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War clouds and ground realities

LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, a ruthless master strategist, has once again set a cat among the pigeons by issuing a virtual ultimatum to the Sri Lankan government in his much-awaited annual birthday speech on November 27.



He warned newly elected president Mahinda Rajapakse that in case the latter did not come forward with a reasonable set of proposals to end the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the LTTE and the Tamil people would revert to armed struggle to achieve self-determination.



The immediate reaction of Colombo was to dispatch new foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera to New Delhi seeking advice and support.



It is indeed ironical that after conspiring with LTTE to force a humiliating withdrawal of the Indian army from Sri Lanka in 1990, Colombo now seeks New Delhi’s intervention and wants it to play a decisive role as the regional superpower to bring about a durable settlement.



It is even more ironical that after having played a hyper interventionist role in Sri Lanka, India now refuses to get involved and has maintained a low profile. India has been described as a reluctant hegemon, unwilling to intervene, yet very sensitive to a proactive role by any foreign country in Sri Lanka.



The bloody conflict between the LTTE and the Indian Peace Keeping Force as well as the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi snapped all channels of communication between India and the LTTE. These events have also hamstrung India’s policy in dealing with the Sri Lankan crisis.



Frustrated and fed-up with the bloody conflict between Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE in the aftermath of the withdrawal of the Indian army in 1990, the Sri Lankans voted decisively for Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1995 as she had fought these elections on a peace platform.



Though a scion of the Bandaranaike family, she then presented the most liberal face of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP). Kumaratunga immediately began negotiations with the LTTE. Deep mistrust dogged the negotiations leading to resumption of conflict.



Kumaratunga and the Sri Lankan armed forces felt if they could defeat the LTTE militarily, durable peace could be achieved, but this was reduced to a shambles in the face of LTTE’s prowess in conventional warfare and terrorist tactics.



It was not surprising, therefore, that in 2001, it was the turn of the UNP, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, to win the parliamentary elections defeating Kumaratunga’s SLFP, promising a negotiated settlement with the LTTE. What cannot be won at the battlefield cannot be obtained at the negotiating table.



Talks between Colombo and the LTTE facilitated by Norway could never make real progress because of the widely different perception of Colombo and the LTTE of what should constitute an equitable settlement. As Kumaratunga continued to remain the president, it was now her turn to play the spoilsport.



She exploited the latent fears of the Sinhala community, aligned with the extremist Sinhala parties like the JVP, and sabotaged the nascent peace process by dismissing Ranil’s government in 2004. Rajapakse used the same tactics to win the recently held presidential elections.



His pronouncement on peace talks, therefore, will hardly carry credibility with the LTTE. What surprised everyone was LTTE’s call to Tamils to boycott the presidential elections. This ruined the chances of Ranil who was perceived as a dove.



There are four lakh Tamil voters in the LTTE-controlled areas of the northern and eastern provinces and had they been allowed to vote, Ranil undoubtedly would have won. Was this mindless cussedness or deliberate strategy of the LTTE? It appears LTTE reckoned that Ranil, despite his best intentions, would not be in a position to deliver.



It would be more purposeful to negotiate with Rajapakse who may be in a better position to rein in the Sinhala chauvinist elements. It is not surprising therefore that within days of the victory of Rajapakse, Prabhakaran has demanded proposals for a settlement of the ethnic crisis.



He has also threatened to resume the armed conflict to achieve self-determination, national liberation and establishment of self-government in Tamil ‘homeland’.



Implicit in the statement is that the LTTE may settle for less then ‘self-determination’ and ‘national liberation’ for the Tamil homeland in case a settlement is achieved through dialogue.



In view of ground realities, the Sri Lankan government, India and the international community would do well to work for a negotiated settlement based on a federal structure allowing substantive devolution of powers to the Tamils.



These may have to be much beyond those envisaged in the Indian Constitution. The LTTE will only settle for a somewhat more loose federation. India will have to overcome its anathema for the LTTE and accept the primacy of LTTE in Tamil polity.



Resumption of conflict would be disastrous for Sri Lanka and for vital Indian interests. Colombo would be pushed into the waiting arms of Pakistan and China. It will be to these countries that Colombo would look to for the supply of vital military hardware to take on the LTTE, as India would be hamstrung by the sentiments in Tamil Nadu.



J K Sinha, the writer of this Times of India editorial, published on Dec 15, 2005, is former special secretary of India''s intelligence wing, RAW.