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Inopportune Moment

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As the simmering ‘low-intensity’ conflict in Sri Lanka’s Northeast escalated this week, southern press reports indicated political developments with far reaching consequences for the island’s peace process are underway. President Mahinda Rajapakse is in serious negotiations with the ultra-nationalist JVP about the latter’s entry into his ruling coalition. Loathed by many of Sri Lanka’s political commentators, the Marxist party is always being described as on the wane. But despite the repeated confident assertions by its detractors, it has demonstrated its political potency and resilience time and again. The JVP says it is in serious discussions with the President about a common program on the peace process and there is much speculation as to the nature of the deal.

But it is not mere ministerial perks the JVP wants. As always, it is after a firm grip on the genuine levers of power. It may get it. President Rajapakse is ideologically closer – and more reliant – on the JVP than his own divided SLFP. Despite the manifest developments of the past eight months, the international community still remains supremely confident that the exigencies of governance will eventually bring Rajapakse round to their view – the only ‘reasonable’ one in town. But they underestimate the ideological resonance of Rajapakse’s Presidential election manifesto - ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ – with the man, his allies and, above all, the voters who swept him past Ranil Wickremesinghe to power. Amidst the furore about the LTTE boycott, few noticed how the UNP leader was left fumbling with a lion flag in the dust behind the JVP-JHU vehicle. The Sinhalese overwhelmingly wanted Rajapakse.

If the JVP does join the ruling coalition and, as is then likely, exerts influence over Rajapakse and the government, then the fragile skeleton of the Norwegian peace process will crumble rapidly. The JVP has already demanded the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) be thrown out. Incredibly, it also wants Rajapakse to disarm the Tigers before holding peace talks. It knows very well that its demands mean war, yet it is boldly making them. Last week JVP Propaganda Secretary toured the Jaffna frontline (by Air Force helicopter - and the party is not in government yet) and addressed the Sinhala troops. He is unlikely to have been extolling the benefits of peace.

And it is amid all this that Japan’s Special Envoy to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, chose to make a thinly disguised threat to proscribe the Liberation Tigers. Mr. Akashi told reporters he wished to meet LTTE Vellupillai Pirapaharan to tell him that Japan is “on the verge of an important decision.” Japan, he pointedly said, is “seriously considering tangible measures as some other governments have taken.” It is manifestly clear that Japan intends to proscribe the LTTE. In an extensive interview to IANS, Mr. Akashi complained that the LTTE was responsible for “more violations of the ceasefire than the government side.” As TNA Parliamentary group leader R. Sampanthan pointed out only this week, violations cannot be measured by a numerical count. Every civilian who has not been resettled under the terms of the CFA ought to be added to the violations by the government, for example. But Mr. Akashi is an intelligent man and his rationale is justification, not explanation, of Japan’s policy decisions.

The argument that international proscriptions of the LTTE will tame the Tiger and encourage the government to talks is being proven fallacious before our very eyes. It was with the same confidence that the EU banned the LTTE in May. But matters have not improved. In fact, they have become much worse, and more quickly than even those who have made themselves hoarse shouting warnings and protests could have thought. The Sinhala right is on the ascendancy. Rajapakse’s regime is laying the foundations for a protracted war against the Tigers, purchasing weapons and conducting a pernicious psychological campaign amongst the southern population. Those elements from which the liberal peace was to be stitched together are withering before the Sinhala right’s onslaught.

Mr. Akashi’s veiled threat this week will therefore only make both protagonists focus on their preparations with more determination. Sri Lanka knows that Japan is a reliable friend, irrespective of the atrocities Colombo inflicts on the Tamils. So do the Tamils. The Tamils are also well aware of the how much each international actor has (and hasn’t) contributed to the alleviation of our people’s suffering over the past few years. But international name-calling is not our concern now. Rather, it is the impending war that Japan, like the EU and Canada before it, has contributed to by encouraging, emboldening and supporting the Sinhala regime.