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What next for the international community?

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Amid near daily frights that Sri Lanka is once again at war, the international community seems at a loss as how to prevent a renewal of the conflict. Its actions even suggest that the only plan on the table is to allow hostilities to resume and figure out how to proceed after the dust has settled.

But the policies being pursued by international donors have contributed to this situation. International support has resulted in a strategic ‘no-loss’ scenario for the Sri Lankan state should it choose to resume hostilities. President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government has already ruled out the possibility of any form of powersharing, federal or otherwise, to resolve the decades long ethnic conflict. This is even though the international community has consistently stated that it sees a federal solution as the only viable means of ending the conflict, because neither side has the ability to win militarily and impose its preferred solution on the other.

The peace process, as presently envisaged by the international community is to conclude with a federal solution, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) disarmed and the Sri Lankan state reformed toward a pluralist democracy. That was the grand plan.

But the present Sri Lankan administration has ruled out a federal solution, having won the democratic backing of the majority Sinhalese to do so. Should President Rajapkse also win the impending war, he would be able to ensure any solution falls far short of a federal solution. Should he lose, he would have to accept international plans for de-militarisation (i.e. disarming of the LTTE) and a federal solution. In other words, he will be no worse off than he is now. As such, recent efforts by the donor community to deny much needed funding to the Sri Lankan state to deter its hawkish intent may be too little, too late.

By contrast, the LTTE’s position is far more finely balanced. Should the LTTE win the impending conflict it is still a very long way from its stated goal of achieving a separate state, as it would still need to overcome significant resistance from the international community. The LTTE has indicated a willingness to consider federalism. A military victory would aid its efforts in achieving a greater degree of autonomy, but not necessarily independence.

But should the organization suffer a substantial defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan armed forces, that would be a major setback for its project and for Tamil political ambitions. Moreover, it is very likely that in the aftermath of a significant victory over the Tigers, President Rajapakse’s government would continue the war, even at the cost of heavy Tamil civilian casualties, and seek a final solution to the Tamil ‘problem.’

This, after all, was exactly what happened in the late nineties. After Sri Lankan forces wrested the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE, President Chandrika Kumaratunga waged her infamous ‘war-for-peace’ - including an undisguised total embargo on food and medicine on Tamils in the so-called ‘uncleared’ areas. It should not be forgotten that for five years the war and the draconian embargo were sanctioned by Colombo’s international backers as a necessary evil towards ‘peace.’

Today, the major powers have already indicated that inflicting casualties on Tamil civilians in retribution for LTTE attacks is acceptable behaviour for the state. Repeated international messages commending Colombo’s ‘restraint’ in the face of LTTE attacks, whilst ignoring the retaliation by the military against Tamil civilians, have undoubtedly reinforced the message that such methods are acceptable. Other signs of the latitude extended to Colombo are the increasing omissions of civilian casualties in reports by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). The LTTE, meanwhile, is singled out for criticism in the SLMM’s statements and increasingly free comments by its spokespeople.

The result of these international policies is that for the LTTE, and the Tamil people as a whole, any shift in the balance of forces toward the Sri Lankan state could result in horrendous consequences. Sri Lanka would undoubtedly once receive a nod to pursue a ‘war for peace’ should victory over the Tigers be deemed feasible. Indeed, on more than one occasion in the past four years, even as the Tigers pursued peace, various states have threatened action against the LTTE should war break out. This has also reinforced the Sri Lankan state’s strategic incentives to return to conflict.

Meanwhile, the viability of imposing sanctions against Sri Lanka has consistently been undermined due to the diversity of competing powers which are courting Colombo. A recent example was the ease with which Sri Lanka, upon being turned down by India, turned to the Pakistan-China axis to purchase heavy weapons.

The members of the international community, individually and collectively, have their own ambitions in the region. The compromise of a federal solution is a recent international suggestion, coinciding with a heightened need for a stable peace in south Asia. Both the notion of federalism, and the Norwegian-brokered peace process, stem from a shift from backing Sri Lanka in defeating the LTTE to conceding a military solution is not viable.

The larger objectives for the international community have included restoring stability to this geopolitically crucial island and, whilst doing so, avoiding a bipolar military outcome on it, such as that on the Korean peninsula. The potential dynamics of two military powers on the island of Sri Lanka, both of which could be situated in opposing geopolitical influences would complicate the controlling interests in this crucial region. The present inaction of the international community is self-explanatory, given these concerns.

But the only effective means of preventing Sri Lanka slipping back into conflict would be to substantially alter the incentives of both sides for a new war. This would mean conveying to the Sri Lankan state that, should it pursue a military solution and lose, then an independent state in the Sri Lanka’s Northeast is an outcome that the international community would be prepared to accept.

It is not necessary to impress upon the LTTE that should it lose, then international backing for a federal solution would be jeopardized. That is obvious. However, conveying a message to the LTTE that the international community takes the prevailing balance of forces seriously and would take credible measures to ensure that the LTTE’s position is not undermined by Colombo’s buildup and ‘shadow war’ is more likely to dissuade the LTTE from engaging in a new conflict to prevent the Sri Lankan state from becoming powerful enough to overwhelm it.

But then, such assurances to the LTTE would contradict the international community’s wider objectives of ensuring a bipolar military situation does not persist into the future. Indeed, should maintaining the ‘balance of forces’ become the central axiom of the peace process then it would be difficult to exclude this philosophy from a potential solution. Federalism, it must be noted, is not necessarily a two-army setup.

The overwhelming ambition, which both the international community and the Sri Lankan state share, is that a single military actor ends up controlling the island. Under the peace process mapped out by the international community, this outcome was entirely feasible, even inevitable. It short, it entailed the LTTE disarming in exchange for the Sri Lankan state reforming. That such reforms would have been consistently and effectively blocked by the sizeable nationalist elements in the South is not a problem that had been adequately considered.

Ironically, it is this common interest that has prevented the international community from making the necessary, albeit substantial, shift in strategy and taking easy steps to protect the only thing that can prevent a return to conflict – a continuing balance of forces. This perception is reinforced by the inconsistent approach adopted by the international community toward the declared objective of a multicultural Sri Lanka. For example, the international community’s failure to pressure the Sri Lankan military to stop retaliating against Tamil civilians has contributed to renewed ethnic polarization across the island.

The failure by international actors to condemn the attack on the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna, for example, and the larger failure to resist Sri Lanka’s measures to prevent foreign press and representatives of aid organizations from working in the Northeast are further evidence that the international community’s priority is not the creation of a truly liberal democracy, but the subduing of the Tamil rebellion. In other words, interests rather than humanitarian principles, are driving matters.

However, it is entirely likely that the international community is going to compelled to revisit its policies. The dynamics of the conflict continue to evolve and basing future policy determinations on observations of the past is not likely to prove fruitful. Given the scale and nature of the war which the Sri Lankan military intends to fight and the tremendous resistance the LTTE is demonstrably putting together, the conflict will have substantial, if not irrevocable, polarizing effects on the island’s peoples.

Meanwhile, the international community’s failures to underwrite and ensure implementation of a number of agreements made as part of the Norwegian peace process, including the still-born Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) has resulted in deep disillusionment amongst the Tamils.

There are three potential outcomes to a future military conflict: an overwhelming victory for either side or a continued military impasse. All three have consequences that make the international community’s envisaged outcome less likely.

The Sri Lankan military decision to fight a dirty war against civilians will result in an extremely polarized Tamil community in the homeland and Diaspora. Should that occur in either the event that there is a new stalemate or that there is a LTTE victory, the Tamils will demand a two state solution (or, at the very least, a federal solution where they control their own defence and finance). The only scenario where a one military solution is possible will be where Sri Lanka secures an overwhelming victory. But that will still result in stark ethnic polarization and, in all likelihood, Sri Lanka will descend into a slow bleeding insurgency.

Ultimately there needs to be a recognition by international actors that sanctioning of state violence contradicts many of their stated principles and thereby ensures that a federal solution, even in the medium term, becomes an impossibility. Furthermore, it needs to be acknowledged that the objective conditions for preventing a bipolar military outcome to Sri Lanka’s conflict disappeated when the LTTE overran the Elephant Pass base complex in 2000. The subsequent Norwegian peace process was indeed a valiant effort to put the genie back in the bottle but the uncompromising position of the Sri Lankan state has scuttled that project. The question is what to do now.

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