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What next for Tamils?

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NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN

The dismissal of devolution of power as a solution has dark foreboding

TWILIGHT OF THE TIGERS: G.H. Peiris; Oxford Universiry Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 695.

After three decades of holding a gun to Sri Lanka’s head, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has finally been defeated militarily and its leader Velupillai Prabakaran is dead. The decisive battles between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military were fought from January 2009 until the middle of May. In the three-decade existence of the group, Prabakaran used the four spells of peace talks as R&R intervals in his ruthless and determined militant quest for Eelam, an independent Tamil state. During this period, the island’s minority Tamil community, of which the LTTE claimed to be the only and true representative, was also hostage to the group. Dissenters met with a swift and brutal end.

Decline

As the title suggests, Twilight of the Tigers, released only weeks before the dramatic and violent drop-scene on a once seemingly unwinnable war, accurately predicts the LTTE’s rout. Author G.H.Peiris, professor emeritus at Sri Lanka’s University of Peradeniya in Kandy, traces the beginning of the LTTE’s decline to the Karuna rebellion of March 2004. He points out that it was the LTTE over-reach in blocking the Mavil Aru waters to the eastern lowlands in July 2006 which forced President Mahinda Rajapaksa into a major military retaliation and eventually led to an all-out resumption of hostilities.

But the focus of the book is not this. Rather, it is a detailed study of the 2001-2007 peace process aimed to show that talking to the LTTE for a negotiated settlement of the Tamil question was an exercise in futility. For those in the conflict resolution business, there are many lessons to be learnt from this failed peace process; the book is a good analysis of a project that was doomed from the start.

Farce

Prof. Peiris calls the 2002 ceasefire, the prelude to the peace process, a “farce” based on the “illusion” that the Tigers would agree to a negotiated peace. Both sides went into it for their own reasons. At the end of 2001, the LTTE needed time to recoup losses of men and material from sustained fighting since 1999. Plus there was 9/11 and the consequent international scanner on groups designated as terrorist.

For the government, the need for a respite from war was even more intense. The country was reeling from the impact of LTTE-inflicted military setbacks and terrorist attacks. It had appeared at that time that the only way out was for the government to settle with the LTTE.

According to the author, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who signed the Norway-brokered ceasefire, chose to overlook the obvious flaws in the agreement enticed by the prospects of aid and investment flowing after the truce. “He and his followers eagerly accepted the assurance given by the Helgesens and the Solheims that the LTTE leadership could be persuaded to accept regional autonomy in lieu of secession, not because there was any solid evidence in support of that assurance but because it conformed to their wishful thinking.”

Close observers of the conflict in Sri Lanka have always known that the LTTE was never for a negotiated settlement except on its terms. And if there were any lingering doubts, those were removed back in 2005 by none other than Prabakaran himself in his annual November address. Consider these statements: the peace process was a “viable means to secure legitimacy” for the LTTE; it was a way to “internationalise” the cause and win the “support and sympathy” of the international community; and, it was to demonstrate that the Sri Lankan state would not offer a “reasonable” political solution.

Condemnation

What is surprising in this well-researched work by an academic is the author’s strident condemnation of the Norwegian peace effort and a special chapter devoted to bashing human rights groups for raising an alarm over the killings of 17 aid workers in Muttur in eastern Sri Lanka.

But it is his other assertion that devolution of power is an over-rated political solution to the conflict that is problematic, and fills the reader with a sense of dark foreboding for Sri Lanka’s Tamil community in the post-LTTE era. He has quoted from select conflict-resolution studies to buttress his contention that devolution is a “ratchet phenomenon irreversible in its directions of change, irremediable in its possible adverse consequences and …seldom …successful in the fulfillment of expectations.”

Prof. Peiris evidently had in mind a situation in which the LTTE would use devolution as a stepping stone to secession. Though the book itself predicts that the LTTE would not be around for much longer, it fails to say what political solution (if not devolution) would fairly and justly meet the Tamils’ aspirations after the defeat of the LTTE. He underplays the value of the Indian model, although it is one of the biggest success stories of effective devolution.

Power-sharing

The simple point is that in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese are 73 per cent and Tamils are about 12 per cent, a centralised system with its parliamentary democracy favours the brute majority. Call it by whatever name, substantive power-sharing with Tamils is the only way forward in Sri Lanka. Yes, Sri Lanka has an alternative: to continue treating the Tamils as second-class citizens enabling the creation of another monster in place of the LTTE.

It speaks of the gulf between the two communities that Sri Lankan Tamils are liberated from the LTTE but are fearful of not having a strong voice to speak up for them any more. But then again, they have only the LTTE to blame for eliminating every possible alternative Tamil leader.


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