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

Lanka’s Hermetic Crisis

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“They were seen opposing, in a fatal error,
Abuses with abuses, scandal with scandal….”

Voltaire (Epistle to the author of the book ‘The Three Impostors’)

Last week the sole superpower disallowed a Bill that would have provided an estimated 3.8 million of its own children with health insurance. President George W Bush vetoed the S-chip Bill – thereby deepening his isolation nationally and within his own party - not because America lacks the $35 billion to fund the new programme. He did so because the Bill did not accord with his worldview. Mr. Bush is not bothered by the fact that during his Presidency the number of uninsured Americans has increased steadily (by a hefty 2.2 million in last year alone) reaching an all time high of 47 million in 2006. He is similarly uninterested in the plight of those millions of American children without health cover. As far as he is concerned it is not the responsibility of the state to look after the poorer, more vulnerable segments of society. And where there is no commitment to universal justice, there is no will to correct sectoral injustice. Similarly when there is no absolute commitment to the rule of law, when a government believes that its own must be above the law, it makes no real effort to check lawlessness on the part of its members.

The SLMC’s suspension of its pistol wielding National Organiser is a giant stride, in the right direction. The SLMC’s action demonstrates that leaders can crack down on their lawless followers - if the requisite political will is present. If President Mahinda Rajapakse fails to emulate the SLMC’s sterling example, it will not be because of political risks (no opposition party can afford to welcome Mervyn Silva, if he decides to switch sides). In fact cracking the whip on erring party members will be popular with the voting public. If Mr. Rajapakse continues to tolerate the infantile antics of his followers, it will be because he does not see any real need to rein them in. If one has a simplistic ‘us vs. them’ worldview based on the axiomatic belief that ‘we’ are always correct while ‘they’ are never so then the likes of Mervyn Silva posses the supreme virtue of being pro-Mahinda.

It is this critical absence of political will which makes the Lankan crisis so unsolvable. Some problems are structural and cannot be solved by political commitment and will alone; however many problems are of a conjunctural nature and political commitment and will would suffice to alleviate these. They are being allowed to grow and fester because the political leaders do not really see them as problems. The crisis is hermetic not because it is inherently, unavoidably, inevitably so. It has become hermetic due to the absence of political commitment and will on the part of political leaders of all hues to right even those wrongs that can be righted. The country and the people thus become burdened with unnecessary and avoidable problems.

Human Rights

Last week the US Undersecretary of State, Nicholas Burns in his meeting with the Lankan Foreign Minister expressed ‘serious concern’ about threats to media freedom and human rights violations outside Colombo – especially Jaffna. According to a statement by the US State Department, Mr Burns “urged the government of Sri Lanka to do more to being to justice those responsible for human rights violations and to put an end to disappearances”.

The hypocrisy of these utterances is obvious, coming from an official of an administration responsible – actually or morally – for the death of around 1.2 million Iraqis, according to a poll by the ORB, a British polling agency; such preaching is outrageous especially in the light of the Blackwater scandal. Unfortunately there is no Bill, suspending Lankan military aid to the US, waiting for ratification by the Lankan President. But there is a Bill, suspending US military assistance to Sri Lanka, waiting for ratification by the US President. This is a crucial difference, a difference that can have a critical impact on the trajectory and the eventual outcome of the war against the LTTE.

The crux of the matter is that Nicholas Burns’ comments cannot be dismissed out of hand. Such cavalier conduct may carry a hefty price tag (incidentally, it is to be hoped that no minister calls Mr. Burns a terrorist and the President’s friends in the JVP desist from burning an effigy of Mr. Burns in front of the US embassy). And it is in this context the regime’s unwillingness to undertake those little reforms (which can go a long way) assume strategic significance. The US criticism- or at least some of it – could have been avoided or deflected, if the regime undertook some alleviatory measures. A couple of human rights abusers on our side could have been brought to justice; steps could have been taken to rein in the followers of Col. Karuna in the East; the Iqbal Athas case could have been handled with more intelligence and finesse. All these are corrective measures which are in no way incompatible with the anti-Tiger war; in fact they could have been made to our advantage and the LTTE’s disadvantage. The regime’s failure to undertake these minor reforms does not stem from patriotism but from its proclivity for bad governance, its belief in impunity for its own and its complete rejection of the principle of universality.

Ends do not justify means. On the contrary means can colour and shape the ends and even impede their achievement. The LTTE and the methods it uses in the struggle for Eelam is a case in point. The anti-civilisational, anti-democratic means of the LTTE have shaped the contours and contents of the end, effectively transforming it from Tamil Eelam to Tiger Eelam, from the country of all Tamils to the country of pro-LTTE Tamils. And the LTTE’s anti-civilisational and anti-democratic acts have often turned out to be counterproductive – child conscription being the best case in point.

In its letter to the recent UN sessions the LTTE tries to make political capital out of some of the blunders we made vis-à-vis the Tamils and the international community in the recent past. Particular mention has been made of the killing of civilian Tamils and pro-LTTE politicians, of the attempts to deprive the people of Mutur East and Sampur of their land by labelling these areas special economic zones and of the suppression of media. The following comment is particularly instructive of how the LTTE stands to benefit from our mishandling of the international community: “It is typical of the leaders of the GOSL to use the brush of ‘terrorist’ and ‘LTTE sympathiser’ on anyone who raises their voices for justice and decency in this island. Among those who have been painted thus are UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, UN Representative for Children Affected by Armed Conflict, Alan Rock and Australia’s former Foreign Minister and current President of International Crisis Group, Gareth Evans. They have all being called by senior members of the GOSL as ‘White Tigers’”.


The LTTE’s letter to the recent UN General Assembly merits serious consideration. The letter ends by making two requests from the international community:

* “To recognise the concept of sovereignty of the Tamil people and support the peace process in accordance with this principle.

* To provide appropriate opportunities to the Tamil people to express their aspirations, as have been given to the people of East Timor and Kosovo”.

Obviously even the most generous federal system would not satisfy the LTTE.

The belief of the Tigers wanting or being willing to settle for federalism is a blind spot common to Sinhala hardliners, some NGOs soft on the LTTE and a good part of the international community. In their latest communiqué the Tigers have made it crystal clear that nothing short of de facto Eelam would satisfy them – as a first step! – and any negotiations must be based on this premise. The LTTE invokes the example of East Timor and Kosovo. There is no similarity between East Timor’s FRETILIN led by Xanana Gusmao and Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s LTTE. But there are quite a few points of similarity between the not so wholesome Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It was the human rights violations committed by the Yugoslavian Army and the blatant Serb nationalism of the Milosevic government which paved the way for the downfall of Yugoslavia and the creation of a semi-independent Kosovo.

Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, in his last visit to Sri Lanka made a statement which merits particular attention: “The LTTE’s hopes for autonomy or independence rest on persuading the domestic and international communities that this would be the best solution in human rights terms….” (5.9.2006). In Kosovo the turning point came with the Racak massacre. As the Human Rights Watch admits in its report the massacre may have been provoked by the KLA. In any case on January 15th 1999 the Yugoslav forces surrounded the village of Racak and for several hours battle raged between the soldiers and KLA members. The massacre of 45 Albanian civilians allegedly took place when the Serb police entered the village after the fighting was over, even though the Yugoslav government maintained that the victims were KLA members killed during the battle. In any case the incident attracted intense international attention and led to the Rambouillet Conference. When the Yugoslav government refused to agree to the American sponsored resolution, the NATO commenced its 78 day bombing campaign. Today the province is being managed by the UN Interim Administration Unit in Kosovo (UNMIK) and a final decision about its fate is scheduled to be taken later this year.

Is this the path the LTTE is hoping to take? If so we must not respond by adopting a cavalier attitude towards human rights and a confrontationist attitude towards the international community. The Serbs did that and it backfired on them. That is not the way out of the Tiger trap. The way out is to make those little reforms that are possible, to pay more attention to human rights issues, to corporate with the international community and to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem as soon as possible.

Vellupillai Pirapaharan has a history of thinking several steps ahead of Lankan or Indian leaders. Anita Pratap in her ‘The Island of Blood’ points out that Mr. Pirapaharan prepared for his eventual war with the Indian Army from the early to mid eighties, when he was living in India and enjoying Indian patronage. Mr. Pirapaharan knows that direct military intervention in Sri Lanka by any country/group of countries/UN is unlikely.

What is likely is the curtailment of economic and military assistance to Sri Lanka, causing an economic explosion in the South. The resulting war weariness can lead to the election of a ‘peace at any price’ party/candidate determined to negotiate with the LTTE on its own terms. This might seem an outlandish prospect right now. However if we permit the crisis to remain hermetic by not taking even the possible amelioratory action and permitting minor problems to become major crises, our path will lead right into the Tiger trap.

- Asian Tribune -

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