Government and LTTE grope their way to

By Jehan Perera

The new President’s determination to keep war at bay has been
evident in the muted governmental reaction to the two landmine
attacks that led to the killing of 15 soldiers. The LTTE did not claim
responsibility for the incident. Instead a hitherto unknown organization,
calling itself the representative of the displaced persons of the High
Security Zones claimed responsibility. The group also threatened
further dire action against the Sri Lankan military unless they speedily
evacuated from the area. There is hardly any doubt that the hand
behind them is the LTTE.

So far there was no public threat of retaliation by the government
against the LTTE, which is the obvious target of suspicion. Sadly,
however, the civilian population of Jaffna has been called upon to pay
the price. After the two landmine incidents, the Sri Lankan military has
been engaging in cordon and search operations. Suddenly there has
been a sharp deterioration in the security situation in relation to the
people, and they face a degree of fear and intimidation that they had
not thought would occur in a time of ceasefire. Still their homes in the
high security zones remain inaccessible to them, with little hope of a
quick breakthrough in the peace process in sight.

Since the Presidential election campaign two months ago, the LTTE
has been treading a dangerous and confrontational course. At the
root of the LTTE’s actions appears to be the belief that the peace
process is about one party winning and the other losing. The manner
of their enforcement of the voter boycott at the Presidential election
that led to the defeat of the peace candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe,
has earned them both local and international opprobrium. The manner
in which the people were terrorized to stay away from the polls was
highlighted by the international election monitors, not least those sent
officially by the European Union.

Following the Presidential election, the LTTE has not only engaged in
the landmining of the soldiers. It has also attacked an unarmed military
helicopter sent to pick up the Italian deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs
who was on a goodwill visit to the tsunami-affected areas. These
actions would quite understandably put the LTTE into the international
doghouse. The LTTE’s denial of the attack on the helicopter has been
rendered ineffective due to the international monitors of the SLMM
ruling this was a gross violation of the ceasefire and that the LTTE
was indeed responsible.

Belligerent party

The absence of any mass mobilization by Sinhalese nationalist forces
against the LTTE is a noticeable feature of the new presidency. The
absence of an aggressive anti-LTTE posture by President Mahinda
Rajapakse and his government has taken the bite out of the LTTE’s
provocative actions. Neither the JVP nor the JHU, which beat the war
drums against the LTTE in the past, have been urging the government
to get into confrontation with the LTTE. Instead they have said that
they are giving the new President the opportunity to deal with the
LTTE in the manner that he thinks is best.

Indeed, the reversal of policy of the new government headed by
President Rajapakse and his nationalist allies is quite remarkable,
given their election time rhetoric. During the election, Mr. Rajapakse
said he would uphold the unitary state, revise the Ceasefire
Agreement, obtain a new facilitator and have peace talks in Sri Lanka.
But hardly within a month of taking office, he has effectively reversed
himself on all these issues, and his nationalist allies appear to be
going along with him. The general population is mute in the face of
these reversals of election time promises. In addition the President
has had talks with the main opposition party, the UNP, and has
obtained their blessings to proceed with the peace process.

In a situation in which neither the government nor the general
population are reacting aggressively to the LTTE’s provocation, it is
the LTTE that is looking increasingly like the belligerent party. This
does not bode well for either the LTTE or for the peace process. For
instance, the LTTE is slipping ever nearer a total ban at the hands of
the European Union. So far the travel ban on them is largely a
symbolic one and has served as a warning of what is to come. It
prevents LTTE delegations from being received by the EU countries.
However, if a total ban is placed on the LTTE, its operations in Europe
and its overall strength are likely to be severely affected.

What the LTTE seeks most is international legitimacy and resources.
LTTE sympathizers have explained their opposition to Opposition
leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as being partly due to his setting up of
an international safety net for the government that created an
asymmetry with regard to them when he was Prime Minister. They feel
that Mr Wickremesinghe did not obtain for them the symmetry they
sought with the government in dealing with the international
community. However, the LTTE’s actions for the past two and a half
years, ever since they pulled out of the peace talks, have been self-
defeating ones in terms of obtaining international legitimacy.

The escalation of violent activities by the LTTE aimed at putting the
new government in a difficult situation after the LTTE itself ensured
that President Rajapakse prevailed at the presidential election would
strengthen the forces that wish to see the LTTE suffer from an EU
ban. An EU ban would end the LTTE’s dream of being a legitimate
actor on the international scene. It would probably be even worse than
the Indian and US bans, as the EU represents 25 European countries,
including those who have been traditionally sympathetic to the Tamil
cause. Experts from the EU who have visited Sri Lanka to assess the
current situation have said that once an organization is banned,
getting it off the list is very difficult.

Being flexible

The problem for the LTTE is that its military leadership is distant from
the realities of international politics. They may believe that bans are
the result of politics, and can be lifted when politics changes. But in
complex, bureaucratic and democratic societies, such as the EU,
reversing decisions that are taken can be next to impossible. It is
imperative that the LTTE’s political wing, with its more internationally
travelled leadership, should be more forceful in putting their case
before the LTTE’s Wanni-based leadership.

If the LTTE is banned by the EU, the main reason for this will be the
conviction of EU member states that the LTTE has been behaving in a
way that falls within their laws of terrorism.

Although LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapakaran made a brave effort at re-
defining terrorism in his Heroes Day speech and argued that the LTTE
was a liberation movement, international legal experts and
bureaucrats operate in a more impersonal manner. They tend to look
at the big picture, and not at the details, and use different measures to
assess the violence of legitimate states as against non-state actors
such as the LTTE that resort to violence.

Instead of looking at their own unconstructive behaviour the LTTE
leadership has been blaming the Sri Lankan government of
pressurizing the international community to ban them.

If the LTTE is banned, it will be because the EU believes that the LTTE
should be banned on the basis of the information it has received from
its own embassies in Sri Lanka and its own monitoring missions. It is
doubtful that the Sri Lankan government has either the credibility or
political clout to pressurize the EU to do what it would not otherwise
wish to do.

An EU ban will further increase the asymmetry between the Sri Lankan
government and LTTE which may seem to be a triumph for the
government. But the problem is that it will not help to take the peace
process forward. The more likely scenario is that the LTTE will become
even more stubborn, defensive and inward looking.

Therefore those who wish the peace process to go forward need to
urge both the government and the LTTE to act in a more enlightened
and helpful way to each other.

Agreeing speedily on a venue for talks on strengthening the ceasefire
would be the first step. The government has already demonstrated
flexibility in changing its earlier stance and agreeing to peace talks
abroad, in an Asian country. The LTTE has opted for Oslo, arguing
that they suspect the government of wishing to alienate them from
European countries.

It behoves the government to be the more accommodating party and
to demonstrate willingness to engage the LTTE in a peaceful manner
anywhere it wishes.