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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2341

Sri Lanka Situation: Frequently Asked Questions

By Col R Hariharan (Retd.)

Many people in Sri Lanka and friends of Sri Lanka everywhere are dismayed at the Eelam War -4 now being waged under a façade of ceasefire. It is taking the country and the people away from finding a workable solution to the ethnic problem in the near future. The ostensible objective of this war of the government side is to "bring peace and freedom for the people" in areas not under the control of government. On the other hand the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have reverted back to their avowed military aim of "freeing Tamils from Sinhala racists" promised earlier by their leader Prabhakaran. It is clear that both sides have reduced 'peace and ceasefire' as nothing more than propaganda cliché for the consumption of the international community. It also saves the face of the Tokyo donors’ conference members, who appear to be helpless in controlling the events anymore. The reality is that the security forces are fighting to gain physical control of territories in the north and the LTTE is resisting it.

The series of military victories in the east have boosted the military constituency within the government, just as they have alarmed the LTTE which can relate to military operations more easily than political negotiations. So body count has become the order of the day of measuring success. Every dead body, regardless of its ethnicity, religion or language, leaves behind a family who would be scarred for ever. That means on an average five people affected by each death adding five more notches to the depth of ethnic divide. If lasting peace with honour is the objective of the nation, then it is time to examine military operations not in simple terms of who is winning or losing. Everyone concerned should do well to introspect why the war is being fought now, than merely applaud every victory or mourn mounting losses.

Many readers of my articles share their views on Sri Lanka situation with me. They include Sinhalas, Muslims, Tamils of all kinds and others. Majority are really concerned about what the future holds for the people. A small minority are hate mail specialists whose views are bound in ironclad dogmas, myths and half truths. Many beliefs expressed in the mails reflect historical prejudices, 'hate' reactions, and narrow loyalties, rather than objective analysis. (Unfortunately, many of these appear to be those perpetuated in the popular media coverage, which sensationalise issues without informed criticism.) Most of them seem to miss out to understand what everyone ultimately desires to create a society where all citizens live and lead a normal and secure life based on mutual trust and equality .

A federal form of government adapted to Sri Lankan conditions offers the best chance of creating such a society without damaging the unity of Sri Lanka. in due course it will also help the nation outgrow narrow ethnic identities.

There are three stark truths emerging from the conflict in Sri Lanka:

(1) In spite of losing over 64,000 lives the conflict appears unending. Past experience indicates it could drag on forever unless there is a paradigm shift in mindset.

(2) Any lasting solution has to be equitable and fair to all parties.

(3) Except for a small number of chauvinists, all sections of society would like sincere implementation of an accepted solution to usher in lasting peace.

As a corollary, the priority now is to find a solution based on commonsense, rather than gut reactions, with the single objective of how to achieve a win-win situation - that is to bring the ethnic conflict to an end so that peace can be restored permanently in a democratic society. (Many doomsday men on all sides may consider this naïve because it states the obvious. But from the feedbacks I receive I find increasingly the heart rather than the head is taking over the minds of people. As the war continues it is recharging the embers of hate.)

Based on Indian experience in handling insurgency and ethnic problems, I have tried to objectively analyse and answer some of the popular 'notions' expressed to me in the feedback. (Statements 9 to 11 given below are usually from Tamil readers, while others are mostly from non-Tamil readers):

1. As the security forces are winning the war, why can't we eliminate LTTE to solve the Tamil problem?

LTTE is not the basic issue. LTTE's violence is the manifestation of a long history of unattended grievances of Tamil population. Unless the basic Tamil grievances are addressed even if LTTE is not there some other organisation will take up the cause. Moreover, for the last 24 years the efforts to wipe out LTTE have not been wholly successful; so how long should the bloodletting continue?

India's long experience in counter insurgency has shown that political process has to keep pace with military operations. One without the other will not resolve the issue permanently. Sri Lanka will have to address the issue of devolution of powers to Tamil population. It has nothing to do with unitary or federal form of governance or merger of the north and east. They are secondary to the basic grievances of the Tamil population. In other words, the proposed solution should be attractive enough to wean away Tamils from finding a solution through violent struggle.

2. If Prabhakaran is removed from the scene, can the problem be solved easily?

This question is partly answered in question 1.Tamil militancy is rooted in a cause and not in a personality. What will happen to LTTE after Prabhakaran is a $ 64 k question? At present Prabhakaran is spearheading it, so his absence from the scene will undoubtedly have an adverse impact on LTTE's capability. However, downgrading of LTTE's capability alone is unlikely to end Tamil militancy. It will gather momentum when another leader rises up. So a finding a solution acceptable to the people is the only viable option to end the relevance of armed struggle to the people. We have seen this in Indian experience in Mizoram and Nagaland.

3. Does this mean no military action should be taken against terrorist groups like LTTE even as they militarily challenge a legally elected government?

Undoubtedly the state has a responsibility to safeguard the lives of citizens and ensure territorial integrity. So use of security forces in such circumstances is legitimate. Military victories are essential to control insurgency, ensure national security, gain lost initiative in governance, and improve national morale. They also help in ramming home the futility of armed insurrection into the insurgent minds so that they become more amenable to examine other non-violent options to achieve their aims. But if military operations continuously threaten the lives of ordinary citizens and the State tramples upon human rights of the population, the basic grievances of the population will not be attended to and militancy will continue. So use of military should be judicious and pointed, essentially to further a political process. It is only a means to an end rather than the end in itself.

4. Sinhalas are the majority and Sinhala nationalism is the same as Sri Lanka nationalism; why do the media brand it as chauvinism?

Unfortunately in Sri Lanka from the colonial times the citizens have been classified on an irrational mix of ethnic, regional or religious (in the case of Muslims) basis. This classification has continued to divide the citizens and is reflected in all aspects of society. As Sinhalas form the majority, there is a lot of confusion between ethnic and national identities. Sri Lanka is not unique in this regard. India, Pakistan, Bhutan Nepal and to some extent Bangladesh also suffer from this aberration. In India we have tried to resolve it through devolution of powers to the local population in varying degrees using different structures suited to local conditions. This has partly enabled the minorities to feel confident that their identity would not be subsumed by the identity of the major segment of the population. However, this has not solved every internal conflict in India due pulls and pressures of politics. However, the structural mechanisms in place have diffused the sense of alienation that periodically builds up among minority population. So we have a Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister, a Sikh Army chief and a Parsi Air chief without ruffling the feathers of the majority community. Less emphasis on majority identity in social and public life would help in evolving a national identity.

5. Sri Lanka has to remain a unitary state because it is too small a state. So why talk of any other solution?

The priority for Sri Lanka now is to end the conflict and not to waste any more years in rhetoric. Everyone regardless of their beliefs or ethnicity is suffering either directly or indirectly due to the conflict. They need peace; so the need of the hour is to work out a formula that is acceptable to all parties and not merely the majority. Let academics debate the relative merits of unitary vs. federal/con-federal/quasi federal issues at least for the time being. Evolving solutions become easier when more and more people find a stake in maintaining peace. In any case, war is an inappropriate and inadequate tool to bring about unity. No nation has been unified only through arms. Size has nothing to do with the question of finding an appropriate form of government that meets the needs of the people. Small states with multi-ethnic populations can evolve mechanism to provide peoples participation in governing themselves. A federal form of government adapted to Sri Lanka's needs perhaps will meet the aspirations of the aggrieved people.

6. India used the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka for selfish reasons and created Tamil militancy; so India should solve it.

This is a mixture of fantasy and half truth to oversimplify a complex issue.

(a) There was the Tamil problem festering politically in Sri Lanka for three decades when India did not intervene. The militancy grew when the political instruments available to Tamils failed because the rulers of Sri Lanka did not have the courage of conviction or vision to resolve it politically. On the other hand, it was used for political gains that culminated in the 1983 pogrom. After 1983 Tamil politicians lost their credibility and militants grew in strength as a visible alternative for the people.

Due to the spontaneous surge of public opinion after the 1983 violence, the Tamil militants found refuge and succour in India and grew in strength in the 90s. At the same time, India made repeated efforts to help Sri Lanka resolve the issue peacefully. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord 1987 was the culmination of such efforts. While it did not wholly satisfy the Tamils or Sinhalas, it met most of their aspirations and provided room for development of goodwill between the populations. However, it failed to resolve the issue because LTTE did not accept it and the Sri Lanka did not implement it in letter and spirit. LTTE had its own agenda for the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam and the ambition to emerge as the sole leader of Tamils. Indian troops were involved in armed conflict with LTTE in a bid to disarm them as per the Accord, and managed to restrict LTTE activity to a small area.

However, President Premadasa for his own political gain colluded with LTTE to get the Indian troops evicted. Thus after sacrificing 1255 lives of its own soldiers in the aborted endeavour in Sri Lanka, India has perhaps realised that ultimately Sri Lankans only have to resolve the issue in their own wisdom. At the same time, those who hold India responsible for Sri Lanka's maladies, should not be forgot that in India there is a large Tamil population with strong political and economic clout in the national scene. As they have living links with Sri Lanka Tamils, the political and military shocks of Sri Lanka situation will echo in Tamil Nadu. And to certain extent it will condition Indian attitudes towards Sri Lanka. This is inevitable in democratic polity, and has to be factored in building relations between the two countries. It is in the national interest of both the countries not to allow parochial considerations to overtake rational judgement.

(b) It would be futile for any country to expect another country to resolve a national problem. Each nation has its own self interest and national priorities; so it is in the national interest of Sri Lanka to try and resolve its problem, consciously with the help of other nations, if need be. For any solution to succeed all the people of the country should have a say. Then only national ownership of the solution and its faithful implementation are possible. If another country works out a solution and leads in implementing it, the effort could fail due to suspicion among the population as Indian experience of 1987-90 had shown.

7. Why are foreign countries (including the Four Co-chairs and India) ganging up against Sri Lanka? Are they trying to thrust their solution or perpetuate the crisis situation in Sri Lanka to serve their own self-interest or global agenda?

All countries in the world have their own interests and agendas. Often these dictate their foreign policy perceptions. Sri Lanka also has its own national agenda and interest and successive governments have tried to prosecute it in their own wisdom. So it is unrealistic to interpret international relations in black and white as Us Vs Them. They are usually in the realms of grey. Nations handle international issues with a mix of national interest and international accommodation to build a win-win situation.

However, after 9/11 there is a genuine desire among global community to join hands to crush terrorism on an international basis. In conflict zones, international effort to usher in peace through mediation is part of this desire. It would be trivialising this effort on perceived secret agenda of global powers. Such accusations also do not give credit to the goodwill Sri Lanka enjoys among nations. This was the reason for so many nations to underwrite the development package for Sri Lanka as a part of the international mediation effort. Sri Lanka will dissipate this fund of international goodwill if xenophobia is allowed to take over and international opinion is totally disregarded.

8. Tamil Nadu supports LTTE.

Sri Lanka Tamils enjoy a great deal of sympathy and evoke fraternal feelings in Tamil Nadu. It is true the Tamil struggle for autonomy also finds wide support in Tamil Nadu. However, this does not translate automatically into support for the creation of independent Tamil Eelam. Tamil militant groups including the LTTE enjoyed widespread support in Tamil Nadu till the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord 1987 came into force. There were a number of reasons why the Tamil militants particularly the LTTE do not enjoy such support now. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was welcomed in the State. However, the decision of the Government of India to employ Indian troops to disarm LTTE and get involved in a long drawn war in Sri Lanka was not popular. LTTE failed to cash on this advantage by carrying out its turf war in Tamil Nadu even after the pull out of Indian troops. LTTE killed leaders of other Tamil militant groups in Indian soil. Tamil Nadu politicians' reputation got sullied in these heinous acts for various political and non-political reasons.

LTTE's assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a popular national leader in Tamil Nadu in 1991 was the final straw that dashed the public support for Tamil militants and LTTE . Since then LTTE never regained the clout it enjoyed in the 90s.

The pro-LTTE political parties of Tamil Nadu are small and have only pockets of strength. Even they only pay lip service to the LTTE because it does not help vote bank politics. If Tamil civilians suffer at the hands of Security Forces in Sri Lanka, as it is happening frequently now, it will provide the opening for pro-LTTE parties to enlarge their constituency using the plight of Tamils rather than LTTE's war as the rallying call.

9. The Tamil issue can only be solved militarily, because Sinhala chauvinists will never allow Tamils to live peacefully. Why object to it?

There are three reasons why this problem can never be solved even if theoretically Eelam is created with force of arms.

(a) Majority of the Tamils live outside the geographical region of Tamil Eelam made up of north and east. If Tamils 'solve' the problem militarily, what will be the fate of those Tamils? If Tamils cannot tolerate Sinhalas and Muslims in their territory (as done by LTTE, which evicted them), how can they expect others to tolerate Tamils in their midst? Outside the north and east (even in the east to some extent) the Tamil community is dispersed and live as minorities. So to partition the country only on linguistic basis is not realistic. So military 'solution' will only perpetuate the Sinhala-Tamil hostility rather than solve the problem.

(b) Militarily it does not make sense. Being a minority of less than a fifth of Sinhalas, it will be perpetual drain on Tamils to retain their military 'conquests'. Israel surrounded by a large Arab population that has made a common cause with Palestine is a good example of a militarised nation. Israel despite its global money power, strong support and muscle power of the U.S, and the West does not enjoy the privileges of a peaceful nation.

(c) Both Sinhala snf Tamil populations are tired of the prolonged armed conflict. Most of them would like to lead a normal life with social security, employment opportunities and peaceful family life. Over the last decade there had been a better understanding of the Tamil grievances among Sinhalas. However, political expediency of Sri Lanka politics has resulted in the use of the Tamil issue as a ploy to capture power. As a functional democracy support of majority of the population is needed to support any peace formula. Fortunately, Sinhala and Tamil chauvinists form only a small minority of the population. So Tamils and Sinhalas have to shelve their historical suspicions and try and work out a win-win situation. There is no other alternative.

10. LTTE is invincible; it was able to take on Indian army as well as the Sri Lanka forces. So why bother with peace talks?

No force is invincible. And LTTE is no exception. It is true the LTTE has grown in power and strength over the years. It had learnt its lessons after suffering heavy losses during 1987-90, when it had to collude with President Premadasa to get out of a desperate fight for survival with Indian army. Its operational performance on a number of occasions against Indian army and the Sri Lanka forces had shown that it was not invincible. Its performance in 2006 in operations has not been good. In any case, their victories and bloodlettings have not enhanced the chances of achieving an independent Tamil Eelam. LTTE itself knew this when it signed the Oslo declaration. There it had compromised on Tamil Eelam by agreeing to find a solution within a united Sri Lanka. This was a pragmatic decision because the emerging international counter terrorism regime was getting tough to beat. More countries than ever before have now banned LTTE. As the support from Tamil Diaspora gets throttled, LTTE's fighting capability will be affected because waging war is a costly proposition; and war produces diminishing returns. Already it has lost the east, and is fighting with it's back to the wall to retain its hold in the north.

11. LTTE represents the Tamils. So why bother about other Tamil organisations?

No. LTTE is not representative in character as understood in a democracy. LTTE has assumed the mantle of representing the Tamil constituency after liquidating a large number of Tamil political leaders, intellectuals, and militants of other Tamil groups. LTTE has never allowed the public to critically question or debate its views and actions.

It is least tolerant of dissent among its own cadres. (Karuna is a recent example of this aberration.) Its vision is a vague autocratic socialist regime somewhat on the lines of Baath socialism (like Syria and Iraq under Saddam Hussain). Essentially a militant organisation, it has never participated in an election under its own banner, giving up its armed power. However, in the present context it does represent the military capability of a large section of Tamils who use it to guide their political decision-making. As the most powerful and dominant Tamil movement at present, LTTE has an important role to play in evolving a solution. But a lasting solution can only be evolved when the State and LTTE agree upon a structure of state where everyone including Tamils who do not agree with LTTE's political and social perceptions, have an equitable role to play. LTTE and Tamils have to come to terms with this reality; otherwise Tamils will never enjoy the fruits of democracy.

Col. R Hariharan, an intelligence specialist on South Asia, is a retired Military Intelligence officer. He served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.

- Asian Tribune -

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