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Talking Tough and Soft at the Same Time

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

(December 29, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Between them, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and LTTE Political Wing leader B Nadesan seem to be talking tough and soft at the same time. Despite the tough posturing, their recent statements have internal elements, hidden or natural, for them to take the poitical course all over again -- as long as the other side acknowledged the ground realities.

President Rajapaksa has asked the LTTE to let the Tamil civilian population in the areas under its control to migrate to safer places – or face proscription, four years after the aborted CFA was signed. As if by response or even otherwise, Nadesan reiterated the LTTE's position on repeated Government call for surrender of weapons as a pre-condition for future talks. "This is unrealistic. We took up arms to safeguard our people. So we will keep these arms until the safeguard is guaranteed," he is reported to have said.

However, Nadesan almost conceded that the LTTE's symbolic political headquarters of Killinochchi could be taken by the armed forces any time. "Freedom never depends on one city," he said. Nadesan added that the LTTE "can create more communities, more cities. We have the confidence that we will capture more areas of our motherland".
Between these statements lies either a recipe for disaster or an opportunity for reviving the peace process. By allowing the civilian population in the areas under its control to move out freely, the LTTE could erase some of the charges pertaining to 'human shields' in the long drawn out ethnic war. More importantly, it can create the kind of goodwill that both the international community and the Sri Lankan Government – not necessarily in that order – could not but acknowledge and appreciate.

By declaring its preparedness to give up Killinochchi, possibly after a good fight, the LTTE may have also indicated a preparedness to return to the jungles and to guerrilla warfare. This would require that they 'offload' the 'extra baggage' that is now there in the form of a high number of 250,000 Tamil civilians living in the LTTE-controlled areas.

The LTTE could thus make a political virtue of a military necessity, just as they did in Jaffna in 1995 or in the Eastern Province over two decades later, in 2007. It could also take the moral high ground and demand that the IDPs are not kept in army-controlled camps.

Despite its reasons, maintaining high force levels to run the IDP camps can cut both ways. Free movement for the IDPs could bloat the population, particularly in Colombo, which alone has jobs to offer. There are no reports of deliberate cruelty to the Tamil civilian population either in the East or in Jaffna, unlike in the Seventies and Eighties.

Any confidence-building measure on the civilian front should convince the LTTE that it had nothing to fear from the armed forces if they laid down arms. Like their estranged counterparts in the East they could then be allowed to retain their weapons without having to use them. The North might be where they would stay and the international community would continue to check against free-wheeling weapons smuggling and the like.

The converse is also true if the Government and the LTTE decided to read each other's message differently. If and when the LTTE vacated Killinochchi, forcibly or otherwise, the 'residual militancy' would ensure that the Sri Lankan Government and people wuld still not be able to live in peace. It would be so whether or not the larger Tamil population accepted a political package, offered at a negotiations table or otherwise.

By indicating a ban on the LTTE, President Rajapaksa seems to be serving notice on the international community that the armed forces should not be blamed for large-scale 'collateral damage'. By reviving urban guerrilla warfare, the LTTE could provoke the security forces into suspecting every Tamil civilian in every part of the country.

Either way, it would be the kind of situation that a 'estranged LTTE' would love, as all Tamil militant groups had done since their inception. It would have new recruits for its war effort and new material for its PR efforts – nearer home and afar. The LTTE excels in both. Sri Lanka has seen it all, and more than once.

"The destruction of the economy is also an aspect of our defensive war," Nadesan said, in an obvious reference to the Katunayake Airport Attack-I of 2001. It forced the Government to show up the white flag for truce. The Government has silenced all doomsday predictions over the past three years. It is doubtful if it can continue doing so in this era of global meltdown when reports indicate that Gulf jobs are drying up in their thousands.

By serving it first, President Rajapaksa has put the ball in the LTTE court. It needs to come up with an early answer to President Rajapaksa's call pertaining to the Tamil civilian population. Should the LTTE end up getting proscribed, it should remember that the LTTE-sympathetic Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA), for instance, could end up facing the gag, self-imposed or otherwise. That could mean a lot, both inside the country and outside.

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@hotmail.com. The article originally published by the Daily Mirror, Colombo based daily news paper
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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