Originally Published 2004-09-27 09:14:07 Published on Sep 27, 2004
More than two years after the Government of Sri Lanka and the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) reached an agreement on a ceasefire in their military and para-military operations against each other, with Norway playing the role of a facilitator, and embarked on a process of negotiations in order to find a political solution to the demands of the LTTE for an independent
Sri Lanka & the LTTE: Quo Vadis
More than two years after the Government of Sri Lanka and the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) reached an agreement on a ceasefire in their military and para-military operations against each other, with Norway playing the role of a facilitator, and embarked on a process of negotiations in order to find a political solution to the demands of the LTTE for an independent Tamil State in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka to be called Tamil Eelam, the initial hopes of a negotiated political solution stand belied---at least partly, if not fully as yet. <br /> <br /> The process of negotiations has reached a stalemate, but has not broken down. It remains in a state of suspension since April 21, 2003. Various factors were responsible for this stalemate. The first was the unhappiness of the LTTE over its exclusion from a meeting convened by the USA at Washington DC on April 14,2003, to discuss an international aid package for the economic rehabilitation of Sri Lanka as an incentive for the two parties to reach a negotiated solution. This meeting paved the way for the donors' conference held at Tokyo on June 9,2003, at which pledges of assistance amounting to US $ four billion were made by the participants. The LTTE itself kept away from this conference. The disbursement of aid from this package was made conditional on the progress achieved in the peace talks.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The exclusion of the LTTE from the Washington meeting convened by the USA was necessitated by the fact that despite the LTTE's agreeing to the ceasefire and to the talks that followed, the US was unwilling to withdraw its October,1997, designation of the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation under a 1996 law. This unwillingness was justified by the US as due to the fact that the LTTE was not yet prepared to renounce its use of terrorism for achieving its political objective. <br /> <br /> After the proclamation of the cease-fire on February 22,2002, Velupillai Prabakaran, the leader of the LTTE, at an international press conference held at his headquarters at Wanni in the Northern Province, had clearly indicated that his organisation was prepared to seek a political solution within a federal set-up. However, as the talks continued , it became obvious that what the LTTE was seeking was not a final definitive solution to its political demand based on a compromise, but an interim political arrangement under which it would acquire de facto and de jure control over the Northern and the Eastern Provinces in the form of an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) to be headed by it as a prelude to its agreeing to enter into a fresh round of negotiations for reaching a final solution. It was seeking an interim arrangement similar to that which led to the coming into being of the Palestinian Authority headed by Yasser Arafat, which has acquired a certain political legitimacy in the West even while negotiating with Israel for a final solution. <br /> <br /> The continuing Sri Lankan Army presence in Jaffna stood in the way of its consolidating its de facto control of the Northern Province. It, therefore, made the withdrawal of the SL Army from there and the disbandment of the Government's high security zones a condition to be fulfilled before there could be further progress in the talks. Its consolidating its de facto control in the Eastern Province depended on its ability to keep its officials and troops in the Province supplied by it with the help of its naval wing. It, therefore, raised the question of the Government agreeing to grant a de facto status to its Navy, a demand which, to the surprise of the SL Government and not-openly expressed concern of the Government of India, enjoyed the tacit support of the Norwegian facilitators. <br /> <br /> 6. Its naval wing and its overseas procurement network continued to indulge in the clandestine procurement of arms and ammunition abroad and their transport into the areas controlled by it, particularly in the Eastern Province. This was a serious violation of the provisions of the cease-fire accord. The failure or reluctance of the Norwegian cease-fire monitoring mission to take serious notice of it came in for criticism from President Chandrika Kumaratunge, though not so expressly from Ranil Wickremasinghe, the then Prime Minister. <br /> <br /> Differences started developing between the LTTE and the Government even as to what should be the nature of the process of negotiations. What the LTTE had apparently in mind was a two-stage process. The first stage would be between the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) and the LTTE as a militant organisation to pave the way for the enthronement of the LTTE as the interim ruler of the Northern and the Eastern Provinces and the second would be between the GSL and this interim Government to reach a final agreement on how Sri Lanka would be constituted into a federal set-up and what powers the Tamil component of the federation would have. <br /> <br /> The expectations of the LTTE became clear after it released to the public in October,2003, the details of its proposal for an ISGA. It contained some disturbing features---some open, some hidden--- from the point of view of the Sinhalese majority. Firstly, its intention to retain its military and naval capability without agreeing to its disbandment or merger with the Sri Lankan Armed Forces as part of a final solution. Secondly, its determination to retain its political primacy in the two provinces and to make any role for other Tamil parties and the Tamil-speaking Muslim minority of the Eastern Province conditional on their accepting its unchallenged supremacy. <br /> <br /> It was at this stage that the hopes initially evoked by the cease-fire and the start of the negotiations started evaporating and the differences between Chandrika Kumaratunge and her then Prime Minister Wickremasinghe as to the handling of the political process by him led to a final parting of the ways between the two, leading to the exit of his Government, the suspension of its felicitation process by Norway in November,2003, (since resumed after the elections of April,2004) till the political situation in Sri Lanka clarified itself, fresh elections and the coming into power of a new coalition called the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) consisting of Chandrika Kumaratunge's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the left-oriented Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as its principal constituents. <br /> <br /> After having successfully achieved the induction into office of a coalition led by her party, Chandrika Kumaratunge softened her anti-LTTE and anti-Norway rhetoric and made a number of overtures to the LTTE leadership in order to persuade it to come back to the negotiating table. Her efforts have not succeeded so far. The first reason for it is the as yet irreconcilable differences between her Government and the LTTE as to the nature of the negotiations process. Her Government insists on two parallel negotiations--- one on the formation of an interim ruling authority in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as demanded by the LTTE and the other on the main features of the final solution regarding the future of the Tamil-majority areas. Her stand that any interim arrangement should fit in into the over-all final solution enjoys the support of the Government of India. <br /> <br /> The LTTE, on the other hand, is not prepared to embark on talks for a final political solution unless and until an ISGA headed by it is set up in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, with full powers and capability for the autonomous administration of the area and with an assured role in the conduct of its external economic relations in matters such as the re-negotiation of the agreements relating to the economic resources of the Tamil-majority areas entered into in the past by the SL Government with foreign powers or institutions. It seems to be particularly having in mind agreements relating to the exploitation of the fisheries off the Tamil coastal areas and the lease of the petrol storage tanks in Trincomalee in the Eastern Province to the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC). <br /> <br /> Some blame for the present stalemate has to be shared by the various political formations of the Sinhalese majority as well as by Chandrika Kumaratunge and Ranil Wickremasinghe. There cannot be a negotiated political solution acceptable to the Sinhalese majority unless it has the support of Chandrika Kumaratunge's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Ranil Wickremasinghe's United National Party (UNP) and the JVP. <br /> <br /> Keeping this in view, the initiation of the political process should have been preceded or at least accompanied by an effort at reaching a national consensus among these parties on the nature of the political process, on the acceptable contours of a final solution and on how the negotiations would be conducted. The historic rivalry between the SLFP and the UNP and ego clashes between Chandrika Kumaratunge and Ranil Wickremasinghe came in the way of such an attempt at a national consensus. <br /> <br /> Instead of presenting a united front to the LTTE, the three political formations as well as Chandrika Kumaratunge and Ranil Wickremasinghe indulged in a shadow boxing among themselves over the political process, thereby undermining each other's credibility. Wickremasinghe made four major tactical mistakes. First, he sought to deny any meaningful role for the country's President in the political process and kept her in the dark as to how the talks with the LTTE were going on. Second, in his anxiety for peace, he embarked on the political process without first working out a road map, which would be acceptable to the Sinhalese majority. As a result, his negotiating style was more reactive than proactive. He unwittingly created an impression that it was the LTTE, which was calling the shots. Third, he kept his eyes closed to the violations of the cease-fire accord by the LTTE lest open articulation of his concerns make the LTTE even more recalcitrant than it was. His reactions to the various demands and proposals made by the LTTE either at the negotiating table or through the media after the LTTE withdrew from the talks were ad hoc and ill-considered. So long as he was the Prime Minister, he even failed to openly express the position of his Government on the LTTE's detailed proposal for an ISGA. Fourth, he believed, mistakenly as it has turned out to be in retrospect, that international pressure on the LTTE would make it more amenable for a compromise acceptable to the Sinhalese majority. <br /> <br /> Peeved at her being kept in the dark about the political process by her then Prime Minister, Chandrika Kumaratunge hit back from time to time with open statements and reactions, which were often abrasive and tended to weaken the hands of Ranil Wickremasinghe while he was engaged in a delicate political process in an attempt to bring to an end the LTTE's militancy. <br /> <br /> Two new complicating factors have arisen since the beginning of this year, which do not bode well for the success of the political process in the foreseeable future. The first was the revolt in March,2004, of an unestimated number of the cadres of the LTTE in the Eastern Province, led by "Col". Karuna (real name Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetheran), a legendary leader of its military wing in the Batticaloa district of the Eastern Province, against the allegedly discriminatory policies of the organisation's North-dominated political leadership towards the Tamils of the Eastern Province. <br /> <br /> Ever since the inception of the militancy in the early 1980s, the LTTE has had two faces---as a ruthless and dreaded terrorist organisation and as a well-motivated and well-trained conventional army, which has had many successes to its credit in its military operations against the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. While Prabakaran has the dubious credit for the creation of its terrorist face, considerable credit for the creation of its conventional military capability should go to Karuna and his Eastern recruits. <br /> <br /> The revolt was triggered off by the feeling among large sections of the Tamils in the Eastern Province that their valour and sacrifices in the conventional battles of the LTTE against the SL Army have not been adequately recognised by the North-dominated leadership and reflected in the decision and policy-making organs of the LTTE, where they were under-represented. For Prabakaran, the real heroes were his suicide bombers and others who participated in spectacular acts of terrorism, and not those who fought in conventional battles against the SL Army. <br /> <br /> Moreover, while more than two years of the cease-fire have brought a certain peace dividend to the Northern Province in the form of a flow of funds from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the West and non-governmental organisations for its economic reconstruction, the Eastern Province has not had the benefit of any such peace dividend. <br /> <br /> After the LTTE's insurgency against the SL Army started in the early 1980s, there was a large exodus of Tamils from the two provinces to foreign countries. The majority of the Tamil refugees from the economically better off Northern Province fled to West Europe, North America and Australia, where many of them have since prospered. After the cease-fire came into force, they started contributing to the economic reconstruction of their insurgency-ravaged Province. <br /> <br /> The Tamil exodus from the economically and educationally backward Eastern Province was mainly towards Tamil Nadu in India, where many of them languished in refugee camps. Economically, they have not prospered in the same way as the Tamils from the North who fled to the West have. Consequently, they have not been able to make much contribution for the reconstruction of their home Province. The result is that while the Northern Province has shown at least some signs of economic recovery during the last two years, the Eastern Province continues to be in a dilapidated state. <br /> <br /> The revolt of the Eastern Tamils led by "Col" Karuna as a result of their accumulated grievances came as a surprise and a shock to the North-dominated LTTE leadership. While Prabakaran and his associates seem to have succeeded in putting an end to this revolt forcing Karuna to flee from his Eastern Province, one does not know where, the scars left by the revolt show no signs of healing. This could be seen from frequent incidents of violence involving the LTTE and the supporters and sympathisers of Karuna, reported not only from the Eastern Province, but also from Colombo. <br /> <br /> Even if Prabakaran is able to re-establish effectively his military control of the Eastern Province, winning over the hearts and minds of the much alienated Tamils of the Province would be a much more difficult task for the North-dominated LTTE leadership. Karuna's revolt provided, for the first time, a possible opportunity to Sri Lanka and India to work towards an alternate LTTE leadership, which would be more amenable for a reasonable political compromise acceptable to the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese. <br /> <br /> India faces a dilemma vis-&#224;-vis the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka due to some factors. Firstly, whether India likes it or not, the LTTE is bound to emerge as the supreme leader of any ruling dispensation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as a result of an interim or a final solution. Secondly, so long as his health remains good, Prabakaran would be the head of any such ruling dispensation. Thirdly, in view of his orchestration of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, India's former Prime Minister, at Chennai in May,1991, and his figuring as an absconding accused in the case in India relating to the assassination, the Governments of India and Tamil Nadu would find it difficult to do business with any ruling dispensation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces led by him. <br /> <br /> So far, no thought would seem to have been given in the Government of India to the question of the political and national security implications of an LTTE Government headed by Prabakaran one day coming to power in the Tamil-majority provinces and also to the question as to what would be the options available to India and how to get over this dilemma. One possible option for both India and Sri Lanka would have been to work towards bringing into existence an LTTE leadership minus Prabakaran. <br /> <br /> Karuna's revolt provided the possibility of working towards such an option, but the two Governments watched without even a proforma protest as Prabakaran went about crushing the Eastern revolt in violation of the cease-fire accord and re-establishing his authority. Faced with continuing acts of violence in the Eastern Province, the LTTE has alleged the complicity of the SL Army in encouraging the revolt by Karuna, but there is no reliable evidence in support of this. <br /> <br /> The second complicating factor is the emergence of the JVP as an important component of the present ruling coalition. The JVP reflects the extremist Sinhalese views on the demands of the LTTE. It is believed that it is strongly opposed to the LTTE's proposals for a powerful ISGA and is disinclined to accept anything other than devolution of powers to the Tamils. Chandrika Kumaratunge's effectiveness as an interlocutor of the LTTE, if the talks are resumed, would depend on the extent to which she and her party would be able to carry on the JVP with them. The indicators in this regard till now are not very promising. <br /> <br /> The difficulties inherent in the search for a political compromise in Sri Lanka arise from the circumstances under which the search for a political compromise started more than two years ago. India had faced similar insurgencies in Nagaland and Mizoram in its North-East. The turning point, which led to a political compromise through negotiations, came in the 1970s in Nagaland and in the 1980s in Mizoram because the Indian State was able to enforce its will on the insurgent groups and their leaders and make them realise that violence was not an option for them. The enforcement of the will of the State on the insurgent organisations led to their agreeing to disband their so-called armies and surrender their weapons as part of the final political solution. <br /> <br /> In Sri Lanka, the move towards a political process came not because the State was able to enforce its will against the LTTE and convince it that violence was not an option, but because the State realised that it was not in a position to enforce its will against the LTTE and that, hence, continued counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism could be counter-productive. The LTTE's agreeing to the start of the political process could not be attributed to any weakening of its capability to keep fighting against the State. It came about because of its realisation that in the post-9/11 world, continuing terrorism, however effective, could be self-defeating. <br /> <br /> A study of the developments since the coming into force of the cease-fire makes it clear that the kind of federal set-up the LTTE has in mind is one in which Sri Lanka would be one nation with two States, two Armies and two Navies, with the LTTE exercising total responsibility for internal as well as external security in the two Tamil majority provinces and with powers of independent interactions with foreign countries and organisations in matters relating to their economic development. It is doubtful whether the majority Sinhalese population would accept such an arrangement. <br /> <br /> If the present deadlock continues, the possibility of the cease-fire breaking down leading to another round of fighting cannot be ruled out. Even while engaged in the political process, the LTTE has been further strengthening its fighting capability through fresh recruitment and procurement of arms and ammunition. <br /> <br /> Is the SL Government too strengthening its capability so that it is not caught unprepared in the likelihood of a fresh flare-up? It has apparently been taking some assistance from India. There have been more military exchanges between the two countries. The visit of Admiral Arun Prakash, India's Chief of the Naval Staff (CoNS), to Sri Lanka from September 11 to 16, 2004, is significant. It was meant to convey a message to the LTTE that India's low-profile stance during the last two years should not be misinterpreted as a lack of any concern in India over the developments in Sri Lanka. It was also meant to silence critics in India, who have been accusing the Government of India of watching silently as the USA, the European powers and Japan seek to play a more active role in Sri Lanka, which could turn out to be to the detriment of India's interests. <br /> <br /> Addressing a press conference at Colombo on September 16,2004, he was reported to have stated as follows: "There is some concern (in Colombo) that the port of Trincomalee should not fall into the wrong hands. It seems to be that at the moment the LTTE is closely bearing down on Trincomalee. The LTTE is a proscribed terrorist organisation. There is no question of a naval wing or anything like that . We don't recognise entities of that nature. Like any fanatical and suicidal organisation, they have the potential to cause a certain amount of damage. India is solidly behind Sri Lanka's integrity and sovereignty. It is the country's stated policy that it would like to underwrite the integrity of the island-nation." He also said that India's interest in Trincomalee arose from the IOC's acquisition on lease of the petrol storage tanks there. Quite a strong message&nbsp; <br /> <br /> A question often posed is, will there be another flare-up in Sri Lanka, if the deadlock continues? Most probably, there will be. The timing of such a flare-up will be decided by the LTTE and not by the Government. A more important question is: If there is such a flare-up, how high would be the morale of the SL Army and how firm its determination to deny to the LTTE the fruits of a military victory? <br /> <br /> After having been used to peace for over two years, will the SL Army be prepared to fight with the same determination against the LTTE as it had done in the past? It is difficult to answer this question with any certainty at present. <br /> <br /> However, one can say that time and circumstances seem to be on the LTTE's side.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> <em>(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-mail: [email protected])</em> <br /> <br /> <em>* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.</em> </font> </p>
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