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Deepening Mistrust

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Two weeks after the international aid conference in Kandy at which President Chandrika Kumaratunga vowed to sign a joint mechanism with the Liberation Tigers - thereby persuading donors to pledge US$ 3bn of assistance for post-tsunami and post conflict rehabilitation- there has been no progress on an agreement. There is a draft on the table and the Liberation Tigers acknowledge there are issues to be finalised. But President Kumaratunga remains distinctly aloof. In the meantime, the mid year monsoons loom, six months after the Boxing Day tsunami devastated the northern, eastern and southern coastlines, adding large numbers of people to the million already internationally displaced by the protracted ethnic conflict. Pledging their funds last month, aid donors left no doubt as to their hopes: as World Bank Vice President Praful Patel put it: “the peace process is at the core of their interest in Sri Lanka.” The logic is clear. If both protagonists in this long-running conflict can come together to share aid and work together in rebuilding the shattered island, then the prospects of negotiations and thereafter a solution would be considerably brightened. But the converse is also true, and that is why the delay in finalising a joint mechanism is corroding the prospects of resuming the peace process. Last week the extent of the LTTE’s frustrations was underlined by the bitter criticism of President Kumaratunga by its Political Chief, Mr. S. P. Tamilselvan. He accused Kumaratunga of posturing for the international community whilst seeking ways to marginalize the Tamils.

The point, as far as the peace process is concerned, is not this is the case or not. What matters is that this sentiment is rife amongst the Tamils. It is echoed in the editorials of Tamil newspapers. It manifests itself in the periodic outbreaks of mob violence against Sri Lankan troops in the Northeast. Most importantly, it seems to be guiding the strategic considerations of the LTTE. The donors’ crucial hope is that the joint mechanism can become a radical break with the past in terms of acrimonious ethnic and state - (Tamil) society relations. But in reality, the delay of the joint mechanism is reaffirming Tamil prejudices that Sri Lanka’s leaders are irreconcilably opposed to treating Tamils and Sinhalese equally. Moreover, when Mr. Tamilselvan referred to the imbroglio in the south as a ‘drama’ he was drawing on the maxim that history repeats itself in the south (i.e. same drama, new faces): since the ethnic question arose, whenever one Sinhala leader makes an attempt – sincere or otherwise – to address Tamil grievances, others agitate against it. This Sinhala-nationalist ‘outbidding’ as one scholar has termed it, resulted in today’s yawning chasm as is an integral part of Sri Lankan politics.

The irony is that the ethos of pluralism is itself being deployed to yet again deny the Tamils their fair share of international assistance. The Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) wants a national committee to oversee aid. It is, apparently, prepared to concede that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – but not the ‘terrorist LTTE’ - can be allowed at the table, but it wants other Tamils. The logic of broader participation is thus held forth as a rational for ignoring what Kumaratunga herself described as the ground reality: control of the island is shared between two polarised entities; the state and the LTTE. Let us be clear on the issue of representation: The Tamil people have already expressed their stand on who they back and why; the TNA was elected with an overwhelming mandate. The TNA’s manifesto – the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) – was what drew its landslide. Shorn of ministerial funds to galvanise patron client networks, the disparate bucket of anti-LTTE groups suffered a comprehensive defeat in the April 2004 polls. There are several reasons for this, the most important being, as the vernacular press underlines, Tamil politics has shifted firmly to the pursuit of political rights based on a Tamil political collective in the Tamil homeland. In that regard, the LTTE and the TNA are seen as best placed to pursue this. Moreover, what policies does the motley collection of anti-LTTE groups actually have – except for their impotent hatred of the LTTE? To return to the JVP’s logic of more voices at the table, to borrow an expression, to compare the TNA with the anti-LTTE fragments is akin to comparing a cannonball to marbles.

As those hopeful of a negotiated solution will attest, entrenched prejudices can gradually be dissolved. Indeed, the Tamil community has welcomed what appears the international community’s new commitment to pursuing peace in Sri Lanka (in contrast, that is, to its earlier unqualified support for Kumaratunga’s ‘war for peace’ in the late nineties). If there is to be any hope of reversing the stark ethnic polarisation that surveys by Colombo-based civil society groups show has deepened even after the peace process began, international donors must ensure President Kumaratunga follows through with her pledges. Amid the continuing cycle of violence in Sri Lanka’s shadow war, moods are becoming increasingly belligerent on all sides.

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