Understanding Each Other's "Concerns"

“Such targeted killings by the LTTE are no sign of it being ready for any more talks of peace than the Sri Lankans. They require to be condemned equally if not more vehemently as they are targeted against individual civilians unlike Sri Lankan air strikes which are area weapons.”

[This up date may be read in continuation of Sri Lanka Guardian dated Aug 18, 2008 titled "Sri Lanka: War, peace and relations across the Palk Straits" ]

(October 12, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The tragedy of the Fourth Eelam War is that it is going along well trodden path of wars of earlier vintage. So as the Sri Lanka security forces knocked on the doors of Kilinochchi, the undeclared capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the rhetoric of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi reached a new high. He spoke to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on August 6, 2008 to highlight his concern at the growing plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka due to the ongoing war and requested New Delhi for action.

The prime minister assured him of support and action. MK Narayanan, National Security Advisor, summoned Sri Lanka Deputy High Commissioner to convey India's concern and unhappiness at the growing casualties of unarmed Tamil civilians as a result of military action. Later the Indian High Commissioner to Colombo met President Rajapaksa to apprise him of India's concerns.
At a public meeting later, Karunanidhi gave an ominous warning to the coalition government in Delhi He said "…If the war in Lanka continues, Tamils here will not remain silent. In such a situation the Indian government should co-operate with us. If Sri Lanka transgresses the warning we would have to consider if this government (in Tamil Nadu) should continue." The chief minister did not explain how "sacrificing" his office would help increase the pressure on Sri Lanka to end the war. However, as he has very limited option to bring pressure on New Delhi, his veiled threat to quit office was perhaps his way to do it. His support continues to be important as the coalition government in New Delhi is delicately poised. The Left withdrew support after the nuclear deal and the Samajwadi Party, which had voted for the government on the same issue, is sending conflicting signals of its support.

But as the war is closing on Kilinochchi and civilians are at peril, Karunanidhi's utterances are more than mere politics. Almost all political parties in Tamil Nadu have rallied to the cause of Tamils trapped in the war zone in the north. Though Karunanidhi and leaders of other political parties differed in their perspectives, unmistakably they were expressing the sentiments of Tamils everywhere over the safety and well being of civilians in the north. This should not be trivialised as a political gimmick because the Sri Lanka is not a mainstream "vote catcher" issue at present. But if the situation worsens and the refugee inflow increases in Tamil Nadu, the sentiments could harden, though they might not be in the same scale as 1983. This widespread sympathy in Tamil Nadu is for Tamil population and does not translate itself in support to the armed actions of the LTTE, though its make-believe world might think so.
It is not only Tamil Nadu or India that is concerned at the worsening plight in Vanni. Britain has expressed its concern over the developing humanitarian crisis. British Minister for the Department for International Development (DFID) Shahid Malik has offered to fund the movement of humanitarian aid to the people affected by war in the north.

Sri Lanka's leadership has shown a clear understanding of the delicate situation in which Indian government is placed in handling the Tamil issue particularly when the Tamil population is at the receiving end. On the one hand the Indian government has to respect the genuine humanitarian concerns of a section of its population; on the other hand it understands the compulsions of the Sri Lanka government in going to war against the LTTE just as India had done in 1987. President Rajapaksa had stated in the past that he understood India's political compulsions in shaping India-Sri Lanka relations.

But understanding the Indian position does not answer the India's concerns. After India's expression of concern, the President spoke of his political efforts at making peace and called upon the LTTE to lay down arms at a meeting of the All Parry Conference. It is doubtful whether the APC, which has woken up from hibernation, carries any credibility among the people as a vehicle for evolving a durable solution for peace. The APC's failure in its task and the increasing emphasis on militarism in Sri Lanka does not augur well for the country. Even as the much heralded "final victory" against the LTTE is in the horizon, proposal to increase armed forces strength to 200,000 is reported to be under consideration. This continued over emphasis on armed forces can only foster a culture of militarism. And a large Sinhala dominated army will be of growing concern to all minorities and peace lobbies who are debating the question "what after Kilinochchi."

The increasing public expression of Sinhala nationalism by people in power further adds fuel to the fire of suspicion about the ulterior motives of the government in furthering a military agenda. Is it to re-impose a status quo of Sinhala domination or is it to usher in an equitable democracy after the war for everyone? A case in point is the recent interview given by Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, the architect of Sri Lanka armed forces victorious march against the LTTE so far. For sometime now, the Army Commander had been strident in asserting the Sinhala majority sentiments that originally planted the seeds of insurgency in Tamil minds.

In his interview to the Canadian daily National Post, Gen Fonseka said "I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people…We being the majority of the country, 75%, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country…We are also a strong nation … They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things." If this is the essence of the present war against LTTE, it can only be interpreted as a war against not only the LTTE but also Tamils and even Muslims as well. Surely, the Army Commander does not want such an interpretation. Does he? But in an insurgency situation, when we talk of "winning hearts and minds of the people" the General's statement is not the way to go about it. It is no wonder that almost all political parties have condemned the Army Commander's statement as untenable.

It is not only the Sri Lankan government that has to share the blame for the loss of lives of Sri Lankan civilians – Tamils, Sinhalas and Muslims. The LTTE is equally responsible for continuing the war and generating hatred, death and mayhem. Even as MK Naryanan was conveying Indian concerns about Tamil civilian deaths to the Sri Lankan envoy, the LTTE dirty tricks department was at work. A suicide bomber blasted the former Army chief of staff Maj Gen Janaka Perera, his wife, and 26 others to death on the spot at Anuradhapura, the temple city. Over four scores of others were injured. The retired general, widely respected for his victories against the LTTE in an earlier edition of the war, had been a leading light of the United National Party (UNP). It was a truly tragic moment for Sri Lanka.

Not content with the killing of the retired General, a LTTE suicide bomber made an abortive attempt three days later in the outskirts of Colombo to kill Maithripala Sirisena, Minister of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Services Development, and also the General Secretary of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party. However, the minister managed to escape with minor injuries while four others were also injured. The suicide bomber was killed in the blast. .
Such targeted killings by the LTTE are no sign of it being ready for any more talks of peace than the Sri Lankans. They require to be condemned equally if not more vehemently as they are targeted against individual civilians unlike Sri Lankan air strikes which are area weapons. (Of course, to the dead it makes no difference what weapon was used or what was the intention.)

Curiously the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's statement on Tamil civilians' plight was made after the LTTE's killing of Gen Perera and 27 other civilians – including Sinhalas, Tamils and Muslims. Sadly, the Chief Minister's statement made no reference to the meaningless and wanton killing of civilians, let alone condemning the LTTE. Thus the Chief Minister's statement lost a bit of legitimacy with this omission. To the ordinary Sri Lankans, India's expression of concern at the growing casualties of unarmed Tamil civilians due to military action, when the LTTE had just killed a war hero and 27 civilians, probably looked ill timed and facile. Sri Lanka's share of India baiters believe India has an ulterior motive in its bid to help Sri Lanka build a plural democracy. For them India's silence on the LTTE's mindless killings, speak more loudly and clearly to reinforce their beliefs.

Perhaps it is time for India to do more than issuing demarches and statements of its concern, while it is business as usual for both the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE. That does not mean the heavy handed 'Big Brother talk' with Sri Lanka, either. Sri Lanka is a friendly power with a lot of goodwill for India. But at the same time, Sri Lanka should not take good relations with India for granted as the basis for forcing a military solution. Both sides have to mutually reinforce a move towards bringing peace in the island nation. And equitable justice for Tamils is germane to it.

India unfortunately does not give the impression of doing enough to alter the course of events. India has to bring the LTTE on track, much as it might abhor. Because it is not enough if Sri Lanka is ready for peace; is the LTTE ready? The LTTE has to prove that it genuinely wants peace, and not as a ploy to buy time for the next war as in the past.

The failure of Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987 came as a result of building too much expectation among the Sri Lankan Tamils. It ended up promising too much and delivering too little. Both India and Sri Lanka had a share in its failure to take it to the logical end of lasting peace. Both nations do not appear to be learning from their past. Understanding each other's concerns is not enough. It is high time Sri Lanka and India started meaningfully interacting with each other to bring peace, than merely count bodies to decide for whom they should shed tears.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:colhari@yahoo.com)
- Sri Lanka Guardian