Its “no war, no peace” in Sri Lanka
Syed Ali Mujtaba
There are two important developments to note that may have bearing on the future course of the Tamil ethnic quagmire in Sri Lanka. One is the “Throne Speech” made by new Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, outlining the policy statement of his government at the opening session of Parliament on 25 November 2005. The second is the annual “Heroes’ Day” speech by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader V. Prabhakaran on November 27, 2005.
The new Sri Lankan President made a policy shift when he made it clear that his government would address the Tamil national question within the unitary framework of Sri Lanka. The LTTE supremo on the other hand, in his annual “Heroes Day” speech reiterated that he would not compromise on its demand of maximum degree of autonomy for the north and eastern region of Sri Lanka, the traditional homeland of the Tamils.
In wake of the irreconcilable approach of the two leaders all indication point that Sri Lanka is sliding back towards civil war. The question is can Sri Lankan government start the war to tame the Tamils? The answer is unlikely as this would be disastrous for economy that’s galvanized due to three years of sanguine peace. The other question is, will the frustrated LTTE start the war? The answer again is unlikely as this may tantamount to taking on those who are waging a war against global terrorism. So what is the future scenario? Well its a typical no war, no peace situation in Sri Lanka!
Rajapaksa in his speech says that he would strive for safeguarding Sri Lanka's sovereignty, territorial integrity, unitary nature of the state and the people's national identity, in a pluralistic system for the maximum devolution of power within an undivided sovereign democratic republic.
He further adds, instead of the concepts of traditional homelands and self-determination that allow an ethnic group to break away from the Republic of Sri Lanka, he will ensure for all communities, including Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, freedom to exercise all the rights enshrined in the Constitution - including the right to live in any part of Sri Lanka as entire territory is the homeland of all communities.
Sri Lankan President’s next submission is all citizens would be treated as equal before the law and no citizens will be discriminated on account of ethnicity, caste, religion, sex, political beliefs or place of birth. He promises to take steps to ensure freedom of conscience, religious freedom including the right of all citizens to embrace any religion or faith.
The Sri Lankan president says his government will give the highest priority to launch a new peace process to usher in a lasting peace in the country. For this he says he is ready to have direct talks with the LTTE but the political solution should be based on a consensus reached through discussions among all parties and approved by the majority of the people of the country.
Outlining his roadmap to the peace process, the new Sri Lankan president says, he would initiate a new peace process in which all parties involved in the crisis will participate. He lays emphasis to pay special attention to ensure Muslim's representation in peace talks. Rajapaksa says he would like to invite the Sri Lanka’s main opposition party to participate in the peace talks. The President sums up saying, the peace talks will be pursued openly and transparently and a broad consensus would be reached within a definite time frame.
In contrast to the Sri Lankan President’s speech, the “Heroes’ Day” speech of V. Prabhakaran, third since the LTTE signed the ceasefire agreement with the United National Front (UNF) government in February 2002 signifies frustration. The LTTE supremo declares; “We cannot continue to be entrapped in a political vacuum without an interim solution or a permanent settlement, without a stable peace and without peace of mind.... We cannot continue to live in the darkness of political uncertainty, without freedom, without emancipation, without any prospects for the future. There are borderlines to patience and expectations. We have now reached the borderline.”
The LTTE leader appealed to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government to return to talks on the basis of its proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) in the North and East. “If some elements of our proposals are deemed problematic or controversial,” Prabhakaran implored in his speech, “these issues can be resolved though discussions at the negotiating table.”
Prabhakaran ended his speech with a veiled threat to return to armed conflict and a plea to “concerned international governments to understand LTTE’s predicament and prevail upon the Sri Lankan government to resume peace talks based on its fair and reasonable stand.”
In his speech, Prabhakaran devoted considerable effort to convince the “international community” that the LTTE was committed to talks but the “stumbling block” was Colombo. He branded the new Sri Lankan government as “an unholy alliance of incompatible parties articulating antagonistic and mutually contradictory views and policies on the Tamil national question.”
When the LTTE signed the ceasefire three years ago in 2002, there was lot of optimism generated for a negotiated settlement on the Tamil ethnic question of Sri Lanka. The LTTE pulled out of talks in April 2003 after a series of naval provocations by the Sri Lankan military and the failure to achieve any limited, progress on preliminary issues. As the price for restarting negotiations, it demanded that the establishment of an interim administration in the North and East under its hegemony and after protracted negotiations with the UNF government it submitted its ISGA plans in November 2004.
Within days of the LTTE demand made public, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who along with the military and Sinhala chauvinist groups such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) had been agitating against the UNF government’s peace process, seized control of three key ministries and imposed a state of emergency in Sri Lanka. The protracted political standoff ended when she finally dismissed UNF in February, precipitating elections in April 2005, in which her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) won the majority in alliance with the JVP. Since Kumaratunga after being president for two terms was not eligible to contest the election her nominee, Mahinda Rajapaksa, became new president of Sri Lanka.
Analyzing the speeches of Mahinda Rajapaksa and V Prabhakaran suggest that both the leaders face an irreconcilable dilemma that could not be resolved. The new Sri Lankan president faces the dilemma where if he makes any concessions to the LTTE it would undermine the ideology of Sinhala nationalism on which the Sri Lankan state has rested since its inception in 1948. JVP, the Sinhala chauvinist group, has already threatened to quit the ruling UPFA if any negotiations take place on the ISGA.
The dilemma of Prabhkaran is even worst. If makes any concessions to Colombo to restart negotiations, he faces a further undermining of his position within his community and heightened tensions in his organization. Prabhakran authority has become shaky ever since the open revolt of its eastern military commander V. Muralitharan, better known as Karuna, alleging that the “northern” leaders were monopolizing the privileges and ignoring the needs of the east.
Prabhakran therefore is desperate for the implementation of the ISGA that would give LTTE an upper hand in the administration of eastern and northern provinces and an increased control over foreign aid to the region. It would also provide the much-needed boost to his dwindling authority.
However, in wake of categorical rejection of the ISGA, the LTTE chief has little options. He cannot revert to warpath particularly in post 9/11 situation as that would tantamount to taking on those engaged in global war against terror. It can be said of Sri Lankan president too. In wake of LTTE chief’s insistence on ISGA to be the basis of talks, peace talks cannot start on his own terms. If he chooses warpath to tame the Tigers, it would be economically ruinous for the country. The net result these inherent dilemmas is a dangerous stalemate. Its ‘no peace, no war’ situation in Sri Lanka.
The author is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org