As South Asia's political leaderships meet in Colombo this week and next, Sri Lanka's protracted conflict burns on. President Mahinda Rajapakse's government refused to reciprocate the Liberation Tigers' offer last week of a unilateral ceasefire and has instead continued its offensive. But the Tigers' diplomatic maneuver has served the purposes for which it was intended. To begin with, the LTTE's message of goodwill to the SAARC conference has further embarrassed Colombo. These are, in any case, not the conditions under which the Sinhala state had expected to play host to South Asia's leaders this year. There is no historic triumph over the Tamil rebellion to showcase to neighbours. Instead there is the ignominy of India not being prepared to entrust the safety of its delegation to the Sinhala armed forces. Despite Colombo's hysterics, Delhi does not envisage a threat from the Tamils. Rather, it is Sri Lanka's problematic dalliance with Pakistan and the shadowy Islamic radicalism which Islamabad is said to be stoking in the island's east which is at the forefront of India's concerns. That and, of course, Sri Lanka's heightened engagement with rising power China. If it needed underscoring, the two Indian warships off Colombo's shore will remind SAARC delegates on whose terms the future security of South Asia - and the Indian Ocean - will be based.
Firstly, the Tigers' offer of a unilateral ceasefire has underscored yet again that it is the Sinhala state, not the LTTE, which is determined to pursue a military solution to the Tamil question. Some international actors have sought to blame 'both sides' while others have preferred to blame the 'terrorists' for the violence and to back the state. The refusal to pursue even a temporary cessation of hostilities - which plausibly could have led to a permanent ceasefire and perhaps international diplomatic efforts towards peace (indeed, the Norwegians have made it clear their good offices are still available) - has once again demonstrated, as many Tamil voices, including this newspaper, have repeatedly argued, that Sri Lanka has no interest in either negotiations or power-sharing with the Tamils.
Secondly, the silence of the international community to both the LTTE's offer and Colombo's rejection of ceasefire speaks volumes of their own commitment to negotiations and a just peace. Had Sri Lanka made the offer of ceasefire and the LTTE refused it, the howls of protest from the self-styled peace-builders amongst the international community would have deafening. (Ironically, the silence which appears from a Tamil perspective to be unequivocal support for the Sinhala state will seem in the eyes of the Sinhala nationalists to be international complicity in the Tigers' treacherous ploy.) Either way, the pointed message for those Tamils still awaiting international intervention on their behalf is not to hold their breaths. In this regard too, the LTTE's ceasefire offer has served its purpose.
The third aspect of the LTTE's offer is the message to the countries of South Asia. Sri Lankan leaders have long projected the Tamil resistance to their vicious repression of the Tamils as a threat to 'the region'. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is Sri Lanka's obsession with establishing Sinhala hegemony, rather, that has sparked and escalated war and insecurity off peninsula India. The LTTE does not pose a threat to any country except the chauvinistic Sinhala state. Indeed, the LTTE pointedly does not involve itself in the quarrels of the region. Nor is it a conduit for geopolitical tensions into the region.
Moreover, the Tamil demand for independence will no more spur separatism in the region than would those of the Kosovans', say, or the East Timorese'. Indeed, the LTTE's message - enunciated recently in both the message to SAARC and LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan's Heroes Day addresses, including last year's - is that an independent Tamil Eelam would be a responsible member of the regional and international community of states.
Which is more than can be said for Sri Lanka. For all its Buddhist pretensions, the Sinhala state is not identified with peace, non-violence and communal harmony, but with vicious violence towards its own citizens, with religious and ethnic persecution and contempt for the views of the international community. Certainly Sri Lanka has been able to enlist in the 'Global War on Terror', but, underlying the real undercurrents of that international project, which state has not been able to? Moreover, which state - in the region or elsewhere - can count the Sinhala state amongst its unswerving and loyal allies? This is not to deny that competing interests guide the actions of all states, but there are more or less principled ways for a state to pursue its own. The long-running Tamil rebellion, for example, pursues the safety of an independent state without interfering in the affairs of future neighbors and international allies. In short, it has consistently demonstrated, despite Sri Lanka's apocalyptic insistence to the contrary, that Tamil Eelam will be no threat to the region or spaces beyond.