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Tipping the Balance

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The United States’ designation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation comes up for its two-yearly review next month. Undoubtedly the ban will be renewed. Sri Lankan and Indian media have meanwhile been speculating that a similar proscription is being considered by the European Union. The logic behind such international bans is coercion, essentially. Crudely put, if the LTTE does not engage in a negotiation process and abandon the armed struggle (‘terrorism’), then its political and fundraising activities will be precluded. But this approach is built on flawed assumptions about Sri Lanka’s political dynamics and the impact on the Tamil and Sinhala communities of international condemnation of the LTTE’s armed struggle.

To begin with, if the LTTE is to engage in a negotiating process, it must have a willing ‘partner in peace.’ In the past two years the LTTE has faced a hostile Sri Lankan state. The difficult compromise on internal self-determination has fallen by the wayside. The notion of an interim administration has been dismissed. Even the joint mechanism to share tsunami aid has been torpedoed. The negotiation process has thus resulted in impasse at every turn. Meanwhile, the state has in the past four years doubled its firepower and is escalating its shadow war against the LTTE. Deep mistrust has set in and the security dilemma has become entrenched. And in the past few years, a Sinhala nationalist bloc has emerged to take a central role in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics.

Given these dynamics, are further international proscriptions of the LTTE going to contribute to peace or induce a return to war? Sinhala nationalists, already implacably opposed to compromise – the essential principle of negotiation – will be emboldened by further bans on the LTTE. Convinced of forthcoming international support, they are likely to push again for a military solution. On the other hand, if proscriptions are meant to isolate the LTTE from its Tamil constituency, the effects of the bans in the US and UK (in 1997 and 2001 respectively), challenge their efficacy. The past few years, moreover, have seen a thickening of the LTTE’s ties with the Tamil community. International anxieties, fuelled by sensational Sri Lankan media reports about the LTTE’s military activities, have distracted attention from the myriad of reconstruction and developmental initiatives through which the organisation has engaged large sections of the Diaspora in its state-building project. To the Tamil community, ‘terrorist’ is an incongruous label for to apply to the LTTE now when it is the Sinhala polity which is manifestly hostile, anti-peace and militarist.

International anxieties have understandably been exacerbated by the escalating shadow war in Sri Lanka’s east. These concerns are also shared by the Tamil community, which has borne the brunt of the conflict. However, the Tamils see Colombo’s intransigence, not the LTTE, as the obstacle to peace. After being ignored by the world for many difficult years, there is a conviction that it was the LTTE’s strength which ultimately invoked international peace efforts. The international community must assist the search for peace by enabling, not foreclosing, the space for the LTTE’s political engagement. The armed struggle should not be its only viable option.

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