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Sanctioning Violence

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With the Norwegian peace process struggling, observers of Sri Lanka’s conflict have over the past several months become increasingly anxious about the simmering shadow war in the island’s east. Amid this cycle of violence, the assassination of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August came as a considerable shock. The Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference held an extraordinary meeting a short while later and, expressing their manifest displeasure over the prevailing situation, demanded that the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government meet promptly to discuss ways to stabilize the slowly unraveling ceasefire agreement. Whilst both sides expressed their readiness to talk, the discussions are stalled amid a dispute over the venue. The Tigers, citing the threat outlined by the Co-Chairs themselves – the anti-LTTE paramilitary groups Sri Lanka’s military is fostering – sought negotiations in a foreign location (or in their controlled areas). Although this was in keeping with past practice and circumvented the security issue, Sri Lanka refused, proffering the puerile argument that talks abroad would enhance the LTTE’s legitimacy. As the impasse continued, frustrations have inevitably set in, not only on both sides, but also amongst international actors involved in promoting Sri Lanka’s peace.

These factors, we presume, prompted the European Union’s harshly worded statement last week. The EU blamed the Tigers solely for the ongoing violence ‘and terrorism.’ It barred LTTE delegations from visiting its member states and, warning of an outright ban, threatened punitive actions against the organization and its supporters – the Tamils resident in its home territories. The EU thus departed noticeably from the relatively even-handed approach hitherto adopted by the Co-Chairs. In doing so, it reduced the complex security milieu in Sri Lanka to the dangerously simple logic of petulant aggression on the LTTE’s part. It also, in effect, appeared to tacitly sanction the continuation of Sri Lanka’s paramilitary campaign.

The assumptions behind the EU’s punitive sanctions are deeply flawed. To begin with, as the LTTE has itself pointed out, the EU’s actions are more likely to advance a renewed war in Sri Lanka than to stay it. Sri Lanka’s Sinhala leadership will be emboldened to adopt an increasingly uncompromising position at the negotiating table and indeed, to flirt again with the military option. Apart from weakening the LTTE’s negotiating position at future talks, the EU’s approach will encourage spoilers in the Sri Lankan military to step up the shadow war. Blame for the violence, after all, has been already been unilaterally apportioned.

More fundamentally, by so pointedly criminalizing the Tamil cause (and its resident Tamil communities), the EU has undermined the viability of the peace process as a vehicle to pursue Tamil political aspirations. Why should Sri Lanka consider the Tamil position when 25 European democracies have dismissed it out of hand? It was, after all, the international community’s watchdog presence that has hitherto underpinned Tamil confidence in the negotiation process. Oslo’s initiative began, it must be recalled, in the aftermath of bitter fighting at the turn of the century. Although some subscribe erroneously to the ‘hurting stalemate’ theory, close observers of Sri Lanka’s conflict are well aware of the balance of forces (post-Elephant Pass and Agni-Kiela) which spurred the peace process. In short, with Colombo’s armed forces cowed, albeit temporarily, the LTTE saw negotiations as more efficacious than its armed struggle in pursuing Tamil aspirations – provided third party involvement ensured even-handed international scrutiny.

Since then, however, the peace process has faced dead end after dead end. An estimated 800,000 (out of 3.2 million Tamils) remain displaced. Yet the Sub-committees on rehabilitation and normalization fell by the wayside. The interim administration was never seriously taken up and the ISGA was binned. Even the tsunami failed to shift Colombo’s intransigence: the much-vaunted P-TOMS that the Co-Chairs so firmly insisted on proved still born. In the meantime, the LTTE’s security environment deteriorated under the sustained paramilitary campaign. And therein lies the difficulty. The EU has demanded the LTTE demonstrates its commitment to peace and “a willingness to change.” The implication is that the LTTE’s actions are simply characteristic of an inherently belligerent nature. But we suggest the movement’s actions must be viewed against the backdrop of the prevailing military context. The multi-faceted paramilitary threat faced by its cadres and leaders constitutes an unavoidable and overriding priority for the LTTE. The movement has repeatedly stated its commitment to a negotiated solution and in four fruitless years has demonstrated a tenacity for pursuing peace that few of its critics would have credited it with in 2001. Just like any other rational actor, the LTTE has no choice but to confront the clear and present danger it is facing. One-sided condemnation and punitive measures will not lessen this necessity, but will foreclose alternatives to confronting it.

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