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We have come full circle

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In a number of policy statements by prominent representatives of the international community, there has been a belated but welcome call upon the Sri Lankan government to address the legitimate grievances of the Tamils. The immediate redress that is deemed necessary by Sri Lanka’s various foreign supporters is the delivery of peace proposals which might satisfy their aspirations.



The wording of many of these statements suggests that President Mahinda Rajapakse has escaped the Tamils’ characterisation of him as a Sinhala chauvinist. For his part, he has enthusiastically assured the international community that he intends to do just what they want. He assured even the sceptical Indian government that his committee, which includes minorities, even if led by a Sinhala hardliner, would produce a proposal which, without using the word ‘federalism’ would be just that.



My doubts are not on whether Colombo will or not – though almost everyone is convinced it will not. Rather, I question the very logic of seeking proposals for a ‘final solution’ at this stage.



An unwelcome and fairly alarming aspect of recent foreign statements has been the increasing omission of earlier calls on the government to disarm the Army-backed paramilitaries. Whilst possibly an oversight or even a given, the disappearance of such demands from the policy statements of powerful international actors would suggest this is a rather a deliberate and concerted shift.



The silence comes, moreover, in the aftermath of a spate of abductions of children by the paramilitaries and a notable escalation of violence by them. Lest it be forgotten, the Sri Lankan state had pledged to disarm at the last round of negotiations, widely termed as Geneva I, to disarm them.



The emphasis on seeking a lasting solution to the conflict with no consideration for relieving the unbearable ground conditions of the Tamils residing in the Northeast and, in particular, addressing security-related issues - which includes the disarming of the state backed paramilitary groups - suggests that the international community has decided to unwind the stalled peace process and approach the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka from an entirely different perspective.



The most important pillar of the Norwegian peace process has been the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The implementation of the CFA was intended to create a stable and peaceful environment from which the two parties could discuss more substantive issues related to reaching a permanent solution to the conflict.



Due to various obstacles, ranging from the divisive politics of the South to the bureaucratic hurdles, most of the pledges made by the state under the CFA, with the exception of the cessation of hostilities, are largely unimplemented. Despite Sri Lanka’s promises, Tamil homes and schools remained under military occupation. Due to various obstacles placed in the way by the Sri Lankan state, the rehabilitation and development of the Northeast remains impaired.



Instead, for the past few years Tamil paramilitary groups, which function as a covert wing of the Sri Lankan military, have been stepping up their relentless campaign against the LTTE and its supporters, while extorting funds from businessmen and abducting children for their forces. They remain armed, in defiance of the CFA and the Geneva 1 agreement.



By contrast, for the South the 2002 cessation of hostilities brought investment, tourism and allowed the state to regain a strong economic footing.



The reason for the failing peace process is the inability, or as Tamils assert, the unwillingness of the Sinhala establishment (from politicians to civil servants) to implement that which was agreed in negotiations with the Tamils. A slew of failed pacts and deals over the past sixty years suggest it is not agreement, but implementation which sinks the peace.



After all, in theory, issues such as ending language discrimination were resolved decades ago. However, it is in implementing these solutions, as the language issue – picked up by every Sinhala leader since 1956 - that the Sri Lankan state consistently fails to deliver to the Tamils.



The present round of unclaimed hostility is a direct consequence of the murder by the paramilitaries of a Tamil politician, Vigneswaran, which could have been easily prevented had the paramilitaries been disarmed. Ironically, Presient Rajapakse, who disregarded Geneva I, recently offered to disarm the paramilitaries, if the LTTE agreed to marginalize the Norwegians and talk directly with him.



And it is in the wake of his own contribution to the litany of broken Sinhala promises that the international community has handed President Rajapakse the initiative by asking him to deliver a just political solution to the Tamil people.



The President has enthusiastically picked up the gauntlet. After all, the international community has unwittingly allowed Rajapakse to implicitly fulfil his election manifesto, which was to disregard the existing peace process (and Ceasefire Agreement) and focus on an acceptable political solution, within a unitary (now termed ‘undivided’) state.



Unsurprisingly, the early signs do not look promising. Rajapakse’s allies and ideological bed-fellows, the ultra-nationalist JVP and JHU have insisted that any solution has to be within a unitary framework, as stipulated by the pro-election pacts he signed with them. This compelled President Rajapakse to appeal to Delhi’s understanding that though he will endeavour to deliver some form of devolution, he cannot term it federalism without his allies turning on him.



In the meantime, whilst outwardly attempting to form a southern consensus with the main opposition, United National Party, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, President Rajapakse continued to poach parliamentarians from it, scuttling any hope of UNP cooperation in working toward a consensus on a political solution.



Assuming it is even possible, the process of devising and reaching agreement will take many years, especially given the starting point in the present political environment where it is merely taboo to mention the word ‘federalism.’



And this is before we get to the addressing the inevitable and previously unassailable hurdle of implementation.



Sri Lanka’s Supreme Courts, lest we forget, have already thwarted less ambitious projects such as the sharing of international tsunami aid. Any solution involves changing Sri Lanka’s constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament that has been impossible to achieve in the past two decades.



For the southern hawks, and specifically for Mahinda Rajapakse, the All Party Conference (APC) provides a breathing space and enormous respite from the difficult international position in which he had been placed by Geneva I. Should he consent to begin to implement Geneva I by disarming the paramilitaries, then he would come under fire from the JVP and JHU. In theory at least, should he have failed to disarm the gunmen, he would come under pressure from the international community.



But in a startling turn of events, the international community has virtually caved in on its demands and is instead allowing Rajapakse the considerable freedom of determining the basis from which a political solution is found.



Although the international community has effectively conceded to the intransigent Sinhala establishment, it has made some concessions to the aggrieved Tamil community. It has alluded to their rights to a homeland and it is now consistently demanding that Tamil grievances be addressed - although they still remain fairly vague on precisely what these grievances are.



But there appears to be no timeframe for the Sinhala establishment to come up with a resolution. This effectively leaves the Tamils in limbo until the southern parties see fit as to offer the Tamils what they think the minority deserves.



Perhaps the Tamils should be reassured by the solemnity of the message the international community is delivering to President Rajapakse and his coalition government. However, the past handling of the peace process by the donor community does not inspire much confidence.



After all, at the first bit of stern resistance from the Sri Lankan state on issues such as the disarming of paramilitaries, the implementation of aid sharing projects or addressing the normalcy in the North-East, the international community has shied away from taking aggressive measures to coerce the state into implementing the deals, and has instead sought to change tack and avoid confrontation Colombo.



And instead it is the Tamils that seem to be receive the brunt of the coercive measures. From the proscription of the Liberation Tigers to the most recent measures to curb aid to humanitarian organisations such as the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), the international community has spent most of the peace process twisting the Tamils’ arms into accepting the Sri Lankan state’s positions.



In practical terms little has changed for the Tamils during the peace process, and the signs are that, under the international community’s latest approach, they can expect even less to change in the coming years.



Over a quarter of the population remains displaced, and with the peace process in tatters there no longer appears to be even a timetable for returning them to their homes – so much for the international monitoring of the ceasefire.



This year, the Sri Lankan military and associated paramilitary organisations carry on their increasingly horrific atrocities with impunity, with the odd period of pause in the immediate aftermath of some international criticism.



The continued re-arming of the Sri Lankan state throughout the peace process and the expansion of the paramilitaries continues to shift the balance of power away toward the Sri Lankan military, no doubt an intended policy of President Rajapakse.



In light of the impotence of the international community in curbing President Rajapakse’s aspirations, the Tamils and the LTTE can no doubt expect a return of the familiar ‘twin-track’ or ‘war for peace’ policies of the Sri Lankan state, most aggressively pursued under President Chandrika Kumaratunga from 1995. These have invariably involved the unveiling of a devolution package (implicitly based the unitary state), whilst militarily hammering the Tamils into accepting the ‘offer’.



With a deteriorating security environment – and no sign of any respite to the violent suppression of the Tamils in the North-East, it is not clear how the International community expects the LTTE to react to its latest approach. After all, the international community ensured the Tamils that the present perilous state of affairs is going to carry on, indefinitely. In short, Colombo can offer what it likes when it likes. The Tamils must put up with the military repression – the LTTE’s attacks on the Army meanwhile will be severely punished.



Is this a sign of things to come? The international community has begun to withdraw humanitarian aid from the Northeast - not least by tacitly allowing Sri Lanka to constrict the activities of international NGOs – and cracking down on even humanitarian support from the Diaspora for their fellow Tamils.



This is precisely the situation that Sri Lankan governments from Premier Wickremesinghe to President Rajapakse have pushed for from the outset of the peace process.



And the only thing the Sri Lankan state had to do to achieve it was to impede the peace process enough to force the international community to concede to Sri Lanka’s demands.



With no timeframe for a solution and no distinct definitions of precisely what Tamil grievances are, the Tamils can expect to be trapped in an abstract political purgatory, whilst Sinhala politicians continue to decide their fate.



Should the Tamils accept the latest roadmap planned for them by the international community then they would have forfeited the last forty years of progress by their people – a deplorable affront to those who have sacrificed so much to bring the Tamil nation this far.

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