Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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International Involvement

Lessons from Sri Lanka

by Ehalaivan, Toronto, Canada

Why is the international community not able to play an instrumental role anymore? Why it is also seen currently as a contributing factor to the present imbroglio? The answer to this question provides a classic case study for the international community’s involvement in civil war situations.

"The Government of India unreservedly condemns the terrorist bombing outside Colombo today" reported The Hindu of India, quoting Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna. The attack on Major General Parami Kulatunge, post-homously promoted to the position of Lt. General, drew similar comments from some others as well. The last four years, especially, the last 7 months, have been dotted with statements like this, many from India and others from the international community.

Sri Lanka’s fragile ceasefire has survived this long, albeit with its own problems, because of the international community’s involvement and the inability of both parties to engage each other in a full scale war. The Royal Norwegian Government has been mostly in the forefront, but it is widely accepted that Norway has had the blessings of several countries, including the USA, India, and the EU. The Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE needed – and to some extent still need – the international community’s presence for their own reasons.  The international community was able to persuade both the GOSL and the LTTE to agree to a ceasefire and then to meet in Thailand and Japan for several rounds of peace-talks. While the success or the failure of the peace-talks can not solely be attributed to the international community ’s involvement, it is understood that the international players had a crucial role in creating the momentum towards a negotiated settlement. But why was it not able to help sustain the momentum? Why is the international community not able to play an instrumental role anymore? Why it is also seen currently as a contributing factor to the present imbroglio?

The answer to this question provides a classic case study for the international community’s involvement in civil war situations. We can find an answer by looking back at the nearly five years since the initial cease-fire.

From the Tamil perspective, the international community’s efforts have not yielded much positive outcomes because international players have miserably failed to:

  1. Comprehend the causative factors of the conflict and the legitimacy of the Tamil struggle.
  2. Understand the intransigence of the Sinhala polity, reasserted especially by the realignment of the Sinhala nationalists, SLFP, JVP, Hela Urumaya and the likes.
  3. Recognize the LTTE’s role in the northeastern parts of the island of Sri Lanka as a de facto state, not just a belligerent.
  4. Ensure some of the important conditions for the cease-fire agreement, such as enabling the Tamils to resettle in their homes now occupied by the SLA, are adhered to.
  5. Ensure that the Tamil people who have been facing the brunt of the nearly three-decade-old conflict received any peace-dividends (that begs the question of where did all the money delivered by the donors to Sri Lanka’s kitty go?).
  6. Maintain a neutral position in the conflict by listing the LTTE as a terrorist organization and restricting their activities, while providing immunity to the GOSL and permitting its propaganda, and the aggressive expansion of the strength and activities of the SLA, allowing its overt and covert military actions in the northeast.   
  7. Condemn unequivocally human rights violations perpetrated by the SLA with callous disregard for all sorts of human rights conventions.
  8. Ensure that the parity of status recognized – and on which the whole peace-process was founded – was respected and honoured.

From the Sinhala-dominated GOSL’s perspective, the peace-talks have failed to take off because the international community has NOT:

  1. Contained the LTTE; The peace process instead has given “recognition” and “legitimacy”
  2. Disarmed the LTTE or weakened its military potential
  3. Ensured that the LTTE abandon the call for a separate state (the LTTE has, however, agreed to seek a settlement under some kind of Federal set-up) or for the right of self-determination.

As is clearly visible, the GOSL's ‘complaints list’ about the failure of the peace-talks is based on gaining a military and political advantage over their adversary.

While being disenchanted with the international community and its involvement, the GOSL has through its actions and ‘inactions’ clearly signaled its position – no meaningful devolution of power or recognition of the Tamils’ rights or their homeland. While continuing their aloofness in terms of decentralized power, the GOSL has very actively engaged the LTTE both internationally and locally in other arenas. It has strategically moved its pawns to militarily, politically, and logistically weaken the LTTE.  The case of Karuna, Indian involvement, the EU and Canadian ban, strategic targeting of LTTE leaders and positions are only a few of their successes. On their home front, the GOSL is at an advantageous position vis-à-vis economic growth, unification of the southern polity (at least the majority Sinhala nationalists), strengthening of the Sri Lankan Armed forces, widening of their 'safety net,' etc. 

If we were to assume that the international community is involved in this conflict as a neutral third party interested in promoting peace in the island, then the above issues must be looked at with care and addressed. If the above issues are not addressed, then that would mean that the international players are not interested in resolving the ethnic conflict, but are only interested in meddling and that begs the question, why? What other reasons would motivate their involvement in the peace-talks?

Or are there other factors that are playing a crucial role in scuttling the international community’s effort?

To go back to the Indian Government’s response to Lt. General Parami Kulatunge’s death:

If their condemnation of “terrorist” activity is “unreserved,” as India and some of the other countries would like people to believe, then there should have been such statements immediately after the killing of Tamil leaders such as Mr. Ariyanayagam Chandranehru, MP, Mr. Joseph Pararajasingam, MP, and Mr. V. Vigneswaran, Tamil People’s Forum for Trincomalee district, or at the time of the cold-blooded killing of Lt. Col. Kaushalyan, Lt. Col. Bava, and more recently Col. Ramanan and Lt. Col. Mahenthi. Such statements should have been released at least when tens of Tamils were being massacred every day in the northeast of Sri Lanka. It is an opportune time for the international community to does its own analysis to see what went wrong, how, and where it went wrong.

The LTTE’s one-time commander of the East, Mr. Vinayamoorthy Muralitharan’s, dropping out was initiated and encouraged by the GOSL, but a split in the strategists in the GOSL ensured that the event was not utilized to the maximum to weaken the LTTE. Even though the GOSL failed to see the potential, the hawks in a neighbouring country, however, did not. Therein lies one secret knot to the question of why, when, and how the peace-process was scuttled.

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