War, Peace and the Tamil Diaspora

By: N Sathiya Moorthy

(April 16, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Defence is the best form of offence. Or, at least that seems to be the thinking of pro-LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora groups campaigning and protesting for an immediate end to the ethnic war in the country. They all want the Sri Lankan Government to rein in the armed forces, and want the international community to rein in the Sri Lankan Government, to this end.

None can deny the loss and sufferings of the Tamil civilian population caught in the cross-fire. Whether or not they are there of their own free will, as claimed by the LTTE, or are there under threat or coercion, as common sense would dictate, the fate of these civilians remains the same. If anything, the Government has to be more sympathetic to them if it is convinced that the civilians are held hostage, or have been brain-washed, or both. That is another part of the story.

Yet, it is sad that none of the vociferous Diaspora groups has spoken about the legality and morality of the LTTE holding tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, hostage – and using them as human shields, that too to fight a losing war. It would not have been justifiable even if the LTTE were winning the war or capturing territory. But even that is not the case. They are dying to save the LTTE cadres and leaders, if their lives could ensure as much. Ultimately, even their loss and sufferings may not meet the ends of the LTTE leadership.

It is not as if the militarily-minded leadership of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran has not read the writing on the wall all these past weeks and months. He might have concluded that neither the human shields, nor even a ceasefire could revive the military fortunes of the LTTE. It is no more like the past reverses from which the LTTE could bounce back. If it has to be ‘retired hurt’, the LTTE would remain precisely that, nothing more. The one exceptional situation could be one in which there could be a genuine, democratic political role for the militant outfit.

As is becoming increasingly clear, the LTTE is trading on the residual fortune of the defeated civilians, to secure an honourable exit – from war, if not for entry into a democratic political space, which remains a vacuum, at least as of now. True, military and political history flowing from wars is always written by the victors, and so are the peace agreements. It is yet a part of modern military strategy for the victor to script an ‘inclusive’ conclusion to the war – and accommodative political package for ushering in permanent peace.

Call it magnanimity if you want, but it was the absence of such an approach that sowed the seeds of the Second World War at the end of the First War and the Versailles Agreement. It was also the cautious and calculated approach of the victors in the months and years after the Second World War that the world was happy settling for a ‘Cold War’, in the place of the ‘real’ thing, with all the blood and gory, death and destruction going with it.

In this case, the victor is also the loser, and the loser the victor, if one considered the very fact that they are all Sri Lankan citizens. It was abominable for the armed forces to have used heavy artillery and air-fire to quell the LTTE fighting-machine, considering that not just the militant cadres but also innocent Sri Lankan citizens in their thousands would be dying with them. Yet, a certain military justification might have been provided by the LTTE’s acquisition of military power and equipment nearly on par with that of the Sri Lankan State – and its unbridled willingness to unleash on the armed forces at will. That cannot be said of the civilians in the LTTE-controlled areas all along. In times of war, they became the sitting ducks. In times of ceasefire, they had nowhere to go. No man would have wanted to be caught in the cross-fire, eternally, if he could help.

The Government has claimed that all territory under LTTE control has since been ‘cleared’. Officials say that the LTTE cadres and leaders alike have moved into a 20-sq km stretch of ‘No-Fire Zone’. The Government has also declared that the Government would not descend to the level of using ‘humanitarian needs’ like food and medicine as a weapon of war. Such claims had been made in the past, as well.

If the Government claims that the LTTE was resorting to heavy fire from within the ‘No-Fire Zone’ are true, then the war may not be over, after all. At the same time, the Government is also reported to be appealing, through loud-hailers, for the LTTE to free civilians and surrender.

It is a repeat of the Government’s open appeals to the LTTE in the past weeks in particular. It has also been the line taken by the Government in interactions with the international community, which is insistent on an early ceasefire, if only to help ease the humanitarian situation, which has been worsening by the hour.

Simultaneously, the Government has also been appealing to the LTTE to embrace the democratic process and enter the mainstream. One reason for the LTTE cadres to hold on to the civilian hostage is their fear of physical safety – coupled with their continuing demand for a political solution. The Government has not acted as fast on the political side as it could have. It cannot be so, on the humanitarian side, however.

The Government can facilitate the latter by acting on the former. It could also thus serve its own purpose of ensuring civilian safety, which is among the paramount tasks of any Government worth its salt. If the Government’s invitation for the LTTE to enter the mainstream is serious, then it also has the duty to facilitate the process.

It is the kind of ‘humanitarian pause’ that the trapped civilians require, and the international community has been seeking over the past weeks. In the absence of governmental clarity in the matter, it can backfire as was the case with the ‘No-Fire Zones’. By not conveying to the international community that such fire-free zones were the unilateral creation of the Government, which the LTTE might not honour, Colombo put itself in a fix when reports about gunfire within the No-Fire Zones began emerging.

The Government can now begin by offering a pardon for the LTTE leaders and cadres alike, if they express an intention to enter the mainstream. It was the case with a series of earlier instances of mainstreaming of erstwhile Tamil militant leaders, including central ministers, Douglas Devananda and Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan, alias ‘Col’ Karuna. Such is also the case of the S Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan, the Tamil Chief Minister of the Eastern Province.

In their case though, the word, ‘pardon’ was not used. The situation is different in the case of the LTTE, and a different approach by the Government could help. A ‘pardon’ announcement would not only be the politically correct thing for the Government to do. It would also be the only tactical thing to do under the circumstances. It would also send out a clear message that the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was serious and sincere about rehabilitating the LTTE cadres if they laid down their arms.

The Tamil Diaspora has a role to play. In the name of espousing the humanitarian cause and defending civilian rights so far, they have only spoken for the LTTE. They, like the much of the rest of the pro-LTTE Tamil polity in Sri Lanka, have equated the LTTE exclusively with the ‘Tamil cause’, and dubbed all others as ‘traitors’. They have been viewing the ethnic issue only through the LTTE eyes. Intelligent as they may be, they still refuse to think independent of the LTTE’s line.

This has made things possibly difficult for the LTTE, and definitely for the trapped civilians. The Diaspora, instead, needs to take the initiative to have the LTTE free the civilians, and then decide on re-entering the mainstream, as well. Their meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Boucher, in Washington, may have come a little too late in the day, but is yet a welcome step.

Such meetings should have been initiated years ago, particularly around the time the LTTE was holding internal discussions on the forgotten ISGA proposals, overseas. It was when the LTTE misunderstood the spirit of the cease-fire agreement, and became politically over-ambitious. They seemed to have concluded at the time that they could achieve through peace what they could not have done through military means. That was when western governments could have guided the Diaspora intellectuals to advise the LTTE leadership on what was attainable, as against what was abstract or at best negotiable.

Having concluded that the West was indifferent to their initiatives as long as it did not interfere with the daily functioning of the host governments and the routine of their citizens, the Diaspora had its way. This despite the fact that most host Governments, citing socio-political culture, constitutional history and consequent laws, had desisted from discouraging the Tamil Diaspora groups from not doing the right thing by their own people and polity back home in Sri Lanka.

Today, when things are really, really hot in Sri Lanka, and the Diaspora is taking to the streets, they find that the earlier political promise(s) at the local-level are not translating into positive action by host governments. All along, they were unwilling to credit the Sri Lankan State with the kind of diplomacy that they had excelled in. Today, when the shoe is on the other foot, they find that sympathies for their cause among host nations and their governments is no guarantor for collective global action against the Sri Lankan State. Street-protests are no replacement for quite diplomacy, be it in the European Union or now in the UN Security Council.

For them to be taken seriously, the Diaspora needs to demonstrate to the international community that they have as much clout on the LTTE as they think the latter has – or, should have -- on the Sri Lankan State. Going beyond street demonstrations and political rhetoric, they cannot blame the host governments of what they themselves are unable to, or unwilling to achieve, vis a vis the LTTE. They need to demonstrate to the outside world that they are much more than the loud-hailers of the LTTE, and that their concerns, immediate and otherwise, went far beyond the immediate plight of the LTTE, now or ever.

The Diaspora now needs to think of the civilians, and for the LTTE – and, not the other way round. For long, it had allowed the LTTE to think for them – and act for them, too. The unfolding events of the past years have shown where it has led the ‘Tamil cause’ and the Tamil community into. They need to decide if this is what they had aspired for, in the first place.

Correctives need to be applied. In doing so, they need to be conscious of the fact that they can preach ideology from the safe havens of their western homes. It is the ordinary Tamil whom they had left behind to be the cannon fodder back home that suffers in death and destruction.

The Diaspora should not mistake trees for the wood – and get lost in the mirage of words that they have spun around themselves. To them, all is well as long as the day ended well. That is not true, not any more. All can be well only if it ends well for the trapped civilians, to begin with – instead of their own end signalling the same. Ironically, though, the LTTE has rendered itself incidental to the proceedings, even while holding the cruel Fate of the trapped civilians in its hand.
-Sri Lanka Guardian