Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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The LTTE Teaches a Lesson to Those Who Play Political Games

by J. S. Tissainayagam, TamilCanadian
An irony of ironies occurred on 17 November when a candidate popularly seen as representing Sinhala nationalism was elected to the country’s highest office with the help of the LTTE, an organisation, which he vowed during his election campaign to see tamed. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the candidate who portrayed himself as a “Sinhala-Buddhist,” but who came forward as a “Sri Lankan” (one can read multiple meanings into “Sri Lankan”), was relegated to a close also-ran.

The warning signs were present from at least a week before, with the LTTE declaring it regarded the election with supreme indifference, though it did not advocate a boycott. The boycott was promoted by certain civic organisations, which in the south were construed as “front organisations of the LTTE.”

The result was that the Sinhala ruling class epitomised by the UNP and the Bandaranaike loyalists of the SLFP, who had visions of using the elections to taste power, throw a few crumbs to the Tamils, while setting about crushing the JVP, were left to lick their wounds. The traditional ruling families (Bandaranaike, Senanayake, Wijewardene) of the south, which the Tamils obligingly kept in power for 50 years, gave way to a new leadership, though once more through the efforts of the Tamils.

While all this might be true, the most important message coming through with the triumph of Mahinda Rajapakse is that the south is split down the middle about how to deal with the Tamil problem and the elections have brought the Tamils face to face with Sinhala chauvinism in its most virulent form.

The options before the Tamils were twofold: (a) help the election of Rajapakse who was head of a Sinhala extremist coalition that had on board the JVP and JHU, had renounced power sharing through federalism, rejected P-TOMS and expressed its frank disapproval of Norwegian facilitation or (b) Wickremesinghe who fought the election on the basis of offering a federal solution to the ethnic problem, but whose benign manifesto was to be backed by the international community expected to apply fetters on the Tigers as part of its fight against international terror. Of the two, the Tamils backed what they felt was the lesser evil.

The LTTE’s action will, most probably, set in motion a certain dynamic in the south. For instance, there will be an ideological polarisation, with the UNP and sections of the SLFP, that were portraying themselves as moderate, having to take on a more chauvinist stand, not only because half the electorate in the south has rejected moderation, but because their 'moderation' has not washed with the northeast either. One does not know whether this might even mean a change of leadership in the UNP.

However, it is very unlikely that Rajapakse’s victory is a prescription for immediate war. No southern leader can afford it. On the other hand, the extremist pronouncements in his manifesto on how to resolve the ethnic problem will require a new look at things, for which his government lacks the wherewithal. And even if it does have it, it is unlikely that the Tigers are going to waste their time talking to someone who believes in a solution within a unitary state. The government and the LTTE might negotiate to implement the CFA better, but it is hardly likely the two parties will get down to talks on substantive matters anytime soon.

It is also hardly likely that the coalition of extremist parties Rajapakse has led to power will act with crass irresponsibility. The BJP was in power in India: its rule might have heightened Hindutva chauvinism, but it went a long way towards restoring better relations with Pakistan despite all the setbacks on the way. The record of the Likud in Israel over the Palestinian conflict is no different.

It has to be bourn in mind that Rajapakse is not a warmonger. The JVP also is not as intrinsically chauvinist as the JHU – its racism is more to capture power. There are elements within the JVP which realise the ethnic problem has to be constructively dealt with. This element might not have shown its face for strategic reasons, but one cannot deny its existence all the same.

Such extreme chauvinist posturing, combined with a realisation that it is not going to work in actual practice, is what will lead to a period of limbo in the talks. As mentioned above, important existential issues such as the CFA could be addressed, but hardly anything more.

This situation of ‘no war, no peace’ will also suit the LTTE because it will not have to grapple with an enemy who will be constantly seeking to undermine it, as the UNP would have done. Whatever might be the reason for Milinda Moragoda’s outburst on the eve of the polls about the UNP having engineered the Karuna split within the LTTE, the fact is it did happen, and for which the UNP is now paying the price.

But while ‘no war, no peace’ might not be anathema to the Tigers and Rajapakse, it will have a catastrophic effect on Colombo’s elite, which expected a UNP president who would jumpstart the economy and resume the peace process (in that order). The Sri Lankan business classes, international investors, donors and the NGOs were all eagerly awaiting this, but are now disappointed.

With the Rajapakse victory the almost automatic linkage with the globalised economy the business community was planning, through large-scale privatisation and opening up for foreign investment and trade, will not be as forthcoming as it would have been if Wickremesinghe had won. Foreign aid, both bilateral and multilateral, will continue to trickle in, subject to the strict conditions donors impose on regimes they do not like. The economic environment will be such that the modest 5-6% growth we have had will continue. Sri Lanka will survive, but mere economic survival was not what was expected if Wickremesinghe had emerged the victor.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka could very well suffer in not being able to avail itself of special donor funding, such as the US$ 4.5 billion it has been hoping for in the event the peace process resumed. It is well known that the donor community was hoping to pull out of Sri Lanka in late 2004 because nothing substantial was happening in the peace process. The tsunami stayed that decision. There is reason to think with Rajapakse and the LTTE not interested in substantive negotiations, the donor community might go ahead with the decision to support on-going programmes, but not much more. This will be a body blow to Colombo.

However, the retreat of the western donors and investors would mean a very important development – India will be inevitably drawn into that vacuum. We know the closeness of India to the JVP and the Rajapakse camps and the assistance they have received in the past. Therefore, India playing a bigger role in Sri Lankan affairs is to be expected. And this role will not be confined to propping up the country economically, but politically, too. And it is important to note that India’s political role here will not be marred by inveterate LTTE-haters like the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, who muddied every effort at reaching a compromise on the ethnic question.

Despite Indian involvement, the Rajpakse regime in Colombo will be a considerably debilitated one in comparison to what Wickremesinghe would have commanded. And the LTTE will relish that situation. It knows only too well how the international community, including the majority of the co-chairs, put constraints on it on a number of occasions – the Washington and Tokyo conferences, statements by the EU, the U.S and human rights organisations being some of them. The Wickremesinghe regime also attempted to sign the CASA agreement with the US that would have given the west a strong foothold militarily in Sri Lanka. It was not signed due to firm Indian intervention. In fact, it could be said that ever since the CFA, the international community has twisted the LTTE’s arm more than any government in Colombo.

While all these might be positive developments for the LTTE, there are certain formidable challenges the Rajapakse presidency throws at the Tigers.

The most important of these is the anti-Tamil anger spewed by the JVP-JHU election campaign. While it was mentioned above that racist parties, once in office, become more moderate, this is not to suggest for a moment that they become liberal or tolerant. It would be foolish to forget that Rajapakse has been propelled to power on the wheels of naked Sinhala racism. It is promises of not implementing P-TOMS or the ISGA, introducing the unethical conversions bill, settling the ethnic problem within a unitary state that all convinced the Sinhala people to elect Rajapakse. And he cannot disappoint them.

Therefore, a vital constraint would be how soon a party that came to power on ethnic chauvinism will be able transform itself to act responsibly on issues of governance. It has to convince its electorate that Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism does not pay in the long run and makes the community more vulnerable. But accomplishing that will be a Herculean task, what with the UNP also becoming more hawkish, due to the exigencies of electoral politics.

The second challenge is the consequences of peace talks being in limbo for long and living conditions not changing for the Tamil population living as IDPs, or those unemployed due to the high security zones etc, etc. The northeast also lacks capital investment, a good industrial base, services and infrastructure. Talks in limbo will mean there will be no peace dividend and nothing to hope for except the bleakness the northeast has been ‘enjoying’ ever since the CFA. Over a period of time, civilian populations that see no respite for their suffering inevitably grow restive. If talks being in limbo help the Tigers in one way, dealing with domestic socio-economic issues will present a formidable challenge.

The third and the most crucial issue will be the reaction of the international community. The EU, which is a prominent member of the international community, put the LTTE on notice after the assassination of Kadirgamar with a travel ban and threat of proscription if the Tigers continued to default on human rights issues, democracy, pluralism, etc. But the LTTE’s indifference to the presidential poll and the resultant low turnout in the northeast demonstrates only too clearly that in matters affecting it most, the LTTE is prepared to defy the international community and incur its displeasure. But the fact remains, the international community will use human rights, pluralism, democracy standards on the LTTE to weaken the organisation’s political stance.

What the LTTE has to also take into account is that, however unhappy the international community might be of the Rajapakse presidency, it will not go beyond a point when pressurising a government into making concessions to rebels. This is due to the international system’s inherent prejudice against liberation movements, which it calls “international terrorism.” Therefore, the hope in sections of the Tamil polity that the international community's wanting to destabilise Rajapakse could do so by forcing Colombo to grant concessions to the Tigers, is a forlorn hope. Most probably the international community would use the Tamils to intimidate Rajapakse into making concessions on economic, trade and diplomatic issues that concern those countries, but stop well short of what the Tamils want.

There is also the very real possibility that the challenges thrown up by these elements might bring matters to a head between the government and LTTE. And it cannot be overlooked in that respect, too, the Tigers have found it easier dealing with presidents and governments in office after 1994, than those before.

LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has stated repeatedly that the Tamils do not want war, but will not hesitate to take up the challenge if it is thrust upon them. And it is his National Heroes’ Day address on 27 November we should now await.