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In Denial

Sri Lanka's war continued this week, even as a clutch of international diplomats flew to the island to support Norway's peace efforts. Oslo's special envoy, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, his Japanese counter-part, Yasushi Akashi and US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher are due to meet with President Mahinda Raja-pakse's government. The central question is whether the talks scheduled in Geneva for later this month will take place. Many years ago, a top official at the World Bank coined an expression to capture the stark discrepancy between Colombo's words and actions with regards to stopping the war and solving the ethnic question; that word was 'disconnect.' Today, no other word sums up the inconsistency between President Rajapakse's oft stated commitment to peace and the Sri Lankan military's sustained offensives against the LTTE over the past few months.
 
Last Wednesday the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) suffered a debacle in the sands of southern Jaffna when a major offensive was routed by LTTE counterattacks. A few days before that, another SLA offensive in the east was also defeated by the Tigers. Both were after the LTTE has agreed to unconditional talks. Meanwhile, the indiscriminate bombardment of LTTE-held areas has continued, with all three service arms unleashing bombs and shells. The LTTE is striking back. A truck bombing this week killed 100 sailors and Galle naval base was also attacked.
 
Press reports have suggested President Rajapakse and the military high command were unaware of the massive SLA offensive launched in Jaffna last week. The claim is laughable. No offensive, except perhaps the ill fated ‘Jayasikirui’ of the late nineties, was telegraphed more clearly beforehand. The LTTE even registered a formal protest through the Norwegians ahead of Muhamalai. But even at face value, this puerile denial of responsibility, raises a frightening possibility for the peace process: that Sri Lanka's military can arbitrarily launch a massive onslaught using all three service arms outside political control. But we all know that is not the case here. Rajapakse's administration is simply trying to distance itself from an ill-timed, unexpected and humiliating debacle.
 
And it is not just the steadily rising violence that casts doubt on the viability of a negotiated solution. The Rajapakse administration - now implicitly supported by the main opposition UNP with whom it is negotiating a national government - is undertaking a range of measures to cement Sinhala hegemony over the island. A crucial step in this regard was the Supreme Court's ruling this week that the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces by the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord is "null and void and illegal." Though a legal technicality is the stated reason, the main rationale is clear: a reification of the Sinhala rejection of the Tamils' claim to a homeland. That was made explicitly clear by the Court's own recourse to a disputed history of the limits of the Kandyan kingdom.
 
We have long protested the international community's fetishisation of the mere mechanisms of talks over the need for suitable objective conditions. February’s Geneva round was meaningless, Colombo simply ignoring the agreements reached afterwards. The Oslo meeting was also a fiasco. And now, the manifest lack of goodwill on both sides and, more importantly, Colombo's unashamed pursuit of a military solution, are not seen by the international community as problematic antecedents for talks. Notably, it is the international community, not the protagonists who are seeking these talks. Colombo is hell-bent on a military solution. The LTTE is preoccupied with resisting it (the Tigers have bluntly stated that they are going despite their misgivings in deference to the demands by the international community).
 
And by its ongoing tolerance of Colombo's military adventurism, the international community has also undermined Tamil trust in the present peace process. Even the recent international expressions of concern last week came, notably, after the SLA suffered a debacle, not in the many days of undisguised preparation for the offensive. We note that although the Co-Chairs - US, EU, Japan and Norway - and India warned against the demerger of the Northeast, there is now a ringing silence now that is has happened. The international community cannot simply argue this is the due legal process of Sri Lanka - the Tamils note the readiness with which Sri Lanka's anti-conversion bill was crushed by international intervention last year, for example. The Tamil struggle does not operate within the confines of Sri Lanka's constitution and laws for a good reason: they are Sinhala chauvinist frameworks. Which is why any solution can only emerge from outside and beyond these. But that problem is a long way off.