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Proxy War, Proxy Talks

By. N. Sathiya Moorthy

(February 23, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Are they human shields or hostages? Independent media reports quoting evacuees from the war zone in northern Sri Lanka have claimed that the LTTE had shot at them for trying to cross over to Government-controlled areas over the past fortnight. If it is still conventional war human shields are unacceptable in modern times. The international community has to treat is as such. If it is a terrorist-tactic, international norms have evolved over the past decades on how nations of the world should handle hostage situations.

Other militant/terror groups elsewhere have held unwilling civilians as human shields. After a point, the LTTE made them hostage, as well. Like every hostage-taker it was shooting those who dared to escape. It was no more a relatively simpler case of human shields, though the agony to the victim was the same. If it was conventional war for political parity, again it’s just not done.

In arguing the civilians’ case the international community has asked the Sri Lankan State to end ‘hostilities’. The ethnic issue was not their immediate concern – and rightly so. It was not just a humanitarian situation, either. Human lives were – and are, still -- at stake. They shared the prognosis of the Sri Lankan Government but differed in their prescription. That has cost the civilians a crucial fortnight and more.

Not every civilian in the LTTE-controlled area is there under threat and duress. There could be many who are there voluntarily, as the LTTE has argued. Many of them may share the LTTE’s perceptions on the ethnic issue, and on the methods to address it. Yet, ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ too is not unknown to incidents of hostage-taking. It would be particularly so when they are cut off from the outside world for weeks, months and years.

The international community’s intervention on behalf of the innocent civilians put the onus on the Sri Lankan State. Given the numbers, it put a spin on the ‘collateral damage’ in instances of ‘catastrophic terrorism’ of unconventional, unimaginable kind. The Sri Lankan situation could be replicated elsewhere. So could be the humanitarian arguments on hostage-taking.

The world needs to revisit the issues to draw sustainable lessons. Such review is not only good. They are necessary. In an evolving situation in which newer dimensions of terrorism and consequent containment keep coming out in the open each passing day, such an effort would help understand the larger issues. They should not dilute the basic concerns.

Proxy war is one thing but proxy talk is another. A fortnight back, the LTTE named ‘KP’ as the international negotiator in place of the late Anton Balasingham. In between, we still have LTTE Political Wing Head, P Nadesan, issuing statements of condemnations and clarifications. A recent one criticised the UN on the issue of human shields.

Yet, when it comes to the serious business of ceasefire and peace talks, Nadesan is not around. KP most definitely is not in the public eye. Instead, it is some Tamil Nadu political parties that seem to be doing the talking for the LTTE. The first reaction to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 48-hour truce to facilitate civilians-transfer came from Tamil Nadu. It was no different when Indian President Pratibha Patil first, and Home Minister P Chidambaram spoke on the subject.

It is one thing for the Indian political parties to protest Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s parliamentary statement on the Sri Lankan issue, that too, inside the Indian Parliament. It is another thing for them to react strongly to President Patil or Minister Chidambaram. It is another thing for them to respond to a statement of the Sri Lankan President. Either they were speaking for the LTTE – or, they were not.

The belated arrival of the LTTE-sympathetic TNA on the scene should set at rest such misconceptions. Contesting the Government’s claims and numbers of the trapped civilians, the TNA leaders have reiterated the LTTE’s call for a ceasefire. If LTTE does not want to field KP or Nadesan, it should have turned to the TNA, even earlier. It should have stopped there.

Other reports indicate that President Mahinda Rajapaksa may invite various Tamil parties to discuss a political solution. The TNA is one of them. The idea and the timing are welcome. The TNA should honour the invitation, if it came. Stumbling blocks could be cleared as one went along. If it could help it, the TNA should try to bring all political parties, within and outside the Tamil polity, around a common thread.

There is also the need for the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala polity to consider the equally legitimate concerns and consequent aspirations of the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils. The two constitute independent minority groups within a larger Tamil-speaking minority. They should not feel uncared-for and alienated. They should be invited to every political discussion aimed at finding a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue.

President Rajapaksa has won battles -- both electoral and military. He needs to win the war for peace. There may be temptation for the ruling SLFP-UPFA to advance the parliamentary polls by a full year. Even the UNP Opposition may be tempted to help out, with the hope that it could help the party improve its parliamentary strength. Both need to look beyond such a construct.

President Rajapaksa, instead, should take the repeated UNP offer of parliamentary support for constitutional amendments for effecting power-devolution. Between them, the two parties may have marginalized the JVP. There is also the larger Tamil-speaking vote-bank that had always voted for peace – whenever allowed to vote. With an acceptable political solution on hand, President Rajapaksa can also count on the parliamentary backing of the Tamil-speaking polity as a whole – formidable as they are fractured.

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The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. The article an original carride by the Daily Mirror, daily paper based in Colombo.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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