THE WAR IN SRI LANKA - An Analysis

Place: Sri Lanka | Date: 19970402

The April 2nd (1997) accord between two Sinhala parties, brokered by Britain, has received widespread publicity, critique, and above all, much hope. In the context of the past history, of these two electoral parties having played 'political football' with the Tamil rights, this should be seen as a positive move. It is so, despite reservations one might have about some aspects of this agreement, especially the meaning of the word ‘concurrence’ on which, in fact, the entire accord seems to hinge.

The Action Group Of Tamils in the US (AGOTUS) while welcoming this British initiative wishes to look at this move by one foreign government, in the larger context of recent actions by other governments, particularly in reference to the Tamil leadership.

Two of the LTTE representatives in the west are being prosecuted, in Canada and Switzerland. In the US, the State Department is toying with the idea of placing the LTTE on a list of ‘terrorist organizations.’ India has not only banned the LTTE on its soil, but actively harasses LTTE supporters. These are significant moves by different governments, and cannot be considered as isolated or low profile actions. It is believed that enormous efforts have gone into these, and decisions have come down from the highest levels.

While taking such vigorous actions against the LTTE, these governments have also called for a ‘negotiated settlement’ to the conflict. Indeed, many have offered publicly to facilitate, and even mediate such negotiations. This seemingly paradoxical stance of these governments - on the one hand promoting a negotiated settlement, while on the other actively trying to crush one of the parties to the conflict - may be accounted for in a variety of ways.

Let us look at each of these possibilities.

One possible explanation is that, these governments don’t have a good grasp of the problem and don’t see this contradiction. One arm of the government is concerned about the so-called ‘terrorist’ aspect of the problem, while the other is genuinely interested in a resolution with peace and justice for all. It is as simple as, the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. Governments do act in this manner, as we have seen even here in the US and elsewhere. Considering the high profile nature of these actions, however, this seems unlikely.

Another supposition is that these governments want the two parties, i.e. the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE, to enter into talks. According to this theory, the LTTE is being badgered merely to nudge them towards the negotiating table. The Sri Lanka government is also being nudged, but in this case ‘quiet diplomacy’ is being used instead of ‘open coercion.’ The problem with this theory is that, it is the LTTE that wants to negotiate and doesn’t need any nudging, and the Sri Lankan government is the party that is refusing to negotiate.

A third and a more plausible explanation is that these governments are truly trying to bring about a resolution, but without the LTTE. It is hoped by these governments that the so called ‘devolution package’ proposed by the government, and the relative acquiescence of the ‘other Tamil parties’, are conducive to an easy settlement. The only obstacle is the LTTE, and therefore every assistance must be provided to the Sri Lanka government, to not just merely weaken, but totally annihilate the LTTE. Once this is accomplished, the Sri Lanka government and the ‘other Tamil parties’ can conclude the matter to everybody’s satisfaction. This is the most plausible explanation for the seemingly paradoxical actions of these governments.

This logic also explains a number of definitive actions by these governments. In addition to harassing the LTTE on their own soils, they are also providing, both material and moral, assistance to the Sri Lanka government to fight the LTTE. US is providing military assistance to the Sri Lankan army, in material and training, while blithely maintaining that such assistance is ‘non-lethal.’ Britain sells arms to Sri Lanka, without even bothering to make such distinctions. India too assists the Sri Lankan army in a multitude of ways, such as joint patrols with the Sri Lankan navy, logistical support, etc. There are rumors of much greater (clandestine) assistance as well.

This is also why one of the worst human rights records anywhere in the world has not evoked befitting condemnation or action by these governments. In the case of disappearances, Sri Lanka ranks second only to Iraq for the last ten years. In the case of rape by government armed forces Sri Lanka is number one. The density of destruction with the use of sophisticated weaponry, aerial bombardment, artillery shelling, etc. is unparalleled. Half the Tamil population is displaced and forced to live in refugee camps; the bulk of their infrastructure is destroyed; and the entire population is subject to an inhuman embargo on food and medicine. Even the voluntary NGOs are blocked from providing assistance to the beleaguered civilian population. All under a rigid press censorship! But, in the view of these governments, it is necessary to overlook these for the 'greater good' that is to come. On the whole, this appears to be a well thought out strategy, uniformly and collectively adopted by a number of governments.

The question is, will this strategy, that has been in place now for nearly two years, really work? It is vital to know the answer, and know it early, because if it is likely to produce the desired results everyone should support it, and if not it must be changed. It is inhuman to let this tragedy, with all its attendant human suffering, to continue.

Before one delves into the prospects of this strategy succeeding, it is necessary to look at the reasons for these countries adopting this approach. Most conflict situations look differently from different angles, and the eye of the beholder largely influences the views. What is important to the parties in conflict is not necessarily the most significant to the outsider, especially when the outsider is also affected by it. These countries are affected by the conflict in Sri Lanka in more ways than one. They have had to take in the fleeing refugees - feed them, house them and educate the children, etc. at considerable cost. We at the AGOTUS are mindful of, and are indeed grateful for, the mostly responsible and the humane way in which these countries have treated the Tamil refugees. India especially has borne the brunt of this disaster. India has also had to deal with the political fall out in their own soil, with its large Tamil constituency and other secessionist movements, such as in Punjab and Kashmir.

The upshot of all this is that, the solutions these countries support are materially influenced by their own difficulties with the problem. What is good for the parties to the conflict, or even what is just, right and moral, has become secondary. They want a quick resolution and normalcy restored in Sri Lanka, so that they could return the refugees, and they see this strategy of a political solution between the Sri Lanka government and the ‘other Tamil parties’ (i.e. excluding the LTTE), as viable and desirable.

This takes us back to the question - will this strategy really work, or is it going to lead to prolongation of the war and more bloodshed? The conflict is a complex one, and therefore the manifold aspects of this problem need to be looked at.

Firstly, one needs to look at the question of whether the LTTE can be defeated militarily? This is important, because if the answer is in the negative, this strategy is sure to fail. Experience thus far, has shown that Sri Lankan army actions (the increase in the ferocity of which has been exponential) has not only failed to break the LTTE, but the LTTE today is actually stronger than ever before. There are several reasons for this (such as the widespread Tamil support), the most important of which is the fact that, it is a national liberation movement, "fighting for independence within the territory of its own homelands." Such movements have never been defeated anywhere in the world, and from all available evidence there is no reason to believe that the LTTE will be an exception.

The vast majority of Tamil people support the LTTE. They may not agree with everything that the LTTE does, but the overwhelming support for the LTTE is real. There is ample evidence to back-up this assertion. Half a million people leaving their homes to be with the LTTE (1995), in spite of the real danger of revenge attacks by the Sri Lankan army for doing so, is no small matter. It has been said that they did so out of fear of the LTTE, but to say that five hundred thousand people left their homes because LTTE had their guns pointed at them is obviously absurd.

The conduct of the Tamil Diaspora is another piece of evidence. They congregate in the tens of thousands in the capital cities all over the world to show their support for the LTTE. Every year during the last fifteen, there have been demonstrations and mass rallies in London, Toronto, Paris, New York, Geneva, etc. the latest being in Geneva during the UNHCR hearings on human rights (17 March 1997). Over 10,000 Tamils assembled at this event. One has not seen the ‘other Tamil parities’ being able to gather even a hundred supporters to show similar strength.

It is noteworthy that this fact is not lost on these foreign governments. Efforts are afoot to ‘create an alternate leadership’ for the Tamil people. Western governments are repeatedly telling expatriate activists that ‘their association with the LTTE is hurting their cause’. Sri Lanka government tried to woo Tamil expatriates all over the world a few years back to wean them away from the LTTE, and gave up. India too tried to prop up Varatharaja Perumal, who had no popular support among the Tamils, as the chosen leader for the Tamils. Perumal, by the way, now lives in exile in India under armed protection. At present, Douglas Devananda is being taken on tours in India and in some western countries. This absurd situation of someone else trying to choose a leader for the Tamil people is an affront, that no self-respecting Tamil can or will tolerate.

It has also been said that the Tamils in the south Sri Lanka don’t support the LTTE. This again is a patently irrational reasoning. When a mere suspicion of being an LTTE supporter could land one in jail, or worse cause that person to disappear, one must be really stupid or suicidal to live in the south and openly express support for the LTTE.

From the point of view of the countries affected by the refugee problem, the support the LTTE enjoys among the Tamil people everywhere must be viewed as a positive one. The number of refugees created by any acts of the LTTE is minuscule compared to the number due to the actions of the Sri Lanka government and its army. The number of asylum seekers was least when the LTTE administered the north, and most of those who left during this period did so mainly to escape the harshness of the embargo and the aerial bombardment and shelling. The huge increase the numbers now attempting to flee to other countries (and forcibly prevented by the army) since the Sri Lanka army took over the hitherto LTTE controlled areas, is adequate evidence of the Tamil preference.

The popular support for the LTTE is real, and as long as this lasts LTTE cannot be militarily defeated. But, let us for the sake of discussion assume that LTTE can be crushed and annihilated. Will the ‘other Tamil parties’ be able to amicably resolve the underlying cause of this conflict with the Sinhala leaders? The Tamil party TULF (and its predecessor FP) tried for forty years to reason with the Sinhala leadership and came up with naught. The octogenarian leader of the TULF (Mr. M. Sivasithamparam) himself has stated only recently that ‘if not for the LTTE there wouldn’t be a devolution package.’ Even with the pressure exerted by the LTTE presence, the Sri Lanka government has been unable (or unwilling) to come up with a minimum package that the vast majority of the Tamils could accept. What will it be if there is no LTTE?

The reason for this state of affairs is that the Sri Lanka government (Sinhala leadership) is not really convinced that federalism is the best form of government for a multi-ethnic country like Sri Lanka. They would rather have a monolithic unitary state with all the powers concentrated at the center (i.e. Sinhala Buddhist majority), and are willing to consider federalism only under duress. Thus the attempt to get away with the minimum. The overriding consideration is not what is good for the country to function smoothly, but what is good for the ‘majority race.’

The governments that are coercing Tamils to accept the ‘package’ are well advised to study the ‘package’. It is no exaggeration to state that this is a document that will entrench the Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony in that island, and enslave the Tamil people forever. The characterization by a few, especially the Sri Lankan media, that it is the ‘boldest move ever’, and ‘it is federalism except in name’, etc., doesn’t make it so. A comparative study against constitutions that have stood the test of time, such as that of the United States of America and Switzerland, and even the newest South African one will demonstrate the hollowness of this claim.

These governments should also study the history of what became of the earlier agreements (B-C Pact, Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact, etc.), and the parliamentary acts (DCC Act, XIII Amendment, etc.), that were assumed to resolve the conflict. One of the prime reasons for the failure of these efforts, it must be realized, was lack of implementation. It should be clear to anyone that an essential prerequisite for a success this time around is a ‘guarantee of implementation’, and this so-called ‘package’ has none.

Under this scenario, the strategy adopted by these governments is sure to fail, as it has so far. It is quite obvious that both elements of the strategy, i.e. exclusion of the LTTE, and encouragement of the Sri Lanka government and the ‘other Tamil parties’ to resolve the conflict, have not only failed so far, but have actually helped escalate the human suffering. There is an urgent need for the international community to rethink the matter.

The British initiative may be considered as a beginning, and we at the AGOTUS are particularly encouraged by inclusion of the possibility of the ‘talks with the LTTE’, in the British sponsored accord signed by the two Sinhala parties. This could be an indication that the policy of excluding the LTTE may be under review, and if this is so, given the facts presented in this paper, it is a move in the right direction.

The level of human suffering in Sri Lanka is intense and given the inability of the Sri Lankans to resolve it, greater international involvement is needed.

  • As a first step, the strategy of no holds barred support for the war effort by Sri Lanka must be abandoned. The war has resulted only in the escalation of human rights violations, death and destruction, and has not moved anything closer to resolution of the conflict.

  • Steps must be taken to bring the LTTE into the mainstream. Sri Lanka government has a vested interest in depicting the LTTE as a terrorist organization. Western governments’ passive acquiescence to this has resulted in isolation of an important party to the conflict, and a negative impact on the prospects for peace.

  • Steps must be taken to decrease the human rights violations. Items that need urgent attention are the news censorship and the embargo. The US State department’s human rights report is a step in the right direction. Other steps such as facilitation of access to international media and the international human rights organizations, etc. must be taken.

  • As pointed out by numerous NGOs at the UNHCR hearings in Geneva this year, presence of troops in the civilian areas is the prime cause of the human rights violations - large-scale disappearances, rapes and harassment. The Sri Lanka government must be pressured to restore indigenous civilian administration and withdraw the troops from civilian areas.

  • Urgent and concrete steps must be taken to initiate a dialogue between the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE. The international community must not only use the leverage it has with both parties to bring this about, but should actively assist in modalities, establishing ground rules, etc., to ensure success.