Monday, February 04, 2008

Full Blown Conflict -II

Article written for The Post, Lahore.

The preceding section of the series focused on the recent events in Sri Lanka that have created the impasse between the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government in Colombo. The escalating crisis in Sri Lanka has reached a point of no return from a full-scaled civil war as more bombings and civilian killings have already taken place in the interim since the previous column. This article in the series tries to elucidate the reasons for the escalation of the conflict over the past few years and shows how the efforts made to bring a solution to the impasse have obviously failed.

The ceasefire agreement signed in February 2002 gave legitimacy to the LTTE as a frontal organisation representing minority Sri Lankan Tamils in a war of attrition against the Sinhala majority-led Sri Lankan government. Even though there were other agreements that failed in fructification of peace, the CFA of 2002 was encouraging as it laid out the basis of a comprehensive dialogue between the warring sections. A truce was brokered by a group of co-chairs from the US, Japan, Norway and the European Union (EU) between the Lankan government and the LTTE leadership, based in Kilinochchi city in northern Sri Lanka. The LTTE leadership (chief V. Prabhakaran and the now deceased Anton Balasingham, the chief strategist) negotiated a settlement for peace with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party. Wickremasinghe himself was elected on an agenda of peace in the parliamentary elections concluded in 2001 after the Lankan forces had suffered several military losses and the state had experienced economic pressures during the Kumaratunga-Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) rule. Wickremasinghe’s peace plan and the response by the LTTE had the effect of ending open and hostile war for a period of time and was also responsible for a negotiated dialogue process through a series of talks between both the parties. The LTTE now also enjoyed legitimacy as a sovereign player in Sri Lankan politics, feted by international missions for multiple talks. Despite such formal privileges, the LTTE retained its covert abilities, and used the detente to target military intelligence personnel in the Sri Lankan government, as well as to assassinate people among the Tamil community inimical to the organisation (TULF leader, Neelan Thiruchelvam, was killed allegedly by the LTTE and so was Kethesh Loganathan, a Tamil human rights activist).

The CFA was thus being violated with impunity by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. The latter, which was supposed to cease hostilities and to recognise LTTE-held territories and to desist from military activities in these areas, did not pay heed to the CFA while capturing LTTE-held areas in the north-east region. One has, however, got to raise the question why the CFA turned out to be a dead-letter agreement without an actual proper implementation and an answer can be found by taking recourse to understanding the Byzantine world of Sri Lankan democratic politics.

The CFA, as mentioned earlier, was signed by the then Prime Minister Wickremasinghe of the UNP when President Chandrika Kumaratunga belonged to the SLFP. Several sections of the Sri Lankan populace, as well as the polity, were upset that the agreement acknowledged the LTTE as a legal and legitimate player, thereby weakening the case for the sovereign hold of the Sri Lankan state on areas in the north and north-east. Political players such as the nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Buddhist parties that favoured a unitary Sri Lankan state were dead against any leeway given to the LTTE or indeed any Tamil nationalist outfit, let alone a separatist force. These sections were strengthened when they became part of a government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa (the current president) of the SLFP after a coalition was formed to defeat the UNP in 2004. The Rajapaksa coalition was able to form a government because Tamils (many of whom were sympathetic toward the UNP for its role in the ceasefire) were prevented from voting in the parliamentary elections in areas controlled by the LTTE. The hawkish coalition, from day one, ratcheted up the confrontation with the LTTE, which simultaneously was engaging in overt violation of the CFA through its own actions. Increasing the hostility between the two sides was the fact that the Lankan government was providing covert support to the breakaway Karuna faction of the LTTE in the eastern regions.

The LTTE, weakened by the breaking away of the Karuna faction was also seriously hurt by growing international isolation. Even as the monitors of the peace mission were deploring the violations of the agreement, a growing international consensus against “any form of terrorism” was hurting the LTTE. The death of chief strategist Anton Balasingham was a big blow, as Balasingham was seen as a moderating influence enjoying wide international access as a representative of the LTTE in the international fora.

Several representatives of the LTTE in various countries such as in the US, the EU and Australia were arrested for involvement in covert arms deals, money extraction from the diaspora and for other reasons. This dealt a serious blow to the LTTE internationally. The Sri Lankan government on the other hand increased its defence budget, and started buying weapons and defence material from various nations such as China and even India. Despite the presence of a Sea Tigers unit and even the use of light aircraft vehicles by the LTTE, the increasing bombing operations by the government targeted at the LTTE strongholds resulted in the death of at least one prominent LTTE leader, S.P. Tamilchelvan.

The strategies adopted by the two parties in the conflict were quite clear: the Lankan government wanted to weaken and destroy the LTTE militarily even as it kept the option of a federal solution to the minority problem open. The LTTE on the other hand, wanted to use the humanitarian crisis generated by the military operation undertaken by the Lankan government to highlight the improbability of a coexistence of the two communities under one sovereign, by alleging that the Lankan state was a majoritarian terrorist state bent upon “genocide”.

The Sri Lankan government’s formal rejection of the CFA now seems to be a political response to the growing demands by the ultra-nationalist segments supporting the government, to annihilate opposition by the LTTE militarily. These sections such as the JVP have for quite some time demanded a ban on the LTTE, as well as the abrogation of the CFA signed by the UNP. The JVP has even rejected a federal solution, retaining its notion of a unitary Sri Lanka rejecting the claims of the ethnic minority to get any respectable share in power. Even though the Sri Lankan government’s military actions against the LTTE in the north and the north-east have not been addressed very negatively by the international community owing to the tactics and actions of the LTTE, the tearing up of the CFA by the government is only bound to loosen the international shackles over the LTTE. The international community including the important neighbour, India, is not pleased with the open civil war that the Lankan government has embarked on, disheartened by the government’s response to the humanitarian problem caused as well as the measures taken against Tamil minorities in the capital city in the name of security.

It is clear that both the government and the LTTE’s visions of a protracted military driven conflict is only bound to obscure the real issues that entail the differences between the minority and the majority community, as well as to belie any hopes of a negotiated settlement of the problem. The LTTE’s reliance on a single point agenda of the formation of a separate state for Sri Lankan Tamils stems from an extremist viewpoint that suggests that a nation can only be formed out of a single communitarian identity, while the Sri Lankan state’s repeated failure in bringing about a political consensus for a federal solution to the problem highlights the entrenched presence of a majoritarian consciousness among the Sinhala polity. The reasons for this entrenchment, as well as the demand for a separate state, can only be explained by a review of the history of the island republic, which should be done in the next segment of this series.

No comments: