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Responding to growing international concerns on the Eelam War

By Col R Hariharan

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(March 25, Nairobi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Is the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) easing its rigid stand on talking peace in the last few days? It would seem so from the political head of the LTTE, Balasingam Nadesan’s e-mail interview published in the Sunday Times, London on March 22. He spoke of the insurgent group’s readiness for talks with the government “without pre-conditions.”

The Sri Lanka government was quick to turn down the offer. Its defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the government was not prepared for any ceasefire talks with a terrorist organization banned in Sri Lanka; but if the LTTE wanted some kind of response from the government the rebels would have to first let the trapped civilians go. However, significantly he added, “We are not asking the LTTE to surrender or lay down arms at this time. We will take care of that later.” This was also a positive sign, a slight departure from earlier Sri Lankan stand.
But given the complexity of the issue, it would be too early to draw any conclusion. Apart from the LTTE’s overflowing cup of misery, developments in the international environment notably in the UN Security council (UNSC), USA, UK and India, could have “persuaded” the Tamil insurgents to respond more positively to the question of peace talks. To be realistic, even if there is some progress after mediation efforts, it might be too late to save the 100,000 to 150,000 (depending upon whose statistics one goes by) civilians in the LTTE’s 26 sq km domain as the Sri Lanka security forces close in further.

The war situation could not be worse for the LTTE. Sri Lanka military machine is moving forward relentlessly regardless of casualties. In fact the inevitability of end results is making more sacrifices of LTTE lives futile. Apparently this gloomy scenario had caused the LTTE chief Prabhakaran to briefly appear in public to boost up the morale of Tamils under fire.

The LTTE had been under heavy flak from the UN agencies during the last two months for its inhuman attitude to the plight of civilians in the war zone. It is no consolation that Sri Lanka had also come under fire for the same reasons because it is the LTTE that is losing the war. The civilians in the area of LTTE control have been getting restive and are trickling out in larger numbers. Sea Tigers efforts to prevent them have not been successful due to navy’s domination of the seas.

The members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the pro-LTTE group into parliament, are already having second thoughts on their continued support the LTTE, which is rapidly losing its clout and muscle power. Things in Tamil Nadu are no better for the LTTE. After the parliament elections have been announced, the major parties which are no friends of the LTTE, have seized the Sri Lanka card from the minor pro-LTTE parties. And the minor parties are in a scramble for winning the support of the big brothers to get a few berths in the elections. So regardless of who wins, fortunes of the LTTE are unlikely to improve greatly in the state.

Under these adverse circumstances, there had been some encouraging international developments for Sri Lanka Tamils, who had been agitating for action to save their Sri Lankan brethren suffering in Wanni. In UK, though the government had been lukewarm to the idea, the Tamil issue was coming up before the House of Commons. (In fact, Nadesan’s interview was published on the eve of the Commons debate.)

In the recent months, the US had been trying to find ways to get the trapped civilians out of the war zone in Wanni. Last month it wanted to employ the Marines to carry out a “consensual evacuation” of the civilians; but dropped the move when even India did not support the idea. In any case it would have found no takers on both the warring sides for different reasons. President Barack Obama had built up a lot of expectations among the Tamil expatriates on the US policy on the Sri Lanka war and plight of Tamils. And they had been lobbying for a discussion in the UNSC on the issue of civilian killings in the war in Wanni. These appear to have borne fruit at last.

The US has come out in strong support when three non-permanent members of the UNSC - Austria, Mexico, and Costa Rica started trying for an “informal briefing” of the issue in the UNSC. The US envoy to the UN Ms Susan Rice supporting the move said, "The United States feels strongly, and concerned, about Sri Lanka, and we support the provision of it to the Council -- a full and updated information on the humanitarian situation.” But nothing may come out of the move as the UNSC is divided over the issue and China has expressed its strong objections to such a discussion. But that does not matter because the Sri Lanka Tamil issue has already been brought to the international limelight putting Sri Lanka on the defensive.

Moreover, Ms Navaneetham Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, had come down heavily on both the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE on the death of civilians in the war zone. She had also said some of their actions could constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Ms Pillay’s pronouncements have come at an inconvenient time for Sri Lanka as the issue was already threatening to spill over to the UNSC. Moreover, some Tamil expatriates have been exploring ways to take Sri Lanka before the International Criminal Court for acts of genocide. So not surprisingly, Sri Lanka has reacted strongly to her statement.

In this environment, it would be logical for the LTTE to help the Tamil expatriates and pro-LTTE lobbies everywhere by taking some positive action. And Nadesan’s Sunday Times interview was probably meant to meet this immediate international need. However, at the same time it does provide a small opening for bringing the two sides to the peace table, though Sri Lanka may put the whole issue in the cold storage till the LTTE is driven out of its last toehold and loses its bargaining capacity.

Sri Lanka government is sitting pretty awaiting the LTTE to run out of blood to shed in the battlefields. But the more the “final victory” is delayed the more is its discomfort as the war is an expensive proposition and the economy is creaking dangerously close to a halt. However, the government has managed to get the International Monetary Fund to agree to lend $ 1.8 billion. Politically, the President Rajapaksa basking under the glow of military victories seems to be comfortable, as he appears to face no major challenge in the near horizon. The main opposition party - the United National Party (UNP) - is having pains of a rebirth to make itself strong to face the ruling coalition. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) mauled in the recent provincial elections is also largely on the defensive.

The ruling party’s efforts to win over individual members of the TNA who are in a survival dilemma appear to have met with some success. President Rajapaksa’s invitation to them for talks has met with positive response of some responsible members of the TNA. This raises some hopes of a possible political rapprochement between the Tamil and Sinhala polity.

The political churning up in India before the general election has prevented the Indian government from taking any major initiative on critical and time bound developments in Sri Lanka although the issue did figure in discussions between the US Secretary of State and the secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs. Thus India has painted itself into irrelevance in Sri Lanka, probably much to the comfort of the latter. This will make the job of redemption and building up of India’s relations with Sri Lanka a little more difficult, particularly if an unviable coalition comes to power in New Delhi. Sri Lanka is probably hoping that its “final victory” would be a fact of life by the time a new government is sworn in New Delhi. So for the time being the India factor is put to sleep, except for the genre of Sri Lanka politicians hunting for imaginary Indian designs on Sri Lanka.

But the international glare of publicity on Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record appears to have offended the nation strongly. So its propaganda arms are systematically running down international NGOs accusing them of colluding with the terrorists. This is not the first time the LTTE had used the gullibility of INGOs in handling terrorism related issues and organisations to its advantage. In the past, the LTTE had infiltrated such bodies with some success even overseas. And it will continue to do so because it is fighting a war of survival. Despite this the Sri Lanka government appears to be taking the steps to improve its falling credits on the human rights scorecard. It has agreed to ease its restrictions on the entry of INGOs in the North. Till now only UN and ICRC relief agencies have been permitted entry. When the A9 road is opened fully for public traffic, the restrictions on them are likely to be progressively eased further.

Sri Lanka government appears to have been shaken up at the possibility of the Sri Lanka human rights issue coming up before the UNSC even as an “informal discussion.” China’s strong, timely support to Sri Lanka in the UNSC is sure to improve its standing in Sri Lanka. And it is likely to positively impact the relations between the two countries over the long term. In similar circumstances in the past, China had baled out Sudan and Myanmar in the UN, and the bonding of their relations with China had become even stronger. This is a strategic development that India would be watching carefully.

Sri Lanka can permanently keep the human rights issue from the unsavoury international attention by taking proactive measures to improve its standards, and they are closely connected with good governance. With the war nearing a close, the sooner Sri Lanka starts on this exercise the better. It would be welcomed not only by Tamils but all sections of Sri Lanka society.

(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.)
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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