11 May 2007
Sri Lanka’s ruling party unveiled its much-heralded ‘power-sharing’ proposals last week, startling even the most cynical of observers with the starkness of its vision of centralized power. They were greeted by a chorus of outrage. But while southern moderates lambasted the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) proposals, Sinhala nationlists howled that they had not explicitly committed to a unitary state – even though, in effect, it further strips power from minorities. President Mahinda Rajapakse is reportedly going to address the omission before submitting it to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC). Despite the United States’ repeated endorsements of the APRC, it is now universally accepted that it was merely an elaborate device to forestall international criticism. It is, in any case, a dead horse.
With these proposals, President Rajapakse has signaled his wholehearted commitment to the military option. This, in effect, is his vision of Sri Lanka, to be rolled out following the eradication of the Tamil Tigers. In private, international observers admit to being stunned. Even if he was committed to a Sinhala nationalist utopia, some argue, for the sake of keeping up appearances, Rajapakse could have put forward some measure of devolution, no matter how weak. Instead, his proposals have compelled even his Tamil paramilitary allies to protest and embarrassed those in the SLFP who still describe themselves as moderates. And, officially, there has been pin drop silence from the international community, including the United States, the most enthusiastic supporters of the APRC charade.
From the outset, however, the SLFP has been saying that its proposals will be in keeping with President Rajapakse’s 2005 election manifesto, ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ (Mahinda’s Thoughts). It has been true to its word. The surprise therefore comes from a misguided belief that, once safely ensconced in office, President Rajapakse would moderate his position. The simple fact is, he sees, with some justification, no reason to. Firstly, once the LTTE is destroyed, he is confident any damn solution can be imposed on the Tamils and Muslims (whose leaders have grown remarkably quiet once they entered the ruling coalition). Secondly, he is getting every international assistance to do just that. He is, after all, fighting the good fight, the ‘war on terror.’
Sri Lanka is sliding inexorably towards an all out war. Even a superficial analysis of current dynamics shows that President Rajapakse is focusing single-mindedly on a battlefield victory (as, for that matter, is the LTTE). Every action by the government is intended to foreclose the possibility of a peace process and strengthen the war effort. This is why diplomats – including the indefatigable Norwegians – are barred from talking to the Tigers. This is why international NGOs are being harassed into avoiding the Northeast, why peace groups are being stamped on. Sinhala nationalists are being urged to protest against international actors, like Britain, who advocate peace talks.
The international response to President Rajapakse’s all out military drive has been one of total acquiescence. The green light that the US gave Colombo to wage war against the Tigers is visible to everyone. No Sri Lankan government has had it so good in this regard. International criticism is about the widespread human rights abuses – not the recourse to war. And even that criticism is reprehensibly mild. The UK’s much-lauded, but minor cutting of aid last week doesn’t worry Colombo. Why should it - if the block on £1.5 million of aid is intended to express disapproval, what does the recent sale of £7 million of weapons say? And when the other donors, including several European countries, continue their aid programs.
Ultimately, operating with a problem definition that blames the LTTE, rather than the oppressive Sri Lankan state, for the island’s war, international actors are loosely united behind Colombo. It can’t hurt, they say, if the LTTE is weakened, if not crippled. The logic stems from the same naïve belief in the inevitability of liberal compromise pragmatically mushrooming in a post-conflict Sri Lanka that lead to starry eyed expectations of the President Rajapakse’s proposals.
Thus the only check on President Rajapakse and the Sinhala state, is the LTTE’s capacity for resistance. And for some time, the death knell of the LTTE has been sounded by an army of armchair strategists. Some of this insight has been challenged by recent developments, including the military’s lack of traction in western Vanni, the continuing volatility of the newly captured east and, of course, the LTTE’s airstrikes. But much international hope is still pinned on President Rajapakse’s strategy. Which is primarily why all out war is now inevitable.