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Taming the Tamil Tigers
June 12, 2003
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam remain as defiant as ever. The LTTE's peace talks with representatives of the Sri Lankan government, of which six rounds have already been held, continue to remain stalled since April.
This is due to its uncompromising demand for the relocation, if not withdrawal, of Sri Lankan security forces from Jaffna, where the LTTE apparently wants to set up the headquarters of its administration and for the creation of an interim administrative structure in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, which the LTTE looks upon as the Tamil homeland. It views Jaffna as the capital of this homeland and wants it to become the seat of de facto Tamil power even when the peace talks to legitimise this power are being held.
The LTTE wants these two demands to be met even before the peace talks could reach a compromise political solution on the future set-up of Sri Lanka. It had taken to arms against Colombo in the 1980s in support of its demand for an independent Tamil Eelam, but after the ceasefire agreement reached with the government last year to facilitate the talks, it indicated its willingness to consider an ultimate political solution falling short of absolute independence, if the solution provided for the kind of autonomy which would meet the aspirations and needs of the Tamils and preserved their dignity, as a people culturally distinct from the majority Sinhalese community.
Velupillai Prabakaran, the LTTE leader, and Anton Balasingham, his UK-based adviser and leader of his team for the talks, have not spelt out so far in public what kind of autonomy they have in mind. From their various statements, interviews, correspondence with the government and their stance on various issues during the six rounds held so far, it is not difficult to surmise the contours of the Tamil Eelam, autonomous, but not necessarily independent, which they are trying to achieve. These are:
- The right of the LTTE to maintain the practically independent general, police, judicial and financial administration which it has already set up in the Tamil territory under its control and its extension to the areas still under the control of the government. It sees the peace talks as not between a legitimate state and a non-state actor, which had taken to terrorism to achieve its political objective, but as between two co-habiting states, one de jure and the other de facto, which should enjoy equal status in the eyes of the international community.
- Its right to maintain its army and navy for the protection of the new Tamil state entity to come out of the peace talks from internal and external dangers and the consequent need for the exclusion of the Sri Lankan armed forces from this territory.
- The recognition by Colombo and the international community of its political supremacy in the Tamil homeland, even though that supremacy might have been won through the force of arms and not through the ballot box. It apparently wants the conditions under which the other Tamil political formations and the Muslim minority would be allowed to participate in the running of the new state to be left to the LTTE to decide, without any significant role for the Sri Lankan government in this matter.
In short, what Prabakaran and his organisation are trying to achieve is a solution based on the principle of one country, two nations, two governmental systems and two armed forces, functioning independently of each other under a common umbrella for purposes of protocol.
In the LTTE's calculation, this could save the face of the majority Sinhalese community by not partitioning the country into two independent states, and at the same time concede the political and cultural aspirations of the Tamils and protect their dignity by freeing them from the perceived subjugation under the Sinhalese.
These contours rule out from future discussions important questions such as the disbandment of the LTTE army and navy and the incorporation of their members into the Sri Lankan armed forces; deweaponisation; merger of the LTTE administration with that of the Sri Lankan government; and identification of the residuary powers of the federal government in the Tamil areas etc.
Such questions always receive priority in the agenda of any discussions between a state and an insurgent or terrorist organisation as one had seen in the talks held by the Government of India with the Naga and Mizo insurgents in India's Northeast.
By unilaterally suspending its participation in the peace talks due to its sulk over its exclusion from a meeting of the international donors held at Washington, DC because of its continued designation as a foreign terrorist organisation under a 1996 US law; and by refusing to participate in the donors' conference held at Tokyo on June 9, 2003 because of the non-satisfaction of its demand for an interim administrative structure, even if it has to be outside the Sri Lankan constitution, the LTTE has blocked any forward movement till its demands are met.
It is not worried over the possibility of continuing economic hardships for the Tamil people, whose welfare it claims to espouse, because of its rigid stand.
At the Tokyo conference, the participants reportedly pledged over $4 billion as aid for the economic rehabilitation of Sri Lanka, but many such as Japan, which had taken the initiative in this matter, have made it clear that actual disbursements would depend on the progress achieved in the peace talks.
One of the factors, which induced Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe to take the initiative for peace talks with the LTTE was the need for foreign investment and aid flows to re-invigorate the Sri Lankan economy. The LTTE is calculating that the linking of the actual disbursements with the progress in the peace talks would bring pressure on the prime minister to be more responsive to its demands.
The LTTE is demanding an interim administrative structure in the Tamil areas even at the present stage of the peace talks and even before substantive issues are taken up on the ground that without such a structure, the benefit of the foreign aid flow would not go to the people. The prime minister was reportedly not averse to the creation of a development-oriented interim administrative structure in the Tamil areas with the management of which the LTTE would be associated.
The LTTE has rejected this because it wants that the role of the interim administrative structure should not be restricted only to economic development, but should also cover other aspects of governmental activities such as maintenance of law and order, tax collection, judicial administration etc. Moreover, it wants that its role in such a structure should be one of leadership and not just association with a structure controlled by the government. Effective leadership and control for the LTTE in such an interim structure are its sine qua non for its resuming its participation in the peace talks.
In his intervention at the Tokyo conference,Wickremasinghe assured the LTTE of a 'significant role' in an 'efficient, transparent and accountable' provisional administrative structure, whose powers would include rebuilding the war-ravaged economy, resettlement of people and the provision of essential services. He said his government would consider calling a referendum to endorse changes to the country's constitution that could be part of a final solution to the conflict. He added: 'We will introduce constitutional reforms when we have negotiated a final political solution, which we are fully committed to take to the people of Sri Lanka through a referendum for the ultimate decision.' He also said since the new structure should safeguard the interests of all communities in the north and east, a Muslim delegation should join the peace talks when they resumed.
His assurances do not seem to have had any effect on the LTTE so far.
Prabakaran would have cause for concern from some of the interventions in the Tokyo conference, which made it clear the international community continues to be worried over its refusal to assure the community that it no longer believed in the use of terrorism as a weapon to achieve its political objective.
Richard Armitage, the US deputy secretary of state, was particularly blunt in his warnings to the LTTE. He said it still had a long way to go to prove that it was a legitimate political force. 'The group that pioneered the practice of turning its sons and daughters into human bombs is going to have to work hard to build trust and convince the world that it is capable of playing a legitimate role in the political life of Sri Lanka,' he warned.
Will the LTTE relent in its refusal to re-join the talks and tone down its blatantly unreasonable demands? It is not yet clear. Wickremasinghe's failure to work out a road map for the talks, in consultation with the opposition and President Chandrika Kumaratunge, and his oft-exhibited over-anxiety to placate the LTTE have placed the government in a weak position. The more the concessions he makes to the LTTE, the more recalcitrant it becomes, calculating -- often rightly -- that the more the psychological pressure it exercises on him, the more the concessions he would be prepared to make.
The invited role of Norway as the so-called facilitator and Japan's self-assumed role as the benefactor -- both interested in securing exclusive fishing rights from any future Tamil government in the seas off the coast of the Tamil state -- have added to the LTTE's recalcitrance.
The suggestion of Norwegian experts to give de facto recognition to the LTTE navy as a way out of its frequent clashes with the Sri Lankan navy even after the cease-fire and the Norwegian government's reported pressure on Wickremasinghe to be more responsive to the LTTE's demand for an interim administrative structure clearly show that Norway has been acting more as an advocate of the LTTE's cause than as a neutral facilitator with no agenda of its own. Kumaratunge's recent criticism of Norway's role cannot be dismissed as without basis.
The way the Sri Lankan government and Norway have not paid adequate attention to the sensitivities of the Muslims of the eastern province and the growing anger of sections of Muslim youth over what they look upon as the high-handed behaviour of LTTE cadres towards Muslims are giving rise to a radicalisation of Muslim youth. Since the Muslim-LTTE clashes last year, an organisation called the Osama Brigade has come to notice, but its leadership and membership are not clear. There have recently been reports of the Saudi Arabia branch of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, a constituent of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front, setting up a presence in the eastern province. Norway's allegedly pro-LTTE role is viewed with increasing suspicion by the radicalised Muslim youth.
Peace and the end to the bloodshed in Sri Lanka are important. The more than a year-long ceasefire has definitely brought benefit to the people. At the same time, unless Wickremasinghe is able to rally the support of all the political formations of the country behind his efforts for peace and sheds the image of a leader wanting peace at any price, the prospects for a durable peace would not be bright. Recent reports from Bangkok of the arrest of some suspected LTTE cadres involved in alleged gun-running show that the LTTE is keeping open the possibility of renewed hostilities at an opportune time if it is not able to achieve its unreasonable demands at the negotiating table.
It is hoped that Wickremasinghe is equally preparing himself and his security forces for such a contingency.
This is not the time for lotus-eaters.