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'Prabhakaran's call for the Tamils of the world to fight for a separate Eelam is dangerous for more reaons than one"

(January, 01, 2008, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Journalist and Political Analyst with a deep insight into Sri Lankan affairs, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present the Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian policy think-tank headquartered in New Delhi. In an interview with Sri Lanka Guardian, Sathiya Moorthy shares his views on a range of issues relating to the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka, with particularly those impacting on the ethnic issue. The views expressed here are those of the interviewee, and not of the Foundation that he is associated with.

by Nilantha Ilangamuwa with N. Sathiya Moorthy

Q. What are your views on terrorism and its influence in South Asia?

A. As the killing of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan would suggest, terrorism has a way of changing contemporary politics and future leadership in South Asia in particular. The assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in India, of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in Bangladesh, and a long list of Sinhala and Tamil political leaders in Sri Lanka, starting with President Premasada and Lakshman Kadirgamar, are all proof to what terrorism can ‘achieve’, or deny the respective nations.

Q. What are your views on the Heroes’ Day speech of LTTE leader Prabhakaran in November last?

A. It was the first Heroes’ Days speech by Prabhakaran after the death of LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham. There was no reference to ‘Bala anna’ in the speech, though there was a mention of LTTE political wing leader, S P Tamilselvan, who was killed in an air-raid by the Sri Lankan Air Force. Balasingham was also the LTTE’s chief peace negotiator, and the absence of any mention to him in the first Heores’ Day speech of Prabhakaran after his death was conspicuous.

Otherwise, Prabhakaran’s call for the Tamils of the world to fight for a separate ‘Tamil Eelam’ State, about which there is no consensus even among the Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka, is dangerous for more reasons than one.

Q. Will Prabhakaran’s tactics and strategies change in the future?

A. There is little to suggest that the LTTE’s tactic and strategy would change in the coming weeks and months. However, it should both change in the larger interest of the Tamil community. The LTTE having made the Tamil community hostage to its military/terrorist ways, the recent military reverses of the outfit impact on the community’s socio-political aspirations that were at the bottom of their political demands since the Fifties. Within Sri Lanka, there are today more Tamils living outside the LTTE-controlled areas than inside, and they are all vulnerable in more ways than one. Their socio-political aspirations remain where they were in the early Fifties, and only a return of the LTTE to the negotiations table for good would ensure an honourable settlement for the larger community, as well.

Q. Some politicians in India have blamed Prabhakaran for the death of Tamilselvan. What are your comments?

A. Even those politicians had cited only Sri Lankan reports and sources. Truth often becomes a casualty in war, and unless proved otherwise, such reports have to be dismissed either as a figment of someone’s fertile imagination – or, as a part of the psy-war, which the Sri Lankan Government agencies too have mastered. If it is so, they have learnt it all only from the LTTE’s experience.

Q. What are your thoughts on the present military and political developments in Sri Lanka?

A. The extensive and often indiscriminate use of air power by the Sri Lankan forces has shifted the military balance against the LTTE. With the result, the LTTE seems to rely more on non-conventional war, like commando action as was the case with the attack on the Anuradhapura air-base, and acts of terrorism, suicide or otherwise. But even here, the instances and impact have been few and far in-between. For instance, the LTTE attack on the Anuradhapura base did not incapacitate the Sri Lankan Air Force as anticipated, or in a way the earlier attack on the Kattanayake air base did in 2001.

The increasing neutralisation of LTTE’s military power has led to a situation where the political initiative too now rests with the Government of Sri Lanka. Having distanced the Tamil population from the LTTE militarily, the Government should come up with an acceptable political solution before it became too little, too late.

Q. What do you think about the Indian approach to the worsening situation in Sri Lanka?

A. As a good neighbour that burnt its fingers earlier, India has been maintaining a cautious watch over the evolving situation. The ‘Rajiv Gandhi assassination’ has put paid to the Sri Lankan Tamils’ hopes of greater Indian involvement in trying to solve the ethnic issue in its current phase, thanks to the greater focus that continues to rest on the LTTE.

At the same time, the Sri Lankan Government too should realise that the ‘Indian inhibition’ should not be over-extended to imply ‘Indian indifference’ to the plight of the larger Tamil community. The latter directly impinges on Indian concerns. The large-scale influx of Tamil refugees in the aftermath of the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 in Sri Lanka was only one instance. There could be other causes and other concerns, as well.

Q. Has the Indian approach towards Sri Lanka changed, compared to the past?

A. There has not been any perceptible change in the Indian approach over the recent past. However, compared to the Eighties, there has definitely been a change in the post-IPKF, post-Rajiv assassination era. But then, the only change about ‘change’ is that it keeps changing all the time.

Q. Pakistan, China and Iran are getting increasingly involved in Sri Lanka. How does India see this influence?

A. As a sovereign nation, one should say, Sri Lanka is well within rights to befriend whichever nation it thinks is in its interest to befriend, and in whichever way it deems fit. However, India’s security concerns, particularly in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood with Sri Lanka, are for real. So is the historicity of bilateral relations between the two countries. There seems to be a continuing appreciation of the Indian concerns in Colombo, it could be believed.

A.Do the efforts of the Sri Lankan Government have the backing of the neighbouring countries in the region?

Q.It depends on which ‘effort’ you have in mind, and which ‘neighbouring country’ you are referring to. Overall, there seems to be a global and not just neighbourhood backing for the Sri Lankan Government’s efforts at putting down terrorism. On the political front, however, it is India which alone is seriously concerned. India was also the only country that was seriously involved in the past. One can safely assume that India would continue to back the Sri Lankan Government in all efforts aimed at an early implementation of a power-devolution package acceptable to the larger Tamil community in the island-nation.

Q.The LTTE has been banned in India, EU nations, the US and a few other countries. It used to be banned in Sri Lanka, too. Would you suggest that Sri Lanka should once again proscribe the organisation, now?

A.Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabayya Rajapakse has mooted the idea of banning the LTTE all over again. By the claim of the Sri Lankan Government and its military top brass, the LTTE seems to have passed its prime, in terms of military capabilities. To ban the outfit now, and thus deny it a role in the much-delayed political process, which the Government has been promising for quite some time, would not take you anywhere. Instead, incorporating the ‘political LTTE’ in future negotiations would be the best possible way to mainstream the organisation, particularly when the rest of the Sri Lankan nation, including the larger Tamil population, is tired of war and violence. Banning the LTTE may not add new problems. It would not solve any, by itself.

Q.What is your assessment of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s achievements since becoming the fifth Executive President of Sri Lanka?

A.For President Rajapakse, ensuring parliamentary majority itself has become a great task, and he has ensured the survival of the Government despite successive efforts by the Opposition. The TNA, whose LTTE mentor had denied UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe a possible chance at the presidency, voted with that party recently, to try defeat the budget. It did not work.

However, in the larger context, President Rajapakse has achieved a great amount of cohesion and coordination in the anti-LTTE campaign on all fronts – namely, military, diplomacy and propaganda/psy-war. No other Government before his had coordinated all such efforts to deny the LTTE weapons and funds from overseas, and at the same time ensure adequate intelligence, obviously from the international community, for the Sri Lankan Navy to successfully target LTTE ships over 1800 miles from the Sri Lankan coast, Today, the Sri Lankan Government websites have surpassed the pro-LTTE websites in disseminating information, though in both cases the veracity remains not wholly without doubt.

However, the greatest achievement of President Rajapakse is yet to roll out. It should pertain to a political solution to the decades-old ethnic issue, and cannot wait too long, if it has to have the expected impact, and serve the expected purpose.

Q.A Sri Lankan Minister recently said that Prabhakarn would be arrested and handed over to India, to face trial in the ‘Rajiv Gandhi assassination case’. Do you think that he can be arrested alive?

A.At the moment, such statements seem to be a part of the psy-war that the Government has launched, either to demoralise the pro-LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, or to test the mood of their counterparts back home in Sri Lanka – or, both. The fact that such statements could be made with impunity and received by the Tamils with an element of self-doubt is more important than the possibility of the statement coming true. The taste of the pudding is in the eating, and let us cross the bridge when we come to that.

Q.India did not hand over Prabhakaran to Sri Lanka when arrested in the Eighties. What justification that one can offer for Sri Lanka having to hand over Prabhakaran to India, if arrested now?

A.We are talking about a hypothetical situation, which has to be viewed in context only when the ground realities justify such a discourse.

Q.Reports have appeared in recent times that the LTTE may resort to ‘unilateral declaration of Independence’ (UDI). Howt would India react to this, in your view?

A.I do not think that India would have cause to react, to any proclamation of UDI by the LTTE, now or later. From the mid-Nineties to the re-eruption of war and violence in late 2005, the LTTE had run a parallel civilian administration in the areas under its control, with all the traditional trappings of a ‘State’ as understood by the international law. If it could not, and did not proclaim an ‘independent Tamil State’ still, it was only because the international community would not have acknowledged it. Without ‘international recognition’, no polity or society can proclaim ‘independence’ and expect to be accepted as a ‘separate nation-State’. In the case of the LTTE, the Indian position too has guided and influenced the rest of the international community, in this regard.

Q.How do you think can the ‘national problem’ of Sri Lanka be resolved? Do you think that the Tamils’ issue can be resolved militarily? Now that the APRC route is being allowed to die its natural death – or, at least that is the perception – has the ‘military solution’ become non-stoppable?

A.There cannot be a military solution to any problem of the kind. It has to be a political solution, preferably negotiated. I do not believe as yet that the APRC route has been shut for good. Even if it were so, that would only weaken the Tamils’ inspiration, if at all, and not aspirations. The latter would revive in its time. The only way to douse it for good is to come up with an acceptable political package, that too on an early date. In the past, such packages had come rather a little too late in the day every time, and thus proved to be too little, as well.

Q.What in your estimation is the real problem facing the Sri Lankan population – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims?

A.Then or now, the real problem facing the Sri Lankan population flows from economic causes. Be it the Tamils’ issue or the two JVP insurgencies, they had their origins in socio-economic issues and pertained to basic needs as individual communities and societies perceived them to be. I am afraid that forgotten socio-economic issues would come to the fore as and when a permanent solution is found to the ethnic issue. That needs to be addressed by the Government, polity and society together, before it erupted on the face of an emerging Sri Lanka. It should not also become a cause or excuse for delaying a solution to the ethnic issue. Such a course, if adopted, would only worsen the socio-economic situation flowing from inherent disparities, not solve any.

Q.What do you think is the future of the JVP?

A.I think a future for the JVP rests not in perceptions of ‘Sinhala nationalism’, as is the case at present, but in reviving the original ‘economic agenda’ of the party minus the militancy and insurgent tendencies attending on the same in the past.

In politico-electoral terms, the JVP is at the ‘take-off stage’. It will remain so without really taking off beyond a point if it did not prove itself to be a responsible political party that could deliver on the promises that it has made, and the hopes it has kindled -- be it on uplifting the downtrodden and banishing corruption from public life. After all, there is poverty in every community in the country, and it is not confined to the ‘southern Sinhalas’ alone. There are politicians everywhere in the country, and the public does not seem to have any great opinion about any of them.

The JVP needs to think for Sri Lanka, and not just a segment or a region thereof, if it has to become acceptable as a national party. It has to prove to itself and the nation that it has the calibre worthy of a national role. The JVP thus is under greater pressure than both the SLFP and the UNP. Either it has to accept a national role in governance, or at least emerge as a regional political entity capable of keeping up its promises on all fronts, particularly if it thinks that aligning with other parties would dilute its moral position on various issues. For the JVP to deliver on its promises it would then have to ensure greater power for the provincial councils and pradesiya sabhas, which it hoped to win in the coming years.

That would imply the JVP backing the demands for a power-devolution package with the province as the unit of devolution and the district as the unit of administration. Else, in a system where the Executive Presidency has to be involved even on decisions pertaining to Grade I school admissions, there is precious little a JVP administration can do, either under the existing system or in a system in which the district becomes the unit of devolution – with the fiduciary powers resting exclusively in the central government.

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