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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2643

Appeasement of Devolution?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

What we fear is the rhetoric of the dismissive approach, which is calculated to appeal to that segment of the Sinhalese electorate that constantly asks without desiring an answer, “We are mystified, come, explain to us what this Tamil problem is all about.” To them the history of ideologically inspired violence directed against the Tamils, an experience which guided their perceptions, does not exist. ‘Explain the Tamil problem’ approach was largely that of a group of persons who needed to be satisfied with writing newspaper articles. Rajapakse has now brought it back to the mainstream.

UTHR (Information Bulletin No. 39 – 1.11.2005)

The proposed talks between the Lankan government and the Tigers may or may not happen. But so long as we persist in sidestepping or delaying a political solution, so long as we fail to make adequate distinction between Tamils and Tigers in our military operations, the danger of yet another Tiger-helping peace process remains. It is no secret that there is tremendous international pressure on both the Lankan government and the LTTE to cease military operations and commence negotiations. It is also no secret that at this moment negotiations would be more helpful to the Tigers than to Sri Lanka. And even if this particular moment passes, there will be other moments such as this, when the Tigers use ‘negotiations’ to achieve some tactical objective. If we continue to move at a snails pace on the devolution track, if we persist in mishandling the human rights issue, the risk of another appeasement process will remain with us, an omnipresent Sword of Damocles over the state of Sri Lanka.

A policy of no-negotiations and zero-tolerance towards the Tigers can be justified internationally only if it is accompanied by a clear willingness to share power with the Tamils. In the absence of such a commitment, the government will have to keep at least a window open to the Tigers. This is best encapsulated in two recent Presidential pronouncements. In his UN speech Mr. Rajapakse having correctly denounced Tiger terrorism, went on to say: "Our government firmly believes that terrorism cannot be eliminated through military means alone. We remain fully committed to talking with the LTTE either directly or through a facilitator". And in an interview with the BBC Sinhala Service in Havana (17.9.2006) he took this line to its inescapable conclusion: "I am going to give them (LTTE) a solution. They have to trust me. I have to trust them. We can say that we cannot trust them. But we have to trust them, at least"!

Tigers and Tamils

What we need is not to be committed to talking to the Tigers but to be committed to finding a political solution to the ethnic problem, with minimum delay. What we need is not to give the Tigers a solution but to give the Tamil people a solution based on democratic devolution. What we need is not to trust the Tigers but to trust the Tamils. If we cannot make a distinction between one and the other, if we persist in choosing the Tigers over and instead of Tamils, the future will not be more peaceful than the past or the present.

Many administrations – Sri Lankan and Indian - talked to the Tigers with no positive results. If Ranil Wickremesinghe could not satisfy the Tigers – and let us not forget that the Tigers broke off negotiations during his tenure, in May 2003 – then no one can.

However a political solution that can satisfy the moderate Tamils is a possibility and this should be the goal any responsible, reasonably intelligent government. This means negotiating with the democratic, anti-Tiger Tamil parties and groups rather than with the Tigers; with Messers Anandasangaree, Devananda and Karuna rather than with Mr. Pirapaharan. Given their willingness to settle for a united Sri Lanka, they, rather than the separatist-fascist Tigers, should be our obvious choice as Tamil counterparts in this necessary search for a political solution.

We cannot and should not trust the Tigers. Every leader – Lankan or Indian - who did so came to grief. Ranil Wickremesinghe is only the latest in a long line of leaders used and betrayed by the LTTE; Mr. Pirapaharan spared his life (he has his uses) but effectively killed his Presidential prospects. But the Tamil people can and must be trusted. A majority would want to remain within a united Sri Lanka, if they are given a reasonable devolution deal and treated decently. At this moment neither is happening. Sources as impeccable as the UTHR has reported, time and again, how Tamil refugees are given step-motherly treatment by the Lankan authorities. All too often Tamil civilians have been targeted in punitive counter-strikes by the Lankan Forces. It is this Sinhala supremacist mindset characterised by a visceral mistrust of the Tamils and an unwillingness to see them as citizens of Sri Lanka that needs to be abnegated. Such a paradigmatic shift is necessary for keeping this country together; on the other hands trusting the Tigers would be an act of foolhardiness which must be avoided at all costs.

If the history of the last one and a half decades teaches us one lesson above all others, it is that the Tigers cannot be given a solution. Every administration that tried to do so – be it Lankan or Indian – failed abysmally. And no wonder, given the LTTE’s maximalism and Mr. Pirapaharan’s total commitment to Tiger Eelam.

The Tigers deem even federalism inadequate (thus their rejection of the Oslo Agreement). They have proposed the ISGA, which is a euphemism for a de facto Tiger Eelam, as the minimum they are willing to discuss. Even in the heyday of the last peace process the LTTE very carefully refrained from renouncing the ultimate goal of a separate state. Consequently ‘giving the LTTE a solution’ will be a tough one even for a Ranil Wickremesinghe, let alone for a President who has committed himself to the continuance of the unitary state. The end result will be a political stalemate, enabling the LTTE to justify its existence (and even some of its atrocities) in the eyes of the Tamil and international communities.

It can be argued that the above mentioned statements were made by the President to satisfy the international community and therefore need not be taken all that seriously. Perhaps. However that does not explain why he made no reference either to the ethnic problem or to the need for a political solution in these interviews and speeches (I think even the term ‘devolution’ was absent). And in his NAM and UN speeches the President made use of the vague phrase ‘minority concerns’ – a term which can be given different interpretations to suit the palate of diverse audiences.

There is a reason why we keep going around the same Mulberry bush, why the world keeps on insisting on us going around the same Mulberry bush. And that is our inability to come up with a political package that can satisfy the moderate Tamil leaders and win over a majority of the Tamil community to our side. Given past experiences no regime can be faulted for moving cautiously in this matter. Mr Rajapakse has to find his way carefully, given the negative outlook and the destructive capacities of his hardline allies. What is not understandable is his failure to refer to the ethnic problem and a political solution based on the ethnic problem even for the purpose of satisfying international audiences. In fact the term ‘ethnic problem’ seems to have more or less disappeared from official government discourse – giving the impression of a policy shift on the part of the Rajapakse administration. (If a national government with the UNP actually happens, hopefully it will cause the regime to move to the centre on the devolution issue; unfortunately given the proclivities of Mr. Wickremesinghe what is likely is the usual confusion between Tamils; and Tigers and devolution and appeasement).

A Different Dialogue

So there is the LTTE; and there is a terrorist problem; but there is no ethnic problem. And if there is no ethnic problem, why bother with a political solution to the ethnic problem? Obviously the ‘Children of ‘56’, who all along held that Sri Lanka’s is not an ethnic problem but a terrorist problem, have triumphed. But that leaves us with the problem of the LTTE and the omnipresent possibility of being compelled to resume negotiations, under Norwegian supervision and probably on the basis of the 2002 CFA. Consequently, whenever the Tigers feel in need of a brief respite they can make vague offers to negotiate and the regime will have no choice but to play along - as is happening now – or risk being considered ‘the aggressor’.

It is the old story - of exchanging ginger for chillies. By refusing to commit ourselves to the possible task of coming up with a political solution to the ethnic problem that can satisfy the moderate Tamils, we have saddled ourselves with the impossible task of finding a ‘solution’ that can satisfy the LTTE. The Tigers are opposed to a political solution based on democratic devolution – inclusive of federalism – every bit as any Sinhala supremacist. A peace process with the LTTE can hold many dangers; but it can never lead to enhanced devolution. Therefore it is possible that the regime made this policy shift in order to circumvent the thorny issue of a political solution. The absence of enhanced devolution can keep the Sinhala supremacists happy while the oft repeated willingness to negotiate with the LTTE can keep the international community happy. Run with the hare and hunt with the hounds and buy time in the hope of a definitive military victory – this is probably the regime’s current strategy.

The LTTE can be defeated militarily; but only if we can win over the backing or at least the neutrality of a significant segment of the North-Eastern Tamils and of the international community. And this is impossible in the context of a (often punitive) war with scant respect for human rights and with no political solution to the ethnic problem in sight. In such a context, even though we can win some battles against the Tigers, we will not be able to win the war (after all the Tigers made a recovery even after losing Jaffna). And if the world thinks that we do not want to share power with the Tamils, then we will be compelled to talk to the Tigers, whether we like it or not. And despite the shrill cries of the JVP and the JHU, the President cannot afford to evict the Norwegians or tell the Co-Chairs to keep their opinions to themselves - at least not without paying a heavy price, such as risking a drastic reduction in international assistance. No country can be an island unto itself, certainly not if it is dependent on the outside world for many of its needs, as we are. And autarky, even assuming it is desirable, cannot be achieved overnight and will come at a heavy cost – to the populace, in terms of living standards, to the regime, in terms of political support and to the war effort.

As Col. Karuna stated in his interview with the Sunday Times (1.10.2006) "We have serious reservations as the forum (the All Parties Conference – TG) is not transparent and is limited in many ways. APC should have been given a mandate to consider anything more than the 13th Amendment to the constitution. Just imagine if the outcome of the APC is going to be district level devolution."

This is why we need to begin formal and official negotiations with democratic Tamils on a political solution within a united Sri Lanka. And this second political track will enable us to sidestep not only the pro-Tiger CFA but also the vexed issue of Norway by inviting India to act as its facilitator. But sans such an alternate political track involving democratic Tamils we will be compelled to talk to terrorist Tigers under the supervision of the pro-Tiger Norwegians. The choice before us is not some devolution and no devolution but democratic devolution and yet another appeasement process.

- Asian Tribune -

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