Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Back to War

by Fawzia Naqvi, The News [Pakistan], January 15, 2006

...the clear and present danger is that events spiral out of control and no longer remain in the realm of incidents, skirmishes or muscle flexing. Sri Lanka stands at the edge of an abyss with no strong hands to pull it back.

Unlike Indonesia, Sri Lanka has failed to usher in peace. Every opportunity for rapprochement has been squandered after the Tsunami. the glaring absence of any official assistance, the LTTE had rapidly mobilised efficient relief and rescue operations in areas they control.

The news from Sri Lanka is not good. The new government and its nemesis the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are home alone and trashing the house again.

The 2002 ceasefire agreement is in tatters and Sri Lanka is at the brink of civil war. The head of LTTE’s political wing S.P Thamilselvan told Reuters the LTTE will defy international opinion if necessary. The rebels, says Thamilselvan “have come of age”. His statements are ominous.

Since December nearly 100 people have been shot or blown up. At least 46 military and navy personnel were killed by mines, allegedly the handiwork of Tamil Tigers in the North. A prominent pro-LTTE parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingam was assassinated in a Batticaloa church during Christmas mass. Fingers point toward army sponsored paramilitaries in the East. And five Tamil youths were executed in Trincomalee, allegedly by security forces.

This bloodshed follows years of countless reprisal killings by the Tigers, the army and paramilitaries. In 2005 Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and several Tamil journalists also fell victim to assassinations.

The LTTE are a ruthless and determined separatist group which has attained virtual statehood. The world categorises them as a ‘non-state’ actor but the LTTE walk and talk like an independent government with territory, a population, a diaspora, financial resources, an army, a navy and a flag.

And it should not be surprising if since the ceasefire they have amassed significant weaponry and prepared for war. From their perspective it would probably be foolish not to. The LTTE’s suspicion of all ‘Southern’ polity is absolute and paranoid. In their calculus letting down their guard is probably never an option.

The Tamil Tigers are giving this government, its armed forces and the international community a daily preview of their power and potential to rock the status quo; especially as they evaluate negotiations with a bevy of hardliners in Colombo.

However the clear and present danger is that events spiral out of control and no longer remain in the realm of incidents, skirmishes or muscle flexing. Sri Lanka stands at the edge of an abyss with no strong hands to pull it back.

This bodes ill for South Asia where numerous conflicts are festering and simultaneously boiling over. Decades long conflicts have killed and maimed more than 150,000 in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Kashmir. Daily the toll keeps rising. Two major disasters shattered the region in 2005 killing over 100,000 people, displacing nearly 4 million and destroying vast swathes of infrastructure worth billions of dollars.

A majority of the Tsunami victims are the war ravaged peoples of Sri Lanka’s North-East upon whom Mother Nature heaped another catastrophe, followed shortly by the neglect of the government which insists that it alone represents all nineteen million inhabitants of that country.

In addition to those displaced by the Tsunami more than 100,000 Tamils who fled the civil war subsist in refugee camps in Tiger controlled territory. The world community must not turn its back on these people and allow yet another catastrophe of war to eclipse and devastate their already broken lives.

Unlike Indonesia Sri Lanka has failed to usher in peace. Every opportunity for rapprochement has been squandered after the Tsunami.

The world hoped that from the tragedy of the Tsunami Sri Lanka would break the pattern of racially partisan politics. However within days the window of opportunity slammed shut with no small thanks to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. By pandering to her preferred coalition partner the racially xenophobic JVP, she squandered an opportunity to bridge the vast chasm created by Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Although a $3 billion post tsunami aid sharing agreement with the LTTE was supported unanimously by the international donor community, Kumaratunga dragged her feet for six months before signing. At the JVP’s behest the Supreme Court halted its implementation, giving further succor to racialism. This agreement has now wilted and died on the vine.

Just days following the Tsunami, accounts of aid being diverted away from predominantly Tamil and Muslim areas of the East and North began seeping out. A disproportionate amount of attention was lavished upon the majority Sinhalese South, particularly on President Rajapakse’s hometown Hambantota.

Then the foreign media discovered the other traumatised regions populated largely by minority Tamils and Muslims. Muslim communities in the East endured the worst devastation in lives lost and infrastructure destroyed. The small town of Mullaitivu in the North was rendered a wasteland by the waves.

Once the journalists began reporting live from the North-East and the enormity of losses became irrefutable, the international aid community woke up to reality. However in the glaring absence of any official assistance the LTTE had rapidly mobilised efficient relief and rescue operations in areas they control.

Meanwhile back in Colombo the government continued to focus its efforts on the Southern coast while making sympathetic noises about the catastrophe elsewhere. When Kofi Annan requested a visit to the Tsunami affected areas under LTTE control the government much to his chagrin denied his request.

The world witnessed Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious heterogeneity, a richness its politicians cannot seem to appreciate. They demonstrate neither the will nor the intellect to leverage this most important asset.

The Tsunami which virtually altered the landscape of Sri Lanka could not wash away its retrograde, racially tethered and entrenched politics.

UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Relief, President Clinton expressed disappointment that politics in Sri Lanka has jeopardized the aid sharing agreement and hampered relief efforts to the Tamil and Muslim communities.

Donors committed to reconstruction express frustration at being stymied by the government’s red tape, cronyism and inexplicable taxation.

Sri Lanka’s auditor general also found irregularities in distribution of relief funds, stopping short of calling it corruption. However the Supreme Court again called into question its impartiality by thwarting further investigation of Rajapakse’s handling of Hambantota related funds, agreeing that this would unfairly prejudice his election bid.

From the get-go Mahinda Rajapakse laid the dangerous groundwork guaranteeing a resumption of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war, and perhaps ultimately a two state outcome. The crowning glory was his pre-election alliance with the JVP rubbishing the interim peace agreement and reneging on aid sharing.

Much has been posited about LTTE’s enforced boycott of the latest elections. One credible theory is that a Ranil Wickeramasinghe victory would have meant more of the same; i.e. no war no peace and no solution tolerable enough to the LTTE. However victory by the hardliner Rajapakse would shake things up decisively, forcing movement one way or another.

It’s been a high stakes gamble by the LTTE, not least with the lives of millions of mostly poor people living under their writ. But the post Tsunami partisanship of the government only strengthened the ability of the rebels to position themselves as the sole legitimate protectors of the Tamil minority in the North-East.

Sri Lanka’s key donors, including the United States and the UK have made clear that the only way to end this conflict is a negotiated political settlement based on a federal state for Tamils.

Now a more forceful message, one with teeth, needs to be delivered to both parties by the international community, stating unambiguously that the current state of play is unacceptable.

And unlike the past, Sri Lanka’s neighbours must not salivate at this opportunity to peddle arms to the Sri Lankan state. Rather they should bilaterally or collectively encourage negotiation of a just and lasting peace, providing economic incentives if necessary.

The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE are steeped in mutual suspicion and contempt and will not arrive at any resolution on their own. A new heavy weight mediator must join Norway’s Herculean but waning peacemaking efforts, one whom both parties can respect as an honest broker.

One could only wish that President Clinton with his gravitas would play an expanded UN role to end this intractable conflict, an absolute pre-requisite to the rehabilitation of millions of devastated lives.

The world must pull out all the stops to end Sri Lanka’s ethnic bloodletting and avert further misery which surely lies ahead for its people if the world community does not act quickly and resolutely.

(Fawzia Naqvi is a free-lance writer based in New York)

Courtesy: The News (22-Jan-2006)