Ides of November

"The recent reverses that the LTTE has suffered on the military front means that it is time the Government revived the promised political process. The call for the mainstreaming of the LTTE and the invitation for the TNA to join the negotiations process are steps in the right direction."

by N. Sathya Moorthy

(November 24, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) President Mahinda Rajapaksa's invitation for LTTE chief Prabhakaran, by name, to lay down arms and return to the negotiations table could not have come at a more crucial time. Repeated ad nauseum, starting with President Rajapaksa's Inauguration address three years ago, this one came after the Sri Lankan armed forces had re-captured Poonneryn – and less than a fortnight before Prabhakaran delivered his annual "Heroes' Day" address on 27 November.

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama has since followed it up with an invitation in Parliament for the LTTE to join the democratic mainstream and win elections, for Prabhakaran to become the elected Chief Minister of the Tamil-exclusive Northern Province. He also mentioned in particular the 200-year jail-term handed down by a Sri Lankan court, and Prabhakaran's indictment in the 'Rajiv Gandhi assassination' in India. Whether he made a matter-of-fact reference to impediments that needed to be crossed, or presented them as possible bargaining chips is unclear as yet.

In Parliament, Minister and APRC Chairman, Tissa Vitharana, has extended an open invitation for the LTTE-sympathetic Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA) to join the political process to find a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict. Earlier too, news reports had claimed that President Rajapaksa had extended similar invitation to the TNA.. They would need to be followed up with a formal invitation, if the Government and the APRC are serious about the invitation.

For his part, the UNP Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe, came out with a more workable approach to finding a negotiated settlement. He said that the Sri Lankan Government, the UNP and the LTTE-sympathetic Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA) should sit together to find a political solution. Wickremesinghe was in New Delhi, a week after President Rajapaksa had met the Indian leaders, when he made the statement.

In reiterating the call for the LTTE to enter the democratic process and also inviting the TNA to join the negotiations process, the southern Sinhala side seems to have indicated a willingness to take their views on board before producing an agreed draft on the power-devolution package. Or, so it would seem.

Indications are not far to seek. In the Eastern Province, the Government initiated the democratisation process (with all it flaws under the circumstances), and invited the TNA to join in. Today, the invitation for negotiations is a clear indication that the Government, with a 'Sinhala consensus' of some kind, could well go over the head of the LTTE and the TNA, with a package that might be acceptable to the larger Tamil community.

Between them, the ruling SLFP-PA and the UNP have a comfortable majority outside of Parliament to clear a referendum that might be required for getting a constitutional package, through. Inside Parliament, too, they have the sway. Should the TNA join, it would be representative too.

In keeping the TNA away while forming the APRC, the Rajapaksa Government had stated that they would be called on board when a 'Sinhala consensus' became possible. It is unclear as yet if the APRC had thrashed out all residual issues that were delaying its decision-making for months.

Yet, these could also be issues on which the TNA and the Tamil community may have different views. A 'Sinhala consensus' per se may not be the final solution, and not much time needed to be spent on what could be only an interim position.

This is not the first time that the Government had tried to reach out to the Tamil population over the head of the LTTE. The India-Sri Lanka Agreement amounted to that after a point. The 'Chandrika Package' was another such effort. Against this, the CFA co-opted the LTTE.

The result was the same in all three. The Tamil people's initial support for those efforts was very well known. It was the LTTE's military muscle that thwarted it. In a away, the CFA even legitimised an 'LTTE-administered area', and thus a prevailing ground situation. But the outfit was not satisfied. It revived the military conflict when no real reason or cause presented itself.

The recent reverses that the LTTE has suffered on the military front means that it is time the Government revived the promised political process. The call for the mainstreaming of the LTTE and the invitation for the TNA to join the negotiations process are steps in the right direction.

Sure enough, the Sri Lankan Government and the Sinhala polity would have to assuage the anxieties of the Tamil polity that it was yet another attempt to pull wool over their eyes. Both sides need to remember that the international community is watching, and has enough tools in its kit to make everyone behave.

It is in this background, Sri Lanka-watchers are sharpening their pencils to take down every word of what LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran has to tell the world in his annual "Heroes' Day" speech. Not very long ago, he promised the nascent Rajapaksa Government a year to set the ethnic house in order – but started off with claymore mine attacks before the ink had dried.

In the speech last year, Prabhakaran ran down the Government of India, and called upon the 'Tamil community' the world over to unite for the LTTE's cause. The LTTE continued with the anti-India tirade for weeks later. Soon it found itself campaigning for Indian involvement – and sought to use the 'Tamil Nadu card' in this regard.

The effect and result of the same is there for the LTTE to see a year down the line. It has got words of sympathy from Tamil Nadu. But India remains the same.

[The article originally published by the 'Daily Mirror', Colombo based daily ]
The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian policy think-tank headquartered in New Delhi.
- Sri Lanka Guardian