Parties must look at the causes of the conflict afresh
By MSM Ayub
The proverbial question as to whether it is the hen or the egg that came first is being reminded time and again whenever the question as to whether it is a political solution or a military solution that should be sought for the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is taken for discussion. Some contend that a political solution is feasible only if the intransigency of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) is contained by military means while others claim as if prophetically that once a political solution acceptable to the Tamil people is presented, they will distance themselves from the LTTE and peace will prevail in the country.
Although the popular line of thinking is that the solution is one of political, the inner urge of the majority among any community is sometimes otherwise. Once “their people” gain an upper hand in the battle field any community’s love for the political solution would shrink proportionately as is currently seen in the southern parts of the country.
The irony is that those who champion the political solution too are so ferociously adamant in pressing for their model of solution and peace agenda that many of them pray for the elimination of those who advocate other forms of solution.
The debate between the political solution and the military solution has once again intensified with the ceremony held in Trincomalee Naval Headquarters on September 17 to welcome the naval officers and the sailors on board the flotilla that destroyed three LTTE cargo ships in the previous week. The Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa who participated at the ceremony with his elder brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that there could not be a permanent peace in the country until the LTTE is defeated militarily. This remark has opened a fresh round of debate.
The majority of the media, peace activists and a section of the diplomatic community seemed to interpret Gothabaya’s comment as a sign of Government opting for a military solution. And three days later on September 20, US Ambassador Robert Blake during a ceremony at Orugodawatte for handing over US Agency for International Development (USAID) food assistance to Sri Lanka said that the US and other donor countries did not support a military solution to the conflict and they believed the solution lies in a negotiated settlement that meets the aspirations of all the communities of Sri Lanka.
The Defence Secretary’s comment came on the eve of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to New York to attend the 62nd UN general assembly where he is to meet leaders and top diplomats of various countries including the US and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the Sri Lankan peace issue is expected to be transpired in those deliberations. The bigwigs in the Government wanted to make things easy for the President at the meetings with the world leaders ,and they attempted to smoothen the effects of the defence secretary’s remarks.
Gothabaya himself in an interview with a local newspaper said that his remark has been misinterpreted as Government is inclined to find a military solution and assured Government is not going to exploit the militarily conducive situation that now exists. The Defence Secretary went one step further calling on the LTTE to make a genuine effort at the negotiating table.
Given the history of the peace processes in Sri Lanka and the track record of the LTTE one can argue that Gothabaya’s initial remark is not totally incorrect. Government on various occasions has entered into peace negotiations with the LTTE and other Tamil political parties and groups during several Presidential tenures, but never successful in persuading the LTTE in touching upon the so-called core issues or the fundamental problems of the Tamil people that are said to be the root cause of the ethnic problem and the Tamil insurgency.
The famous Thimpu talks between June and August in1985 where the core issues were taken up were a half-hearted and self-deceitful venture both by the Government of President JR Jayawardene and the Tamil armed groups and parties, since all of them were conducted to the negotiating table with the force of the Indian Government cudgel.
Later, both parties provided each other possible excuses for the breach of the talks, killing on the one hand two northern Tamil MPs, Alalasundaram of Mannar and Dharmalingam of Koppai, by the Tamil groups and many civilians in Jaffna by the security forces on the other. That was the end of the first peace encounter of the Sri Lankan ethnic adversaries.
Then came the historic “Indo-Lanka Peace Accord” followed by talks between JR Jayawardene regime and the Tiger rebels through Indian mediators and another “historic” event-laying down of arms by the Tigers in 1987. There, the brawl between the Government and the Tigers on the leadership of the proposed Interim Administration preceded the fundamental problems of Tamil people and brought the peace hopes to an end.
Collapse of the peace talks between the R Premadasa government and the Tigers is another instance to ponder on. Both parties took up as their common interest the expulsion of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the core issues were completely overshadowed by the day-to-day problems caused by the war. Once the de-induction of the IPKF was achieved the parties never returned to the table to talk either about core issues or about day-to-day problems, leaving the guns to talk.
The core issues or the problems of the Tamil people never came up for solution during the peace talks the Tigers held with the regimes of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe either. During the tenure of Kumaratunga it was again the “conducive situation for talks” and at the Wickremesinghe’s time the Interim Administration eclipsed the real problem.
In all these negotiations high security zones, fishing restrictions, embargoes on transporting of certain items and similar restrictions on the lives of the people in north and east were the main issues to be considered. They are the direct consequences of the war and no one would be able to reverse the situation without remedying the cause of the war. There is no point in pressurizing any Governments to lift these restrictions in the name of peace. This fact was proved again and again by the failure of each peace process.
The three decade old traditional presumption that once a solution presented by the government is accepted by the Tamil people Tigers would be cornered is a utopian wishful thinking so long as Tigers control almost all forms of information that could take the message of the solution to the people and occasional alienation of Tamil people by the state continues.
It is understandable when the countries that grant aid to Sri Lanka press the Government for a peaceful negotiated settlement. But at the same time it is illogical on their part to call the Sri Lankan government to talk to a group that is treated as a terrorist outfit both by Sri Lankan Government and the donor countries themselves.The western notion “war on terror” does not go hand in hand with US Ambassador’s advice to Sri Lanka. United States never at least imagined talking to Al-Qaida Organization or for that matter to a Government such as that of Taliban.
These were the arguments made and being made at various forums in favour of a military solution. However, will the Government on the other hand go for a political settlement in the event the LTTE is completely crushed? That is the most important question arising out of Gothabaya’s remark.
No sane man will conclude that any government will tend to seek a political settlement unless it is pressurized by the war burden and the threat on the lives of the leaders of the government. Even with so many pressures and threats on the lives of the poitical leaders- leave alone as they do usually the threats on the lives of the ordinary people- political parties were not able to agree on issues such as equal language use, human rights of all communities, communal and religious tolerance and right to life of “others”. Then will they make agreements among them on these issues and solve the ethnic problem without a war?
At the same time one might ask as to what would be there to talk and solve if the war is won. This is not a hypothetical question for it has been raised a few times in history by the leaders who were responsible in solving the conflict. For instance during the JVP insurrection the government of President Premadasa was inviting the southern rebels for negotiations on giving up the armed struggle up to November 12 1989. The JVP founder leader Rohana Wijeweera was apprehended by the security forces on that day and was killed on the following day. At the first cabinet briefing after the killing a journalist asked the then powerful State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne if the government was still calling on the JVP for talks and the Minister in return quipped “is there a JVP to talk now.
He might have not thought that the manifestation of political infidelity of a government towards a section of the populace will demean the credibility of it among other sections of the society as well including the Tamil rebels.
After the capture of Thoppigala President Mahinda Rajapaksa too during a speech said that now that we have solved the eastern people’s problem we are looking forward to solve the northern people’s problems as well, apparently equating military victory to the final solution .
Will the security forces be able to capture the Northern Province? How many months or years or decades will it take? How much resources – human and economic- is the country going to lose in this endeavour? Although we might find answers to these questions we will not be able to find an answer to the question whether there will not be a resurgence of Tamil insurgency without politically meeting their aspirations.
The ultimate result is that the not so politicized common man has been compelled to long for a solution for decades weighing the proverbial hen and the egg. Armed clashes will continue until the parties agree to view the whole issue afresh and dig out the root causes of the problem in order to find an amicable solution across the table, as history has proved .
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Thursday, September 27, 2007
Parties must look at the causes of the conflict afresh