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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 104

Thoppigala and Beyond

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The illusion of destiny extracts a remarkably heavy price.”
Amartya Sen (Identity and Violence)

Capturing Thoppigala is an achievement to be proud of. Still, even as this victory is celebrated, it is important to remember that the harder part of the road lies ahead. Defeating the LTTE in the East was made easy by the Karuna rebellion. The Northern war will take more time, more resources and more lives (the ongoing recruitment drive is probably due to a realisation of this vital difference). It will also require political measures to drive a wedge between the people and the Tigers and to regain international sympathy. Winning over the Eastern Tamils and not antagonising the Eastern Muslims too are important considerations; if we fail in either task the East will become a vortex of low intensity conflict which sucks in men and materials needed for the Northern war.

Some territories cannot be held over a period of time without paying too great a price in terms of human and physical losses. Thoppigala may be such an area. The regime must keep open the option of moving in and out of Thoppigala as and when necessary rather than trying to hold all of it all the time. The danger of over-hyping the Thoppigala victory may preclude this option, psychologically and politically as will an open ended commitment to protect and immediately develop Buddhist historical sites in the area. Thoppigala can well become a millstone around the neck of the Lankan Armed Forces if the regime feels that it cannot abandon even an inch of that vast jungle, even for a day due to partisan political reasons (‘Ranil will laugh at us’) or due to pressure from the Buddhist lobby. Therefore while celebrating the victory it is necessary to make the public realise that Thoppigala is not a town to be held at all costs – such as Jaffna; the important thing is to deny the enemy its use, and this can be done without holding all of it, all the time or without colonising it with landless Sinhalese.

The churlish manner in which Ranil Wickremesinghe reacted to the Thopiggala victory is understandable given his well known partiality towards the Tigers (unaffected even by the help they rendered his main opponent at the Presidential election). His chagrin may also be due to the symbiotic relationship between the North-Eastern war and the Southern crisis. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s chances of political success depend on a protracted war and a worsening economic crisis. Though the Thoppigala victory in no way precludes this outcome, eventually, it will give the regime much needed breathing space and that Mr. Wickremesinghe is obviously unhappy about.

Mr. Wickremesinghe, however, cannot undermine the Thoppigala victory; nor can the LTTE do so, on its own. It can only be undermined by the architects of that victory, the regime, the armed forces and the anti-Tiger Tamil parties. In what way will this victory be perceived by the government and by the people of the East? How will the complicated inter-ethno-religious relations in the East be handled in the coming weeks and months? How will development work proceed in the East? What kind of elections will be held in the East and what will be their outcomes? Will the government make an effort to improve its strained relations with the international community? Will a political solution to the ethnic problem be expedited or delayed? Will the government use the moment of Thoppigala to impose more economic burdens on the populace? These are the main factors which will decide whether the Thoppigala victory is a lasting achievement or something ephemeral.

The regime’s obvious intention of making political capital out of the Thoppigala victory is understandable. Any government, any leader would do it. And the political leadership does deserve a share of the praise in victory just as it should shoulder a share of the blame in defeat. Governments are fond of victory parades and this government should be allowed to enjoy its moments of success. President Rajapakse has turned the war into the main yardstick of his performance; consequently celebrating the victory and giving it political – and familial – colour is entirely natural.

The Pluralist Province

Caution should be exercised not to depict this victory as a victory of the Sinhalese. The majoritarian extremist elements within and around the regime will make the effort to use the capture of Thoppigala and of the East to justify their anti-devolution line. They may seek to impose a Sinhala peace on the non-Sinhala people of the East. Much would depend on how successful their efforts are and to what extent the regime will endorse/permit their majoritarian agenda. A couple of discordant notes can already be heard. The JHU is talking about the Sinhala Buddhist heritage of the East in general and of Thoppigala in particular. If this line is taken to its illogical extreme, we may well find ourselves on a collision course not only with the Tamils but also with the Muslims of the East. At this moment winning over the minorities is far more important than protecting historical sites or building new temples.

The seeds of the LTTE’s failure in the East were sown by the Karuna rebellion. The schism not only weakened the Tigers militarily; it debilitated their political strength in the East, once their main recruiting ground. This genesis needs to be remembered because there is a lesson in it for us. If the Tigers did not follow a North First policy, if they involved Eastern Tamils in the organisation on the basis of equality, the Karuna rebellion would not have happened. The falling out of Vellupillai Pirapaharan and his one time favourite acolyte may have taken place, but it would not have taken the form of a rebellion of the East against Northern dominance. In the aftermath of the Thoppigala victory, the same mistake must not be made, by us, vis-à-vis the minorities in general and Eastern Tamils and Muslims in particular. The East is the most pluralist province in the country and it cannot be defended or developed through a policy that favours the Sinhalese.

Demographics should be an important consideration in any development effort that is undertaken in the province, in resettlement and in the holding of elections. The exclusion of the people of Sampur from their traditional lands is being done in the name of development, ostensibly for the setting up of a free trade zone. Unfortunately acts such as these will make the minorities regard any state-led development effort as an instrument by which the majority community dispossess them or discriminates against them. Such a perception would severely undermine civil peace in the East and open its doors to the Tigers. In undertaking development activities in the East, it will be necessary to make every possible effort not to antagonise the minorities. This applies to resettlement as well. The displaced people must be resettled in areas they lived prior to their displacement. Any attempt to resettle them elsewhere will be seen as an effort to change the demographics of the East. Nor should there be any state-sponsored colonisation of the East in the name of resettlement or development.

And there must be development, fast. The main priority should be the rebuilding of destroyed dwellings and the construction/reconstruction of essential services and infrastructure facilities. What is needed are houses, hospitals, schools, roads, electricity schemes and not Buddha statues. Any development drive must give priority to Tamils, followed by Muslims and Sinhalese - not only because they are the ones who suffered most and lost most in the recent military campaigns, but also because their support or at least neutrality is vital in defeating the inevitable LTTE efforts to restart a guerrilla war in the East. So far the regime has followed a policy of responding relatively faster when the victims are Sinhalese while acting in a lackadaisical manner towards Tamils and Muslims. This must change if the East is to be made secure and truly Tiger-free.

Elections would be another thorny issue. Elections must be held and they must be as free and fair as possible. Even the TNA must be allowed to contest and campaign. Some of the Tamil groups will try to use violence against the TNA and against each other. The Lankan state, instead of becoming a party to these squabbles, should place itself above the fray and play the role of the manifestly honest peacemaker. If the elections are unfree and unfair, especially in the Tamil areas, both the Eastern Tamils and the international community will become antagonised. The best way to prevent pro-Tiger TNA from doing well is by making a concerted effort to win over the Eastern Tamils between now and the time of election, via development work, resettlement, better observation of human rights and discernible progress towards a political solution to the ethnic problem. In order to render the elections legitimate, especially in the eyes of the international community, foreign observers should be invited.

Economics of War

The urge to take an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis the international community will be an irresistible one in the aftermath of the Thoppigala victory. It behoves the regime to bear in mind that the war is far from over and the more difficult battles lie ahead. And the war cannot be sustained without maintaining and improving our financial and economic capacities. For this we need international aid, investment and tourists. If the regime looses its head at this moment and talks and acts in an intemperate manner, the international community may turn against us; such isolation cannot but impact on our economy and our financial status adversely.

If in the coming weeks and months the economic pressure on the populace increases – even as the politicians enjoy their customary good life at the expense of the public – then the afterglow of Thopiggala victory will fade, to be replaced by resentment and despair. The rupee value has further decreased while the GL Peiris effort to obtain more garment quotas has not achieved success. The regime needs to be mindful of these and other adverse developments. It must also refrain from cynically imposing more burdens on the populace, while Southern attention is focused on Thoppigala. Finances should be a consideration even in victory celebrations; Sri Lanka cannot afford to waste billions of rupees on celebrating victories in this or that battle when the war is far from over and the costlier part of it – in every respect – lies ahead.

The LTTE obviously understands the relationship between the economic/financial factors and the war in the North. The Tigers have already declared that they will attack economic targets in order to exacerbate the Lankan economic crisis. Their aim would be to make the war so costly that it becomes unsustainable for the state and unbearable for the public. And though in this moment of victory such eventualities seem highly unlikely, they can happen, if we succumb to extremism and irrationalism through triumphalism. As Machiavelli warned, “The most unhappy of all unhappy positions is that of a prince or of a republic which is reduced to such extremities that it can neither accept peace nor sustain war” (The Discourses). If we permit ourselves to be caught between an exacerbating financial crisis and the immutable Tigers, this unhappy position may well be our fate, notwithstanding Thoppigala.

- Asian Tribune -

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