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As Security Threat Spreads, Settlement Chances Fade

“The lesson from the Trinco experience then is that ‘force’ too often becomes brute force used so indiscriminately that the end result as the Weekend correspondent observes counter-productive. We saw it in Jaffna after the DDC polls, in the plantations areas where President Jayewardene himself was shocked and ashamed, and again in May this year in Jaffna.”

by Mervyn de Silva

(July 11, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) ‘Time for a rethink’ is the headline of a recent Far Eastern Economic Review report on the Tamil situation written by that journal’s South and West Asian specialist writer, Salamat Ali. This well known Pakistan-born journalist, now based in Delhi, visited Jaffna soon after the violent disturbances which accompanied the May 18 local polls.

While it is indeed time for a rethink, the re-thinking can take different forms. We can talk of rights and wrongs – and that’s most important – of what ought to be or what might have been. Likewise it can take the form of a hard, steady look at the objective situation or what is.

First – a matter of terminology. As a rule, the local press favours either ‘Tamil terrorists’ or ‘Tigers’ (the Sinhala dailies of the big groups are passionately addicted to ‘kotiyo’) while at least one major international news agency uses the term ‘Tamil guerrillas’. Other terms included militant separatists, Eelam militants, armed rebels, hardline militants, Eelam ‘underground’, Tamil resistance, liberation fighters etc. Call them what you will but it is the objective, cumulative consequences of their activities, planned or unplanned, which really count in any serious ‘rethink’.

(a) The gap between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, especially those in the north, has widened – a significant psychological factor.

(b) The gap between Colombo, the centre of power, and Jaffna, the periphery, has widened – a question of fiat.

(c) The gap between the TULF, from the ‘70s the indisputably legitimate ‘voice’ of the Tamils of the north, and its opponents, from above-ground critics to the clandestine groups, has widened. This has made Tamil (TULF) participation in national affairs at the Centre (Colombo) more difficult and it has forced Tamil parliamentarism to engage in what increasingly looks like a losing battle with extra-parliamentarism. The stunningly successful boycott of the local polls (May 18) dramatized the second fact. Together these developments trapped the TULF leader in a wobbly, insecure middle (see, AMIR AS ARAFAT, LG – July 1).

(d) The gap between the average Tamil citizen in the north and the civilian administration there is widening through the physical disruption of normal administrative activities – a question, again, of Colombo’s effective authority and the actual reach of its writ.

As confusion, agitation and dismay produce frustration and anger among sizeable sections of the Sinhalese community, the question of ‘What is to be Done?’ becomes the main topic of concerned discussion. The toughest military crack-down is the solution recommended by the daily and Sunday Sinhalese newspapers of the big groups. Their highly charged idiom and invective may of course be a classic case of the competitive commercialism of the mass media rather than crude communalism i.e. catering to the constituency, or playing to what the papers believe is the real deep-seated sentiment of the Sinhala reader, and thereby increasing circulation.

While urging the government to assure the people ‘that force will be met by force, fire returned by fire’, the Sun (8/7) also argued strongly for ‘urgent confidence-building measures’, though it did not mention what type of measures it had in mind. Nobody will dispute the need for ‘confidence-building measures’, but whose ‘confidence’ – Sinhalese confidence, Tamil confidence or both?

Ranil Weerasinghe, the Sun group’s specialist writer on these matters, wrote an extremely readable deep-background piece on the Trinco situation after a visit to that strife-torn town. While providing one answer to the question of ‘whose confidence?’ his report of what actually happened in Trinco and the conclusion he draws from what he saw and heard are certainly worth quoting:

“Eighteen deaths have been reported over a one month period, and every single one of them Tamils. Even the fact that two of them had been allegedly killed in a conflict between members of the same community cannot alter the course what is undoubtedly being set.” What course is being set undoubtedly? The Weekend reporter’s answer to that question is not only more explicit but also fits neatly into the pattern of developments outlined at the outset. “The end result is that Tigers or any such militant group become more acceptable to the Tamils in the East, not as subversives but as freedom fighters willing to help defend them not only against their aggressors but also against their ‘military oppressors’ who allegedly turned a blind eye to the activities of the assailants.”

The lesson from the Trinco experience then is that ‘force’ too often becomes brute force used so indiscriminately that the end result as the Weekend correspondent observes counter-productive. We saw it in Jaffna after the DDC polls, in the plantations areas where President Jayewardene himself was shocked and ashamed, and again in May this year in Jaffna.

Thus, the government appears to be adopting a two-track policy, a combination of ‘political’ and ‘military’ moves. Perhaps one of the most impressively high-powered/official committees ever appointed will soon report on how to make Tamil language rights (the Constitution and other enactments like the Official Languages Act) effective and the DDCs, a district budget and a district service. Salamat Ali in his FEER article says that President J.R. has ‘done more to accommodate the Tamils than all his predecessors put together’. But the TULF, while agreeing, has argued always that these concessions remain largely on paper. Is the current attempt to give flesh and blood to the constitutional provisions, the rights granted in various laws and regulations, and the DDC exercise ‘too little too late’? That’s the main question in regard to that particular effort at a ‘political solution’.

Meanwhile many other parties and inter-racial organizations (the Centre for Society and Religion, pro-Trotskyist Jana Urumaya, the Maoist CP etc) are putting forward their own ideas for a ‘political settlement’, a trend which reflects the growing concern and agitation of the Colombo intelligentsia. A political settlement, in any meaningful sense, must mean an understanding with the TULF in such a way as to win confidence of the average Tamil who may be sympathetic to the notion but certainly not to extra-parliamentary violence or extra-legal modes of struggle. Like the TULF though, the UNP has its problems – the fear of alienating the Sinhala constituency, and of running counter to the hardline group within the party.

Thus the government has not responded to the TULF appeals regarding the arrest of the TELF leader, 77 year-old Dr. Dharmalingam, former Jaffna mayor. He is the uncle of the TULF MP for Jaffna, Mr. Yogeswaran. Also arrested was Mr. Kovai Mahesan, who edits the Tamil paper, Jaffna-based Sutantiran, which has been banned, along with the English weekly Saturday Review, a newssheet that had made its mark very quickly both by its outspoken comments and as a source of regional news for the English-speaking Sri Lankan. The government intends to charge them both.

On July 21, Mr. V.N. Navaratnam MP will make a speech and walk out of parliament to absent himself from sittings thereafter. When the seat is declared vacant, the TULF can nominate a successor or force by-election. A proposed constitutional amendment will compel all new MPs to take an oath (and submit an affidavit to the Elections Commissioner) renouncing separatism. These ambiguities expose the TULF, the party which must be a party to any political settlement, to pressure from both sides, a thankless situation which leads to further polarisation.

(Lanka Guardian, July 15, 1983, pp. 4-5)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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