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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 49

Sri Lanka: History Revisiting?

Tuesday 25 November 2008, by Apratim Mukarji


There was scarcely any surprise when the pro-rebel Tamilnet website of Sri Lanka accorded the pride of place in its news items on November 12 to the unanimous resolution adopted by the Tamil Nadu Assembly earlier, calling for a ceasefire in the island nation. Fighting a last-ditch battle for survival, the Tamil rebels and their supporters clutched at the Assembly resolution as one possible key to an eventual Indian intervention to save them from the relentless Sri Lankan military onslaught.

The Tamil Nadu resolution was adopted solely in the context of the severe humanitarian crisis that has gripped the northern districts of Sri Lanka ever since the military offensive was launched to finish off the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It is clear by now that if the offensive is not halted immediately, the Tamil rebellion—over twenty-five years old—would be finally crushed.

On the other hand, if Colombo eventually bows to the shrill Tamil Nadu protest, accompanied by restrained pressure from New Delhi and the international community, the LTTE would earn a life-saving reprieve. However, this appears to be a highly unlikely scenario.

To the politicians in Tamil Nadu, however, the uppermost thought in their minds is that a ceasefire at the present juncture would save hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the terrible conditions in which they are still fleeing from the advancing Sri Lankan troops. Northern and eastern Tamils have been periodically turning into IDPs over the last three decades and longer (the first IDPs in Sri Lanka used to be those who fled home in the wake of the several anti-Tamil riots that had rocked the island nation, years before the LTTE and other armed Tamil rebel groups began to fight the government militarily).

In his latest rejection of the suggestion for a ceasefire of hostilities and initiation of political negotiations with the Tamil community (and certainly not with the LTTE as clearly stated on several occasions), President Mahinda Rajapaksa predictably maintained (during his bilateral talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on November 13) his government’s well-known position, that is, there would be no negotiation until the “terrorists” were “eliminated”. President Rajapaksa has been chillingly consistent with his government’s policy for handling the continuing Tamil insurgency in his country.

While Sri Lanka has, since 1983, experienced five phases of war between the government and the LTTE, this is the first time that the military offensive has continued in complete disregard of international outcry on humanitarian grounds and frequent diplomatic pressure. Earlier this year, Colombo continued with the offensive in the eastern province, and despite mounting evidence of a serious humanitarian crisis the international community and India in particular were unable to persuade President Rajapaksa to halt military operations and initiate talks for a negotiated settlement.

IT is beyond doubt that Rajapaksa has been able to carry out the all-out military campaign against the LTTE in contrast to his predecessors who were obliged to bow to international pressure to stop the war with a ceasefire and get back to negotiations. It is equally well-established that each time a ceasefire was put in place (after the military had virtually cornered the LTTE), the latter had exploited the period of the reprieve by recruiting fighters and stockpiling arms and ammunition and other essential ingredients and, after ensuring that a resumption of hostilities with all possible consequences could be well-afforded, heightened their cleverly planned violations of the ceasefire agreement that led eventually to a military response by Colombo (each period of ceasefire was also marked by government forces violating its conditions with equal impunity). And thereafter the cycle had kept revolving—outbreak of hostilities followed by a civilian exodus, large-scale civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis, which was followed by an international outcry and followed in turn by a ceasefire and resumption of peace talks.

President Rajapaksa has, however, chosen to break away from this vicious cycle, refusing to permit the LTTE an easy exit from certain decimination and in stead has in plain language called for an “annihilation” of the LTTE before peace talks could be held.

Meanwhile, despite its numerically precarious position in Parliament, the Indian Government has steadfastly refused to follow the precedent of interference or intervention in Sri Lanka, sending the signal that even though it shares the widespread agony over the terrible plight of Tamil civilians, it will keep off the island nation.

As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, the Tamil politicians’ position suffers from a serious weakness. It does not indicate how the LTTE should be dealt with after a ceasefire comes into effect. The Sri Lankan Government says that a ceasefire would be effective only if the rebels lay down their arms and surrender. The history of this war confirms the logic of Colombo’s position since every ceasefire (except the last one, which was ended unceremoniously by the launch of the military offensive in the eastern province last year) was routinely followed by a resumption of hostilities.

It is only this time that if Colombo ultimately crushes the LTTE, its victory would not be followed after a certain period of interval by a resumption of the war as the rebels would no longer be there to continue with fighting.

The Rajapaksa Government says that it is then that a political settlement will be arrived at ensuring peace in the country. In a recent interview to The Hindu (October 29,2008) the President said:
The current military operations are being carried out to build the environment required to free our own brothers and sisters from the cruel grip of terror and implement a just and enduring political solution based on the four Ds—Demilitarisation, Democratisation, Development and Devolution.

However, if one goes through the developments since President Rajapaksa assumed charge, it is obvious that a political settlement of the ethnic conflict under the prevailing circumstances can only be one imposed by the majority Sinhala community upon the minority Tamil community though all the formalities of presenting an equitable settlement would be present. For one thing, Rajapaksa has not even attempted to ensure that a widely accepted Tamil constituent, truly representing the vital interests of the community, becomes an equal partner in the political process that he seems to have in mind.

With the LTTE eventually “eliminated”, who will then represent the Tamils? Only an answer from the Tamil community can tell us if an equitable political settlement under the prevailing situation is still possible. But so far (and not just considering the present presidency) Colombo and, more correctly, the majority community have not betrayed any intention to build a public dialogue and thereby create the necessary public space to make it possible for a truly inclusive political settlement of the ethnic conflict to emerge. The responsibility for this situation lies squarely with the majority community,which is represented by the President of Sri Lanka.

A commentator on Central and South Asia, the author has written Sri Lanka : An Unending Conflict? (2000) and Sri Lanka : A Dangerous Interlude (2005).

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