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Regrettable, counterproductive

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Canada’s proscription of the Liberation Tigers was not entirely unexpected. Domestic pressures, particularly from some interior arms of the state, coupled with the platform of the new Conservative government, ultimately decided in Sri Lanka’s favour. The move is regrettable, not only because it alters the calculations on which the protagonists in Sri Lanka decide questions of war and peace, but because its effect is the exact opposite of Canada’s stated expectations.

Announcing the ban last week, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, also declared that Canada was supportive of a negotiated solution to the island’s conflict and was even prepared to host talks between the Sri Lanka’s government and the LTTE. To begin with, this is a contradiction in terms - on what basis could the offer be accepted by the LTTE, given the partisan position Canada has taken?

More importantly, the logic put forward for the ban – that it would assist, not hinder the Norwegian brokered peace process is fundamentally flawed, ignoring, as it does, the now undisguised trends in Sri Lanka, where a hardline Sinhala nationalist administration has resumed the war, albeit covertly, against the LTTE. The Canadian decision is based on the premise that it is the LTTE which is being intransigent and blocking progress towards a permanent solution. But as close observers of Sri Lanka’s conflict, not least the Norwegians, are well aware, the issue is much more complex. First, Sri Lanka’s new government has already ruled out any meaningful power-sharing. It has adopted a defiant and uncooperative stance towards the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. Most importantly, violence has resumed anew. Whatever the fate of the next round of talks in Geneva, dozens are already dying as Sri Lanka’s military intelligence and its paramilitary allies accelerate the cycle of killings.

In this context, the Canadian ban is not going to contribute to peace. In fact, it is going to do the opposite by emboldening the hardliners in the Sri Lankan regime and the Sinhala nationalists who support it. These forces will undoubtedly feel vindicated by the Canadian decision and take it, not unreasonably, as support for their uncompromising positions on the ethnic questions. Why, they will ask, do we need to share power, when the organization spearheading this Tamil rebellion has been proscribed as terrorists by the US, UK, India and now Canada? Sri Lanka has stepped up agitations for the rest of Europe to follow suit and proscribe the LTTE. Some Tamils think an EU ban is a foregone conclusion.

But there are two important elements which the international community needs to consider with regards the Tamil armed struggle; firstly, the LTTE’s domestic legitimacy is not linked to international support or censure, but to the objective conditions of oppression in Sri Lanka. Secondly, it is security considerations on the ground and the overall progress of the liberation struggle that influence the LTTE’s strategy and tactics, not external censure. War or peace, in short, is decided by the possibility of tangible progress at the negotiation table and the prevailing conditions of oppression on the ground.

Following successive proscriptions of the LTTE in India (1991), the United States (1997) and, particularly, Britain (2001), the Tamil community has become increasingly unmoved by such international criticism. Instead, an understandings of realpolitik, combined with heightened cruelty by the Sri Lankan state, particularly amid the internationally-supported ‘war for peace’ fuelled a desperate struggle which has culminated in the de-facto state run by the LTTE today. These dynamics are not going to change now. The LTTE occupies a critical position in the struggle for Tamil rights. Why was the question of federalism placed on the table in 2002 – we, the Tamils, asked for that as long ago as the fifties? At what point did the international community decide the war was ‘unwinnable’ and talks paramount?

And therein lies the rub. The present peace process rests entirely on the balance of forces between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE, a point bluntly put forward even by a former head of the international monitors overseeing the truce. In this context, the Canadian ban – and any others that prove forthcoming – can only serve to upset this balance and undermine the peace process. The ban will encourage Sri Lanka to more intransigent at the negotiating table. It will embolden the Sri Lankan armed forces to step up the shadow war against the LTTE. Most importantly, however, it brings into question the efficacy (for the Tamil liberation struggle) of following a negotiated approach, as opposed to an armed struggle, in the first place.

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