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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2786

Getting the message

By Dayan Jayatilleka

History shows that peace is not always better than war, and a low intensity war is not always preferable to a decisive, all out one. However in our specific conditions, it is better to prevent a full-scale war. And it is imperative that we face such a war (if it is imposed upon us) later rather than sooner and with the world on our side rather than against us or adopting a neutral posture.

The Government of Sri Lanka is right to send a delegation to Oslo, under its exceedingly able head of the Peace Secretariat Dr Palitha Kohona ( who is doing a much better job than his distinguished predecessor was permitted to by the then president, with her Tiger-related advisors) for the June 8-9 talks on strengthening the monitoring dimension.

Monitoring is intrinsically valuable as a tripwire against full scale conflict. Both sides are likely to behave better if they know that the monitors would expose to full international view, aggression on the part of either. The side deemed the aggressor will be isolated internationally, while the defender will gain international support. There is no downside for Sri Lanka, since it has never initiated any of the wars that have erupted on our soil. I would therefore commend a qualitative augmentation of the SLMM, in terms of numbers, equipment and reach.

Reading the Signals

The EU ban and accompanying resolution, and even more importantly the Co-Chairs statement, have clearly signalled the belligerents as to how they stand in the eyes of the world. What makes this crucial is that neither side can win a war with its own resources. Prabhakaran can make impressive military gains but he cannot obtain recognition for those gains or prevent them being rolled back (he lost Jaffna in 1995 and failed to regain it in 2000), if the Sri Lankan armed forces, however battered, get significant external support.

The world has sent him a clear signal: renounce terrorism and violence and accept the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. In short, renounce terrorism, violence and secessionism, and campaign by non-violent means for a solution within a united (not unitary) Sri Lanka. If Prabhakaran eschewed violence and switched to a non-violent struggle for federalism, no one would fault him and indeed he might be supported. But then again, if he did that, Prabhakaran would not be Prabhakaran and the Tigers would not be the Tigers. This is not some Sinhala militarist prejudice. Oxford don Andrew Sinclair, author of the pioneering ( 1970) Fontana Modern Masters book on Che Guevara, describes Prabhakaran in his recent volume, Anatomy of Terror: A History of Terrorism, as “more extreme than Bin Laden”.

Thus Prabhakaran will not get the message that last week’s events send out. (Veteran Prabhakaran watcher MR Narayan Swamy confirms this in a recent commentary).Those events were the EU ban and the failure of the demonstration launched by the pro-Tiger elements of the Tamil Diaspora. Any liberation or guerrilla movement that is on the homestretch to victory, gathers widening international sympathy, support and legitimacy. This is true of both the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions. Prabhakaran’s trajectory has been in entirely the opposite direction, culminating in the ban by the EU.

He has failed the second test too: when a movement is within reach of victory, it is manifested in the street, with huge demonstrations of support and solidarity. The LTTE was unable to make any impact whatsoever in the global media, by its demonstrations. The sole report I read mentioned several hundred demonstrators in all of Europe, with barely one hundred in Stockholm! Thus, there has been a dramatic shrinkage of the LTTE’s mobilizing power among the Diaspora.

This does not mean that Prabhakaran has no cards up his sleeve. His bets are on Tamil Nadu, or rather, on the Sinhalese! He is hoping that he can goad extremists within and outside the armed forces to kill more Tamil civilians, which in turn will bestir Tamil Nadu politicians, especially Mr Karunanidhi, who will pressurize Delhi, which will indicate to its new partners the US and the West, that the Sri Lankan government and Southern public should be left to their own devices. Mr Prabhakaran’s calculation may not be entirely unintelligent. Whether it is so, depends on how intelligent or unintelligent the Sri Lankan state and society prove to be.

Simply put, everything depends upon whether or not we get the message that the world is sending us, and whether we act on it in time. If we do, we shall either have peace, because the Tigers will be deterred by the global support that accrues to us, or we shall be able to prevail over Prabhakaran if he launches a full scale war of aggression, because we can leverage external support.

If the international consensus on the LTTE is clear, then so too is the consensus as concerns the Sri Lankan side. Globally, there is zero-tolerance of Tamil civilian casualties, and the world expects the Sri Lankan government too to adopt such a policy as manifested in the cessation of extrajudicial killings and the prosecution of those who have been involved in them so far. The world community holds that the Tamil people, recognized as distinct from the Tigers, have legitimate grievances and aspirations which must be addressed by “dramatic” reforms of the state structure. This means that there must either be a shift from the unitary to the federal/semi-federal or, at the least a shift within the unitary state to a system of regional autonomy through enhanced devolution.

Political vacuum

What is most distressing in the present situation is that for the first time in a quarter century, (certainly over two decades), the Sri Lankan state has no devolution proposals for the political resolution of the Tamil issue, which means there is a political vacuum, with nothing concretely on offer even for Tamil moderates.

The JR Jayewardene administration discussed District Development Councils with the TULF’s Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam in 1980, and the amalgamation of district councils with Indira Gandhi’s special envoy G Parthasarathy (the famous Annexure C) and at the All Parties Conference of 1984. But Colombo seriously committed to devolution only in late 1985, when after the failure of the Thimpu talks, Harry Jayewardene agreed in Delhi, to the province as the main unit of devolution. Mid-1986 saw the Political Parties conference (PPC) which produced a detailed blueprint for provincial autonomy. The Indo-Lanka accord followed in 1987, with the accompanying 13th amendment in 1988. President Premadasa’s all parties conference took place in 1990-91, feeding into the parliamentary select committee which produced the Mangala Moonesinghe formulae of de-merger in exchange for federalism or the linkage by an apex council, of the two provinces. President Kumaratunga produced three drafts for substantive autonomy, in 1995, 1997 and 2000.

The Government of Sri Lanka seems to have got the point made by the world community, as evidenced by the President’s opening remarks at Friday’s APC and a preceding GOSL statement on the Richard Boucher visit which enunciates a policy of ‘maximum devolution within an undivided Sri Lanka’. (One notes the absence of the term “unitary”). If however the All Parties Conference (APC) is engaged in that enterprise, then a definite and compressed time frame to reach consensus precisely on ‘maximum devolution within an undivided country’ must be agreed upon. The ‘window of opportunity’ which the President noted and drew the APC’s attention to, cannot, by definition, be utilized by an open ended process!

We need devolution of such magnitude, delivered through the legislature with such speed, as to (a) neutralise/pre-empt Tamil Nadu (b) shift India off the fence to a posture of active support for Sri Lanka (interdiction of Sea Tiger supply ships) and (c) motivate the US into giving us satellite intelligence, dedicated ground attack aircraft and attack helicopters.

Surely that is not too onerous a task? In a recent article in the Daily News, Prof Lakshman Marasinghe reiterated his formula by which quite considerable autonomy within the unitary framework could be obtainable by a 2/3rd majority in parliament ( and without a referendum). While striving for such support at the APC, the Government should also consult its own Minister Douglas Devananda and the Deputy Secy Gen of the SCOPP, Kethesh Loganthan, an expert on the Indo-Lanka accord, the 13th amendment and devolution, on a fast-track Plan B, to enhance the powers of the existing provincial councils with a simple parliamentary majority and Presidential fiat. A recent issue of The Economist (London) ran a lengthy story of devolution and ‘home rule’ in Scotland. The Scottish experience should be another point of reference for the Government. (One of the president’s men is already a scholarship-holding political science postgraduate at the University of Edinburgh.)

The Prabhakaran Plan

The world community has passed strictures on the Karuna group and ‘violent elements of the EPDP’. These criticisms could have been avoided by more mindful targeting and timing. Let Prabhakaran reveal himself the aggressor. Karuna must not let himself be misperceived as a spoiler, who is provoking Prabhakaran.

Prabhakaran does not need the world on his side in order to launch and successfully prosecute a military offensive or to continue a protracted war of attrition that would bleed us dry economically. He would count on attacks on Sinhala civilians and the activity of his civilian militia to draw the wrath of the Sri Lankan forces onto Tamil civilians in general. This would activate the Tamil Nadu factor. Then he would unleash his regular forces, including his crack units, in a battle plan long-honed and rehearsed during the years of the ceasefire agreement. (This is not so much the fault of the CFA, lopsided as it is, as that of the Sri Lankan side which did not engage in the same preparations, and did not even equip its navy with the firepower it needed!). This battle plan would doubtless entail attacks on Sinhala civilians in the East to overstretch our troops, and Black Tiger strikes in the cities.

The International Factor

While Prabhakaran does not need the world on his side to wage a war, we on the other hand, do. The Sri Lankan state needs the world community for economic sustenance and military supplies. It needs the outside world to survive as a state with its present borders and a presence embracing the island as a whole. Arguably it needs the world system in order to survive as a viable state as such.

This in turn requires paying heed to the voice of the international community. The Co-chairs represent major centres of world power: the USA, Europe and Japan. India is outside, but the Indian view is plainly discernible: it has declined to sign a defence agreement, failed to give us any heavy weaponry and is pronouncedly insistent on a political settlement of Tamil grievances along the lines of India’s own quasi-federalism. Thus India cannot be used as an Asian counterweight against the Western imperialist Co-Chairs, as those illiterate in international affairs were wont to advocate.

That leaves Russia and China, but the statements in recent months by both these countries were of the blandest, most non-committal sort. I have long been a strong advocate of a high level outreach to Russia and China, and the Shanghai -6 (the Security Co-operation Organization) of which they are the core, but that is for the purpose of defence procurement. Neither Russia nor China will go against a Western and Indian consensus on Sri Lanka and it is debatable whether they can re-supply us without the cooperation of India. Such cooperation inevitably requires devolution.

Today, dangerously, for the first time in a long time, there is nothing as yet by way of devolutionary reforms actually on the table, (or even on the menu). Dangerously, because the international community is running out of patience and has put us on notice. Prabhakaran does not need the active support of the world community, but we do. All he needs is to prevent the world community from actively supporting us. This however is something that is not in Prabhakaran’s power! It is in ours: only we can prevent the international factor from working in our favor.

The decisive factor, the key variable in the struggle between Prabhakaran’s Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan state will be the international factor. Sri Lanka is at a crucial turning point. All sides, the Tigers and the GOSL, the Tamils and the Sinhalese, the pro-Tiger Tamils and the anti-Tiger Tamils, as well as the Muslims, have decisive choices to make. As far as world opinion goes, we are all in the dock. Or the last chance saloon.

- Asian Tribune -

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