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Wednesday, May 08, 2002

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Sri Lanka: Grappling with the LTTE dilemma

Rasheeda Bhagat

IT WAS an animated discussion over a sumptuous spread in the sylvan environs of the Taj Exotica at Bentota, about 65 km from Colombo. The academician at our table was attending an IMF/Ceylon Chambers of Commerce-sponsored conference on the need to step up private investment in education and was already upset at the idea of "looking for profitability and investment opportunities in the area of education".

"Oh yes, I made enough noise at the conference when my turn came," he said with some degree of satisfaction.

The talk then turned to the long and thorny road to peace in the conflict-ravaged tiny country. The correspondent of an Indian English daily, based in Colombo, took off on how any government could even think of making peace with an entity such as the LTTE. "After all, it is a fascist organisation," thundered the Indian journalist.

The academician, being the gentleman he was, tried to put forward the time-tested and academic arguments about the limited options before a sovereign entity. After all, thousands of lives had been lost in the last two decades, and the economy was on the brink, as the Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan armed forces were engaged in a bloody battle. How long could things go on like this, he asked.

The long and short of his argument, stoked by the well-spiced food, was that, as the military option had failed, the Sri Lankan establishment had little choice other than engaging the Tamil Tigers in any kind of political peace negotiation it could manage, keeping its fingers crossed that, this time around, a breakthrough would be made.

Even the strawberry ice-cream garnished with nuts could not keep temperatures from rising. And as the Indian journalist kept arguing that it would be foolhardy to expect a "fascist entity" such as the LTTE to honour any promise it makes, the academician decided enough was enough and, for a brief moment, dropped his genteel behaviour and snapped, "You keep on describing the LTTE as fascist and say we should not be doing business with them. But how come you Indians are allowing a fascist party to rule you? Fascist and communal elements are targeting minorities in Gujarat, and you tolerate that government."

There was a stunned silence, and it was left to this correspondent to break it by saying: "Touche."

Even as I landed at Colombo airport last week, a Muslim businessman, spotting the little Allah pendant around my neck, walked up and asked angrily, "I was in India for a week. Has your Government made Gujarat a factory for butchering Muslims?" But, while there is indeed concern among the Muslims of Sri Lanka about the happenings in Gujarat, they constitute barely 7-8 per cent of the island-state's 19 million people.

Queried on the level of concern in Sri Lanka, especially among the Muslim community, about the situation in Gujarat, Mr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, told Business Line: "The Muslims of Sri Lanka look upon the Gujarat situation fearfully. But the people are consumed by their own problems here and the developments on the peace front at home. Around the same time that things were happening in Gujarat, a feel-good factor was created for Muslims here when our Minister for Ports and Shipping, Mr Rauf Hakeem, was meeting the LTTE chief, V. Prabhakaran (a couple of days after the press conference) in the North."

The meeting was related to the complaints of Muslim businessmen in the East regarding extortions from the LTTE. With the LTTE chief's assurance, this problem has been solved for the time being.

Mr Jehan Perera, Media Director of the National Peace Forum of Sri Lanka, admitted that there was not much concern about Gujarat. "For one thing, we are a small country and not a powerful one at that. And Gujarat is very far away. Even if we are concerned, what can we do? Even if we issue a statement in this matter, what will be its effect? It's a matter out of our control and on which we can make no impact so we do not bother about it. Maybe it is not a good attitude and we should get more international."

So, at the moment, it is the peace process vis--vis the LTTE that engages almost everybody's attention in Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran's press conference is interpreted and re-interpreted in every which way.

Mr Perera said: "To me it was better than I had expected. I did not expect him to make any major concessions at that press conference. I was worried that he might, on the other hand, take a hard stance, reaffirming his commitment to Tamil Eelam.

"The very beginning of the press conference seemed to realise those fears of mine, because at the beginning he took the position that `we have not given up Eelam; that remains our goal'. But as the press conference went on, he began to cut back and finally ended up talking of internal self-determination, autonomy and self-governance. That was better than I had anticipated. I did not expect any major concessions, but I know there were people who expected Prabhakaran to come out and say `I have renounced Eelam and I'm going down to lay down weapons'," added Mr Perera.

That would have been wishful thinking indeed. But there is certainly an agitated Sinhala nationalist constituency in Sri Lanka, which still believes that the LTTE could and should have been militarily defeated. So, naturally, there is a huge uproar on the recent interceptions by the Sri Lankan Navy of LTTE vessels carrying weapons. While the government and the LTTE are making hugely contrary claims to the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission about these events, there is hardly any doubt that the LTTE can be expected to use the lull in hostilities to recoup and re-arm itself.

When asked to comment on whether he expected the LTTE to do this, Mr Saravanamuttu replied in the affirmative, adding, "The point, quite simply, is this; both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government will re-arm in this period because while they are committed to the peace process, they have to have an insurance policy."

But like many others in the island, he does not believe that the LTTE has been violating the MoU it signed with the government. "The MoU explicitly recognises the defence of the territorial integrity and that involves the naval dimension and that the government can intercept, and has in fact intercepted, LTTE arms supplies coming in."

One thing that cannot be denied is that the Sri Lankan Government is clearly on the backfoot when it comes to taking "tough measures" against the LTTE. In the history of secessionist movements, this is one rare occasion when an armed guerrilla separatist group has come forward for negotiations with the government from a position of military strength. Though after September 11 the LTTE lost much of its bargaining power, following the ban on the organisation by the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, not to mention India's long-time ban on the guerrilla group, it has still pushed Sri Lanka's economy to the brink.

Knowing well that the Sri Lankan Government has little choice but to deal with the LTTE and bring them to the negotiating table, the intellectual community is more than irked at India, particularly its media, for taking such a strident stand on the LTTE after Prabhakaran's press conference last month.

"Please don't scuttle our chances of peace because this is the best possible opportunity we may get in years," many people say in Colombo. Viewed in this background the Sri Lankan academic's outburst, mentioned earlier, is understandable.

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