participate in the economic development of the northeast; to create adequate space and time to explore the feasibility of providing concrete constitutional forms for the core demands of the Tamils in terms of internal self-determination. Any rush to address the core issues, without the recognition of the basic demands of the Tamils, will end up in disaster as has happened in Thimpu.

TG: What do you expect the Government of Sri Lanka to do to rejuvenate the peace process and to start the political negotiations as early as possible?

AB: First of all, the government should prevail upon the armed forces to withdraw troops occupying holy places of worship, schools, colleges and public buildings as enunciated in the ceasefire document. Secondly, Sri Lankan armed forces should be persuaded to withdraw barriers and checkpoints in densely populated Tamil cities and towns. Thirdly, the government should withdraw all restrictions and obstructions and allow legitimate and bona fide fishing, day and night, in the northeastern waters except in the restricted areas near coastal bases as stipulated in the truce agreement. Fourthly, the government should take action to de-proscribe the LTTE without stipulating any pre conditions. Fifthly, an interim politico-administrative setup should be the main topic of the agenda for talks as originally pledged by Ranilís government.

We are not imposing any preconditions for talks but rather insisting that obligations under ceasefire agreement should be implemented without delay and the public commitment made by Mr Wickremesinghe with regard to the formation of an interim administration should be fulfilled. The destiny of the peace process is in the hands of the government.

Courtesy: Tamil Guardian - London [5 June 2002]