Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Beyond the Obvious

by V Gunaratnam

Often it is useful to look at more than what meets the eye, consider both sides of a story, or read between the lines. A recent pronouncement by the US Ambassador in Colombo about the conflict in Sri Lanka was more grist to the mill, the intriguing world of international diplomacy and politics that has invited our scrutiny here.

Advocate for peace or a bully?

US Ambassador Lunstead recently unleashed a broadside at the LTTE, with an overt threat saying “…we want the cost of a return to war to be high...they will face a more capable and more determined Sri Lankan military” if the LTTE does not get to the peace table right away. Let’s see if we can put his ‘threat’ in some perspective, and try to understand that its real intent may have been to shore up Sinhalese public support for President Rajapakse’s peace moves.

Since former president Kumaratunga’s political meddling with the peace process, it has been in limbo. But her meddling did not result in a stalemate. Her strategy was to conduct a shadow war aimed at dividing the LTTE, sapping its strength, and subduing it. But this strategy only led to a killing spree that continues to this day.

President Rajapakse’s ascent to power made matters worse. The war of attrition intensified in the wake of his apparent uncompromising stance against the LTTE. CFA violations have rapidly increased, and are dangerously close to igniting a full-fledged war. But the international community is crying halt to the violence and demanding that peace talks be resumed.

Ambassador Lunsteadd was not acting like a bumbling 'Dagwood Bumstead' of cartoon fame. While his words were ostensibly for the LTTE’s consumption, they seem to have been purposefully crafted to send a message to the Sinhalese public, to bolster their confidence, and encourage them to look upon peace talks with favour! The warning aimed at the LTTE was unmistakably loaded to reflect this position: we’ll support you, and make the LTTE pay a high price if they choose to return to war, ignoring our appeals to resume the peace talks. Certainly the rhetoric was excessive, but without it the intended impact would have been badly lost on the Sinhalese.

We must understand that US diplomats don’t go around making such statements for nothing. They know exactly what is going on in Sri Lanka and what they say or do is all with a purpose, based on what is happening within the country. The Norwegians are also there to tell the Americans about the ground realities. By now the Americans and the world must know about Sri Lanka’s duplicity and how the Tamils have been cheated for nearly sixty years. So nothing is happening in a vacuum.

Difficult and disturbing as it might be to comprehend, we have to look beyond the ambassador’s words, to understand the US’s motivation. There is no question its principal aim is to get Sri Lanka and the LTTE to the peace table. But what about the warning to the LTTE? We know that President Rajapakse, having taken a hardline stance against the LTTE, was tied down to this position and unable to make conciliatory moves towards the LTTE so soon after the election without help. This is probably why the US moved swiftly to give the Sinhala public a very strong incentive or reason and help Rajapakse get some maneuvering room.

But there is also another angle to the one-sided verbal assault on the LTTE. The fundamental dilemma here is that in a world of nation-states (or sovereign-states), a non-elected non-state actor like the LTTE cannot be treated equally. In their world, the asymmetrical relations heavily favour nation-states. Rarely, if ever, would we find a friendly nation-state passing strictures on another one of its kind, for whatever reason. It’s like “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.”

In the nature of the existing relations between the US and Sri Lanka, we can now see why the ambassador’s words seemed to favour Sri Lanka. But we must also try to understand his words in the context of the need to promote peace. He was addressing a specific need using “diplomatic” language.

Looking back, we must admit that it probably gave President Rajapakse the space to make his peace moves from an apparent position of ‘strength’, to assuage Sinhalese fears, and set up the meeting in Geneva!

The US Undersecretary of Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns emphasized the US position at his press briefing in Colombo, saying”…we understand the Tamil community here has legitimate grievances, and legitimate issues that ought to be addressed by the government. And there ought to be a dialogue, a better dialogue, between the government and the Tamil community.” He also used some blunt language like the ambassador did against the LTTE, but by now we should know why.

But this is only another beginning. There are miles to travel and things to do before a lasting peace can lead to an accord. It serves our purpose to recognize here some of the difficulties that lie ahead.

The long road to an accord

By far a major impediment to any advance being made on the peace front is President Rajapakse’s hardline position against the LTTE with his extremists partners, the JVP and JHU. The JVP will play ball with him, but not the JHU. However, without the JVP the JHU won’t enjoy much leverage with Rajapakse, to force changes or block them.

But what Rajapakse needs is time for people’s memories to fade, and soften their attitude before he is able to climb down from the hard line he took against the LTTE on the way to becoming president. That would be difficult in the short term, and not before he is able to deliver something on the economic front.

So it’s very likely the Geneva meetings will lead nowhere except to clarify and restructure the CFA. This by itself would be a very hard task, because it would be very difficult for either party to give up the advantages they have presently. It could be a long, drawn out affair. Even granting they are able to cobble together better implementation of the CFA, there is very little to stop the parties from again descending into their old ways and going on a killing spree.

Then there is the Karuna gang. There are also the other disaffected Tamil factions, each with its own paramilitary force. While the LTTE is one solid homogeneous force, and highly disciplined, with one command structure, the same cannot be said of the Sri Lanka armed forces and the disparate paramilitary forces working with them. There are so many elements, each running its own affairs, acting outside the rule of law, without a unified command. They could be likened to a self-perpetuating force, living off the state, fortified by the CFA, and assured of a livelihood as long as hostilities last!

Unless and until the armed forces and the paramilitary factions are made to respect government directives, brought under control, and stop interfering with the rule of law and the CFA, nothing is going to change. Put another way, the government has to take complete control. And for this to happen, they must commit to a solution based on Tamil aspirations. The way things stand now, the Sinhalese don’t seem to think the Tamils have any rights at all, except to engage in sterile peace talks when it suits them!

That’s the crux of the problem. It has been one long history of oppression. Successive governments have mastered the art of stalling, and killing any ongoing peace moves by the simple act of stretching them out on the flimsiest of pretexts. In the end, the very purpose of the talks gets obliterated until the government decides to air it again to serve its own political ends without reaching any resolution. It’s like going in circles.

This is the problem we have to be addressing. Our dilemma is obvious. The peace process is again in danger of collapsing, because the Sinhalese still can’t seem to accept that the Tamils are a people just like them, who yearn for the very same things they enjoy, and to live as equals in peaceful coexistence.

The Tamils are not going to be fooled by never-ending peace talks anymore. We hope serious international diplomacy triumphs this time, and we’ll know this when we learn how the CFA is being strengthened in Geneva, and we get a real hint of what lies ahead on the more substantive issues.

Basically, it’s going to be a waiting game, but, unless there is some sort of road map toward autonomy guaranteed by the international community, there is no chance in heaven that it’s going to be anything but an apocalypse, a war to end all wars in Sri Lanka.

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