Why LTTE will not negotiate for political settlement?

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The ethnic problem that had remained unresolved for several decades largely because of the power struggle between the two main rival parties is the cause of the LTTE’s continuing armed struggle for the creation of a separate Tamil state in the North-East not linked politically with the rest of the island. After two decades of fighting the people were desperate for peace that had eluded them despite some hope during the suspension of hostilities for brief periods. At last in 2002, the word ‘peace’ was truly in the hearts and minds of all civilians in Sri Lanka after the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) came into effect on 23 February 2002, followed by the prompt removal of road barricades in Colombo and elsewhere. The people in the North and South were able to travel freely from one province to another either on business or to visit their relatives. Although a few politically inclined zealots had reservation on the contents of the agreement, there was no loud cry demanding its abrogation. The euphoria evaporated following the collapse of the ‘Peace Talks’ in 2003. And today according to one columnist, “if some one talks about peace either he is labeled as a terrorist or some one who assist terrorists”! An analysis of how this sea change happened is useful to understand the underlying factors hindering peace process, which depends crucially on advancing simultaneously a suitable political process. Hopefully, this will help towards taking the right approach to lasting peace.

The LTTE supreme leader has vowed not to abandon his dogmatic goal and as promised has gone for it relentlessly during the past two decades. Very little has happened by way of actions to annul the claim for separation. As some enlightened persons have pointed out this could have been done without major changes to the present Constitution. The political will to act according to stated intents was lacking. There was no concerted move to bridge the gulf between the divided communities and build mutual trust. The ethnic division was the result of shortsighted government policies introduced to win the support of the Sinhalese people whose votes were crucial for seizing and holding on to power. Competitive party politics influenced opportunistic decisions ignoring their adverse effects on national unity, balanced development and political stability.

The LTTE exploited the biased actions that hurt the minority Tamils as well as the inaction that perpetuated their problems to justify the case for separation. Its own stances, strategies and actions have also been meant to bolster the conditions for separation. The LTTE leader has demonstrated clearly his steadfastness to independent Tamil Eelam by rejecting the December 2002 Oslo communiqué issued after the Government and the LTTE negotiating teams agreed to seek a political settlement based on a suitable federal structure. The assassination of Tamil leaders, considered as traitors or hinderers because of their attempts to seek a settlement within one unified country by the LTTE cadres, including the lethal suicide bombers also highlighted the determination to pursue resolutely the Tamil Eelam goal. Constitutional expert cum politician Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, who strived for an alternative to separation based on the concept of regional autonomy within one Union was considered a hinderer and eliminated. In this backdrop, the crucial question is: Will the LTTE leader seriously consider negotiating for a political settlement far short of those proposed by such ‘hinderers’ and ‘traitors’, let alone his own fervent goal?

Ameen Izzadeen in his article (Khaleej Times Online 20 February 2007) has lucidly described the current despicable situation with no sign of an end to the killings (3000 in 2006), abductions and disappearances in the North-East (more than 600 last year). To quote: “Sri Lanka would probably go into history or find a place in Ripley’s – Believe It or Not – as the country where ceasefire means full-scale war. The parties to the document signed on February 22, 2002, continue to kill each other, yet they say they are adhering to the ceasefire agreement (CFA). Neither side has abrogated the agreement though the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) — the Scandinavian body tasked with refereeing the truce — has recorded thousands of ceasefire violations. (By 2006 end, the CFA had been violated 3,827 times by the LTTE, and 346 times by the Sri Lankan forces.) That the fifth anniversary of the ceasefire agreement is talked about is proof enough that the agreement still exists, albeit on paper”. The main aim of the CFA was ‘bringing an end to the hostilities and improving the living conditions for all inhabitants affected by the conflict’. Although the preamble states, bringing an end to the hostilities is also ‘a means of establishing a positive atmosphere in which further steps towards a lasting solution can be taken’, it did not specify that the solution would be within the framework of undivided country. Had this word ‘undivided’ been included, the LTTE leader would not have signed the agreement.

The prolonged volatile conditions have deprived the livelihoods, human rights and in general the welfare of the vast majority of the people, especially those residing in the conflict zone The country too has suffered immensely by high military expenditures depriving funds for the alleviation of poverty (half the island’s population are considered to be poor and a quarter in abject state), improvement of education , health and other social services, maintenance of infrastructure and investment in the manufacturing and other productive sectors. The messed up situation has also led to widespread corruption affecting the efficacy of public services, notably the enforcement of law and order. Ironically, those in responsible positions seem to be unconcerned about the malpractices in the public sector that are hurting immensely the poor people. The corrupt system has visibly widened the gap between the rich and poor. While the majority of the people are suffering and some even without decent shelter and adequate food, a small minority is enjoying life having lavish birthday parties and visiting exotic places abroad including safari parks in Africa!

After December 2002 Oslo Talks

The future of the peace process that began early 2002 with wide support and great hope, after the rejection of the Oslo communiqué by the LTTE leader became bleak. Many hopefuls failed to see the disaster lying ahead. Norway did not persuade the rebels to stick with the understanding reached during the third round of Talks held in Oslo. The statement issued by the Royal Norwegian Government at the conclusion of the December 2-5 meeting in Oslo was very encouraging that many described the Talks as historic. Norway ignored the blow and continued with the facilitative work. A golden opportunity was dearly missed by all parties, especially the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Its significance was also not seen by the so-called international community, which continued to call repeatedly for the resumption of the negotiation and the peace process. LTTE leader’s red light was ignored by the international stakeholders, who believed that aid pledges and dialogue will induce the parties to compromise.

The way the LTTE dissociated from the Oslo communiqué is also relevant here. It showed the limit within which the LTTE’s negotiating team could discuss and decide, albeit the leadership of the late Anton Balasingham widely acknowledged as the theoretician cum political adviser of the separatist movement. The real objective of the so-called ‘peace talks’ was not the permanent settlement of the conflict via compromise and constitutional reform or the adoption of a new constitution without endangering ‘the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka’, the phrase repeated like mantra by India. Had the LTTE not rejected the Oslo understanding and steadfastly pressed for it afterwards, the government would have been put on the spot. Any reluctance of the Sri Lankan government to adopt a federal system or ducking it would have enhanced LTTE’s international standing and importantly reconfirmed the basic difficulties of the ethnic minorities in replacing Sinhalese majoritarian rule by an equitable power-sharing system.

Except for Anton Balasingham who was settled in London since 1971, all other team members were living in the LTTE controlled parts of North-East Sri Lanka. The LTTE members at home knew the fixed mindset of their leader and also the fact that no agreement can be reached on key political issues without his consent. Anton Balasingham, when he agreed to explore a suitable federal model on the principle of ‘the right to internal self-determination’ must have thought that he would be able to persuade the LTTE supremo not to object to the federal stand taken by him in Oslo. The leader’s rejection of the statement issued by the facilitator cum host the Royal Norwegian Government at the conclusion of the third round of ‘Peace Talks’ would have made him realize the limit of his power of influence. The ‘chief negotiator’ might have been successful in convincing the Norwegians that he could sway the thinking of V. Prabhakaran on political matters giving them hope their efforts to help in settling the conflict through the CFA would eventually succeed. Since the CFA did not give much importance to political settlement of the conflict, there was no agreed political framework or time frame within which the core issues should be discussed for a political settlement. In fact, the issues behind the ethnic problem are not the prime concern of the LTTE.

Having realized the impracticality of achieving the original goal, Anton Balasingham must have thought of the federal option before the Oslo talks. He is known to be Prabhakaran’s Heroes’ Day speech writer. The LTTE leader in his 2002 Heroes’ Day address said: “As a distinct people they (Sri Lankan Tamils) are entitled to the right to self-determination. The right to self-determination has two aspects: internal and external. The internal self-determination entitles a people to regional self-rule. The Tamil people want to live in freedom and dignity in their own lands, in their historically constituted traditional lands without the domination of external forces. They want to protect their national identity pursuing the development of their language, culture and economy. They want to live in their homeland under a system of self-rule. This is the political aspiration of our people. This constitutes the essential meaning of internal self-determination. We are prepared to consider favourably a political framework that offers substantial regional autonomy and self-government in our homeland on the basis of our right to internal self-determination”. The word federal was not mentioned and what the LTTE leader had in mind was a confederation and this was evident from the ISGA (Interim Self-governing Authority) proposals submitted a year later.

After the ‘path finding’ Talks, what the two leaders of the negotiating teams said at the joint press conference held on 5 December 2002 at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in Oslo also reveal the two different interpretations of the meaning of ‘internal self-determination’. The late Balasingham said: “This model of self-government we were referring to has to be couched or properly conceptialised within an appropriate constitutional form. That is why we decided that we would opt for a federal model. This federal model will be within a united Sri Lanka, which will be appreciated by the Sinhalese people. The leader of the Sri Lankan government team, Minister G. L. Peiris in support and further elucidation of the statement of his partner Anton Balasingham said: “The LTTE is no longer insisting on a separate state. And the LTTE is looking at a separate (different) concept, which is ‘internal self-determination’. It was power sharing – Extensive power sharing within the framework of one country. No question of secession, no question of separation. But power sharing within the framework of one country. That is the point of departure. Immediately that provided us with a coherent framework to evolve a negotiated political solution. …….Now we have a clear idea of the nature of the political solution the parties are working towards. It is not separatism, it is not confederation.” Thus the ‘right to internal self-determination’ had been interpreted in Oslo and Vanni from two different perspectives.

TNA’s role

The way the LTTE is structured and operates solo under one leader responsible for major military strategies and all policy decisions shows the inflexibility of his political aim. This was never intended to be achieved through negotiation. Even after nearly 25 years of armed struggle, there is no established party that could be regarded as LTTE’s political wing. The TNA with 22 elected representatives in the Parliament is only the mouth piece of the LTTE. No TNA member was included in the LTTE team sent abroad for the direct talks with the Sri Lankan government delegation. The LTTE has not embraced multi-party democratic system for it to set up its own political party or to link up with an established political party. The TNA is not LTTE’s Sinn Fein but its representative to speak and act as told. The alliance of four Tamil parties has no influence to even persuade the LTTE to take a moderate/realistic stand on issues relevant to political settlement, let alone negotiate on their behalf with the Sri Lankan government. TNA was used indirectly at the last parliamentary election to justify the LTTE’s claim that it is the sole representative of the Tamil people in the North-East.

In the decisive field, the active players so far have been the Sinhalese polity with the hardliners opposed to structural change playing a disruptive role, the LTTE claiming to be the sole representative of Tamils in the North-East and the Co-chairs of the 2003 Tokyo Donors’ (Sri Lanka Development) Forum (US, Japan, EU and the facilitator Norway). India the key player opted to remain on the sideline because of her past bitter experience. Despite repeated calls by the Co-chairs urging India to join them in overseeing the peace process in Sri Lanka, the latter declined. There are many Sri Lankans on either side of the ethnic divide who now feel strongly that the crisis will not end without India’s involvement. India too is not serving humanity, the doctrine of her illustrious son and liberator of the oppressed people, Mahatma Gandhi by opting to remain on the sideline. Incidentally, during Indira Gandhi’s time India would not have tolerated other countries encroaching into her territory of influence!

LTTE’s dilemma

The LTTE announced November last year that 18,742 members of the outfit have been killed during the 24 years of its armed rebellion of whom 4,065 were female cadres. 299 cadres had died in suicide attacks, the majority of 220 in the course of attacks at sea. An estimated 2,250 LTTE cadres got killed since the ceasefire. Even the losses and suffering endured by the Tamil people are considered as contributions to the struggle for ‘independence’. So it is oversimplification to assume that the day-to-day problems faced by the Tamils as members of minority ethnic group can be resolved unconditionally by talking with the LTTE. Any negotiation for a settlement within one unified State is loathsome to the LTTE leader. The ethnic problem afflicts not only the Tamil-speaking speaking people in the North-East but also others settled in other provinces. The LTTE leader has at the very beginning of Eelam war told that he is only concerned about the North-East and the Tamils living outside should seek solutions to their problems by other means or move to the North-East region (Tamil homeland).

Moreover, the violent struggle for Tamil Eelam by its very nature has created difficulties for the LTTE to settle the conflict amicably via the negotiation process. Promoting racial hatred and distrust has been integral to the overall strategy to divide the island into two separate States. It also has internal ramification, as it entailed the killing of thousands of Tamil civilians, including intellectuals and forced conscription of children. More recently, tens of thousands of Tamil and Muslim families had to endure immense suffering because of the problems created by Eelam War IV launched early last year. Since January 2006 about 20,000 Tamils have managed to flee to south India in small fishing boats and have taken refuge in temporary camps set up by the Tamil Nadu government. Some were unlucky; they died before reaching the Indian coast. According to recent reports, the traffickers have been dropping the fleeing passengers, including women and children on sand dunes in the Palk Strait. The lucky ones were later picked up by Indian coast guards and taken to refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. More than 200,000 Tamils and Muslims are internally displaced since the resumption of hostilities last year. Not all of them consider the security forces to be mainly responsible for their plight.

International Community (IC)

The LTTE leader in his 2006 Heroes’ Day statement said: “The uncompromising stance of Sinhala chauvinism has left us with no other option but an independent state for the people of Tamil Eelam. We, therefore, ask the international community and the countries of the world that respect justice to recognize our freedom struggle”. LTTE’s statement issued on 22 February 2007 on the fifth anniversary of the CFA reiterates the decision to continue the struggle for independent state, albeit the recent setbacks in the East and the threat of military attacks in the North. The LTTE has blamed the International Community (IC) for turning a blind eye to the Sri Lankan government’s military operations and forsaking the oppressed Tamil people. Blaming others, while ignoring their own blunders has been the habit of the Tamil Tigers. In this regard, it is to be noted that no specific reference is made in the statement to India’s stand on conflict resolution, which is not different from that of the other concerned members of the IC.

The latter is faulted for:- (i) Unhelpful engagement in the peace effort which had the effect of encouraging the Sri Lankan state to pursue a military solution to the national question. (ii) The unwillingness to take concrete measures and exert pressure on the Sri Lankan government to abandon its aggression in its pursuit of the military option has contributed to rendering the CFA defunct. (iii) Unfairly taking punitive measures against the LTTE, seriously undermining the LTTE’s status as an equal party in the negotiation process and thereby weakening the peace process itself. This international bias against the LTTE further strengthened the government’s intransigence and encouraged it to adopt even more hard line positions. (iv)The failure to take concrete action against the Sri Lankan state to stop serious breaches of the CFA or its widespread and systematic human rights violations has contributed to war like conditions in the Tamil homeland. (v) The continued failure, despite the volume of independently gathered evidence, to take effective steps to curb the state’s abuses, is turning the Tamil homeland into an Asian Darfur. (vi) The insistence on a solution that does not infringe on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka which is deeply frustrating for the Tamil people. The statement also said that the denial of the Tamil people’s will is itself a breach of the law of self-determination.

This allegation highlights the unwillingness to negotiate on the basis of indivisible Sri Lanka. In conclusion the statement says: “The Sri Lankan government’s ongoing war of aggression, aimed at the subjugation of the Tamil people under the guise of ‘war on Terrorism’, will add to the bloodstained pages of the island’s history. It has also compelled the Tamil people to resume their freedom struggle to realize their right to self – determination and to achieve statehood.”

Despite some powerful countries labeling the LTTE as a terrorist organization, the call of the IC, including India to negotiate with the Sri Lankan government unconditionally is induced by their concern for the Tamil people treated unfairly under the majoritarian Constitution. No country has called for the decommissioning of the weapons in LTTE’s possession. Also no country wants a military solution or the annihilation of the LTTE. According to Indian military leaders their forces could have destroyed the LTTE during the ‘Peace Keeping’ time in North-East Sri Lanka but were not allowed by their political leadership. Also India is aware of the long history of broken promises and unfulfilled pacts of Sri Lankan governments and the need for a powerful entity to secure and safeguard the rights of minority Tamils. India’s role as a guarantor of the provisions of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord must be seen in this context. New Delhi is pressing now for maximum devolution in Sri Lanka to enable the minority ethnic groups to live free from majoritarian rule which some regard as responsible for Sinhalese hegemony. India’s firm position on the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka is well known. No country will ignore India and recognize a separate Tamil state in the island that is established differently from India’s Tamil Nadu. It is sagacious to appeal to India for direct inputs for arriving at a political settlement that is seen by all as safe and assured.

Indo Asian News Service reported on 25 February, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert Blake (who narrowly escaped serious injuries in the recent mortar attack in Batticaloa) in the telephone interview warned against attempts to underestimate the LTTE and asserted that they cannot be defeated militarily. He said that “his country ‘respectfully disagreed’ with those in Sri Lanka who feel a military solution was possible to end the dragging Tamil separatist campaign”. He made it clear that only devolution of powers that satisfy the ‘legitimate aspirations’ of the Tamil minority could be the basis for any negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. He also pointed out that “there would be costs (to pay) to a military strategy. The most important thing in our view is to come up with a credible (political) process.” By asking the Government and the LTTE to negotiate for a political settlement based on substantial devolution of powers, the Ambassador said that the LTTE will have a chance to demonstrate their readiness to negotiate in good faith, given “their record of 20 years (that) shows they have never seriously pursued the peace option”. He hoped the proposals of the SL Government “will be credible to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people in particular and also of the other communities”. The importance of this statement must be seen not only from the perspective of solving the problem caused by the division of the people into majority and minority ethnic groups but also convincing the Tamils and indeed the whole world that there is no case for separation under the restructured governing system.

Also, Dr. Kim Howells, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in his statement issued by the British High Commission in Colombo, prior to his fact-finding visit to Sri Lanka mid February, observed: “A military victory for one side is very unlikely to produce a lasting political solution.” He also mentioned: “Our experience tells us that a ‘war for peace’ approach inevitably means more war, rather than peace. And violence comes with too high a price. It is the people who suffer, as human rights erodes, the humanitarian situation deteriorates and mistrust between communities increases. This, in turn, damages Sri Lanka’s image in the eyes of the world.”

The British Minister during the meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa on February 15 conveyed Britain’s offer to talk directly with the Tamil Tigers as part of a bigger role in Sri Lanka’s peace process, which at present exists in name only. After this meeting he told reporters in Colombo: “We asked the President a very specific question. How do you feel about a situation where we might talk to the LTTE and he said – as long as it is part of the peace-building process, we have no objections”. Since the LTTE is a banned organization in the UK, he explained how this would be possible. He said: “We only speak to terrorist organisations if it’s part of that peace building process. We certainly are prepared to engage in conversation with representatives of the LTTE if those conversations are part of the peace process, which we believe will lead to peace.”

Dr. Howells message presumes Great Britain is in a position to influence the Tiger leadership with their experience in transforming the violent Northern Ireland conflict into the current political process following the 1998 ‘Good Friday Agreement’. This also shows the eagerness of influential countries to help in settling the destructive conflict in Sri Lanka. The Tamils yearning for peace should appreciate the interest shown by foreign countries to secure an environment conducive for lasting peace, ethnic harmony and future well-being of the people in all ethnic communities. Separation does not assure peace and prosperity throughout the island. The Tamil leadership failed miserably to sustain the enormous sympathy and support of the IC for the Tamil cause that prevailed during the early period of the liberation struggle. On the contrary, political killings, violence directed against unarmed civilians, child conscription and in general, the belief political objectives could be achieved solely by violent methods have earned their displeasure.

A brief examination of the major factors that enabled the peace process in Northern Ireland to end violence and strive for a power sharing arrangement presented in a separate article will also help to grasp the difficulties in reaching a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Sri Lanka, given the intransigence of the extremists on either side. Moreover, third parties played a significant role in Northern Ireland’s peace process. Unfortunately, there have been no similar intermediaries to promote a credible peace/political process in Sri Lanka. As mentioned earlier the conspiracy of both parties to the conflict to throw out India was a costly mistake that is hurting all yearning for durable peace. Nevertheless, as US Ambassador Blake has said: “At this point of time, without a proposal, there is nothing to negotiate over. (Not even talk about negotiation!) The most important thing in our view is to come up with a credible (political) process”. It is not the LTTE but the Sinhalese polity that will be blamed, if the final set of proposals turns out to be trivial (some think it will not go beyond the 13th Amendment) with no definite prospect of reasonable power-sharing among the different ethnic groups.

It is unrealistic to expect the extreme nationalistic parties to support the joint proposals of the liberal parties in the government and opposition. This was evident from the hostile reaction of Sinhalese nationalists/supremacists to the majority report of the Expert Panel. Sri Lanka has paid a heavy price more than once by yielding to the pressure of extremists in the South. It is they who created and sustained the case for separation, which the militant Tamil separatists are trying to bring it to fruition. Sri Lanka can no longer afford to be dictated by such groups whose ideas of peace, development and patriotism are illusive in the 21st century.

Connected Article: Brief analysis of the peace process in Northern Ireland – Lessons for Sri Lanka. By Dr. S. Narapalasingam – Tamil Week March 4-10, 2007.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

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