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A need to re-write the international rule book

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The Liberation Tigers’ insistence that the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) would need to be reconstituted to only contain representatives from countries that do not criminalise the LTTE has been met with some surprise by the Norwegian facilitators and the international community at large. But prior to the proscription of the organisation by the European Union (EU), the LTTE had informed the Nordic facilitators that they could not allow representatives from countries that had deemed the LTTE an illegal organisation to participate in such a vital observer mission.

The startled response by the Norwegian facilitators to the LTTE’s request in Oslo to reconstitute the SLMM following the EU’s designation of the organisation as a terrorist organisation can only be interpreted as a gross diplomatic miscalculation on the part of the Nordic facilitators. The subsequent bout of frenzied diplomacy has bought the SLMM some more time to find its new participants (the LTTE has agreed to two months, not one, as opposed to the six asked for by Norway) but failed to waive the LTTE from its principled position that proscription is the highest form of political aggression available and states which choose to apply such policy tools to it should be limited from meaningfully participating in resolving the island’s conflict.

This was first of a number of faux pas by the facilitators in engaging with the organisation. Another major blunder was the failure to understand the seriousness of the LTTE’s repeated requests to the SLMM to either desist from placing monitors on Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) vessels or to place monitors on LTTE vessels as well. The LTTE had reasoned that the monitors were being used as human shields by the Sri Lankan military as it transports supplies and personnel to Jaffna and, more recently, attacked Sea Tiger vessels on training exercise.

The SLMM’s actions placed the LTTE at a tactical disadvantage and the organisation had requested that the situation was untenable. In what can only be assumed was an act of brinksmanship the facilitators ignored the LTTE requests – issued three times. Events came to ahead when, following an attack on the Sea Tigers whilst on manoeuvres near their coast, the LTTE attacked an SLN convoy in late May.

Two SLN gunboats were destroyed. But the Sea Tigers’ attack on the troop transport, MV Pearl Cruise was called off following frantic SLMM calls to Kilinochchi to alerting the LTTE high command that the vessel had SLMM members on board. Contrary to reports in the southern media, it was the presence of SLMM monitors that save the Pearl Cruise, not valiant counterattacks by the SLN.

In the subsequent media release the SLMM made sweeping assertions that according to the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) LTTE had no claims to the sea. However, this interpretation contradicted earlier rulings by the SLMM (indeed former SLMM chief Maj. Gen. Trygve Tellefson was removed at Colombo’s insistence when he attempted to work out an arrangement to separate forces at sea). The matter was taken up forcefully by the LTTE in Oslo and the SLMM backtracked, agreeing no longer to post its monitors on SLN vessels.

And these are not the only times the Norwegian facilitators have, unwittingly or otherwise, tested the resolve of the LTTE in demanding complete parity in the peace process. In April 2003, Norway was a key organiser of an international aid conference. It was held in Washington, even though the LTTE would not be able to attend due to its proscription in the US. The LTTE’s subsequent ‘temporary’ withdrawal from peace talks prompted another bout of frantic – but unsuccessful - diplomatic activity to cajole or coerce the Tigers back to the table.

Norway is largely a conduit for the collective policies of a number of international actors involved in Sri Lanka. Nordic representatives no doubt offer their expert opinion on matters concerning the two protagonists, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state, but are also helpless once these key international actors decide on a specific course of action. Whilst some veteran Norwegian diplomats know the LTTE and its mindset quite well, they ultimately operate within international strategies.

It is therefore important to understand the logic from which the international community is approaching the LTTE. The primary myth that needs dispelling is that the LTTE engaged in the peace process as a consequence of post 9/11 policy shifts. The flaws in that axiom have become increasingly clear this year. It was the result of the November 2001 elections that resulted in the LTTE’s shift in policy - President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government was simply not prepared to engage in any peace effort.

Therefore, regardless of the policies of the international community, the LTTE would not have engaged in a peace process with the People’s Alliance had it returned to power in the 2001 polls - the (now no longer) secretive talks between the opposition United National Party and the LTTE formed the basis for the beginning of the ‘public’ peace process in early 2002.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had pledged to deliver real changes to the Tamils of the North-East and, with the facilitation of the international community via the Norwegians, the LTTE had expected the peace process to provide a suitable forum to address Tamil grievances and, more pressingly, to deliver the much needed rehabilitation to the war torn North-East.

But hostile military commanders and hardline elements in the South, including President Kumaratunga, impeded the progress. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe prevaricated also, refusing to mobilise international support to overcome these resistors.

The LTTE for its part engaged with the spectrum of international actors, from several states to non-governmental organisations and watchdogs. LTTE delegations went abroad, seeking advice and expertise on their legal systems, human rights, and a better understanding of constitutional law, all essential ingredients for arriving at a solution to the conflict.

Yet over the next five years, the Tamils and the international community observed the collective failure of the Sri Lankan political system to deliver on a single agreement made with the LTTE. The final straw was the torpedoing of the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court that deemed it unconstitutional to share aid with the LTTE and, thus, the Northeast.

The willingness of both the UNP government and the international community to circumvent Sri Lanka’s constitution to engage the LTTE at the outset of the peace process dissipated when it came to implementing agreements reached with the LTTE.

The debacle of the Washington donor conference served to confirm Tamil suspicions that this was not a peace process of equals with the objective of addressing their legitimate grievances. Instead it transformed gradually from an engagement at parity to a pro-state one process, where the government could renege on its agreements with little or no consequence. Indeed, diplomatic pressure on the state would only occur from time to time when the peace process was deemed to be in absolute jeopardy.

And following the tsunami of December 2004 this shift away from parity towards the state became more marked. The overwhelming assumptions amidst the international community - fuelled by the Sri Lankan state - was that, following the Karuna defection and the tsunami, the LTTE was now a shell of its former self and that political and aid concessions were no longer necessary to keep it in the peace process.’

This perception resulted in a complete reversion to type amongst international policy makers. The situation was once again analogous to other conflicts between state and non-state actors: the generally weaker non-state actor is invariably pressured to concede to watered down agreements ‘lest the peace process fails’ and the state actor unleashes further violence against it.

The modus operandi for such situations was relatively straightforward: use aid, (promise of legitimacy) and, where necessary, violence by the state to extract concessions from the non-state actor. The Sri Lankan state was therefore funded liberally, the military given external training and substantial breaches of the truce largely ignored.

Even the expansion of the paramilitary forces, especially the Karuna group, was tacitly accepted, given the overall objective of coercing the LTTE to the table. As was the murderous campaign unleashed by the paramilitaries against LTTE cadres and supporters.

It was the alarming deadline set by LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan during his annual Heroes Day speech that suggested that the LTTE was not willing to meekly go along with this diffuse form of coercion. In particular, the subsequent rise in tit-for-tat violence between the state’s paramilitaries and the LTTE demanded that the international community revisit the conceptual paradigm from which they were working.

But then the LTTE offered another (but in its view final) opportunity to salvage the peace process by attending ‘ceasefire’ talks in Geneva in February. This must have been interpreted once again as a sign of weakness. The collective international silence over assassination of a Tamil politician in Trincomalee six weeks after the Geneva talks by suspected state backed paramilitaries reveals international assumptions.

If the key international actors had wished to maintain the parity in the peace process they would have acted swiftly and effectively against the state for failing to end the paramilitary campaign, for not facilitating the transfer of LTTE eastern commanders for a pre-Geneva 2 conference, for not allowing LTTE political cadres back into government-controlled areas.

Instead, as the tit-for-tat violence escalated in the wake of Vanniasingham Vignaswaran’s assassination, first Canada, and then the EU proscribed the LTTE. These moves, particularly the EU’s, were clearly intended to intimidate the LTTE into ending its violence and returning to the table. The state received, at worst, polite admonishments. Instead, the LTTE has demanded EU monitors quit their roles on the island and has began mobilising for what it warns will be an inevitable war if Sri Lanka is not restrained.

A brief study of the LTTE’s history will reveal that there is very little militarily or politically which the organisation considers daunting. This is with good reason. Unlike other armed non-state actors, the LTTE has transformed itself from a guerrilla organisation to a semi-state administration without a single international state ally and under near-continuous conditions of war. Consequently, its dependencies, long term calculations and, thus determination, are quite different. Attempting to affect the organisation’s policies by using the deterrents applied to guerrilla movements elsewhere is unlikely to elicit the same response.

There was widespread acceptance of (battlefield) parity between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state at the outset of the peace process, which resulted in relatively successful initial progress. It was arguably the failure to maintain equal pressure on both protagonists that resulted in the peace process stalling. The failure occurred because at some point the international community assumed that it was no longer necessary to apply the concept of parity to resolving the Tamil question. It may have been a sense of LTTE vulnerability following Karuna’s defection or perhaps after the tsunami, perhaps both. In any case, this turning point sowed the seeds of Norwegian peace process’s disintegration.

It is fairly clear, therefore, how the peace process can be recovered. Parity needs to be restored. This would include going outside Sri Lanka’s constitutions to engage with the LTTE. It would require sanctions (economic, diplomat and political) against the Sri Lankan state to get it to be serious about power- sharing and the provision of direct aid to the Northeast to ensure rehabilitation is not impaired by southern bureaucracy. In short, the strategic parity between the protagonists needs to be restored.

The international community moan that there is little they can do to curb the hard liners on both sides. This is an duplicitous excuse to avoid taking an even handed approach. There is plainly a lot the donor community could have done and still could do. However it lacks the will. But parity is the foremost principle behind ensuring peace in Sri Lanka. International actors need to disavow themselves of their assumptions about dealing with non-state and state actors. Particularly when it comes to resolving Sri Lanka’s ethnic question, they need to commit to the notion of parity - much like when maintaining peace between rival states.

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