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Inevitable Outcome

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Even Norway’s veteran peacemaker, Erik Solheim, was in an uncharacteristically pessimistic mood during his visit to Colombo last week. The situation, he said, was grave. People are dying everyday. If the cycle of violence continues, it could trigger a full-blown war. This Tuesday, the Co-Chairs of Sri Lanka’s donors - the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway - met again to discuss Sri Lanka, almost exactly three years since they last met and pledged $4.5bn in exchange for ‘progress towards peace.’ We are unlikely to see those halcyon days again.

The central issue now is the European Union’s decision to proscribe the LTTE. The move will have far reaching consequences for the peace process and for Sri Lanka’s future. The most obvious impact has been stated repeatedly ad nauseum over the past few months: an EU ban on the LTTE will embolden the Sinhala nationalists in the south and encourage Colombo to confidently take a militarist approach to the ethnic question. But this appeal, repeated this week by thousands of Tamils who demonstrated in several European cities, has fallen on deaf ears. The EU rationale instead is that coercive steps by the international community are needed to deter the LTTE from returning to a new war and that, above all else, is the priority. There is simply no consideration of Colombo’s role in the steady escalation towards war.

But this is not the only reason why the EU’s action coming at this particular juncture can be expected to radically transform the long-term strategies of both protagonists. The EU move comes as thousands of Tamils are fleeing government-controlled areas and seeking refuge in LTTE-controlled ones or in neighbouring India. There have been unabashed demonstrations in the past few months, not just days, of the racist cruelty that underlines Sri Lanka’s US-trained military’s approach to the Tamils. Mr. Solheim pointed out last week that ‘people all over the north and east are living with fear.’ The question, therefore, is: how are they to be provided with security? Coming precisely when the Tamils are again facing state-sponsored violence - by the armed forces, paramilitaries and racist mobs, the EU’s move has thoroughly discredited internationally-backed ‘peace and reconciliation’ efforts as nothing but an strategy to contain and crush the LTTE. This in itself is not a surprise - many Tamils have long viewed international involvement in making peace in Sri Lanka with skepticism and some have openly denounced it as a trap. As an emboldened Sri Lanka continues its present course of action, these voices will grown in number and vehemence.

Despite Tamil reservations about international bias towards the Sri Lankan state the LTTE has explored the peace process for ways to advance the Tamil liberation struggle without recourse to war. Contrary to the central charge against it today, it has stuck with the peace process. This is despite a failure to get greater recognition – by way of direct engagement – from the international community and despite the rapid disintegration of almost all agreements reached through the talks. Even when the conditionality imposed by donors in Tokyo three years ago frayed and was eventually dumped, particularly after the tsunami, the LTTE has remained engaged. It has also done so despite vitriolic and unabashedly one-sided condemnation by key states underwriting the peace process.

The EU’s move is thus the most severe intervention in the Norwegian initiative to date. It has devalued the peace process and left the Tamils isolated and confronting the Sri Lankan state, which has by stealth resumed a new round of aggression. Amidst the state’ relentless violence, the pre-truce economic embargo has also been gradually reimposed: a total blockade on cement and fuel into LTTE areas came in last week. In short, the war is already upon the Tamils. The EU ban sends an unambiguous message to all Sri Lankans that, when all is said and done, President Rajapakse is being backed by the international community against the LTTE. The logic that casts the LTTE, rather than the Sri Lankan state, as the primary aggressor is based partly on a statist disdain for armed non-state actors, partly on a failure to recall the full sequence of events that led Sri Lanka out of war and into peace - and back towards war - and, most importantly, a profound lack of understanding of the dynamics that have denied Sri Lanka a single year since independence free of ethnic tension. Mr. Solheim has given voice to international frustration with both sides. But it is the state which is stoking the shadow war. And it is the state which is receiving international support. That is why there will, sooner or later, be a return to open war.

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