The much anticipated annual Heroes' Day speech by LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan has triggered a storm of controversy and speculation. Inevitably, his declaration that the uncompromising Sinhala chauvunism permeating Sri Lanka's establishment leaves the Tamils no option but an independent state has been widely interpreted as a 'declaration of war.' This analysis is flawed. Not only does it ignore the prevailing ground reality (that a devastating war is already underway), it ignores the central message: in the four years of ceasefire and peace efforts, the Tamil community has repeatedly been treated with callous disregard and contempt by successive Sri Lankan governments. The possibility of Tamil political aspirations being met by such a political establishment is practically nil, leaving the Tamils no alternative except to seek political independence.
To begin with, a devastating and vicious war is already underway. That this war has largely not affected the Sinhala south does not mean it is not taking place. This year alone, thousands of Tamil civilians have been killed, along with 800 LTTE cadres and many Sri Lankan soldiers. Over two hundred thousand people have been displaced. Over 650,000 people in Jaffna and, especially, in Vaharai are suffering as blockaded food and medicine run out. Sri Lanka's air force and artillery blasts LTTE-controlled territory each day. LTTE artillery responds while there are frequent clashes at sea. Is this not war? And this war actually began in 2004, when the Kumaratunge regime escalated its murderous paramilitary campaign against the LTTE and, especially, its civilian supporters. Tamil protests were simply ignored by the international community. The confrontations are now between the uniformed armed forces of both sides.
But it is the nature of the Sri Lankan state's campaign that says it all. The humanitarian crisis engulfing the Tamil people has been deliberately engineered. The mass displacements, the blockades on food and medicine, the targeting of refugee centers and other civilian sites - frequently with horrific casualties, are all premeditated steps to crush Tamil defiance. The question Mr. Pirapaharan posed on Monday is this: Is a Sinhala political establishment which is prepared to do this likely to agree to an amicable powersharing agreement with the Tamils?
Just as it used the suffering of Tamil civilians against the LTTE during the times of war, the Sinhala establishment has done so in times of peace also. The 'peace dividends' which flooded the south were deliberately denied to the north. Rehabilitation and reconstruction aid was made conditional on the shortening of Tamil political goals. Even when the LTTE agreed to explore federalism, the aid did not come - whilst the south thrived. Despite the Northeast bearing the brunt of the 2004 tsunami, it had to struggle to get Colombo's attention. Despite the P-TOMS being signed in 2005, it was promptly discarded by the Kumaratunga regime - and no aid came.
Despite their individual and political differences, all three Sinhala leaders - Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapakse - used Tamil suffering as political leverage against the LTTE. All three abrogated deals with the Tamils (SIHRN, PTOMS, Northeast merger) and all three oversaw violations of the ceasefire (from sinking LTTE ships to the 'shadow war'). And all this amid a peace process - an internationally brokered and monitored one, at that. The international community has proven unwilling to ensure Sri Lanka honours even international humanitarian law, let alone the micro-deals it has struck with the Tamils. India's impotence over the abrogation of the 1987 Northeast merger says it all. On what basis are the Tamils expected to sign a peace deal with the Sinhala establishment?
This is not to say the peace process, like the truce, is beyond salvage. As the international monitors of the SLMM formally ascertained this week, the LTTE is still committed to the 2002 CFA - something the Rajapakse regime could not bring itself to say at the Geneva talks. But to be revived there have to be concrete changes in the dynamics of the peace process. In short, peace will be possible only if the Sri Lankan state can be held to its pledges. That responsibility lies with the international community, especially Sri Lanka's many donors and military allies. If the Norwegian peace process is to have any prospect of progressing, there must be a tangible reining in of the state. It should now be very clear to the international community that staunchly backing the Sri Lankan state is not going to deter a war, it is going to fuel it instead.