Business Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Friday, Aug 11, 2006
Industry & Economy - Terrorism
Sri Lankan Govt needs strategic vision to resolve conflict
recently in Colombo
For a lasting resolution of the ethnic conflict, Sri Lanka needs a government with the right kind of "strategic vision and perspective," but that "particular kind of competence and ability" seems to be lacking in the present administration, Mr P. Saravanamuttu, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives, told Business Line.
Excerpts from the interview:
How would you sum up the situation in Sri Lanka, with fighting on in Trincomalee?
Both sides do not have enough trust or confidence in each other and feel that they have to change the balance of forces on the ground before they return to negotiations. One hates to say it, but there is almost an inevitability of using military force once more as a catalyst for negotiation, political settlement, whatever. At the moment, it is difficult to identify anything or anyone that will serve as a lever for a return to negotiations. Barring, of course, a major international action, and when we talk of major international action in the Sri Lankan context, we only talk about your country, which is not particularly interested in intervening at this point of time.
And it can't be blamed...
Quite rightly so; once bitten twice shy after the whole Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) experience. Ultimately, the two main parties in the Sri Lankan conflict have to demonstrate the political commitment and will to actually resolve this issue rather than pretend they are interested in a process of negotiations and play for time. This, because they are still caught up in a zero sum attitude towards each other, sitting it out till one side loses the plot and becomes weak politically and militarily.
Would you say war has already begun?
Yes, though technically, under the CFA (Ceasefire Agreement), two weeks notice has to be given by either side if it is not interested any more. But for some time, the ceasefire has been violated on a daily basis on the ground in letter and spirit. In the short term, do you think the conflict will only get worse?
I'd look at it this way. In terms of actual dates, we have the September 1 deadline set by the LTTE by which time it wants the EU nationals as monitors to depart.
But three have already gone...
Yes, and we don't see a huge queue of people lining up to take their place! But that effectively cuts the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) which is the only mechanism of the CFA at the time. Arguably, the need of the day is to increase the SLMM rather than decrease it. Then, there is the November 27 deadline when (LTTE chief) Mr Prabhakaran will make his annual speech. Last year he said he would give this government one year, and that he did not think it understood what this conflict was all about. And that as a consequence of its not coming out with anything worthwhile what he thought was worthwhile he'd take matters into his own hands.
Which he has already done...
Yes, everything in the near term suggests that the forces militating towards further hostilities are strong and present. One has to look through them... beyond them.
Do you think the present political administration has the vision, political acumen and imagination to solve this crisis?
One desperately hopes so, but it is difficult to identify this particular competence and ability within the current administration. There is a lack of strategic vision and perspective. The President (Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa) seems to be very adept at tactical manoeuvring. So, we are back to a situation where the consolidation of political power at the executive level seems to be taking precedence over any kind of overriding objectives in the peace process.
You mentioned India's role. The feeling here is that India has asked Mahinda and Ranil (former Prime Minister, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe) to work together and solve this problem. Can this happen, theoretically at least?
Theoretically it can, but the historical experience here is that we have an adversarial two-party system and the culture of the relationship between the two sides is very much a zero sum game. And, even as they talk about some sort of bipartisan arrangement, one side might be wooing MPs from the other.
Do you think the Ranil Government came the closest to having some kind of breakthrough with the Tigers?
Yes, I think the United National Front (UNF) government did two things; it was able to get the war out of the way and, by doing so, was able to throw a political challenge to the LTTE, the consequences of which we are still seeing from the break-up of LTTE in terms of Karuna to the situation now which has not been particularly successful for the LTTE in terms of their having provoked, but not having got the desired response.
I think the UNF government got it right in getting the war out of the way, and throwing the challenge of a no war situation to the LTTE.
So in the context of the 2005 presidential elections, this was a peace trap for the LTTE which thought: "These guys are not offering us anything in political terms, no formal recognition of our primacy in the north and the east, we're not getting the kind of resources we want, our cadres are getting lazy, we don't control them or the civilians as we used to and our organisation has broken."
So are you saying Ranil did not give them much?
One of the arguments at that time was the notion of killing with kindness but I think that was euphemistic. What he did do was to lead them to believe and expect quite a lot, which I don't think he had any intention of delivering at that moment. The idea was to put the LTTE in a situation of "no war, no peace" and let us see how they function.
Some political analysts here seem to believe, and I quote, that this is the "worst ruling class since independence"...
They say that because of the mismatch between competence and challenge is huge...
So before this problem can be solved, Sri Lanka will need to get the right kind of government in place?
Or this problem will unfold, evolve and throw up solutions.
How far has Karuna managed to weaken the LTTE?
He has managed to give it a political challenge, but whether it will manifest in terms of its full potential, is difficult to say. But by questioning the LTTE's claim of being the sole representative of the people in the North-East, in military terms, his foray into the LTTE territory, the assassinations, etc, has given it some challenge. Of course, some people say it is not Karuna, but the Sri Lankan army; probably it is a combination of the two.
Do you think the water issue was just a trigger, each side was waiting to restart hostilities?
That is always a possibility, but I do not think it was only this issue; each side has its own concerns. But there isn't a reluctance to use military force.
But the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) are also pushing for it.
Oh yes, there are posters like: `Onward to Killinochi', `National movement against terrorism', etc.
Has Lebanon pushed Sri Lanka off the radar or international consciousness?
West Asia is a strategic and more important region. But even before Lebanon happened, we were in a situation where the international community had come to the end of a phase of their engagement with the Sri Lankan peace process. And it was not a particularly successful one; they had all jumped on to the bandwagon believing the Sri Lankan peace process was going somewhere. Once they found it was not going anywhere, they started gradually disengaging. The most they (EU) could do was banning the LTTE which meant they lost any leverage they had. They realised they were banning the LTTE for past behaviour, and still have not found a way to induce the LTTE to come into the peace process. But in banning the LTTE, the message to the government was clear; that we are banning the LTTE for its behaviour but not contesting the legitimacy of their cause, and human rights have to be observed.
So what kind of role should or will India play? And our government has important allies from Tamil Nadu...
India has an interest in terms of the political constitutional structures that come out of the conflict resolution process as that will impact the rest of South Asia.
Of course, the dynamics of coalition politics makes India that much more sensitive to acting as some sort of an ultimate protector of Tamil interest. But India will also want to ensure that the LTTE is not privileged to the extent it becomes problematic to India's interest.
But a problem could be that the Congress is at the helm, with Ms Sonia Gandhi as its chief...
Granted, but apart from that historic baggage or legacy, there are certain other things. I do not think the Indian Defence forces would look too kindly to a Sea Tigers force.
So one can foresee a situation in which India is a dynamic economic power and economics sometimes does things that politics would like to do but does not succeed in.
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