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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2735

Sri Lanka: Back to chaos

By Vinod Vedi - Syndicate Features

The Sri Lanka Supreme Court ruling that the merger of the Tamil majority Northern and Eastern Provinces in 1987 is illegal and invalid has put the fat in the fire just when a resumption of peace talks between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was set for the end of October in Geneva. It undercuts the concept of a "homeland" for the embittered Tamils as envisioned in the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement as the via media to ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the island-state.

The LTTE, already suborned by the weaning away by the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party of its most charismatic guerrilla fighters –Colonel Karuna -- who was its mainstay in the Easterrn Province with a stronghold in Batticaloa region, thus finds that the territorial ambiance of the Tamil Eelam of its dreams has suddenly shrunk to a mere few hundred kilometres of the northern pinpoint of the teardrop shaped island.

Though President Mahinda Rajapakshe appears to have tried to control the damage by suggesting that the merger of the North and the East could yet be formalized by a referendum in the East as stipulated in the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement itself, the immediate fallout would only harden attitudes if the two sides do eventually sit down at the negotiating table in Geneva.

The Supreme Court ruling has also diverted attention away from the proposals for devolution of power to the Tamils as appeared to be the intention of the Government in its move to forge a "government of consensus" with the Opposition United National Party (UNP) of Ranil Wickremesinghe based on a six-point memorandum of understanding at the heart of which was how best to handle the "Tamil question".

Simultaneously, fighting has escalated to dreadful proportions with Government forces appearing to set up an assault towards Elephant Pass and Jaffna the centre point of the Northern Province. The LTTE retaliated with a tactic it knows best -- a suicide attack using an explosive laden bus ramming a convoy of troops on its way to positions close to Jafna More than a hundred were killed and scores were injured.

In an overt intention of demonstrating its ability to hit Government forces anywhere on the island, the Sea Tigers penetrated the defenses of the Galle harbor in the south-western segment of the island and perpetrated extensive damage. Observers expect that
sooner or later the LTTE will try to hit the Air Force whose Israeli aircraft (which at one time were suspected to be flown by Pakistani pilots and hence the car bomb attack on the Pakistani High Commissioner in Colombo some time ago) have hit LTTE positions with impunity.

The skirmishes on the ground are intended to gain maximum bargaining power at the negotiating tabled in Geneva before returning to fitful peace that had prevailed after the signing of the ceasefire agreement in 2002. Since coming to power last year President Rajapakshe wooed the Sinhala hard-line parties with which he strengthened a coalition government.

The Sri Lanka Government's operations against the LTTE were seen to be an attempt to please the Sinhala right wing parties which formed part of his coalition (because the President was able to muster only a thin majority at the last elections). The tactic of trying to forge a "government of consensus" with the more moderate elements as represented by leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP is in the process of being firmed up around a six-point memorandum of understanding.

President Rajapakse may have closed the gap by reaching out to the UNP but the 125 seats that both control still falls short by about 25 if Parliament is to be capable of effecting a Constitutional amendment to give the MoU legislative backing. Rajapakse thus continues to depend on the support of the hard-line Sinhala parties to be able to bring about changes in the Constitution which require two-thirds majority in the House.

The perception till the Supreme Court gave its ruling was that Ranil Wickremesinghe who is on record that the only way to resolve the ethnic crisis is through devolution would by joining the SLFP of President Rajapakshe would help engage the LTTE on anything short of secession would make it imperative that both sides agree to ceasefire as an interim measure.

That the LTTE needs time to recuperate its losses and re-arrange its strategy both military and political were seen to dictate that a return to ceasefire is imperative for all sides. The Supreme Court ruling has put a dangerouns kink to the situation on the ground.

President Rajapakshe's confidence that a referendum could repair the damage could be wishful thinking given that the demography of the Eastern Province has been drastically affected by the induction of Sinhala settlers to offset the Tamil numbers which in 1981 (before the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement) stood at about 40 per cent with Muslims (or Moors as they are called locally) making up 32 per cent and the Sinhalas were only 26 per cent.

There has been a coalition among the Muslims and the Sinhalas in the Supreme Court and their combined numbers are believed to have lent strength to the apex court's opinion. Using Sinhala settlers to change the political landscape apparently remains a useful tactic for the Sri Lanka Government and reports suggest that it is preparing to do the same to create a buffer around the Trincomalee harbour which is home to the World War II Allied petroleum storage depot which is currently being refurbished with the assistance of the Indian Oil Corporation.

The Sinhalas and the Muslims in the Eastern Province fear that if devolution takes places in the context of the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces they would be reduced to a minority given the combined Tamil populations of both provinces. Their perception is that a merger of the two provinces would form the bedrock for the creation of a breakaway Tamil nation.

That it is a palpable possibility was apparent even at the time the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement was signed. That is why India pressed for greater devolution of powers to the Tamils within the merged provinces. The Indian position very clearly discounted any support for a separate Eelam signs of which were apparent even at that time because the LTTE had begun to show a distinct aversion to cooperating with other Tamil political entities (which it later brutally eliminated to achieve a position of the pre-eminent Tamil grouping fighting for separation from Sri Lanka).

That some pro-LTTE politicians have voiced publicly that the Supreme Court ruling would compel the Tamils to secede seems to raise the specter of a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by the LTTE. However, such a move would immediately attract reprisals from the US, Canada and the European Union, which in a recent resolution called for a bold gesture of reconciliation incorporating a revision of the Constitution to define the State as a "secular, democratic republic in which all religions are respected".

The move would boomerang in much the same way as it did on the White racist regime of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) led by Ian Smith which did the same thing fearing the rising tide of Black political resurgence in Africa. That is why a return to a ceasefire appears to be the best option for both sides as the moment.

- Syndicate Features -

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