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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2342

Buying Time or Losing Time?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"As Long as nothing happens anything is possible."
Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana)

The ongoing national government drama, irrespective of its eventual outcome, is likely to be of some use to its two main actors, President Mahinda Rajapakse and Leader of Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe – as a time buying exercise. Mr. Rajapakse can use the Quest for a National Government to deflect international pressure to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem while Mr. Wickremesinghe can use it to derail significant reforms within his much defeated party and to postpone further defections by disaffected green parliamentarians. The national government may not happen, but the slogan and the search would enable the President to get off the ‘political solution’ hook and Mr. Wickremesinghe to get off the ‘party reforms’ hook, at least for a while.

Mr. Pirapaharan, himself a past master at the time buying game, is engaged in his own lies and deception exercise. The Tigers’ chosen instrument is a vague offer to negotiate. It is possible that the LTTE wants some breathing space provided by another mini-peace process. What is more likely is that the Tigers are hoping that the regime will act in a manner which will enable them (and their Norwegian friends) to claim that Colombo did not meet them ‘half way’ when they tried to talk peace. It will be difficult for the LTTE to make this charge stick if there is some discernible progress on the devolution front. In the critical absence of such a forward movement it will be easier for the Norwegians to tell the world that the main obstacle to a negotiated settlement is not LTTE’s terrorism but Colombo’s intransigence.

Terrorism is the Tiger’s forte. In this the LTTE is nearly unparalleled in the world, a path-breaker other terrorist movements look to and learn from. This is a role the Tigers publicly relish and are consciously proud of, as Col. Soosai’s interview with BBC’s Frances Harrison demonstrate. Despite its obvious downside, terrorism has been the Tigers’ chief claim to fame and chosen method of pressurising Colombo. Therefore the LTTE will resort to acts of terrorism, making them as spectacularly horrendous as they possibly can – perhaps in time to celebrate Mr. Pirapaharan’s Birthday. The purpose would be twofold: to show that it can be devastative, even in Colombo, despite the military losses; and – with luck – to provoke the Sinhalese into another anti-Tamil pogrom.

The disadvantages of such a strategic recourse to terrorism would be considerable. The LTTE can become even more branded with the terrorist label. And though the US will not send troops to fight Tiger terrorism (the sole superpower has more pressing business in Iraq and Afghanistan) Washington can increase its military assistance to Colombo and crackdown harder on pro-Tiger activists at home (including the fund raisers). The US can also help black list the Tigers internationally, via the UN Security Council. These are significant disadvantages and Mr. Pirapaharan may want to minimise them. The ‘negotiations ruse’ is perhaps aimed at this end – to enable him to claim (and the Norwegians will echo his words) that he tried to talk peace with Colombo and failed.

The Devolution Dilemma

We can (and must) avoid another appeasement process; but we have to do it while retaining Indian and international sympathy and support. This would require discernible progress on the devolution front. Mr. Rajapakse, unlike his JVP and JHU allies, knows that an outright no would not serve; he must at least give the impression of ‘trying’ to come up with a political solution, if he is to retain the support of the world in the battle against the Tigers.

And as long as the negotiations over a national government last, he can tell India and the West that his efforts are aimed at mustering a parliamentary majority for devolution (and at marginalising the Sinhala extremists). In the meantime he is making nice but vague noises about inter-ethnic friendship and harmony (the kind that the JVP also often makes); and hoping for a decisive military victory, enabling him to impose a Pax Sinhalese on the North and the East.

Ranil Wickremesinghe will play along for his own reasons, and not only because he needs to sidetrack the issue of party reforms (while preventing further defections). Mr. Wickremesinghe knows that he cannot support a generous devolution package for the minorities, if the regime does come up with one, because that will displease Mr. Pirapaharan (not a nice man to double-cross; and Mr. Wickremesinghe has his Faustian bargain to honour). The Tigers want a political solution to the ethnic problem even less than the JVP or the JHU does. If there is such a solution acceptable to a majority of the Tamils how can the Tigers justify their actions or even their existence? Therefore the LTTE would do its utmost to scuttle any such solution and in this it would employ Mr. Wickremesinghe (plus depending on the unintentional support of the JHU and the JVP). Therefore Mr. Wickremesinghe would be perfectly content with the President’s stalling tactics because that gets him off the Tiger hook.

The Tigers and their peacenik supporters insist that the ethnic problem can be solved by giving into the LTTE. The Sinhala supremacists think that the ethnic problem can be solved by defeating the LTTE. The pro-Tiger peaceniks and the Sinhala supremacists are thus at one in opposing a political solution to the ethnic problem based on democratic devolution. We need to effect a military solution to the Tiger problem and a political solution to the ethnic problem – not sequentially but simultaneously.

As yet the initiative is with Colombo, because the world is still an inhospitable place for the Tigers and because the anti-Tiger Tamils – the potential Tamil alternatives to the LTTE – are firmly on the side of Sri Lanka. The time is opportune to develop a Sri Lankan rather than a Sinhala perspective and come up with a Sri Lankan solution to the ethnic problem. The regime needs to take the anti-LTTE Tamils as its partners and tell the world and India to compel a sufficient segment of the UNP to back a devolution package that is acceptable to the moderate Tamils. The JVP and the JHU would reject such a solution and try to destabilise the South in order to make it politically unaffordable for the regime.

This is why a manifestly free and fair referendum would be necessary. The JVP justified its murderous campaign against the Indo-Lanka Accord and the Provincial Councils on the grounds that neither had a popular mandate. A referendum – ideally with multiple choices - can take care of this problem.

According to a recent survey commissioned by the National Peace Council and conducted by the Marga Institute only 14% of those polled knew that federalism means devolving power without dividing the country (and 62% had no idea what federalism meant).

This means that the absolute majority of the public is not aware of what federalism is. Given a proper awareness campaign it may be possible to win the backing of the majority for a federal or quasi federal settlement. But if we let this moment go, we may have to face a full fledged campaign of terror by the Tigers without the political cover that a devolution package can provide.

The Anti-Tiger Tamils

In its search for a political solution Colombo needs to have a Tamil partner. This is non-negotiable fact of life, dictated by demographic realities. But we can choose who that partner should be – either the Tigers or anti-Tiger Tamils. If we want an unending war interspersed with periods of sham peace we can pick the Tigers as our partners. This is what we have done in the last three peace processes. But if we want to see this issue settled within an undivided Sri Lanka we have to choose the anti-Tiger Tamils. And we must do that before they become too beholden to Delhi, too tied to Mother India by bonds of gratitude.

The world is becoming aware of the existence and importance of democratic Tamil alternatives to the LTTE. The recognition granted to Mr. Anandasangaree via the UNESCO’s Madanjeet Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence is indicative of this emerging trend. The official invitation by the Indian government to three anti-Tiger Tamil parties demonstrates Delhi’s intention of playing a greater role in Sri Lanka, via these parties. The references made to Col. Karuna’s TMVP by a number of international organisations, though hardly complementary; show that the world is coming to accept the reality of armed Tamil resistance to the Tigers.

Delhi, understandably concerned about the increasing volatility in Tamil Nadu, seems to be getting ready to play a more proactive role in the Lankan conflict. And given the TNA’s inability to escape from the Tiger clutches, India seems to be looking increasingly towards those anti-Tiger Tamil parties which are not officially part of the Lankan regime - thus, probably, the invitation to the TULF, PLOTE and EPRLF (V) to visit Delhi. It is also likely that the Indians are in touch with Col. Karuna’s TMVP. Blind to these new Indian and global developments, we continue to treat the anti-Tiger Tamils as political nonentities, kindly but dismissively. We do not see the danger of these parties becoming closer and closer to Delhi – which would be unavoidable if they think that they can play a meaningful role in Sri Lanka only by becoming proxies of India. It is an outcome which will be damaging to both Sri Lanka and to anti-Tiger Tamils. Given the fact that Colombo is yet to hold a round of discussions with democratic Tamil parties about the ground situation in the North and the East and a possible political solution to the ethnic problem (and given the obvious likelihood of India stepping into the breach) this realisation will dawn on both sides only post facto.

The best course of action available to the anti-Tiger Tamils is to try to play an autonomous role vis-à-vis both Colombo and Delhi, to balance between the two regimes, while remaining on friendly terms with both. But this requires political strength which is conditional on the ability of these parties to come together based on some common minimum programme. In practical terms this would mean a better understanding between the EPDP and the TMVP, with Mr. Anandasangaree playing the role of Senior Leader; perhaps he can even be the initiator of a broad united front for democratic devolution. If these parties cannot agree on one formula they can present a range of options for a political solution to Colombo (and the world). The mere fact of the formation of a united front will enhance their political clout here and abroad. Given the abysmal lack of knowledge about different forms of devolution among the people of the South these parties can also launch an awareness campaign to educate Sri Lankans what federalism and quasi-federalism really means. They can also come to an understanding with the Muslim parties about thorny issues such as that of merger.

Currently Colombo has the upper hand politically and militarily vis-à-vis the Tigers. However storm clouds are gathering in Tamil Nadu and the world is becoming increasingly impatient with our manifest lack of interest in devolving power or in minimising human rights violations. The Tigers ignored such warning signals and are paying the price. We must avoid the same fate. Procrastination may look clever but in the end it will play into the hands of the Tiger. Neither India nor the world will tolerate a Sinhala Peace (even if it is possible to wipe out the Tigers); a Sri Lankan peace will have international support but this requires a political solution acceptable to the moderate Tamils and Muslims. History shows us that favourable moments – such as the one we are enjoying – are transient, unless they are utilised properly. The President’s time buying exercise may look successful but this is illusory; he and the country are loosing time.

- Asian Tribune -

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