Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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No Hope for Enduring Peace

by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, Daily Times, Pakistan, March 8, 2006

Enduring peace requires renegotiating Sri Lanka’s political framework. The only option is to undo the state’s post-colonial character and replace it with a more representative polity. Unfortunately, some key players lack the capacity for imaginative thinking and will continue to insist on an unworkable political option until the country becomes completely ungovernable

Recent talks in Geneva between representatives of the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) (February 22-23, 2006) failed to raise hopes of an early end to the conflict. The only positive outcome perhaps was that both sides agreed to uphold the ceasefire agreement (CFA) of 2002 and to meet again in April. The GOSL also agreed to apprehend and disarm paramilitary groups attacking the LTTE, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s claim of ignorance of their existence notwithstanding.

The talks, the first since the CFA was signed four years ago, were doomed perhaps by the excitement on both sides. Given that no side appeared to be ready to make any concessions — the LTTE reiterated its commitment to a homeland for the Tamils and the GOSL to a unitary state controlled by the Sinhalese — the hype had made people dread war rather than imagine peace.

Interestingly, there was little expectation of an agreement. A major breakthrough, in any case, was impossible due to the fact that the major players, especially on the government side were not prepared to review their historical positions. Someone in Colombo described the situation as “a psychological stalemate”. Although Colombo is not eager to start a war, mainly because it cannot launch a major military operation, the key players are keen — if they can be sure of their capability — to fight and sort out the issue militarily.

The war that the Tamil and Sinhalese have been fighting since 1983-84 peaked in 2002 when the LTTE carried out successful strikes at the country’s main airport and an adjoining airbase in the capital. Besides civilian as well as military aircraft, Colombo lost its tourist trade. The Tigers had crossed a threshold. Decline in tourism did not bode well for the government, the country and the key players. That was when serious efforts were made to start talks with the LTTE and the CFA was signed.

Unfortunately, the talks represent only a tactical rather than a strategic shift in policy. As far as the Sri Lankan state is concerned, Buddhist monks and Sinhalese leaders have a limited imagination. They are simply not willing to look at alternatives despite the fact that there are signs of change in the LTTE position. Villupillai Prabhakaran, militant leader and LTTE head, understands that the geo-political situation does not favour the establishment of a separate homeland for the Tamils.

India, which provided strategic respite to Tamil militants and politicians, is not eager to see Sri Lanka divided into two. In fact, New Delhi had never seriously thought of helping establish a Tamil state. The best bet for the LTTE, therefore, is to seek some political concessions from Colombo, primarily in the form of a federal structure based on regional autonomy.

The Tigers laid out their political vision in October 2003 in the form of proposals for an interim-self governing authority (ISGL) for the North-East, the area where the Tamils propose a separate state. The ISGL proposal is the only documentary evidence so far of the LTTE considering an alternative short of dissolution of the Sri Lankan state.

The proposed federal structure is interesting for Sri Lanka as well as the rest of South Asia. It holds the blueprint of a political system that could end the intra-state conflict and violence in the entire region. All South Asian states are post-colonial structures driven by a top-down power-political mechanism.

The ISGL plan proposes two autonomous regions in Sri Lanka. The interim-self government in North East — like a similar arrangement in the rest of the country — is to independently hold elections, raise funds and control natural resources.

The LTTE appears keen, particularly after the tsunami, to stick to the ISGL blueprint. The catastrophe was a reminder to the LTTE leadership of their inability to provide services other than security to their people. The organisation, which has grown as a fascist force, can so far only offer protection against an equally fascist Sinhalese military. The self-governance proposal aims at allowing it to develop infrastructure and manage funds provided by international donors.

Despite the fact that it has consistently used the ‘threat of war’ to extract concessions from GOSL, the LTTE is clearly keen to talk peace. For Colombo, one of the considerations is the LTTE’s ability to bring war to the capital and other Sinhalese-controlled areas. Some hardliners argue that the CFA has benefited Tamils more than the government. The four-year respite, they say, has allowed the LTTE to regroup and prepare for launching an attack. If the talks break down now and the conflict resumes it can inflict serious damage. For its part, the Tamil leadership realises the advantage of encouraging such a perception; it strengthens its position in the talks.

The LTTE has also built its military capacity in terms of conventional capability of air, naval and land forces. Over the past four years the Tigers have built an airstrip and acquired a few small, short-range aircraft. Unfortunately, a number of people in Colombo see this as a sigh of the LTTE having transformed into a conventional military that has to be ‘deterred’. There is much talk of beefing up the Sri Lankan armed forces and improving professional standards to counter this new threat. Nothing could be farther from fact.

The LTTE is essentially a guerrilla force with only limited conventional capability, which it can easily trade for some political dividends. For instance, once the ISGL is established, the LTTE would have to be integrated into the Sri Lankan defence forces and made responsible for the defence of the North East. The Tamil-controlled military will ultimately be a part of the broad political solution.

One of the other reasons, the LTTE is keen on the ISGL proposal rather than a protracted war is the fear of factionalism in its military machine. The threat became evident with the breakaway of its eastern commander Col Karuna who fell out with Prabhakaran over distribution of resources. The break-up, a direct result of four years of peace, can be seen as the cost of peace.

Sadly, most Sinhalese leaders and the Rajapakse government see the Karuna factor as something they can exploit to weaken the LTTE and thereby avoid rethinking political arrangements. The military commanders are already talking of a separation between the north and the east. The idea is to thwart the establishment of the ISGL by driving a wedge between the Tamil and the Muslim population living primarily in the east and destroy the Tamil plan for an autonomous region.

Such politics has turned the country into a predatory state like Nepal and Pakistan. These states are characterised by a leadership driven by short-term gains and the absence of institutions and a political game plan. Enduring peace requires renegotiating Sri Lanka’s political framework. The only option is to undo the state’s post-colonial character and replace it with a more representative polity. Unfortunately, some key players lack the capacity for imaginative thinking and will continue to insist on an unworkable political option until the country becomes completely ungovernable. A frequent traveller to Sri Lanka can already smell and feel the difference caused by years of bad politics and governance.

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa is a military analyst and a freelance writer

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