Not by quick-fix Sri Lanka needs healing touch

Not by quick-fix
Sri Lanka needs healing touch
by H.K. Dua, who recently visited Colombo

Not many people outside Sri Lanka know that as Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa went ahead building his political career, he acted in a Sinhala film, “Men who die”. Years later, he laughs about his brief appearance as a general in the film.

I do not know whether the ‘general’ tried to resolve any emotional or political situation in the film. But as President and as Supreme Commander, he is now called upon to resolve the crisis facing his country and restore peace in the troubled island.

President Rajapaksa does not suffer from the intellectual ambiguities of the Colombo elite, which has ruled Sri Lanka for years. His reflexes are those of a grassroots politician who has tenaciously fought his way through politics to challenge the hold of the Colombo set of the Bandaranaikes and the big business lobby of Ranil Wickramasinghe. That he is from the South and is a Sinhala defines his politics and the hard-line policy he is prone to following.

Mr Rajapaksa’s concern for keeping his country united is genuine, but he is not the kind of political leader who would like to fritter away his southern Sinhala base just for winning applause from the international community for agreeing to sign a political settlement with V. Prabhakaran and his LTTE.

Having interviewed him for more than an hour (The Tribune, March 4, 2007) and others who have some idea of the Sri Lankan crisis, I get the impression that President Rajapaksa has come to the conclusion that only a military victory will create conditions for a political settlement.

He says that he is not opposed to a political settlement per se, but maintains that Prabhakaran would not come forward and talk peace. Prabhakaran, in his view, does not want a settlement short of a separate Eelam for the Tamils which no Sri Lankan President can accept.

The President does not think highly of the Norwegian facilitator’s role, nor of the ceasefire, which has been there on paper for the last five years and which has been violated often by both the LTTE and the security forces. The President, however, would not ask the Norwegians to pack their bags, or abrogate the ceasefire.

In any case, the Norwegian peace-making as well as the ceasefire have turned out to be innocuous and neither of them is being taken seriously. Doing away with, or, retaining both of them hardly makes a difference.

Certainly, neither the Norwegian effort nor the existence of the ceasefire agreement has deterred Prabhakaran’s men from killing Sri Lankan foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, and launching attacks on the Army Commander and Defence Secretary. Luckily, both escaped. Nor has the ceasefire agreement prevented the Sri Lankan Army from scoring a military advantage over the LTTE in the East.

This and the defection of Karuna from Prabhakaran’s company appear to have convinced President Rajapaksa that having lost the crucial eastern sector, Prabhakaran is in a weakened position and the Army can afford a crackdown on the LTTE.

It is possible President Rajapaksa will aim at negotiating a deal with non-Prabhakaran Tamil leaders like Douglas Devananda, one of the ministers in the central government, or with Mr V. Anandasangaree, leader of the moderate Tamil party – TULF. If President Rajapaksa succeeds in tackling Prabhakaran in the north, he might think of striking a deal with Karuna – the man who broke away from Prabhakaran.

Any deal with moderate Tamil parties, or with Karuna, is going to be anathema for Prabhakaran, who has always claimed – unconvincingly – that he is the sole representative of the Tamil people.

Next few months might unfold President Rajapaksa’s hard-line policy further, perhaps escalating into a military onslaught on the LTTE in the north, pushing back chances of a political settlement for quite some time.

Mr Rajapaksa is not just a nominal President. For help he has given two of his brothers considerable power in running the government. Mr Basil Rajapaksa has the modest designation of an adviser but he has powers, perhaps, more than that of the Prime Minister; Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as Defence Secretary, along with the Army Chief Sarat Fonseka, decides army strategy and ground operations.

All of them are eager to push through the hard-line policy on the ethnic question. And it cannot be without reason that the President says the ceasefire is only on paper and scoffs at the peacekeeping boy-scouts.

Sri Lanka, indeed, needs peace without which it cannot live as a united and harmonious nation. This also demands the melting of frozen attitudes, statesmanship among the leaders of various political parties, an understanding and accommodating disposition and search for a peaceful solution that can reconcile the varied interests of the majority Sinhalas, the Tamils of different vintage and the Muslims and devolution of authority to provinces or regional units, and a sense of participation in a sort of governance of the country by sharing power with the minorities.

Essentially, survival of Sri Lanka as a united country ultimately depends on how it evolves as a democratic polity with values sacred to a plural society. Once this basic truth dawns on the majority of the people of the country, the politicians, Sinhala or Tamil, keen on pursuing divisive politics, will find that there is another route available for them to serve Sri Lanka.

All this will not need just the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between President Rajapaksa and the UNP’s Ranil Wickramasinghe; the MoU has already been consigned to a limbo. A spirit of national awakening and reconciliation is necessary so that Sri Lanka’s unity is ensured and, at the same time, the just aspirations of the Tamil people are met. There are a few people in Sri Lanka who understand the logic of winning hearts and minds, but they are in an abject minority, given the present hardened Sinhala and the LTTE positions.

Though in a minority, it is necessary for the enlightened sections to begin walking on this track.

India has always, and rightly so, stood for a united Sri Lanka and opposed the creation of a separatist Tamil Eelam. But a military operation can lead to more killings and displacement of Tamil people and the consequent influx of refugees into India from across the Palk Strait.

The presence of refugees in Tamil Nadu causes local complications, although no one in India can think of supporting Prabhakaran and the banned organisations like the LTTE. Not only India, the United States and the European nations all seem to be advising President Rajapaksa these days not to go in for a military option that will push back a political settlement.

Mr Rajapaksa values Indian commitment to a united Sri Lanka and, perhaps, is sure that it will never let any help reach across to the LTTE. Also, he can remain indifferent for some time towards any slow-down in the flow of the EU’s aid to Colombo in case hostilities resume, but not for too long.

Possibly, President Rajapaksa can achieve more by giving up the military option and leading the search for a wider consensus, followed by talks aimed at a durable political settlement. There, perhaps, is no quick-fix solution for a prolonged ethnic strife.