International Peace Initiatives & Tamil Perceptions

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Solheim said Norway was only playing the role of the facilitator on the “specific request of the President (Sri Lanka) and the LTTE “and would not do anything that both sides do not want us to do. We are not trying to impose peace in Sri Lanka,” he emphasized… Solheim said there was agreement in the international community that the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka has to be maintained, but at the same time “Tamil aspirations have to be met in a substantial manner.”
- India Abroad News Service (May 23rd 2001)


Tamil ‘eyes were smiling’ widely and brightly when the on-going peace facilitated by Norway and supported by the international community began. There was, after more than a decade of bitter strife, some optimism. Similar feelings were entertained in the late eighties too when India extended its good offices to bring about a negotiated settlement in Sri Lanka. Such hopes soon turned into dupes and a vicious cycle of violence ensued. Now there seemed to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel again. The reason was obvious.

International involvement in peace efforts.
Tamils disillusioned and disappointed by Sinhala ‘treachery’ in various types of negotiations were not ready to trust the other side anymore. But third party mediation of the international variety was a different proposition.

The first Sinhala film (made by a Tamil) was Kadawuna Poronduwa or ‘Broken Promise.’ The sad history of Sinhala-Tamil relations in this island has been a trail of broken promises. The denial of a Western Province seat for the Tamils that deprived the Statesman-Scholar Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam of entry to the Legislative Council; the circumventive ploy of the ‘Sinhala’ dominated National Congress in claiming that the promise of a predecessor (James Peiris) would not bind a successor (E J Samarawickrema); the repudiation of the ‘Sinhala-Tamil Pact’ signed in the Velanai home of Sir Waithilingam Duraiswamy by representatives of both communities; the 1936 Pan-Sinhala board of ministers in the State Council ; the repeal of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam and Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayagam pacts of 1957 and 1965 respectively ; the dishonouring of the unwritten understanding between the SLFP and FP in 1960; the Devolution Commission and District Development Council scheme of 1980-1981, the Round Table Conference of 1984; the all party conference and parliamentary select committee during the Premadasa regime; the Kumaratunga government’s ‘war for peace’ on the basis of a diluted devolution package etc were but some instances in this long, long trail of broken promises.

Honour obligations
Under these circumstances there was little room for Tamil opinion to trust Sinhala bona fides in direct negotiations. Given the consistent refusal of Sinhala regimes to implement even the areas agreed upon, few Tamils expect that any Sinhala government would sincerely honour its obligations towards Tamils.

Tamil for example is constitutionally an official language for 14 years now. But in practice what has been done particularly under the ‘enlightened dispensation’ of Chandrika Kumaratunga? Equally distressing is the plight of the Tamil parties that entered the so-called democratic mainstream in 1987. So the dominant feeling among Tamils is that no peace negotiation with a Sinhala government would work unless and until it was mediated and guaranteed by a third party which had to be necessarily ‘international.’

An examination of the political discourse in Tamil about international involvement would reveal that the most common reference is ‘Moondraam Tharappu Mathiyastham’ or ‘Third Party Mediation.’ It is only in very recent times that some Tamil newspapers make it a point to define Norway’s role as being facilitator and not mediator. There has also existed in the Tamil psyche a somewhat naive expectation that the international community could if it desired compel the ‘Sinhala’ government in Colombo to grant and implement Tamil rights. At the very least, the war could be brought to an end. This was due to the explicit knowledge that this war against the Tamils was being bankrolled by the aid giving Western nations and Japan. If the flow of foreign aid was curbed, then the fuel enflaming the fires of war would be reduced to a trickle was the simple logic. The rights of Tamils too could be enshrined and ensured through international efforts it was believed.

Only way out
This does not necessarily mean that Tamil opinion was firmly of the belief that international pressure was the only way out. The more nationalistic ones and those who interpret the lessons of history in a particular way felt that nothing at all was possible in Sri Lankan society where chauvinistic attitudes were institutionalised. Former TULF MP for Kopay S. Kathiravetpillai would say often, “Racism in South Africa was skin deep while in Sri Lanka racism was soul deep.” Nevertheless there was a meeting point between both strands of Tamil opinion. To the moderate segment a settlement was possible only through international mediation. To the relatively extreme opinion strand it was a case of international mediation being the only way if a solution was possible at all. There was a convergence if not unanimity of perspective. There were a lot of takers for international involvement from the Sinhala ‘side’ too. For many believed that the perceived recalcitrance of the LTTE could also be controlled only through international pressure.

The LTTE’s authoritative structure, the over-reliance on the military factor and its lack of interest in pursuing politico-diplomatic procedures had created an overall impression that the LTTE was not prepared to enter negotiations and opt for a peaceful settlement. This negative image of the LTTE was further enhanced after the disastrous fall-out of Government - LTTE talks in 1994-1995. Thereafter Chandrika Kumaratunga took the moral high ground and launched a politico-military-diplomatic offensive that depicted the Tigers as the sole villains of the piece and peace. The international community as well as sections of the Sri Lankan population felt that the LTTE would never opt for peace negotiations and that against this backdrop a war against the LTTE was justifiable. What was lost sight of was that the so-called war for peace has unleashed death, destruction, displacement, detention and despair of an unprecedentedly colossal scale against the Tamil people. If and when the history of this war is written from a Tamil perspective, it would be clearly recorded that the Kumaratunga period was the ‘darkest’ one for Tamils in the island.

Negative vote
The situation was rendered all the more cruel because the Tamils had voted preponderantly for Kumaratunga in 1994, believing that she was indeed an angel of peace. The changed perception of the Tamils is clearly reflected in the presidential and parliamentary elections of December 1999 and October 2000 respectively. The vote for Kumaratunga and Peoples Alliance in 1994 was a positive vote for peace, equality and justice. The vote for Ranil Wickremesinghe and the United National Party in 1999 and 2000 were a negative vote. It was a vote by the Tamils against Kumaratunga rather than one being for Wickremasinghe (EPDP engineered votes being excluded). The Tamil vote was not pro-UNP, but anti-PA. Despite Tamils rejecting Kumaratunga, the ‘system’ has placed her in charge of their governing destiny again. It is however not governance by consent.

Still the situation had to be endured because ‘the LTTE was not prepared for talks’ was the general perception. The LTTE’s rationale for this position was extremely simple. No Sinhala regime would be prepared to accommodate Tamil aspirations in a reasonable and genuine manner within a united Sri Lanka. Talks therefore were useless. Moreover, from a Tiger viewpoint, it had tried to negotiate with Kumaratunga and failed in 1995. Further talks were unnecessary. Realising that this stance was not very welcome internationally and that Kumaratunga was reaping the benefits of the LTTE’s ‘default,’ the Tigers revised their strategy last year. The LTTE decided to explore the politico-diplomatic option by engaging in talks with Kumaratunga again.

The LTTE resolve for this was further influenced by political and military developments on the ground. Kumaratunga had made overtures to the LTTE before presidential elections but the Tigers had not responded positively. Then came the assassination attempt. With a Sinhala hard-line swing in her favour, Kumaratunga was returned to power. The parliamentary elections demonstrated that she and her party were going to be in power unless there was rebellion from within government ranks. So if and when negotiations happened, it had to be with her for the next six years. Militarily, the overwhelming successes of ‘Oyatha Alaigal’ or Unceasing Waves proved that the LTTE was still a potently resilient force. So the Tigers could enter talks from a position of strength.

Very low
Diplomatically the LTTE discovered that their fortunes were very low. The international community that backed Kumaratunga in South Asia’s Longest War was aghast at the total ineptitude of the Kumaratunga regime to contain, let alone combat, the LTTE. Nevertheless they rallied around her again to prevent a military catastrophe. When 500,000 Tamils trekked out of Jaffna during Operation Riviresa it was not perceived as a humanitarian crisis by the international community, but when 38,000 troops were supposedly at the mercy of 7,000 guerrillas it was seen as a humanitarian crisis. The fall of Jaffna was averted mainly due to international pressure.

Velupillai Prabakharan therefore decided to change his approach. He launched what has been described in these columns as a ‘peace offensive.’ His fundamental conviction that the Kumaratunga regime would never accommodate Tamil aspirations was unshakeable. Yet he agreed to go through the motions of seeking a settlement within the parameters of Sri Lanka’s unity and territorial integrity. By doing so genuinely he felt that he could expose the duplicity of Kumaratunga to the international community. It would also convince the Tamil people that the LTTE had no choice other than to continue the armed struggle.

Despite this tactical shift Prabakharan may have never opted for peace talks if not for the international factor. The LTTE leader genuinely relied on international efforts. He thought that the international community would hold the scales evenly. Even though he distrusted the Colombo government, Prabakharan felt that the International community would be fair. One reason for this was that the LTTE supremo knew that the international community realised the limits of Colombo’s military option and would therefore encourage a political settlement to prevent secession.

The LTTE therefore welcomed Norwegian efforts and co-operated wholeheartedly in the peace exercise. The process received a fillip when Prabakharan met Solheim in the Wanni on November 1 last year. He agreed to suspend attacks in the South on a request made by Solheim. The LTTE later offered a unilateral ceasefire and extended it on a monthly basis thereafter in spite of the government rejecting it and also engaging in provocative tactics. The LTTE was amenable to many initial suggestions favourable to the government in the Oslo drafted Memorandum of Understanding. Despite this co-operation, the Tigers in particular and the Tamil people in general have been saddened and disappointed by the turn of events that culminated in the launching of Operation Fire Beam by the armed forces. The conduct of the government in this exercise was to be expected because it was regarded as untrustworthy from the beginning. It is however the role of the international community that was deplorably disappointing. The harsh reality today is that trust and confidence in the International role has eroded significantly. The silver lining however is the bona fides of Erik Solheim the special peace envoy.

Regrettable hiatus
The recent past has shown that a regrettable hiatus exists between intention and action of the international community in relation to its objective of bringing about a negotiated peace in Sri Lanka. From a Tamil perspective this phenomenon was all the more disappointing because it betrayed signs of obvious partiality towards the Kumaratunga regime. What is important is to note that whatever the plus or minus points of the Tigers are the reality on ground is that the LTTE is the authentic or preponderant representatives of the Tamil people at present. Moreover the Tigers are the protagonists on one side in this conflict. If a negotiated peace is to be obtained then it can only be with the consent and concurrence of the LTTE. Therefore the LTTE has to be treated on par with the government in any meaningful negotiation.

Three types
The label of terrorist attached to the LTTE also does not carry much weight with the Tamil people. The LTTE is basically a national liberation movement. It indulges in three types of military action. Firstly it retains and gains territory like a conventional military adopting positional warfare. Secondly it engages in guerrilla type attacks and ambushes on security forces and police targets. Thirdly it occasionally perpetrates acts against civilian targets.

The third type is controversial and amounts to terrorism. It is a moot point however as to whether such acts alone can be sufficient to detract from its national liberationist credentials and reduce it to a terrorist movement alone. If each act is judged by its specific merits this labeling would not stick. But that is not so currently. But as far as the Tamil people are concerned the question of state terrorism looms larger than the spectre of Tiger terrorism. The indiscriminate bombing of civilians in the Tamil areas is horrible and equally terroristic. The fact that aircraft indulge in bombing from a higher altitude does not elevate the action morally.

What happened however in the past months was the obvious reluctance of the Kumaratunga regime to respond positively to LTTE overtures for peace. A shameful spectacle of filibustering unfolded before our eyes. The LTTE and several Tamil parties kept on requesting International opinion to pressurise Colombo into responding positively but to no avail. Matters were made worse when Britain imposed a ban on the LTTE. The usual practice is to encourage movements like the LTTE to enter negotiations but here the Tigers were being discouraged to do so and being penalised. Norway restricted to a facilitatory role alone was seemingly incapable of influencing events. The worst however was still to come.

Military offensive
In spite of a peace process being on and the LTTE’s declared commitment to it neither Oslo nor the international community was able to prevent the Sri Lankan armed forces from embarking on a massive military offensive. The most terrible destruction was unleashed on the zone of conflict which is Tamil inhabited. Air power and artillery firepower was uninhibitedly exercised to make the enemy succumb. It has been recorded that 50,000 shells and bombs were fired in four days of fighting. The town of Pallai is now reduced to shambles like Chavakachcheri. Mercifully the area was bereft of civilians as otherwise the human cost would have been unimaginable. Despite this destruction the LTTE through superior tactics, morale, courage and capability withstood the torrents of firepower and in turn delivered a decisive defeat to the armed forces.

Lo and Behold! What a change there was.
Suddenly the international community woke up to the fact that the situation was deteriorating. The capitals of the world became concerned at the violence. Restraint was urged. The merits of a negotiated peace were propounded. Norwegian peace efforts received a second wind. International opinion that remained conspicuously silent when the Tamils were lamenting about deteriorating conditions and the preparation for a major offensive by the government changed its course after government forces suffered a defeat. There were no qualms about the government publicising its acquisition of arsenal and armaments prior to the confrontation. But when the tide turned against the government once again the International Community became concerned about peace. Again it must be noted that there was silence for the first two days when a government victory was expected. It was only after the government defeat became unavoidable that the International ‘conscience’ for peace was stirred.

So can the Tamils be blamed if they subscribe to the view that the international community had optimistic second thoughts about the capability of the armed forces in destroying the LTTE and willfully turned a blind eye to the offensive? If the battle had been favourable to the government and the Tigers perceived as being defeated would the international community have raised its voice for peace again? All the suffering and entreaties of the Tamil people for peace did not move the International community but the moment the Tigers won it and the government’s weakness became known it was peace, peace, and nothing but peace again.

The starkly brutal lesson to be drawn from all this for the Tamil people is that had the LTTE lost there would be no international push for peace. For the Tigers it has demonstrated that their position of strength is due to their military prowess and not anything else.

Big three
The situation is further compounded by the fact that India, Britain and the USA, the ‘big three’ said to be pushing the peace effort have all banned the LTTE.

All three have aided the military effort of the Sri Lankan government. None of these governments are neutral on the issue. Furthermore American and British military expertise was supposedly involved in the planning and execution of recent military operations.

What is of importance to the big powers are not the justice and morality of the Tamil cause or the pitiable plight the Tamils are in but only the self-interests of the powers concerned. It is realpolitik devoid of morality that counts though sanctimonious hypocrisy would be articulated.

Against this backdrop it is possible to assume that the powerful International Countries are ready to collaborate in the repression of Tamil aspirations while paying lip service to the peace process. An LTTE and by extension a Tamil defeat is to be welcomed. The only deterrent in this scheme of things is that the Tigers and by extension the Tamils will simply refuse to be militarily defeated and politically annihilated.

So Tamil eyes that were smiling at the thought of International involvement are crying again. The tears are not of joy.

The first lesson for the Tamils is that the International community is not fair by them. It is partial towards the government regardless of whether the LTTE pursues the peace option or not.

It seems obvious that given a choice where Tamil resistance can be militarily crushed or Tamil aspirations accommodated equitably the International community would be inclined to endorse the former option if that were possible.

The second lesson is that despite the sincerity of Norway its role is limited and cannot impose peace. To do so Oslo needs the pressure of powerful nations to be exerted on Colombo.

The scenario therefore is dismal and gloomy for Tamils as far as the peace process is concerned. Their hopes of relying on International efforts to resolve the crisis within the parameters of a united Sri Lanka are dashed. The international community was ineffective and inactive when war was unleashed; it seems helpless to even get the talks started; How can it then secure justice and equality for the Tamils at the negotiating table? More importantly how can it compel Colombo to implement anything arrived at in negotiations?

So international mediation looked upon as the panacea for Tamil maladies is now perceived as a non-remedy!

If the international community, particularly the USA, Britain, India, Japan and the European Nations want to correct this impression then they must prove through deeds that they are indeed fair and impartial. Meaningful and concrete action is required to convince Tamils that the dice is not loaded and the cards not stacked against them in the sphere of internationally backed peace processes. Tamil perceptions about the playing field not being level in the case of international peace initiatives have to be constructively transformed in the near future.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader - May 27th, 2001