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Tilt to war is not irreversible

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Many observers of Sri Lanka’s brewing conflict appear resigned to a new war as inevitable, often reasoning that the hawks on both sides are presently too powerful to resist. Unfortunately, the only perception more flawed than this sense of an unavoidable doom is that there is little the international community could have done to prevent this lamentable scenario from occurring. A close examination of the island’s political and military history, however, serves as a useful guide to how the present vicious cycle of violence could be prevented from spiralling to its bloody end.

From the outset, the LTTE’s stated objective is the creation of a structure that provides a permanent condition of security for the Tamils. An independent state is, arguably, a security structure par excellence. The LTTE has expressed a willingness to consider alternatives, but physical security is the overarching goal. Moreover, the organisation has also reiterated it would pursue this objective via a negotiation process and, failing that, do so by military force.

But one of the unstated yet well understood principles of the LTTE’s approach is to always negotiate only having achieved a reasonable degree of military parity with the state. This is an understandable position, as a lack of military parity would seriously reduce the likelihood of reaching an acceptable solution, particularly with respect to the security and political freedom of the Tamils. This basic principle is illustrated time and again when the historical conditions under which the LTTE engages in negotiations or refuses to do so are considered.

Over a decade ago, President Chandrika Kumaratunga launched her infamous ‘war for peace’. Its notoriety amongst the Tamils stems from the unrestrained manner in which her administration and her armed forces waged the war, targetting the broader civilian population with a food and medicine embargo and indiscriminate use of heavy weapons.

Leading up to that round of conflict, the Sri Lankan state was engaged in direct peace talks with the LTTE. However, even whilst engaged in discussions, the state was steadily arming itself preparing for a full-scale assault on the LTTE controlled – and densely populated - Jaffna peninsula. The peace talks broke down in an acrimonious exchange of accusations of bad faith and the Sri Lankan state subsequently launched its offensive taking control of Jaffna and driving the LTTE from its strategic ‘rear base.’

With hindsight it is clear that the Sri Lankan state had achieved substantial military superiority during the negotiations, having received massive international support politically, militarily and financially to embark on its war. The ‘war for peace’, whilst waged in gross violation of international humanitarian law, had nevertheless been sanctioned by the world powers involved in Sri Lanka.

But if the objective was the shortest route to stability, the international community had erred in its unstinting support of the Sri Lankan state. Despite the initial success of the newly equipped and trained military, by the turn of the century the state was on its back foot. In 2001, having retaken vast territories of the Northeast from the Army, the LTTE attacked the Katunayake air base-cum-international airport, seriously weakening the airforce and, worse, shattering the export and tourism based economy.

It was under these conditions that Sri Lanka’s new premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe accepted the LTTE’s call for peace talks, initiated after the movement called a unilateral ceasefire. The LTTE, with its objective of securing a state of military parity achieved, engaged the Sri Lankan government in a peace process through which it expected to realise a semi-permanent state of security, namely through an interim administration.

Indeed, the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) made a promising start. The state pledged to restore conditions of ‘normalcy’ to the war-torn Northeast, withdrawing troops encamped in Tamil homes and public buildings such as schools and hospitals. The state also pledged to disarm Tamil paramilitary groups engaged as part of its counter-insurgency campaign.

Thus, to the visible relief of the Tamils, it appeared the international community had finally stepped away from a policy of resolutely backing Colombo’s military solution and had instead begun to a policy of pressuring genuine concessions from the southern polity that could result in a permanent negotiated solution.

But as months and then years passed, Colombo’s pledges fell by the wayside. Structures which were agreed to rehabilitate the Northeast became bogged down in bureaucratic disputes over control. The climax of this failed cooperation was the stillborn Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS); Sinhala nationalists used Sri Lanka’s judiciary to torpedo the tsunami aid sharing mechanism.

Combined with a series of diplomatic snubs to the LTTE by the international community, it became abundantly clear that the state of parity with which the LTTE had entered the peace process was gradually ebbing away. One explanation put about by some analysts is that the defection of Karuna to Colombo had resulted in a perception that the balance of power had shifted away from the LTTE and therefore there was little reason to continuing to pressure Colombo, as the threat of conflict was now remote. Speculation the tsunami having wreaked havoc amidst the LTTE’s ranks debilitating its combat readiness was another possible factor.

Whatever the logic, the gradual reversion to type of the international community stands in stark contrast to the balanced position it adopted whilst kickstarting the peace process. The Sri Lankan state, which had entered into the peace process in humility, is now emboldened by what appears to be a strident anti-LTTE position adopted by the international Community. The most recent victory for President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government is the ban on the LTTE by the European Union.

As in the 1990s, the willingness of the international community to overlook the state’s gross human rights abuses against the Tamils has also lent weight to a southern consensus that the international community is firmly behind the state once more.

Similarly, from the LTTE’s perspective, the objective of lasting security for the Tamils via a negotiated solution couldn’t be further away. Even the first round of negotiations in Geneva this year exposed the present administration in Colombo as an even less reliable and trustworthy negotiating partner than its predecessors. The Sri Lankan state did not only fail to deliver on its security-related pledges in Geneva, its spokesman flatly denied to its domestic constituency that such an agreement had even been reached.

While failing to demonstrate any ability or willingness to pressure the Sri Lankan state toward implementing its obligations, the international sponsors of the peace process have resorted to demanding instead that the LTTE make concessions to move towards ‘peace.’ In spite of the fact that the first act of violence after the Geneva negotiations was the assassination by Army-backed paramilitaries of a popular Tamil politician, the international community has sought to blame the LTTE alone for the increasing violence.

Furthermore, the international community has also rejected the LTTE’s position that it cannot negotiate whilst Tamil civilians are subject to violence by the Sri Lankan state. Indeed the message to the LTTE appears to be the gloves are coming off and it is those the Tigers claim to protect, the Tamil people, that are going to be punished most. It is an inescapable irony that it is the LTTE which is being listed in the EU whilst Tamils flee murders and massacres in Army-controlled areas to seek refuge with the Tigers.

Since independence, Sri Lankan governemnts have time and again either unleashed or encouraged violence against the Tamil speaking people. Although this protest is raised time and again by almost every Tamil political actor, the failure of the international community to understand the impact this has had on the Tamil psyche has repeatedly resulted in consistently flawed policy decisions.

The brutal fact of the matter is, regardless of what it is the international community believes it can threaten the Tamil people with, history has revealed that the implications of losing to the Sri Lankan state will be infinitely worse. The recent anti-Tamil riots in Trincomalee are testament to this reality.

In order to understand how a new conflict can be prevented, the international community needs to recognise the objective conditions from which the two protagonists have previously entered into conflict. During the 1990s, Kumaratunga embarked on the ‘war-for-peace’ when her forces enjoyed a massive numerical and technological advantage over the LTTE. The LTTE, meanwhile, refused to countenance entering into negotiations from a position of weakness. Exactly the same dynamic was at play in the mid-eighties.

But in 2001, having achieved military parity with the state, the LTTE pursued a negotiated solution, whilst the state, which had been severely weakened by the conflict agreed to a negotiate a path to powersharing. The problem, however, is that during the peace process the balance shifted once again in favour of the state. International support has been crucial in this regard. Colombo will now discuss nothing outside a unitary state and believes it is capable of military overwhelming the LTTE.

Given the historical context, war is not inevitable but peace is only possible if the balance that has been maintained during the ceasefire is restored. The international community, for its part, has on occasion in the recent past demonstrated an understanding of the need for a balance of forces to maintain the peace. It is perhaps miscalculations such as those undertaken after Karuna’s defection and the tsunami that has allowed the situation to deteriorate to its present position. The question now is what does the international community do now to stabilise the tilt to war? The indications suggest nothing will be done. The Tamil people need to brace themselves for yet another ‘war for peace.’

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