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What is the LTTE up to?

With barely a week to go before Sri Lanka’s Presidential elections, there is considerable confusion as to the rationale behind the Liberation Tigers’ uninterested stance on the outcome. After all, both leading candidates appear to many to have diametrically opposed stances on the peace process, one for, one against. Premier Mahinda Rajapakse has from the outset of his campaign adopted a stridently Sinhala nationalist line. His pacts with the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) and the hardline monks’ party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya set out his position on the ethnic question with startling clarity. His manifesto was also unambiguous: a rejection of notions of self-determination and homeland and a renewed commitment to the unitary state. By comparison, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appeared very much the progressive candidate, courting the votes of Sri Lanka’s minorities and claiming the successes of the 2002-3 peace process.



With Rajapakse expanding his vote bank amongst the Sinhala south through a combination of his personal ‘man of the people’ appeal and the formidable cadre-based reach of the JVP, as well as the now running electoral machinery of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Wickremesinghe has had his work cut out. The United National Party (UNP) leader’s electoral alliances with the Estate Tamil parties and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) are important achievements secured after hectic horse trading. But it is the Tamil vote that Wickremesinghe needs now if he is to balance out the advantage accruing to Rajapakse from his Sinhala nationalist coalition. Which means Wickremesinghe needs the support of the LTTE.



But paradoxically, even as Rajapakse consolidates his position amongst the Sinhalese, the LTTE has been increasingly staying aloof from the Presidential race. Why, having quietly backed the UNP at previous Parliamentary elections, are the Tigers now uninterested when the most powerful political office in the country is up for grabs? The answer, according to many political analysts, is that LTTE would prefer Sri Lanka to be led by Sinhala-nationalists as this would undermine the state’s in the eyes of the world and thereby boost the movement’s own quest for legitimacy. Thus, the thinking goes, the LTTE is ‘holding back’ the Tamil vote from Wickremesinghe to allow Rajapakse to win. Some writers have even claimed the Tamils themselves are eager to vote for Wickremesinghe but the LTTE was preventing them from doing so.



Whilst there is some truth to the logic that a Sinhala nationalist faction heading the Sri Lankan state would provide a welcome foil against which the LTTE could argue its case in the international arena, this is not a sufficient rationale for the LTTE to throw away the possibility of a peace process progressing towards other, more tangible gains. These include, for example, the possibility of LTTE-run areas of the island getting a share of the substantial amount of international aid pledged for post-conflict and post-tsunami reconstruction as well as the possibility of an LTTE-run interim administration emerging in some form in the mid term future. Such hard gains, many analysts forget, would in themselves contribute to international legitimacy of a fashion while, more importantly, further enhancing the LTTE’s standing within the Tamil constituency.



Thus, by settling on the ‘Rajapakse good for us, Ranil bad for us’ explanation for the LTTE’s present uninterested stance, observers are excluding important dynamics of Sri Lanka’s politics and conflict from their analysis.



What is clear is that there has been a shift in the LTTE’s stance over the past few months, or at least, in the clarity of the LTTE’s stance. When Rajapakse kicked off his campaign with an unabashedly stridently Sinhala nationalist line, Sri Lanka’s minorities promptly recoiled. However, this does not mean there was an automatic stampede towards Wickremesinghe. Both the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and the SLMC negotiated hard for concessions and guarantees of post-victory allocations from the UNP before they gave their endorsements. Hobson’s choice amongst the candidates does not imply a de-facto one, and it was some time before Wickremsinghe could claim their support.



The question therefore is what, if anything, has the UNP offered the LTTE to make it worth the organisation’s while to come off the sidelines. To some extent, Rajapakse’s strident nationalist line did make Wickremesinghe the better choice, a theme initially reflected vaguely in election-related coverage in the Tamil press and the English-language Tamil media. Indeed, many Tamils reading between the lines saw the LTTE’s silence as a tacit endorsement of Wickremesinghe against Rajapakse. The thinking, with some justification, was that an open endorsement by the LTTE would undermine the UNP’s leader amongst the Sinhala voters, particularly amid Rajapakse’s campaign that Wickremesinghe would ‘sell out’ to the Tamils. But the perceived difference between the two leaders should not be overstated: there were many questions as to what exactly Wickremsinghe was going to offer the Tamils.



The wind began to pick up and shift in the wake of the publication of the UNP manifesto. What was striking,from a Tamil perspective, as much as what was in the document, was what was not in it. Whilst providing a vague and incoherent vision of ‘a solution acceptable to all’ and a commitment to past declarations that had punctuated the 2002-3 peace process, there were no concrete commitments, for example to a strong federal solution. Whilst Wickremesinghe was confident enough to tell Sri Lankan troops last week that the conflict would be resolved within three years, he could not set out what this solution might be based on.



To be fair, these are matters for the negotiating table, but there are other crucial issues ahead of that eventuality: there was no mention, for example, of an international aid sharing mechanism (Rajapakse has ruled out the moribund P-TOMs), nor of an interim administration (something clearly stated in UNP manifesto for the 2001 polls - at which the party enjoyed the LTTE’s tacit support). As the 2004 election results and subsequent surveys by respected Colombo-based think tanks underlined, Tamils overwhelmingly support the LTTE’s proposed Interim Self-Governing Authority (as do almost 50% of Muslims). This is driven by practical (reconstruction and rehabilitation) needs in the Northeast as much as by political aspirations. But Wickremesinghe avoided taking a clear position on it (while Rajapakse rejected it outright).



In short, Wickremesinghe offered the LTTE and the Tamils absolutely nothing (except possibly not ruling such matters out). In contrast, he met the demands, implicit and explicit, of the SLMC and CWC, including controversial ones, like a third Muslim delegation at the negotiating table. His readiness to unilaterally decide on such matters, which had already proved problematic in past peace talks undoubtedly irritated the LTTE. But there was a crucial and rather opportunistic aspect of Wickremesinghe’s campaign strategy that raised crucially serious doubts about his judgement: he extended his hand to outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga to form a national government in the event of his being elected.



President Kumaratunga is arguably a figure of hate for large sections of the Tamil community. Her decade-long ‘war for peace’ complete with a devastating economic embargo and its widespread destruction of Tamil towns and villages not only polarised Sri Lanka’s communities, it arguably provided considerable impetus to the LTTE’s cause amongst the Tamils. Wickremesinghe’s repeated efforts during his term as Prime Minister to mollycoddle his recalcitrant archrival visibly irritated members of his own party as well as exacerbating the LTTE’s frustrations.



But there are more important practical considerations if a future peace process is to be considered. Two rationales frequently cited by the UNP negotiators for the lack of progress during the 2002-3 peace process were either the risk of President Kumaratunga unilaterally overriding agreements that might be struck at the table, or impeding the implementation of those reached. For example, President Kumaratunga’s obstinacy as armed forces chief was repeatedly blamed for Colombo’s failure to implement the normalisation clauses in the ceasefire agreement, as well as those obligating the disarming of Army-backed paramilitaries. The UNP also insisted on keeping discussion of an interim administration for the Northeast off the negotiating agenda, citing the risk of Kumaratunga’s seriously intervening in the negotiation process.



Yet now, here was Wickremesinghe himself seeking an alliance with Kumaratunga, whilst at the same time bidding for the country’s most powerful political office. The UNP leader's invitation to the President has had two interrelated effects. Firstly, it seriously undermined the LTTE’s confidence in Wickremesinghe’s commitment to a negotiated accommodation with it (confidence that had already been frayed by the history of the 2002-3 peace process). More importantly, it immediately precluded the LTTE from supporting him without seriously undermining its own credibility amongst the Tamils.



These are critical factors that have made the LTTE shrink back from taking a role in the November 17 elections. Indeed, the Tigers’ criticism that neither candidate has anything to offer the Tamils is based not only on the factors outlined above, but a determination not to contribute, even by omission, to Wickremesinghe’s campaign. The matter was decisively settled this week when UNP stalwart and negotiator at the 2002-3 talks, Milinda Moragoda, made a devastating series of claims in an interview with the Daily Mirror.



In a tone devoid of the accommodation that might be expected if future talks are being eyed (indeed, Moragoda was more conciliatory towards the JVP than the LTTE) he claimed credit for promoting the violent rebellion by the LTTE commander, Colonel Karuna, and for entrapping the LTTE in an ‘international safety net.’ Most damagingly, Moragoda even claimed credit, on behalf of the UNP, for sinking two LTTE ships during the 2002-3 talks. The LTTE has not commented on Moragoda’s statements, but the reaction in Kilinchchi can be easily predicted.



In short, what might appear to be a straightforward choice between a Sinhala nationalist Rajapakse and a pro-peace, progressive Wickremesinghe is, from a Tamil perspective, not clear cut. This is not to say that a commonality of interests could not have been arrived at in the interests of a future peace process. But the UNP failed to provide unambiguous incentives for the LTTE and the Tamils.



The argument that the LTTE would prefer a Rajapakse-led Sinhala nationalist leadership in Colombo to undermine Sri Lanka’s standing in the international community and boost its own is not wrong. But had Wickremesinghe committed himself unambiguously to a model of substantial federalism, agreed to discuss an interim administration with the LTTE (which is where he was when Kumaratunga intervened in the peace process two years ago) and pledged to institute an aid sharing mechanism to rebuild the Northeast (for all of which international support would undoubtedly have been forthcoming), could it be said with certainty that the LTTE would not have mobilised an eager Tamil electorate behind him?