Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Pursuit of War by Other Means

by Dr. S Sathananthan, March 20, 2006

President Rajapakse is well aware that both former presidents Premadasa and Kumaratunga continued the two-track strategy of using a political smokescreen to cover military initiatives.

Building a Sinhala consensus?

President Mahinda Rajapakse held the third round of his All Party Conference on 6th of March 2006. He claims to want to build a consensus among the Sinhala people, their political parties and civic and religious organisations for a solution to the ‘ethnic conflict.’ Having been a member of parliament for more than 35 years, Rajapakse has had a ringside view of similar ‘consensus-building’ exercises by former Presidents JR Jayawardene, R Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Readers will no doubt recollect that President J R Jayawardene organised the first All Party Conference (APC) in August1984. In his report to the Conference he invited the participants to consider whether to ‘devolve’ power to ‘the people’ through a Provincial Council established for each of the nine provinces. The APC was, however, largely a damage-limitation exercise that served many ends. In the aftermath of the Holocaust of 1983, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was breathing down Jayawardene's neck because his pro-American United National Party (UNP) government had presided over the tragedy and several of his party and Cabinet members were implicated in the bloodbath. Moreover, Jayawardene needed a political fig leaf to dignify his brutal military operations against Tamils in the Northern Province.

The 1984 Conference was also a sterile exercise because the President opened it to political parties, civil society groups and religious organisations indiscriminately in the name of ‘inclusiveness.’ They spanned the political spectrum; and Jayawardene, of course, knew very well that diverse and often conflicting forces are unlikely to reach a consensus. The UNP’s archenemy, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), especially, was in no mood to compromise and assist Jayawardene to bring the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to heel. So, Jayawardene couldn’t have been surprised – Tamils certainly were not – when the Conference dribbled into the sand and ended inclusively in December. The inescapable conclusion is that President Jayawardene programmed the conference to self-destruct; he deliberately cast the net wide to appear democratic, while ensuring a political solution would not see the light of day. 

Soon President Jayawardene found his UNP regime’s military option was seriously hampered by the lack of any all-important political legitimacy. He was often unable to counter New Delhi’s allegations of genocidal intent in the war against Tamils because he was not armed with a political initiative. So, he convened the Political Parties Conference (PPC) in July 1986, resurrected his 1984 APC proposal for Provincial Councils and invited the Conference to explore whether ‘devolution’ could be channelled through the Councils ‘to solve the ethnic conflict.’ Although the Conference was restricted to parties represented in parliament, the fractious proceedings once again led nowhere. Jayawardene's hidden agenda became clearer towards the end of that year. Rather than seek a consensus – which he never sought – Jayawardene floated the Conference as a political smokescreen to mask the simultaneous military build up to wrest control of the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE. After unleashing Operation Liberation in early 1987, Jayawardene exploited the PPC to anoint himself as a peacemaker compelled to wage war because his political opponents spurned his overtures. That Sinhala military misadventure ended in the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord.

President Rajapakse is well aware that both former presidents Premadasa and Kumaratunga continued the two-track strategy of using a political smokescreen to cover military initiatives. Premadasa ordered General Denzil Kobbekaduwa to clear ‘Tigers’ from the east, push them up north and corner them in the Jaffna peninsula, as if he were on a Moghul tiger hunt in pre-colonial India. On the other hand, Premadasa shrewdly constituted the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on Constitutional Reform in August 1991, allegedly to explore a ‘consensus’ for achieving ‘peace.’ But the PSC did not fool Tamils; it bit the dust while the military campaign legitimised by the PSC soon went up in smoke.

Between 1995 and 2000 Kumaratunga unveiled several political proposals she knew were destined to fail, since neither her party’s traditional adversary (UNP), nor the Sinhala chauvinist Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Buddhist clergy would support the proposals. Simultaneously, Kumaratunga pursued her grotesque ‘War for Peace’ and attempted to legitimise the war with the political proposals. However, the military campaign came down in flames and paved the way for the Cease Fire Agreement of February 2002.

President Rajapakse also appears to be treading the same well-worn path. He is indulging in all party ‘talks’ while his Sinhala army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols and its client Tamil paramilitaries are waging a shadow war against the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement.

Sinhala peaceniks helped to justify the war, shadow and otherwise, by enthusiastically welcoming the proposals of successive Sinhala governments and lending credibility to them as sincere conflict resolution initiatives. They also turned a blind eye to the governments’ attempts to undermine the demographic basis of the Movement through the colonisation of land by Sinhala settlers in the Tamil-majority North East Province (NEP).

With practised élan, Sinhala peaceniks in Colombo are whitewashing President Rajapakse to elevate him above the Sinhala-nationalist cabal he had assiduously led during the November 2005 presidential election. The President, they say, abandoned his opposition to Norwegian facilitation, agreed to hold talks outside Asia, accepted the Cease Fire Agreement in full at the February 2006 Geneva Talks and committed his government to disarming the paramilitaries. Their subtext is the President has made significant shifts that substantiate his desire for a political settlement to the Tamil National Question. ‘What is needed at this time,’ a peacenik glibly asserted, ‘is restraint on the part of the LTTE that is accompanied by political leadership by President Rajapakse’; in case anyone is unsure of this ‘leadership’, he helpfully added: ‘the LTTE could take a lesson from President Rajapakse in his response to the killing spree that they launched shortly after the Presidential election (Daily Mirror, 7/mar/06). In short, the peaceniks assert that Rajapakse is striving for a negotiated settlement, but the LTTE is bent on war!!!

Talks’ and the LTTE

The LTTE’s history of armed resistance is well known. What is less known, and often grossly misrepresented, are the organisation’s political initiatives for a negotiated settlement.

In 1989/90 LTTE Leader V Prabhakaran initiated a dialogue with the then UNP President Premadasa by taking advantage of the invitation for “talks” the Sinhala President had extended to the JVP and “other groups.” The exchanges between the two leaders spread over 14 months were coloured by the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The dialogue soon deteriorated into anti-Indian posturing and crumbled in mid-1990, no sooner the Indian forces had left Sri Lanka.

In September 1994 – almost 7 years before 9/11 – Prabhakaran invited the newly elected SLFP Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga to commence negotiations. A surprised Deputy Defence Minister Col Anuruddha Ratwatte replied that the government "is prepared to enter into a process of negotiations to evolve a solution to the North-East conflict" (The Island, 8/sep/94). The LTTE’s Anton Balasingam reciprocated; he described Kumaratunga as a "progressive leader" and announced that the LTTE is prepared to abandon its goal of an independent State of Tamil Eelam in return for a "substantial package" of devolution (The Island, 22/sep/94).

After Kumaratunga was elected President, she evaded tabling a devolution proposal. But Prabhakaran once again reiterated his readiness to abandon the demand for an independent Tamil Eelam, if any devolution model Kumaratunga might propose covered four issues (The Island, 6/mar/95). They are:

(a) “The problem of the Tamils should be accepted as a national issue.”

(b) “The Tamil people should be accepted as a national entity.”

(c) “The traditional homelands of the Tamils should be accepted.”

(d) “The rights and sovereignty of the Tamils should be accepted."

President Kumaratunga rejected these four principles.

After the re-election of Kumaratunga as President in 1999, again the LTTE invited her for “talks”; Balasingam proposed “a cease-fire under international monitoring and re-allocation of troops to barracks to end military occupation” (The Island, 18/mar/00). President Kumaratunga’s PA government showed no interest at that time.

In contrast, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, who came to power in October 2000, responded positively. Prabhakaran declared a unilateral ceasefire on 24 December 2001 and the Ceasefire Agreement was formulated with Oslo’s facilitation. When time came to sign on the dotted line, however, Wickremasinghe dithered because President Kumaratunga vehemently opposed the Agreement (Sunday Leader, 24/feb/02). To buy time he requested the Norwegians to first present the Agreement to Prabhakaran. Did he hope the LTTE Leader would evade committing the Organisation to the Agreement? If so, Wickremasinghe was mistaken. When the Norwegians took the document to Vanni, Prabhakaran unilaterally signed the Agreement. Wickremasinghe later confessed that he hadn’t expected Prabhakaran to accept it with such alacrity; and he no doubt added his own signature to retain credibility with the international community.

Once again, in 2002, the LTTE committed itself ‘to explore a solution…based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka’ in the Oslo round of Norway-sponsored ‘talks’ (Oslo Statement, 5/dec/02). Although the government also subscribed to the Statement, President Rajapakse reneged: he regressed to defending the unitary State. Prabhakaran has stood by the Statement.

Force vs violence

It is but natural to expect that the LTTE would be commended for its repeated initiatives to reach a negotiated settlement. Instead, poisonous diatribe has spewed forth from multiple quarters.

On the eve of this February's Geneva Talks, Colombo was awash with speculation, innuendo and outright disinformation about the LTTE Leader’s ability and willingness to negotiate in good faith. Sinhala peaceniks began a whispering campaign against the LTTE. Can Prabhakaran afford a political solution? Won’t he, they wondered facetiously, lose what little power he has now? If “talks” go nowhere, they grandly concluded, then isn’t that due to LTTE’s predilection for “violence”? And they parroted the Goebbelsian Lie: the government begins negotiations; the LTTE ends them with war.

The US administration alleged: ‘the LTTE is using violence as its political weapon’ (Daily News, 24/jan/06). Similarly the Co-Chairs (Norway, US, EU and Japan) of the Sri Lanka donor consortium, Sinhala peaceniks and India have always used the word ‘violence’ to characterise the armed resistance of the LTTE. The tedious refrain is well known: the LTTE – not the Sinhala government – must ‘eschew violence in word and in deed.’ None has used the word “force” to describe the LTTE’s armed actions. This is because force is a legitimate political tool in international law; violence is not. The issue is not a semantic one; it is an intensely political question. The word “force” legitimises armed aggression by the State; in contrast, the term ‘violence’ criminalizes armed resistance by peoples. State actors who use force are entitled to invoke international law, while non-State actors accused of perpetrating violence are denied the same right. By accusing the LTTE and, by extension, the Tamil people of committing violence (not force), the Co-Chairs and India are making thinly veiled threats that Tamils may forfeit the moral and, perhaps, legal right to protection under international law.

Why this compulsion to dismiss the LTTE’s political overtures and discredit the organisation? One important reason is that the Co-Chairs, Indian and the Sri Lanka government view negotiating a solution with the LTTE as tantamount to rewarding armed resistance and sending out ‘wrong’ signals.

The Sinhala leadership has resisted federalism for more than half century; to concede now is a political defeat no Sinhala leader is willing to face. Could Rajapakse be different?

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