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Interests, not values

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A chorus of international voices have in the past few days decried the heightened violence gripping Sri Lanka’s Northeast. Calls for restraint and new talks on stabilising the fraying February 2002 ceasefire have come from key states and the international monitors overseeing the truce, amongst others. Nevertheless, the violence is continuing. There have been numerous attacks on Sri Lankan security forces and the Liberation Tigers. Military reprisals against civilians, tacitly encouraged by the government in Colombo, have also escalated. Dozens of people have disappeared after being taken into military custody. An estimated four thousand families have fled Jaffna for the LTTE-held Vanni. Thousands of people in Trincomalee have also moved – or are being blocked by the military from moving – into LTTE-controlled parts of the district. It is amid this climate of fear and despair that Norwegian Special Envoy Erik Solheim will return to Sri Lanka next week in yet another attempt to broker talks on the ceasefire. It remains to be seen whether Sri Lanka will agree to hold talks in Oslo or continue to prioritise its insistence that LTTE officials be excluded from Europe over stopping the slide to war.

The Tamil community, now under widespread and sustained harassment by the security forces, is as anxious for peace as any of the observers. But by peace we mean a genuine return to normalcy – not just the doldrums that the peace process was drifting in a few short weeks ago. In other words, we want the long overdue implementation of the normalcy clauses of the February 2002 ceasefire: the disarming of the Army-backed paramilitaries, the withdrawal of Sri Lankan security forces from our homes, schools, places of worship and other public places, the lifting of the restrictions on fishing and farming, and so on. This is not some radical new concept – the Tamil community has been asked for this repeatedly for four years now, to no avail.

Amid the international community’s expressions of concern and disapproval, one stands out in the Tamil perspective: that of US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mr. Jeffrey Lunstead. Speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka last week, Mr. Lunstead lambasted the LTTE. Amid what is a spiral of violence and counter violence, he singled out the LTTE for blame. As thousands of Tamils fled military reprisals he congratulated the Colombo government ‘for its restraint.’ Holding the LTTE responsible for the wider failures of the peace process, Mr. Lunstead even blamed it for the lack of ‘investment and industry’ in the Northeast. We wonder whether the US has - even once in the past four years - encouraged the members of Mr. Lunstead’s audience in the American Chamber of Commerce to invest in the Tamil territories.We do know, however, that in all that time, the LTTE has been striving to mobilise the Tamil Diaspora to this end. We do not recall Mr. Lunstead protesting last year when the PTOMS joint mechanism for sharing international aid with the Tamil areas was abrogated by the Colombo government – though we do recall the US refusing to put funds through it when it was finally signed.

The Tigers must, Mr. Lunstead said, repeating a standard US maxim, ‘renounce terrorism in word and deed.’ Then, he suggested, probably less reassuringly than he intended, there ‘might be’ a role for the LTTE - in Sri Lanka’s development. But curiously enough, his government’s attitude towards the Colombo government does not seem contingent on its behaviour. There has been, for example, no mention of human rights of late - even when ‘disappearances’ and assaults of civilians are reported from the North. Or when five students were summarily executed in Trincomalee. Or when almost a thousand Tamils were arrested enmasse in Colombo. Most importantly, amid widely expressed fears of a renewed war, Mr. Lunstead last week assured the Sinhala nationalist government of his government’s military support in the event of war.

The Tamils have repeatedly argued that international support for Sri Lanka’s military emboldens the Sinhala nationalists and buttresses Colombo’s intransigence in the peace process. Little wonder then that the JVP and JHU are this week again urging a military solution to the Tamil question. The United States is one of the four Co-Chairs overseeing the peace process. Mr. Lunstead’s comments have thus not only damaged the Co-Chairs credibility as even-handed advocates of a solution amongst Sri Lanka’s communities, but changed the dynamic between the two protagonists at a crucial and sensitive time. As many amongst us are pointing out, the Tamils are receiving a lesson in realpolitik: interests matter more rather values. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Solheim’s visit will end Sri Lanka’s slide towards the abyss. But in the meantime, the Tamils must brace for difficult times ahead. Ambassador Lunstead has said the US ‘wants the cost of war to be high’ and, as the unreconstructed devastation across our homeland testifies, Sri Lanka will, with US support, ensure that.

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