Colombo, Sri Lanka — The best efforts of the international community to bring the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka to an end through its diplomatic interventions seem to have come to naught. The joint visit of the British Foreign Minister David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner was full of controversy, but seems to have yielded little other than that. Vocal sections of the government, media and the general public saw bad faith in these European moves and did not hesitate to make their views known.
This perception also seems to have induced the government to deny a visa to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, prompting him say that the Sri Lankan government’s attitude was exceedingly strange and to reject an invitation to visit Sri Lanka at a later date. For the past 50 years, Sweden was one of the most generous development supporters of Sri Lanka, but from next year this partnership is to end, and the recent mishap will do little to facilitate a positive review of this situation.
Those who oppose international intervention in the humanitarian crisis in the country believe that their motive is to force a ceasefire upon the government in order to extend the life of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. A week ago, under heavy Indian pressure including a fast by the aged chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunandhi and members of his political party, the government declared an end to combat operations and to the use of heavy weapons and air power. But barely had the statement been issued, and the fast in Tamil Nadu ended, than evidence began to be provided that the fighting on the ground was continuing as before, with air strikes included.
With both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE holding determinedly to their positions, the war is set to reach its inevitable conclusion. During their visit to Sri Lanka the two foreign ministers stressed, albeit without much success, that their sole concern was that of the civilian population trapped in the battle zone and not any petty political advantage to themselves with their domestic electorates. They also denied that they had any ulterior motive in trying to give the LTTE a breathing space so they could revive but were only seeking a way out for the civilians.
The desirability of a negotiated end to the war that would save civilian lives is not only a European position. Even activists from the Third World with an anti-imperialist orientation hold to the same view. A view of the current situation from the distance that foreign countries have is that the war is ended, and there is no more need for killing or trapping people. The LTTE is hardly in a position to revive its fortunes with its territorial control, which once extended to 15,000 square kilometers, now whittled down to less than six square kilometers.
However, the perceptions of the Sri Lankan parties to the conflict are different, and this is what finally matters in determining what happens on the ground. There is a worry in one section of the population, and a hope in another, that the LTTE under its leader Velupillai Pirapaharan is capable of repeating the past so long as he remains alive and in combat mode. The past experience has been of the LTTE fighting its way back to a position of strength from a position of weakness.
One example was when the Indian Peace Keeping Force battled them into the jungles in the period 1987-90, and again when the Sri Lankan army recaptured most of the north in 1995-97. On both those occasions, the LTTE withdrew into the jungles and reemerged to take back control over the territory that they had lost. The role played by the LTTE leadership in any revival in the near or distant future is what is in question today.
The other insight into the Sri Lankan belief as to what really works comes from the experience of the two Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or People’s Liberation Front, insurrections. At the conclusion of the first insurrection in 1971, the lives of nearly all of the top leaders were spared. They were captured, charged in courts of law, imprisoned, rehabilitated and pardoned. This all happened in textbook fashion in terms of process and the sequence of events.
But the outcome was not a change of heart. A decade and a half later they plotted, were provoked, planned and launched a second and bloodier insurrection and exacted a much heavier price from Sri Lankan society. At the conclusion of this second insurrection, virtually the whole of the JVP leadership were eliminated. Two decades later, with their militant leadership decimated, there is no sign of another militant revival by the JVP.
Today, it is this double experience from Sri Lanka’s past that seems to be shaping the government’s thinking and with it that of the majority of people who are behind the government in its military mode of conflict resolution. There is no doubt that the government leadership, which is in close touch with the international community, is aware of the frustration and disfavor with which its military solution is being viewed in much of the world. But it is still going ahead because of its conviction that there is no other way.
The tragedy is that by its conduct in keeping the civilians hostage, and by its refusal to accept its defeat on the battlefield, the LTTE is adding to the conviction of the government and the majority of Sri Lankan people that there is indeed no other way to end the war. Now the die appears to have been cast to the military option. In these circumstances, the best that can be done is to secure the lives of the civilian population who have already crossed over into the government-controlled areas.
The international community, which is critical of the government’s military mode of conflict resolution, is nevertheless providing much-needed humanitarian assistance to these people and is prepared to provide even more. Japan’s one-time peace envoy Yasushi Akashi was the latest international dignitary to visit the government’s welfare camps for the displaced in the north, and to pledge Japanese assistance. There is much goodwill and desire to help that needs to be accommodated in the best interest of the victim population and in keeping with the values of democracy.
(Dr. Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an independent advocacy organization. He studied economics at Harvard College and holds a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School. ©Copyright Jehan Perera.)