INCREASED POLARISATION IS THE OTHER SIDE OF EUPHORIA

== Jehan Perera ==

Many years ago, a senior government official whose birthplace was Jaffna told me of the apprehension with which the people of Jaffna awaited the results of elections in the south.   They knew their fate was being decided in the electoral verdicts that the more numerous southern electorate would be delivering, and which they in the north had little or no opportunity to influence.  This is one indication of the psychology of resistance that developed in the north and east to the reality of ethnic majority rule over the ethnic minorities.

The day before the provincial council elections, at which the government obtained a thumping victory, I received a telephone call from Jaffna. On the other side of the line was a Tamil social worker
I have known for the past several years when he worked in Colombo with a local humanitarian organization.  He explained that the reason for his call was to see if anything could be done to alleviate the plight of the civilians trapped in the LTTE controlled parts of the north.  An estimated 200,000 persons are reported to be on the move in the Vanni, looking for places of safety from artillery and air bombardments and enforced arms training and conscription.

In the past fortnight or so, the Sri Lankan military has been making rapid progress against the LTTE.  With the expected and threatened LTTE counter attack not happening, the impression is growing that the
LTTE is indeed weak in comparison to the Sri Lankan military that is advancing into their heartland.  Military spokespersons say that the army is only 12 kilometers away from Kilinochchi town, which is the  administrative centre of the LTTE.  The fall of Kilinochchi would be a tremendous blow to the LTTE, both in terms of lost territory and morale.  Kilinochchi possesses the LTTE’s administrative infrastructure, including its judicial and police headquarters and peace secretariat.

The caller from Jaffna’s immediate concern, which he immediately shared with me, was the plight of the people.  They had been fleeing from the artillery barrage of the advancing Sri Lankan army and their
space for movement was getting less and less.  He proposed a method by which the civilian population could leave the war zones for safety.  The first step would be to persuade the government, LTTE and International Committee of the Red Cross to open up a humanitarian corridor to enable the people to leave.  The Bishop of Jaffna, Thomas Savundranayagam, has also made a similar appeal.

The second step in the process of ensuring safety to the civilian population would be to establish a safe sanctuary to which people could go to.  Entry into this place of safety would be open to anyone, so long as they are unarmed.  This would even enable LTTE cadre, such as those who have been recently and forcibly recruited, who wish to give up the fight to enter for their safety.  The sanctuary would be managed entirely by the ICRC without either the military or the LTTE going into it.  The question, however, would be whether the LTTE would agree to letting the people leave.  This would be a huge blow to the LTTE, as they would lose a cause to fight for, a pool of recruitment and a human shield.

CONTRASTING SENTIMENTS

It was in this context of the divergence of interests of the LTTE and civilian population that I asked the caller on the other side of the line what the mood of the people of Jaffna was.  His response echoed the Indian National Security Advisor, M K Narayanan’s opinion, which enraged many in Sri Lanka.  Mr Narayanan made a comment that the government may be winning the battle (for Kilinochchi) but it risks losing the war.  He observed that the Tamil people in Sri Lanka were sullen in the face of the government’s military approach to conflict resolution, and the government needed to do more to convince the Tamil people by means of a credible political package that it also had their interests at heart.

My friend said that the people of Jaffna continued to be fully alive to their rights and felt unhappy at the grim situation they found themselves in.  He added that the common talk in Jaffna is that they will be treated like slaves if the war ends in the LTTE’s defeat, until another Prabakaran comes along.  This sense of alienation and apprehension amongst the Tamil people is the other side of the euphoria that the government and its supporters would be feeling today.  The government’s resounding victories at the recently held provincial council elections in the Sabaragamuwa and North Central provinces constitutes a vote of confidence in the government at its mid term mark.

The government’s victory indicates that it has a set of policies and programmes of action at the present time that has won ethnic majority acceptance.  The chief amongst these is undoubtedly the government’s attempt to defeat the LTTE by military means.  President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speeches expressing the government’s determination to preserve the unity of the Motherland at any cost have been extremely powerful in keeping popular sentiment behind the government.  The government is given credit for its success in retaking LTTE held territory at whatever cost.  The general expectation is that this will be a one-time cost that will come to an end soon.


POTENTIAL DANGERS

The problem for the government will be to ensure the sustainability of its military victories if the LTTE continues to fight back militarily and target areas under government control.  Government troops now appear poised to capture the big LTTE-held towns of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.  But this will not necessarily mean the end of the war.  As an organization that started as a small guerilla group, the LTTE will retain its capacity to go back to their origins.  The havoc that even a small group of determined persons can do is inestimable.

It also needs to be remembered that this will not be the first occasion on which Kilinochchi has been retaken by the government.   The army commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka himself has warned that the forces of Tamil nationalism and the Tamil diaspora can ensure that the armed conflict goes on for another two decades if
not more unless a political resolution is found. If my friend from Jaffna is to be believed, the LTTE will continue to have the support of a sullen but rights-conscious Jaffna population in the absence of
a political solution that meets with their sense of justice.  This is also the message of the Indian National Security Advisor who urged that the government give emphasis to a political settlement that would satisfy the Tamil people’s sense of justice.

The government frequently projects the Eastern Province as a success story of having militarily defeated the LTTE, evicted them from eastern territory and of having conducted democratic elections there.  However, the ground situation in the east continues to be tense and unstable, and not at all conducive to the rapid economic development that ought to accompany a sustainable peace.

There is a very heavy military presence and armed groups continue to act outside of the law together with LTTE infiltration.  In addition the elected politicians of the east continue to be relatively powerless, with major decisions on policy and financing being referred to the central authorities in Colombo, notwithstanding the claims of devolution and devolution plus plus.

The danger exists of short success that will not solve problems in the long term. The continued high level of expenditures on the war can become more and more unbearable in the longer term.  The government’s electoral victory in the two provinces, which have a large rural sector, suggest that the government’s strategy of targeted subsidies, especially for agriculture, and rural road building delivered benefits to the rural sector.  But those who do not get these benefits are likely to become disgruntled in the longer term, as the high level of inflation affects them severely.  The vote of confidence in the government’s mid term performance by a largely Sinhalese and rural electorate cannot end there. It must be built upon to include the other sections of the Sri Lankan population, especially the Tamil people of the Vanni who are presently running for their lives.

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