|In post-LTTE Sri Lankan politics some Sinhalese nationalist groups will need to invent a new enemy, and it is likely to be India.|
“Endgame for the LTTE.” That is how the media described the Sri Lanka Army’s entry into Mullaithivu town, seemingly the last stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It is clear that the LTTE’s military backbone has been broken decisively by the advancing military forces of the Sri Lankan state.
At the time of writing, the remaining LTTE cadre, trapped in a small area in the Mullaithivu jungles, seem to be fighting a losing battle. Many thousands of civilians are also trapped along with the LTTE. There does not seem to be any respite for these civilians, all of them obviously struggling in absolute fear and in extremely precarious and terrifyingly harsh conditions. The warring sides have also been playing politics out of the fate of these helpless civilians. The international actors, other than making pious statements, are waiting and watching how the “endgame” will end a civil war they have come to view as an unwanted and unending headache.
Branded by the media as Eelam War IV, the present phase of Sri Lanka’s prolonged civil war began in early 2006. When one recalls the way in which the government and the LTTE resumed large-scale hostilities despite an internationally monitored Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) being in force, one cannot ignore the fact that both sides, for different reasons, wanted an early return to war. The LTTE appeared to be impatient to get back to war as early as possible, while the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was more subtle in its agenda of war, at least by appearing to explore the negotiation option first.
Soon after coming to power in November 2005, President Rajapaksa initiated talks with the LTTE. Two rounds of talks were held in Geneva in early 2006, but they served no purpose except producing arguments for both the government and the LTTE to justify their commitment to resuming the war. The LTTE also gave enough reasons for the Rajapaksa administration to make the claim that the war was thrust upon the new government by the war-hungry Tigers themselves.
The LTTE’s assassination attempts on Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and the military provocations in the Eastern Province in 2006 were good enough reasons for the government to make a convincing case to resume the war. Until early 2008, they engaged in an escalating and “undeclared” war of attrition. When the government withdrew from the CFA in January 2008, the war was already at a point of no return.
In a way, the resumption of the war in 2006 was the inevitable outcome of what had occurred during the previous few years in relation to the peace efforts. When Rajapaksa assumed office Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict was at a peculiar stage where a strong argument for returning to war at the expense of resuming negotiations commanded support and legitimacy both in Colombo and in Kilinochchi.
In Sinhalese society, particularly among the Sinhalese political and media establishments, the assessment of the 2002-03 peace initiative between the United National Front (UNF) government and the LTTE was an exceedingly negative one. There was almost a consensus that both the negotiations and the CFA had favoured only the LTTE while endangering national security and state sovereignty and damaging the dignity of the majority Sinhalese community. The LTTE’s assessment was that the peace process had weakened it internally, brought economic benefits to the state and produced no tangible advantage to the Tamils.
Thus, influential actors in Sri Lanka’s politics viewed the outcome of the 2002-03 peace process from ethnicised perspectives of unilateral gains and losses. For them, the peace process was an aberration, an unfavourable state of affairs that needed to be reversed. Neither the domestic civil society nor the international actors could intervene effectively to prevent Sri Lanka’s relapse into war. War was the logical option available after a failed peace attempt in a conflict that operated within a binary framework of war versus peace.
Only the tsunami of December 2004 could delay the inevitable return to large-scale hostilities. In a way, what Rajapaksa did as President, in opting to go to war, was not his own choice. It was a choice prepared for him by others – his predecessors in government, his partners in his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition, his media and intellectual well-wishers and, of course, his adversary, the LTTE.
It is against this backdrop that a fairly appealing argument also developed among policy circles in Colombo that only a military solution would lay the foundations for a sustainable and durable political solution to the ethnic conflict. In their analysis, negotiations as well as the strategy of militarily weakening the LTTE to force it to come to a peace settlement had failed in the past. What was new in the Rajapaksa administration’s approach was the goal of defeating, as opposed to weakening, the LTTE militarily and then making the LTTE irrelevant to any political solution to the ethnic conflict.
The most surprising outcome of this war is not the LTTE’s impending defeat, but its inability to achieve its objective of a battle-ground stalemate. From the government’s point of view, the military objective was very clear: to defeat the LTTE militarily in a prolonged, sustained and multi-pronged offensive. The Rajapaksa government was also determined, unlike previous governments, to insulate the progress of the war from extra-military factors such as international pressure, domestic politics and humanitarian concerns.
But the LTTE could not have a goal of military victory over the Sri Lankan state. The LTTE probably thought that by successfully resisting the advances of the military forces, it could force a military stalemate on the government. It was not clear what that stalemate would have offered the LTTE in terms of political space. One guess is of re-internationalising the conflict in a post-George Bush world where the global war against terrorism might lose its cutting edge. The Sri Lankan government probably knew this strategic objective of the LTTE. There appeared to be a firm determination to reach Mullaithivu by mid-January 2009.
Factors against LTTE
In the coming weeks and months, analysts will offer explanations of the LTTE’s failure to avert a military defeat and the Sri Lankan government’s march to victory. Among many, four specific factors seem to have worked against the LTTE. First, being forced to defend a vast territory with a population, the LTTE had to fight a defensive conventional war whereas the Sri Lankan state had a decisive advantage in offensive warfare in terms of resources, legitimacy, international support and sustainability.
Second, this time around, the LTTE could not turn the tables on the government, as it did in the past when pushed against the wall. The LTTE had no allies, no friends, at home or abroad, whose support was crucial to secure a strategic advantage over the Sri Lankan state.
Thirdly, the LTTE’s sole reliance on war and violence to achieve political objectives is so out of tune with the times that little did the LTTE leaders realise that they were fast becoming victims of their own past successes in war and violence.
Fourth, the LTTE’s armed struggle and violence was a remnant of the past, of the world of the 1960s and 1970s, which had become totally incongruous with the post-9/11 world.
The role of the international actors in Sri Lanka’s conflict, the war-ending and post-civil war processes, is an exceedingly relevant and complex theme. In 2002-03, the international actors facilitated the ceasefire and the negotiations, promising generous economic assistance for what were described at the time as post-conflict rebuilding and development.
When the peace talks came to a standstill in early 2003, the promise of enhanced economic assistance was made to induce the LTTE to return to negotiations. When those attempts failed came the tsunami of December 2004. International promises of massive post-tsunami economic assistance failed to revive the peace process in 2005 too.
Support for Rajapaksa
In 2006, the conflict entered a phase in which both the LTTE and the government acquired a great deal of autonomy from the international factor in charting their agendas to resume the war. In the international game, if one can describe it that way, the Rajapaksa government succeeded by aligning itself with the global discourse of “war against terrorism”. The international players did not seem to do anything that would alter the war trajectory in Sri Lanka. Some of them were active in supporting the government.
Obviously, all the supporters of a negotiated peace in the previous phase – from Canada to the United States via Norway – were convinced that they could do very little until the war between the Rajapaksa administration and the LTTE came to some form of a conclusion. Now, that conclusion appears to be round the corner. They will want to influence the political settlement process and be partners in post-conflict development efforts in the North and the East.
Some donors have already earmarked money for what they call post-conflict work.
For the Sri Lankan government, the post-conflict economic assistance, if it arrives as promised, might help manage the impact of the global recession and the world financial crisis. Meanwhile, no one would want to question the very idea of “post-conflict”.
What will happen to the LTTE? After a possible defeat in Mullaithivu, the remaining LTTE fighters might engage in a low-intensity guerilla war for some time. The Eastern Province can be the main theatre of such sporadic attacks. However, it would be extremely difficult for the LTTE to re-emerge as a military or political force to be reckoned with. The anti-LTTE Tamil groups, particularly the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), will occupy the political space available in post-LTTE conditions. They will also enjoy the blessings of the government and some political parties in Colombo, as long as they operate within the parameters defined by post-LTTE Sri Lankan politics.
If the experience of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) offers any parallel, only a new generation of leaders, without carrying the historical burden of the armed struggle and the mistakes of the founders of the movement, would even be able to make an attempt to return to Sri Lankan politics as a legal, electoral entity. But the hostility that Sri Lanka’s major political actors seem to share towards the Tigers is so intense that a peaceful rehabilitation of the LTTE is beyond the realm of early possibility.
Meanwhile, many in Sri Lanka are likely to heave a sigh of relief on the possibility of the prolonged civil war coming to an end. The war has, for the past two and a half decades, brought immense suffering and misery to the people of all communities. Death and injury for combatants as well as civilians, displacement, out-migration, falling victim to artillery shells as well as suicide bombers or roadside bombs, and the destruction of communities – all these affected Sri Lanka’s citizens with no discrimination regarding their ethnic identity. Violence devoured many political leaders belonging to all communities. The democratic process also suffered severe setbacks. Communities became polarised and suspicious of each other. The country’s economic and social progress, too, suffered.
Sri Lanka needs to recover from all these setbacks. Yet, there is probably no direct correlation between a military triumph over the LTTE and a resolution of the country’s accumulated problems. A lot will depend on how the government succeeds in laying a firm foundation for a pluralistic, democratic and inclusive polity in which war and violence will not be required to highlight group grievances or suppress resistance to the state.
Assuming that a post-LTTE Sri Lanka is in the making, it is important to acknowledge that such a scenario will pose significant political challenges to the Rajapaksa government. The most formidable among them would be finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Paradoxically, the military victory over the LTTE might carry a political cost; by severely narrowing down the political space, it is crucially important to recognise that even after the war with the LTTE is basically over, there still remains the political problem that requires a political solution.
Unless Rajapaksa recognises and convinces his political allies that the military victory is only one part of a solution process and that the other part requires a political solution that guarantees equality, dignity and self-rule to the minority communities, the ethnic problem will remain unaddressed. This is where the terrorism diagnosis of the ethnic problem should not be overstretched.
The dilemma that Rajapaksa will face sooner rather than later is that even if he is personally convinced of the need for a political solution to the ethnic conflict, his coalition partners might not be ready to concede on the political front. Rajapaksa put together a Sinhalese nationalist and anti-terrorism coalition to lead successfully the war against the LTTE. The same coalition may not be the best political vehicle for him to work out a political solution to the ethnic conflict. He may be compelled to forge a new political coalition in order to re-configure the country’s balance of political forces conducive to opening up a new, post-civil war political process that can effectively address the minorities’ grievances.
The military victory over the LTTE is a unilateral one. However, a political solution will work better if it is worked out through a multilateral process. There already exists a forum for such a process in the form of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC). One option that Rajapaksa might want to consider seriously is relaunching the APRC with the full participation of the UNP, the JVP, the Tamil parties, including the TNA, and all the Muslim parties.
The APRC mechanism or any other institutional process for a political solution would invariably face new challenges and difficulties. The main challenge will come from the Sinhalese nationalist political forces, particularly the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the JVP, and ideological groups and the media. One of their key positions on Sri Lanka’s contemporary crisis is that what exists in Sri Lanka is not an ethnic problem but a terrorist threat to the territorial unity and sovereignty of the Sri Lankan state. In this view, the primary task of any government is defeating the “LTTE terrorism” by military means and then restoring the integrity, indivisibility and the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state. In this approach, any step towards power-sharing with ethnic minorities would be inimical to state security and national sovereignty. This hard-line majoritarian position is very likely to find a new momentum and robustness once the LTTE is defeated militarily.
The JVP has already begun to move in the direction of mobilising resistance to any new attempt at a political solution, putting forward the new argument that India is pressuring the Rajapaksa administration to implement a political solution based on devolution.
In the post-LTTE Sri Lankan politics, some Sinhalese nationalist groups will need to invent a new enemy. They are very likely to honour India with the status of the new “enemy”. Actually, for Rajapaksa to move in the direction of establishing sustainable peace through inter-ethnic reconciliation and much-needed political reforms, he will need new allies, moderate forces, domestically, regionally and internationally.
Such a reworking of political forces is necessary because the post-civil war political situation might run the risk of being unclear and unstable despite the strengthening of the Sri Lankan state in an unprecedented manner. In a scenario in which the LTTE is either totally defeated or rendered irrelevant to Tamil politics, there are a number of possible political responses in Sinhalese society. Some are moderate and accommodative and the others are hard-line and triumphalist.
The contours of Sinhalese hard-line responses are quite visible. Some see the military victory over the LTTE as a victory of the Sinhalese over the Tamils. They also see it as a rare occasion of the island being unified by a Sinhalese ruler long after such unification by military means occurred in the pre-colonial medieval times.
In this perspective, the military defeat of the LTTE has at last reaffirmed the structure of majority-minority ethnic hierarchies in Sri Lanka. Some others have already begun to advocate a policy line for breaking up the Tamil “mono-ethnic” nature of the Northern Province. Alteration of the ethnic demography in the Northern and Eastern provinces in order to prevent future ethnic minority rebellions against the state is an objective of these policy prescriptions.
The moderate responses would be based on the understanding that winning the war is only one part of a long process towards resolving the ethnic conflict. After eliminating the military threat of secession, there is the political part of the solution process. It entails the addressing of the minority grievances, those of the Tamil as well as Muslim communities, within a constitutional framework of pluralism and political framework of inter-ethnic accommodation. The moderate response also emphasises inter-community reconciliation as a pre-condition to rebuild a peaceful and democratic Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the war ending by military means.
Meanwhile, the way in which the war has come to an end has created deep wounds in Sri Lankan Tamil society, and a prudent Sinhalese leadership should take extra care not to rub the wounds of the Tamil community. This calls upon Rajapaksa to stand above the thinking of many of his political allies and advisers and show the world that dignity, honour and self-respect can be enjoyed by the vanquished as well in a military victory by the state in a domestic civil war. This, not the military victory alone, will ultimately prove the statesmanship of Rajapaksa.
Finally, all Tamils, in Sri Lanka as well as abroad, must be finding it hard to come to terms with what the 25 years of armed struggle has given them in a backdrop of so much suffering, deprivation and sacrifice. It might offer them an asymmetrical and loser’s peace. They might also feel that the “liberation” war has re-affirmed their second-class status. It is perhaps the case that Sri Lanka’s inter-community balance of power has now changed and the bargaining power of the minorities has weakened decisively.
Tamil people’s options
The ultimate losers of the LTTE’s 25-year-long armed struggle are the Tamil people. For that the LTTE should also bear the historical responsibility. By excessively militarising the Tamil people’s struggle for equality, the LTTE only depoliticised and in the end led along a blind alley the struggle of the Tamil people.
With the LTTE’s defeat, the Tamil people may have only two major options. The first is to accept the magnanimity, generosity and political philanthropy of the Sinhalese political leadership. The second is the creation of an entirely new political movement that can continue to fight for equality and rights by democratic, peaceful and non-violent means. But, once again because of the war, there has been no space in Sri Lankan Tamil society to produce such a new and democratic political movement. Only after the dust of the LTTE’s military defeat settles will the Sri Lankan Tamil community get an opportunity to assess where it is, the nature and extent of the political space available and what shape its politics could take. •
Prof. Uyangoda teaches Political Science at the University of Colombo and is a prominent member of the Sri Lanka Social Scientists’ Association.