Is the ethnic war going to be re-fought?

By: Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby - An Opinion

So, finally, the inevitable took place; a general election is upon us where we have been asked to exercise our right to franchise as good citizens. It has however been argued convincingly by political scientists of repute that this election is essentially a constitutional act designed to outdo the UNF, which if given another year in office, would have been able to reap the rich harvest of the Ceasefire Agreement.

The Sri Lankan Tamil community also wants to join the rest of the country to clarify the issues involved through the electoral process. But at the same time it is worried about the outcome of the polls.

One is forced to face up to the reality that right from the time the Ceasefire Agreement was signed, extreme Sinhala opinion, especially that which was articulated by the JVP and sections of the SLFP, has been against it. It has been interpreted as a sell-out. What is more, right from the time the Agreement was initialled it was also severely criticised by a section of the state that too much was being conceded to the LTTE, resulting in a security problem for the country as well as one of maintaining territorial integrity.

The Sinhala print media, especially of the mainstream, carried on an incessant and virulent propaganda campaign that the government was giving away too much to the Tamils and that the Norwegians were aiding abetting such moves. Charges of duplicity against senior officials involved in the monitoring of the Ceasefire Agreement were openly made, culminating with the official in charge of the SLMM being recalled on a request of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. However, while the media and extremist Sinhala forces harped upon the inadequacy of the ceasefire there was virtually no attempt made to create a substitute agreement to which the Tamils could have assented. In fact that point was never even brought up. The JVP was in the forefront in the campaign against the ceasefire, which was also advocated by the Sihala Urumeya (SU), but their options and alternatives were not made clear.

The manner in which the JVP and SU criticised the efforts to monitor the ceasefire made the average Tamil wonder whether they wanted a resumption of war. Such suspicion on the part of the Tamils should be viewed in the perspective of there being no alternative suggestion made by these critics. The implicit argument, it seemed, was that the military solution should be prosecuted again.

The more respectable sections of the state however did not go to the extent of advocating that a rescinding of the Ceasefire Agreement would automatically result in war. This might have been due to various international pressures. Among these sections, the need for a ceasefire, even if the present one were to be cancelled, and indeed a peace plan were discussed. But there was absolutely no indication of the nature or character of the new memorandum of understanding they wanted.

All these groups could do was to cite the PA’s proposals presented in August 2000 for a new constitution based on a union of regions as an alternate to the present document (something the UNP opposed at that time, which the Tamils have not forgotten) but there was no substitute to the Ceasefire Agreement forthcoming.

On the part of the UNF government, initiatives taken following the signing of the agreement were more on talks on political questions than on rehabilitation. It is noteworthy that the Sri Lankan parliament did not allocate a single cent for rehabilitation and resettlement. If any monies were indeed allocated, they were part of the grants to members of parliament from the decentralised budget. And it should be said many MPs did utilise the monies given to them for rehabilitation work.

A feature of developments that followed the Ceasefire Agreement was the branding of all proposals made by the Tamils at the negotiating table and outside as “LTTE demands.” They were not thought to be demands made by affected Tamils. This attitude came across as extremely illogical to the Tamil mind because the talks were between the government on one side, and the LTTE, representing the Tamils, on the other. The LTTE was party to the Ceasefire Agreement and the TNA, representing the Tamil voter, insisted the talks should be held with the LTTE.

Finally there was even speculation about the automatic expiry of the peace process because of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s unwavering stand that unless the ministry of defence taken over by the president was returned, he would refrain from carrying forward the peace process. It was against this background that an initiative was taken for an alliance to be forged between the SLFP and the JVP – the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The MOU between the two parties was signed on 20 January this year.

This document too was not clear on how the ethnic question was to be resolved. The SLFP and the JVP had contrasting views about it. The overall tone of the MOU and the manner in which it was formulated seemed to advocate one core idea: the pancha maha pilivela indicated unambiguously that it was articulating a Sinhala-centrist position rather than a truly national one. The document’s stance on resolving the ethnic conflict was that it supported negotiating with all Tamil groups to resolve the ethnic conflict but did not lay down clearly how it is going to be done.

Soon after parliament was dissolved 8 February and the date announced for the next general elections, the JVP element of the UPFA or nidahas santhanaya was vehemently critical of the ceasefire initialled by Wickremesinghe and the LTTE. To anyone reading the Sinhala press or listening and watching the Sinhala electronic media it was clear that the dissolution had been done so that a group of representatives would be elected to ‘safeguard’ the security Island and its territorial integrity.

The JVP, it should be admitted, has a clean administrative record. In the districts of the Deep South, which it dominates, the party was very keen to see there were no allegations of corruption or nepotism. Therefore the message the JVP sought to convey, especially over the state electronic media, was that the polls on 2 April would throw up an incorrupt political grouping that is adequate to counter the challenges of the LTTE.

Once again however, Tamil demands have been completely downplayed and painted as those made by the Tigers. And what is of overwhelming interest in that the ISGA proposals of the LTTE were not even taken up for discussion, but summarily dismissed.

The need for infrastructure changes within the administration of the northeastern provincial council to effectively handle the rehabilitation process has also been completely ignored and no attempt has been made to demonstrate how the rehabilitation process is going to be administered.

There is a pervasive Tamil fear because the aspersions cast on the ceasefire that the provisions that constitute it will not be taken into consideration if the nidahas santhanaya returns to power. And given the santhanaya’s avowed stance that it would also speak to Tamil groups other than the LTTE on the resolution of the ethnic conflict, the position of the Tigers as the sole signatory to the Ceasefire Agreement from the Tamil side will be automatically diminished. What is more, rehabilitation needs of the Tamils will facilely painted as “LTTE demands” and the ISGA proposals disregarded.

There is also a vitally important but not openly discussed factor in the politics of the south. The unexpected demise of the Bikkhu Gangodawila Soma who was very harsh on the un-Buddhistic assumptions and values that were slowly eating into the Buddhist fundamentals of Sinhala-Buddhism, showed the Buddhist leadership how popular his ideas were among the laity. There is now an attempt to appropriate this into the rhetoric of the new Alliance, which could be a silent but guiding light to the pattern of voting. All these prompt a question that has become almost inescapable: is the war going to be re-fought with clean hands?

This fear is genuine. It becomes the responsibility of that generation of intellectuals who have been brought up within a tradition a shared and sharing culture to express and articulate this fear that is gripping the minds of the Tamils.

People who matter should clarify the position relating to the ceasefire and the rebuilding of the north and east. But while making this appeal to Sinhala brethren it becomes also one’s duty to pinpoint to the counterproductive electioneering tactics of certain major Tamil political parties. It is a matter of regret that the TULF, widely regarded the base and backbone of the TNA is being ripped apart on the question on how it is to function during the forthcoming election and after. The way the president and secretary of the TULF accuse each other over the foreign and local media makes it appear that the bloody war of 25 years involving the Tamils did not occur nor militant groups such as the LTTE, TELO, EPRLF etc. ever engage in war against the Sri Lankan state, or, indeed, ever existed. Regardless of this history of bloodshed, the TULF is worried about its candidates and election symbols!

They have not shown any understanding of the role function of the TNA in the context today’s politics. In fact, it should be admitted that except for a few young MPs the senior parliamentarians of the TNA never took the message of the suffering of the Tamils to the Sinhala public.

The bickering within the TULF is a symptom of the political apathy of the professional Tamil politician. It reflects an inability to grasp the underlying problem of Tamil politics but indulging in empty rhetoric. It was this type of insensitivity that made the rise of the militant groups inevitable. At a time when the UPFA and extremist Sinhala groups are questioning the validity of the Ceasefire Agreement and indeed the very basis of Tamil existence, it is regrettable that senior politicians of a well-established party are indulging in such pettiness.

In a way this also reveals the way whereby the Tamil public has been politicised in the past. Making the community alive to the needs and demands of the times has to be studied more seriously. The conventional and guerrilla modes of warfare waged by the two sides did not render much space for an open, popular dialogue on the concept of achieving on what the Tamils wanted. But the general feeling is that politicians who should be at the forefront of the struggle and play the role of opinion makers are now themselves split. It should be said however it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that internal and domestic compulsions alone have led to this disarray.

This type of confrontation would only strengthen hands of the opponents of the ceasefire and argue for its cancellation. One does not want to sound pessimistic, but the fact remains that neither the nidhahas santhanaya’s rhetoric or the parliamentary politics of senior Tamil politicians give any cause for satisfaction or confidence.

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