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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2678

To ban or not to ban the LTTE: Is Sri Lanka caught between a rock and a hard place?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The Sri Lankan ethnic conflict that has taken many twists and turns over the years and again it has taken another twist with the attempted LTTE’s suicide attack on the Defense Secretary Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksha. The Sri Lankan government is reportedly considering many punitive actions, including the banning of the LTTE and ceasing all contacts with them. Whether this is possible or not, and whether it is desirable or not is a matter for the Sri Lankan government which has been placed in the proverbial "between the rock and the hard place" situation by the LTTE.

While acknowledging the difficult situation that the government has been placed in, it needs to consider the likely costs and benefits that will accrue as a result of a decision, either to ban them or not to ban them. Needless to say, many analysts agree that the LTTE has demonstrated no interest in seeking a peaceful solution to this conflict, and at every turn, they have persisted in strengthening their military capability whenever successive Sri Lankan governments attempted to move in the direction of peace with them.

The flawed ceasefire agreement they signed with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and the surreptitious back door activity they engaged in bringing in more arms and ammunition was a good example of their duplicity. The Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka has confirmed this with statistics to show what the LTTE did under the guise of the ceasefire, and very likely under the nose of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. The LTTE has demonstrated without any doubt that they are not a serious partner to deal with in seeking a political solution to the conflict. In such circumstances, the Sri Lankan government cannot be blamed if they decide to ban the LTTE and cease all contacts with them.

However, a decision to ban the LTTE will raise two key questions. Firstly, whether the Sri Lankan government has an alternative strategy in place to seek peace and whether they have identified another partner or partners to discuss a political solution. The second question is whether the Sri Lankan government has worked out the likely fall out arising from imposing a ban on the LTTE, and whether they should muster more international support to impose a wider, more universal ban.

Sadly, answers to either or both of these questions will have a common thread. That is, both will result in an increase in violence as the LTTE, true to their standard tactics will resort to suicide bombings and more attacks on the Sri Lankan armed forces. This inevitability will require the Sri Lankan government to be well prepared to meet such a challenge. Such preparedness has to include wider international condemnation of the LTTE and their tactics.

A flaw in the governments approach will be if they attempt to seek greater international support without offering a political solution to the more moderate Tamils in consultation with moderate democratic Tamil political parties. Despite the government’s avowed desire and intention of seeking a political solution to the conflict, there is no evidence that they have identified and are working with alternate partners amongst the Tamil community to work out a political solution.

The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) includes fringe Tamil political parties but not the TULF, the largest Tamil democratic political party in Sri Lanka, because they do not have representation in the Parliament. And they do not have representation because the LTTE prevented them from having it by getting their proxies, the TNA, elected instead by stealth. The Sri Lankan government has to commence discussions with the TULF officially and along with other democratic political parties including the TMVP, and present a political solution for the people of Sri Lanka to discuss and vote at a referendum. The LTTE will reject whatever solution that is announced and they will increase violent reprisals. This is inevitable as they do not want peace. The Sri Lankan government, along with other democratic political parties, Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil, must brace themselves and counter LTTE activity by seeking international support, which they are bound to get if a just and fair political solution is agreed upon by the democratic political parties. It will be travesty of justice and fair play if the international community abandons the Sri Lankan democratic forces if they come to an agreement on a political solution.

The key issue therefore is a political solution that is acceptable to all communities, and this is the only way to marginalize the LTTE. One can and should be generous in saying that everyone in the LTTE may not necessarily be in agreement with the methods they are using to achieve their demands, and that such people would support a widely acceptable political solution that is fair by all communities and is sustainable. In saying the LTTE should be marginalized, it needs to be understood therefore that it is the hard core extremists within it that needs to be marginalized as they are the ones who are leading their violent, inhuman campaign and who would not brook any opposition from others who have ideas different to theirs.

Whilst this is a brave ask, it is certain that there are people within the outfit who have supported the hard core extremists willingly or by force, due to the absence of any other solution that they could have considered and supported. This is true of moderates within the LTTE (if such a thing is possible!) and also amongst scores of moderates within the broader Tamil community. However, an important principle that all Tamil moderates as well as the extremist Sinhala forces should realize and accept is that any solution has to meet the legitimate interests of all communities and that such an acceptance will require all communities to make compromises in order to achieve a consensus on a political solution. The much touted argument today that the LTTE should be defeated militarily will not automatically usher in a peace nor will it result in a political solution. The reason for this is that the LTTE will not die as a result of any military activity, but may fade away for a while, unless the reason for their existence is eliminated. The cancer, as mentioned by some, may be the LTTE, but the absence of a political solution is what is feeding it and helping it to grow.

In this context, if an answer is sought to the second question posed earlier about the fall out arising from a ban on the LTTE, it may be said that pretending the LTTE does not exist or even inflicting a military defeat, if this is all possible, does not yield a long term advantage to the Sri Lankan government unless the reason for their existence is eliminated. Sections of the Sinhala and Muslim community may wish to believe there is no “Tamil” problem, or may even pretend there is no such problem, but they will do so only at their peril, and unfortunately everyone else’s, as there is a problem that needs to be addressed. There will be disagreements and differences of opinion on the extent of the problem but there should not be disagreements on the fact that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Certainly President Rajapaksha, Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe and some other politicians have accepted this, while others unfortunately may still profess a view that there is no problem to address.

This is why all democratic political parties should have an open mind on this issue, discuss what is possible and not possible, compromise where needed and find consensus on a political solution that has as a central plank, how the solution will address the Tamil “problem” , without impacting negatively on the legitimate interests of the other communities. The Sri Lankan government also has to consider whether a decision to impose a ban on the LTTE locally will yield benefits. Considering the strength of the Tamil Diaspora that is supporting the LTTE, a local ban may in fact help their cause as they would be in a position to use their gullible international supporters to spread misinformation and falsehoods about the Sri Lankan government and its armed forces. In this context, it would be more advisable for the government to spend their energies to widen the international ban on the LTTE, and even move to ban them at the UN so that more and more countries could exert pressure on the Tamil Diaspora not to support the LTTE. However, none of these tactics will be effective unless a just and fair political solution to the conflict is already on the table as an alternative to the terrorism and violence practiced by the LTTE.

While the Sri Lankan government and other democratic political parties are contemplating what action they should take against the LTTE, they also need to consider several parallel activities that should take place simultaneously. Several analysts and writers have emphasised the need to find a political solution to the conflict as one of these key parallel activities along with whatever action that needs to be taken against the LTTE or even while engaging in discussion with them. These two activities should not be mutually exclusive and the Sri Lankan government should not wait until the LTTE is tamed or defeated in order to find a political solution. To the credit of the Rajapaksha government, it has to be said that they do appear to be following the parallel paths although there are some doubts whether they are as intent as they should be to find a political solution as a separate exercise to acting against the LTTE.

The other parallel activity the Sri Lankan government could engage in, and give much needed publicity nationally and internationally, is about genuine gestures of community reconciliation activity that has already been initiated to bring all communities closer to a Sri Lankan identity. Such activity, some of which may already be occurring but not given adequate publicity, should include policy and administrative decisions relating to implementing the parity of status given to the Tamil language as an official language in the country along with the Sinhala language, actions taken by the government to teach every student both official languages at school, and other community unifying measures taken by this government and its predecessors. Clearly, just enacting legislation in any of these areas is insufficient proof of government’s intentions to show that all communities are equal in every sense of the word. Administrative mechanisms to ensure laws passed are implemented in every corner of the country are the true measure of a government’s seriousness about giving real parity. In fact many analysts argue that although Tamil has been given equal official language status, no real action has been taken to implement this, as virtually all government departments still conduct their business in Sinhala (or English in some cases) and that government schools still do not teach Tamil to Sinhala students and vice versa. While some of these administrative measures cannot be put in place overnight, it is important to have long term plans to ensure they do happen within a reasonable period of time. This needs to be government policy.

Other measures to demonstrate community unity also needs to be looked at, especially measures that could be implemented within existing legislation, and others that need not be part of a comprehensive political solution to the conflict. One such key measure is introducing changes to the National Anthem which presently sung only in Sinhala. If ever there was a unifying factor to show the Tamils that they are equal with the Sinhalese, the Anthem would surely be at the top of the pile, and including verses in Tamil will bring communities closer and help to break some of the barriers that exist between the two communities. It would be an acid test to see how many Sinhala Sri Lankans will be agreeable to include and sing Tamil verses in the National Anthem of Sri Lanka, something they have asked Sri Lankan Tamils to do in Sinhala since independence without any consultation or agreement.

While everyone is focusing on the LTTE and how best they should be dealt with, many, including some members and supporters of the government appear to have overlooked the fact that there are several unifying measures that could be taken without waiting to do all that once a political solution is found to this conflict, and as argued by many, only after the LTTE is defeated militarily. This attitude is like a dog going in circles trying to catch its own tail. They forget that more Tamils live outside the North and the East and that these areas are under the full control of the government and they could implement whatever community unification decision they wish in these areas as parallel activities to dealing with the LTTE and trying to find that elusive political solution to the conflict.

- Asian Tribune -

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