Threats & Talks, Latent Bias


Threats and Talks

Can the LTTE be coerced into abandoning Tamil goals?

Whilst the Liberation Tigers are expected to forward their proposals for an interim administration for the Northeast to the Sri Lankan government by the end of the month, Colombo has also dampened expectations of a resumption of negotiations in the short term. Sri Lanka’s Chief Negotiator, Prof. G. L. Peiris, said last week that his government would be tied up with its budget till late December and, despite suggestions that ‘preliminary’ discussions may take place before then, most observers expect talks not to resume till next year. On the other hand, backers of a negotiated solution draw consolation from the continuing stability of the cease-fire. This does not mean however that prospects for peace are good. Indeed, these rest entirely on the level of trust both sides have in the conflict resolution process and, notwithstanding the truce and the ongoing Norwegian shuttle diplomacy, both sides are prudently keep their powder dry. The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly staged recruitment drives, raising military salaries to staunch desertion and raise its combat strength. The defence bill even rose marginally this year and all three services are actively rebuilding. Bearing in mind that Sri Lanka’s army – on paper at least – outnumbers Britain’s, the state of militarisation is also considerable. Meanwhile, the LTTE is also said to be recruiting and rearming. But a sense of comfortably balanced forces – or military stalemate, depending on the level of cynicism – has nevertheless prevailed, underpinning each side’s faith in the other’s engagement in the peace process.

That trust was seriously undermined this week when the Sri Lankan government sought a military pact with India. Whilst Delhi’s position on the Tamil struggle has been well understood by most observers of the island’s protracted conflict, Colombo’s frantic efforts to augment its military capability thus will undoubtedly prompt a strategy rethink in the Vanni. First of all, India’s military intervention in the conflict in the late eighties ended bloodily and unhappily for all concerned, particularly the Tamil people. As such, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s public courting of Delhi in this regard has struck a raw nerve and revived unpleasant memories. More importantly for the present peace process, the move suggests Colombo clearly expects to coerce the LTTE into a political solution - as opposed to cooperatively negotiating one. Firstly, and most obviously, this sense is unlikely to contribute to a conducive atmosphere at the table. Secondly, the LTTE has not reacted favourably – or for that matter, predictably - to coercion in the past. But Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is clearly expecting the LTTE leadership to share his assessment of the risks and react appropriately – i.e. follow his lines of rationale. As such, he is turning what ought to be a process of conflict resolution into one of military blackmail. The question, however, is what if the LTTE does not react quite as Mr. Wickremesinghe intends when, instead of striking a deal that accommodates the aspirations of the Tamil people, he attempts to foist – at the point of a bayonet - a new formulation of the present Sinhala domination on them?

Mr. Wickremesinghe and, for that matter, all actors in the island’s ethnic question are well aware of the inability of the Sri Lankan armed forces to defeat the Liberation Tigers. Indeed, it is this balance of forces - or stalemate - that many suggested was the protagonists’ primary motivation in participating in the Norwegian initiative. As such, one can expect Mr. Wickremesinghe’s efforts to shift the military advantage drastically in his favour to have a profound impact on the peace process as a whole. His predilection for shaking an ‘international safety net’ at the LTTE has already raised the movement’s hackles. The Tigers warned in June, for example, that “by seeking this 'safety net' the Colombo regime has shifted the peace process from third party facilitation to the realm of international arbitration by formidable external forces that has far-reaching consequences to the political and economic destiny of the island.” Mr. Wickremesinghe’s compulsive insistence on widening the conflict will inevitably lead to the Norwegian peace process being viewed less as a genuine effort to seek peace than a device for securing the space and time for Sri Lanka to acquire military superiority. What will the prospects for peace be then?

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Latent Bias

Steps to an equitable solution can be taken now

The present phase of the Norwegian peace process has been underway for almost two years now – as long as the United National Front administration of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe has been in power. Whilst arguably a durable permanent solution to the protracted ethnic conflict will only emerge through negotiations with the Liberation Tigers, this is not to say Tamil grievances are meanwhile either opaque or yet to be articulated. Indeed, both the most pressing of grievances and, more importantly, the associated remedies are self evident.

Take, for example, the issue of the million or so internally displaced Tamils. Returning them to their homes has been under discussion since early 2002, yet precious little has been done. Mr. Wickremesinghe reportedly the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) last week that he was, ‘in principle,’ agreeable to their resettlement. Bully for him. One might have thought that UN conventions guaranteeing these people’s rights might have sufficed. The question though, is what concrete steps will follow from the Premier’s largess. The issue, as we and many other Tamil voices have repeatedly argued, is the military’s continuing occupation of huge swathes of the Jaffna peninsula and other parts of the Northeast, encompassing dozens of sealed off towns and villages.

Another issue which resurfaced this week was the reduction of university places for Tamil students from Batticaloa. The Sinhala-dominated state’s denial of access to higher education to Tamils predates and arguably contributed to the inception of the armed struggle. The continuing neglect of schools and health care in Tamil areas, the exclusion of Tamils from public sector jobs, particularly in the eastern province and the privileging of Sinhalese – including the conduct of official business in Sinhala – by the state all contribute to the alienation of the Tamil community and the underscore the island’s ethnic divide.

Sri Lanka’s operation of democratic mechanisms is irrelevant when Buddhist supremacy and associated Sinhala ethnic dominance are constitutionally guaranteed. Whilst these issues can only be resolved by radical changes at the core of the state, the UNF can do more to bolster Tamil confidence about both its liberal claims and its commitment to a just and equitable peace. The very welcome efforts by key ministers with regards dismissing the unsubstantiated Prevention of Terrorism cases were regrettably, an exception. Peace cannot be built at the negotiating table alone. A solution can only stem from an ideological shift that, percolating through the state, will be apparent to ordinary Tamils and Sinhalese. At present however, Sri Lanka, remains demonstrably a Sinhala state.

Tamil Guardianeditorials, 10/22/03

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Posted October 28, 2003