Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Lankan conflict – as is; and the way out

The civil war in Sri Lanka is drawing to a bloody closure, with the rout of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) imminent. The LTTE is holed up in a small area on a beachfront adjoining the Indian Ocean. The outfit's leader is still believed to be dissolved among the thousands of residents boxed in the area. A sea of Tamils had just fled the area (called ironically the "No Fire zone") and left to the safety of "internment camps" in Sri Lankan Army (SLA) controlled territory. The LTTE remains defiant despite the impossible odds it faces while the SLA sensing and smelling victory has kept at the effort disregarding the consequences of the final bloodbath. Even as I was writing this, the LTTE declared an unilateral ceasefire, keeping in mind the humanitarian crisis in the area.

Journalists have been kept away from the Vanni and other regions of north Sri Lanka for long now, and one is therefore forced to sift through the coloured reports from the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry releases and the pro-LTTE Tamilnet to get an idea of what is really going on. While the former portrays the sequence of events as if they are engaged in a "liberation" battle, points to nearly every civilian casualty as a result of LTTE hitting the very people it is claiming to represent and using them as human shields, the latter portrays the war as genocide, suggesting that the SLA is targeting the citizenry deliberately and killing them in droves. The truth lies somewhere in between. Yes, its cliched, but that is how it is. 

The truth

Rohini Hensman writes this piece based on a visit to Colombo. She suggests that there is truth in the fact that the LTTE is cynically and rabidly using the Tamil casualties as a prop to pressurise the "international community" to force the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to call a ceasefire. She also writes that the SLA is retaliating at LTTE fire from behind the civilians and shelling at LTTE positions within civilian areas, unmindful of the consequences. In some ways, this was expected. I wrote this editorial when the conflict was taking a turn for the worse, in humanitarian terms. Independent journalist DBS Jeyaraj has been cautioning about the humanitarian catastrophe for some months now. 

What in essence is happening is that the GoSL understands that it has the upper hand not only in the military battle as it has gone on till now, but also in the soft power status across the world because of the changed international reckoning vis-a-vis the "war against terror". And hence the SLA is marching on its way to a military end to the conflict, knowing fully that the "collateral damage" is only expected, and can be managed diplomatically. The LTTE on the other hand, knows that it is militarily over-matched and the only recourse it has is to change the perception of civil war in the international community to "genocide" and no wonder the diaspora and the pro-LTTE media on the internet is desperately trying to proffer this message with tragic imagery of the conflict. The consequences of this portrayal is that ironically, both the sides have only strengthened their resolve to go through the same motions, rather than trying to minimise casualties or work out a work-around. 

The high degree of polarisation of opinion has only strengthened the ethnic differences that already exist. The GoSL apart from the war, is also becoming a illiberal, draconian regime punishing any kind of dissent, attacking the media, and maintaining illicit contractors who do the dirty job of pulverising and muscling any voice of dissidence with the war effort in the capital and beyond. Witness, the murder of prominent journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga, who had questioned the war strategies of the GoSL, to get a feel of this. For all the talk of a simultaneous political devolution of powers to the Tamil minority, and thus exploring a political solution to the "ethnic" issue while engaging in the military defeat of the LTTE, the progress on this front is negligible. The GoSL is essentially adopting a good cop, bad cop routine, with the former playing out in the statements and gestures made by president Mahinda Rajapakse such as the offer of talks with the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance leaders for e.g. The bad cop routine is diligently acted out by the president's uncouth brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the defence minister who is tasked with the unpleasant duties of handling any oppositional voice against the war efforts. The GoSL has also successfully co-opted former militants such as ex-LTTE commander, Vinayagamurthy "Karuna" Muralitharan and the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party leader Douglas Devananda, both of whom are now ministers in the cabinet. These leaders might have made the jump from being leaders articulating "Tamil independence" and a "free Eelam" to now asking for a united Sri Lanka that has been rid of "fascists" of the LTTE. But it is anybody's guess, whether they have any legitimate support of the Tamil people. These former militants had done the same despicable things and engaged in the same terror acts that the GoSL has traditionally called the LTTE for. 

Broadly, there has not been much resonance for a federal solution to the conflict (after the military defeat of the LTTE), as the Sinhalese polity is pretty much prey to communalism and a sense of majoritarianism. Very little of progressivism and indeed liberal attitudes vis-a-vis the Tamil minority issue is left in the Sinhala polity, as the opposition United National Party (UNP) is opportunist, the "leftist" Janata Vimukthi Peramuna is plainly Sinhala chauvinist and the communal (Buddhist!) Jathika Hela Urumaya's policies and outlook is rabidly Sinhala supremacist. So, any expectations of a honourable political solution to the long suffering Tamil minority in the country is belied by the state of affairs as it exists now. Even a provincial delimitation of the north and the east in Sri Lanka is turning out to be a difficult proposition considering the positions of the broad Lankan polity.

India & Tamil Nadu

What of the international community? Lets start with India first. Any tremors in the northern part of Sri Lanka have always had mini-tsunami effects in the state of Tamil Nadu. But what about now? The last year or so, since the latest phase of civil war erupted, much grandstanding on Tamil solidarity has taken place in the state involving the various political actors. A supporter of the Eelam cause at one point of time, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) now takes a position that is pretty much the same as the Congress' even though now and then, the chief minister and DMK supremo M.Karunanidhi waxes poetic about his friendship with Vellupillai Prabhakaran (accused No 1 in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case). While the DMK's current position is quite politically correct - they are concerned about the humanitarian tragedy that has engulfed the Sri Lankan Tamil population and they blame the LTTE equally for the travails of the people - how it arrived at such a position is altogether different proposition. That the current positioning is related to the fact that the DMK is dependent on Congress support for the survival of its government is quite understandable considering the trajectory of the DMK's positions on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. The main opposition party the AIADMK's positions are even more interesting. The party , a historical baiter of the LTTE or of the "Eelam cause" itself, now wants a separate Eelam! That the change in positions of the both these "Dravidian" parties has got little to do with the ground situation in Lanka but more to do with their perceptions of political expediency is apparent. 

Much of the support base for the LTTE, admittedly "fringe", as S.V.Rajadurai points out in this letter, ( alternately hosted here) is engulfed in the same language of Tamil nationalism as articulated by the Dravidian parties in the 1960s. "Tamil nationalism" is a good slogan to arouse sentiments. The Dravidian parties (the DMK & ADMK) have less use for this now, for they are well integrated in the power set up both in the centre and in the state, their regional bourgeoisie and rural elite base's interests being well helped out by the parties' involvement in power structures at the centre for about 2 decades now. Yet, even in a fast urbanising Tamil Nadu, there are various sections which have grievances that have remained unfulfilled in the "silent revolution" orchestrated by the Dravidian parties. The political forces that represent these sections, such as the party purporting to represent the Vanniyars, the Pattali Makkal Katchi of S. Ramadoss or the one claiming to represent the Dalits, the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi, have taken recourse to that lingua franca of "protecting Tamil" and "Tamil interests". Yet, these two parties are in opposite fronts, for the instrumentality of being relevant in the electoral arena overcomes their unity on the Eelam issue. And there is the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of firebrand speaker Vaiko, who sees his diminishing fortunes as a leader of a fading outfit, having only one crutch to stand on - uncompromising support to the Eelam cause. 

The Left in Tamil Nadu has different positions as well. The CPI has suddenly discovered a rallying point for its fortunes in the state and they were the first to articulate opposition to the war situation in Lanka. They have scrupulously avoided taking a pro-LTTE stance, but that does not mean that they wouldn't rent and share their platforms to LTTE apologist Pazha Nedumaran or the pro-LTTE parties. The CPI(M) has consistently advocated a federal solution to the Lankan issue, have always denounced the LTTE and the military solution, but somewhere among the cacophony of voices and the gaggle of alliance building, the party's position remains unheard. 

All said, the events in the Vanni has indeed evoked a response from the Tamil people in India, but that response has found itself mired in the grotesque polity that is Tamil Nadu's today. The Indian government has reacted to this gaggle of voices from TN's polity in its own measure - keeping away from the affairs of Sri Lanka understandably but providing tacit support to the cause of defeating the LTTE. Then there is also the geopolitical factor that looms over the issue. 

China & India

Much of the arms,ammunition and military hardware that the GoSL has used against its own people and its civil war adversaries have been sourced from China. It need not be reiterated that the foreign policy of the Chinese is driven by its own "pragmatic" calculations, be it its relative silence on the unjust occupation of Iraq, or in its closeness with such regimes as in Myanmar and many others in Africa. It is the same "pragmatic" calculation that drives its policy of helping the GoSL with generous arms supply, and that certainly tilted the military balance in the SLA's favour, no doubt. The Indian reaction has been a mix of "realist" alarm and "realist" angst (check Indian Home Minister P.Chidambaram's statement on the issue).

India's meddling in the northern parts of Sri Lanka has had a deleterious effect on the conflict, as was played out in the disastrous Indian Peace Keeping Force intervention or in the earlier covert training provided to the various rebel outfits. Since Rajiv Gandhi's assassination by the LTTE, the Indian establishment has understandably taken a hands-off approach vis-a-vis Sri Lanka, which had paid some dividends – good relations with the country and lessening the complications a bit in the conflict. But that doesn't mean that the bad habits of the earlier “Indian supremacy in the sub-continent” endorsers have been wiped off.

Check this from an ex-secret service officer - look at the advocacy (Point No 10 in article) for further mischief in Sri Lanka not because of genuine solidarity to the much suffering Tamil populace, but for the domination of Indian interests in the sub continent. For these elements, the China factor is alarming; it confirms their suspicion that China is engaged in a "string of pearls" strategy to engulf India and their reaction has to be cut from the same "pragmatist/realist" fold.  

International Community

The rest of the international community has took to this issue with more rigour than in the near past. Since the international animus to all forms of terror was substantiated after the 9/11 events, there had been a crackdown of overt and covert material support to the LTTE in the various countries of the world hosting Tamil diaspora. That was the first bugle that sounded the death-knell of the LTTE.

Today, the large turn out of protesters among the Tamil diaspora in New York, London, Ottawa and elsewhere, many of them distraught with the slaughter of their brethren has indeed touch a chord. The UN security council in an informal session condemned the LTTE's actions and asked for the organisation to lay down arms, and in the same breath asked for the GoSL to stop the conflict that has resulted in this humanitarian catastrophe. An informal session of the UN asked for the LTTE to disarm itself and for the Sri Lankan government to address the catastrophe with the highest priority.

The gist of this write up so far is that domestically and internationally, the stress on political expediency or on “pragmatism” and realism has meant that the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni region goes on unabated with the main protagonists – the LTTE and the SLA going about their ways with impunity. Caught in the crossfire, the Tamil people of the Vanni have been either slaughtered or have been rendered limbless, homeless and much traumatised.

What is to be done?

What does this writer think is needed to be done? Domestically, the GoSL must stress an non-military end to the conflict, even if it has the upper hand, simply to avoid a major human bloodbath of remaining citizenry in the area. And the government should stop its nonsensical rhetoric of “war on terror” which has drawn a loose and very visible veil over the real ethnic problem. A very simple question can be asked that will call the Lankan bluff on the issue. Does its Lankan Army have a single Tamil officer of note fighting against the LTTE? The answer is a plain no. And that affirmatively means that this is indeed a civil war involving two ethnicities. And therefore the primary issue of a deepening ethnic divide and a long un-addressed issue of minority rights, federal powers has to be the first basis of concern. Which cannot be addressed right-away if the essence is on a “muzzle the dissent”, “crush the opposition no matter what” approach. A ceasefire and an ordered disarming of the LTTE is still feasible if the government decides to do that when it is still ahead of the military game. This should follow a massive humanitarian operation to provide shelter, medical aid to the traumatised residents of the Vanni and a plan to quickly resettle the inhabitants in their original domiciles following an armistice with the LTTE.

As for the LTTE, its bluff was already called by its many a disastrous course of action. Years of acts of terror orchestrated by its megalomaniac leader, and reliance on methods that do not have any legitimate currency in a world that is tired of “terror” have ensured that the organisation is now irrelevant to the present and the future of the Tamils if it continues to exist as it does today. That doesn't mean that the acres of support that the organisation enjoys among the diaspora who have been still peeved by the injustices of the past will wither away suddenly. The LTTE has to now, utilise that support to first address the humanitarian issue in the Vanni, and next go in for a political solution that involves other Tamil representatives. It can possibly do that, by accepting an armistice and disarming itself rather than keep the quixotic fight and driving more of the Tamil citizenry to starvation and doom. The LTTE's more sinister leaders such as Prabhakaran and intelligence chief Pottu Amman can then be tried under international law for their many actions considering their surrenders sympathetically. The culmination of such a trajectory of actions is possible if the diaspora acts responsibly, in solidarity with their suffering brethren.

Other Tamil leaders who have been antagonistic to the LTTE can press for the GoSL to go about this humanely and to politically address the federal solution. International pressure can be used to bring about this culmination as well. India should play a lead role in this in dialogue with UNSC P-5. Unlike other nations, Sri Lanka has nary a strategic value for imperialism to play a debilitating role over here. India and China can open a channel of talks and play a more positive role with the already involved set of international actors such as Norway and Japan to bring this possibility of a lasting federal solution. And the position on a federal solution has to be well laid domestically within Tamil Nadu, defeating any irredentist tendency. Fortunately, the bulk of public opinion in Tamil Nadu is still rooted in such a solution, rather than any support for the Eelam cause.

Progressivism in the 21st century has to consider solutions to various complications such as “ethnic divide” and “irredentism” through means that are not arms and weapon-dependent. There remains no currency in struggles that are based exclusively on the demands of the barrel of guns, ostensibly acting for the demands of humanity and terming it battles for “self-determination” or “unity of the nation”. “Liberation through war” and “peace through war” are both oxymorons. It is high time that the LTTE and the GoSL realise this. The LTTE in this respect can learn some lessons from the Nepali Maoists for e.g and the GoSL from the Indian example of federalism as it came out in the 1950s and 60s.

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