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Chapter 3

MATTERS OF TOPICAL INTEREST

3.1 The Question of a Ceasefire

3.2 Development Amidst the politics of Destruction

Pre-conditions for rehabilitation and reconstruction

3.3 In Parliament

3.4 Diplomacy, Finance and Weapons

3.1 The Question of a Ceasefire

In a war where killings of civilians has assumed barbaric dimensions, it is natural and proper that any concerned person should wish for an early end to this. Since 1985 many ceasefires have come and gone, destroying hopes of well-wishers. While these ceasefires placed some temporary restraint on the major armed parties, they did not spare the civilians. One could say that most civilian leaders whose presence could have had an ameliorating effect and have imposed some sanity were killed during ceasefires. The situation at the end of every ceasefire had deteriorated so much that people were left longing for the pre-ceasefire condition when seeking a ceasefire, we must also pay attention to what we want to happen during a ceasefire. This needs greater understanding and commitment.

The question is also closely tied to the destructive nature of the politics we describe in the following section. It also concerns the legitimacy of the parties concerned. A close examination of all ceasefire in our context show that the parties agreed because there was a serious challenge to their power and credibility and needed a respite. But there was no change of heart and a commitment to democracy and human rights. The result was tactical manoeuvering to keep power at any cost with its natural consequences. While it is difficult to justify killing political enemies in one’s own camp during war because of the demoralisation it will create, it becomes almost the sole preoccupation during a ceasefire. In particular, during a guerrilla campaign, when a group requires the peoples’ support in the from of food and shelter, it becomes awkward to be accused of killing a political opponent with a clean record. Such liabilities are minimised during a ceasefire when the group is physically secure.

Thus the LTTE’s ceasefire with the Sri Lankan government was marked by political killings of many Tamils, reaching a peak during the early part to this year as the IPKF pulled out. Human rights violations became blatant. The government on the other hand while materially helping the LTTE to eliminate its enemies and using it to goad the IPKF, was free to concentrate on its counter-terror. This too reached a peak during the IPKF pull-put, bringing the total killed to sami-official figure of 40,000. Up to this point the ceasefire was useful to both.

Beyond this point, the emerging information suggests that the LTTE got the bad side of the bargain. It had taken great care not to embarrass President Premadasa. While it made no links with the Sinhalese opposition, the government appears to have been gearing up to use the Muslim and Tamil enmities the LTTE had exacerbated without second thoughts.

Just as people began to talk of peace being restored, repression defended in the Tamil areas. After its spokesmen had made some liberal noises and had talked of perestroika, the group lacked the ability to come to terms with its past- its history of alienating many as ‘traitors’, and of first of allowing the Sri Lankan forces to advance in 1987 by its elimination of other groups and then enabling India to intervene legitimately. Both parties had problems of legitimacy with their own people.

The foregoing serves to show that a mere ceasefire without the concomitant enforcement of human rights is meaningless. It is for this reason that even well-meaning talk of an international peace keeping force could be mistaken and counter-productive. The first task is to get the principles right and decide what is to be monitored and enforced. Then it does not matter how it is done provided it is done effectively by competent persons. The important thing is to first get both sides committed publicly to have basic human rights monitored and enforced. Then prevarication and foot-dragging by either party stands to be exposed.

To start with an international peace keeping force would be open to seemingly legitimate technical scruples by both sides. For instance the LTTE spokesman Balasingam has already said that such a force which circumvents India will not be acceptable to it. (Another somersault!) A promunent Indian role will on the other hand give cause for the Sri Lankan government to throw its spanners into the works. Once principles are secured, technical gaps can be bridged with ingenuity. For example, while a prominent role for the Indian army in an international force can be objectionable, there can be no legitimate objection to prominent Indians who have championed human rights.

We know that many NGO’s and international groups long concerned with problems here are setting their minds to the problem. While welcoming this we are only saying that it can be done effectively and durably with no greater delay. How it is done will determine the lives and future of the few Tamils left who have been with the people and have taken a courageous stand at this time. Without them there can hardly be a future.

3.2 Development Amidst the politics of Destruction

This was a question which confronted us in stark terms between the months of March and June this year when there was a concerted effort by the Tigers to persuade NGO’s and the government that this was the time to begin the process of rehabilitation and reconstruction in the North-East. Many of us felt instinctively through long experience that the aims of rehabilitation and reconstruction were incompatible with be current politics which had alienated, destroyed and made of none effect, the energies and contribution of a sizeable section of the populace with social conscience. The Tamils will need rehabilitation and reconstruction even more urgently after this most devastating of wars. Those who are genuinely interested in the Tamils must ask themselves what kind of process this is going to be, who will participate, who will benefit and whether it will encourage the politics of reconciliation, development and a mitigation of evils. The whole question is also very relevant to the Sinhalese South.

NGO’s have been a part of nation life for over a decade. At the start there were conditions where some constructive work in helping communities in need, could have been done without paying too much attention to political developments. Subsequent developments indicate that such conditions ceased to exist some time before July 1983, though from that time NGO activity, both local and foreign, had increased with even churches joining in. Despite enormous funds poured in, little of permanent value has been accomplished. In this chronic state of conflict, a pattern has set in. Armies and armed groups kill, destroy and create refugees, the NGO’s feed. The government has been quite comfortable with ignoring those victims it does not particularly care for. We cannot avoid escaping the fact that confronting the politics of destruction is a necessary pre-requisite of genuine rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The politics of destruction: We shall now explain what is meant by the politics of destruction. This is the politics of tactical survival without deference to morals or principles. Without an honest attempt at finding answers to questions of justice, it perpetuates power by spreading alienation, division and insecurity harnessing the energies and securing co-operation amongst diverse communities for the common good of all, it destroys all constructive energy and good will, and channels all energy into obsessive hatred. Instead of seeking to bring out the best, it brings out the worst in everyone. Those who practice this politics become increasingly trapped into devoting nearly all their energies into surveillance of, and fomenting divisions among those who challenge their power. This is the politics of destruction. With such politics, development is hardly possible.

We have seen how the Tigers have practiced it. Though it brought them power in the short run, it cornered a large number of youth into the logic of the same politics and has made the people powerless. The only thing which dominates the minds of these youth who have faced humiliation and oppression at the hands of the Tigers is bitterness and vengeance. They are prepared to use any means frustrate the Tigers as the Tigers have done to them. With all democratic space closed, only the logic of the gun prevails. It is ironic that at their height of power and fame in March this year, the Tigers needed to hold about 2.000 political prisoners in the most dehumanising conditions, and were unable to be generous. But the media, both local and foreign, called this peace and praised the Tigers and the government.

As for the government, its politics is marked by burning bodies in the South while conducting a patriotic war in the North. Without going for the creative option of putting forward a political solution, it is using the divisions between Tamils and Muslims as well as amongst Tamils making the Tamil and Muslims more isolated and insecure. Ironically, the Tigers to their own disadvantage and by their own inability, deepened these divisions with the connivance of the government.

This destructive politics is also evident in the manner in which the government silenced the entire student movement in the South. In spite of their divisions, the student movement in the 80’s became a major voice in articulating genuine grievances arising from corruption coupled with the application of economic programs reflecting western interests and notions of development. Many student activists strongly believe that the government was actively involved in creating divisions which were highlighted by the murder of Daya Pathirana in the mid 80’s. The IUSF (Inter University Students’ Federation) which was active during 1988 and 89 is characterised as terrorist by some and as racist by others. It may have been mistaken in its ideas and actions. By its selectiveness in condemning terror, it stood compromised and discredited by the JVP’s acts. But there are few grounds for believing that the IUSF was JVP any more than the UNP was JVP.

The fact is that many members of the IUSF knew next to nothing about the JVP. According to their own batch mates a number of students who were killed or have disappeared are not those who threatened their fellows and teachers, but were simply members of legitimate student bodies. We know for certain that a number of IUSF members were open minded creative persons who wanted to do some good. It was a good deal due to their persistence that at the presidential elections, the SLFP put out in its manifesto quite far reaching proposals to devolve power to minority regions. On the question of labour of Indian origin, their position is more generous than the those of the two main parties. These are no small achievements for young persons whose opportunities for interacting with Tamils were limited. Did not the country, at least for its own good, owe it to these young men to have a form of politics that would channel their good will and creativity rather than brand them as terrorists and hunt them down? The fact that several of them living in hiding, having narrowly escaped death at the hands of the state, have themselves not become murderers shows a rare human quality.

The seriousness of the depressing state of our universities where students are silenced to the point of even begin scared of contesting student union positions, is not generally appreciated. The country is being run as though the energies of the young are not wanted. Our poverty of ideas is being exacerbated in addition to economic poverty. While the vast majority of our young are silenced and terrorised, their counterparts from the elite with foreign university education stand to be pushed in to publicity and prominence in excess of their understanding and contribution. The seeting anger that lies below the surface should not be underestimated.

The much publicised and costly Gam Udawa 90 exhibition at Pallekele which coincided with the president’s birthday is perhaps symbolic of the kind of development that takes place under these conditions. The hidden reality in Pallekele was that several of its in habitants had been killed and burnt some months ago, following a JVP attack on the local army camp. None of its registered voters had cast their vote at the presidential elections in December 1988. Many Sinhalese harboured strong feelings about the whole affair which was colourfully portrayed in one paper as ‘Pallekele Reborn’. A Sinhalese lady in a government department which participated in the exhibition was called up by her boss for an explanation on why she had declined to contribute to the National Defence Fund. She said that if the government was serious about the cause of the soldiers and the fund, it should have cancelled the exhibition and given the money to the fund, instead of taxing those who are struggling with their daily living. To take this position in Kandy required no mean courage.

In the nature of the prevailing dispensation it strongly suggests itself that much of the foreign money that comes as aid reinforces this politics rather than benefit the people. If the government’s access to dollars was restricted, it would have had to think seriously before purchasing aircraft and bombs to kill its own people and destroy wealth that cannot be replaced.

One could also discern a strong link between the LTTE’s foreign connections and the process of the people becoming powerless.

Development requires accountability, and that cannot be secured here without challenging the dominant politics of destruction.

The need to be firm: In this climate of silence, the responsibility strongly falls on the local NGO’s churches and the universities to expose the nature of the destructive manner in which power wielded, in the South as well as in the North. The ordinary people have no one else. A lack of firmness or wishy-washiness would be costly to these institutions as well. Quite frequently, after long discussions, statements are issued which deplore violence; deplore the decline of morals and call for peace and negotiations. Such serve to sooth consciences and satisfy foreign funding agencies, without posing a challenge to the oppressors. Those in power regularly utter the same sentiments. The grim reality is left untouched. But on the other hand those in these same institutions ceremonially associate with those in the state, have tete tete’s with them and are entertained by them as old school shams. They may of course tell those in power some things privately, which from experience is of very limited value. In the absence of a firm principled public position on what exactly is wrong, their links with those in power give the ordinary people a very different massage. They form conclusions about whose violence they seriously disapprove of, and become uncomfortable with these institutions. This is partly the cause of allegations, sometimes wild, which have surfaced from time to time. Leadership in this climate is serious business requiring much sensitivity.

Pre-conditions for rehabilitation and reconstruction

To begin this process, what the Tamils need is the politics of rehabilitation, which will enable the creative energies of the people to be utilized. For this the people need space to defeat the politics of destruction. Through political pragmatism arising from their survival instinct, the Tigers may show different faces to different people and even voice liberal sentiments. But this cannot be sustained. To cover up their history of opportunism which cost the Tamils dearly, and their alienation of a large section of the population, particularly the conscientious young, they will need to resort to terror. As long as this politics prevails, the Tamils will continue to have an uncertain future. To start economic reconstruction under these conditions to give a superficial feeling that development is under way, will definitely lead to disaster.

To start with all organisations must be allowed to function democratically. Only this will provide space to re-evaluate and identify those tendencies which have become dominant in the social arena. This is necessary to counter the dehumanisation brought about during the course of the armed struggle. We have not gone through a liberating process where by the community could be strengthened with a higher value system. The community has got used to reaching mechanically and people tend to look for immediate alternatives to safeguard their short term interests, such as by going abroad.

It is therefore essential that organisations and individuals who try to look at ourselves self-critically should be protected at any cost. The NGO’s and human rights organisations should understand the vital role these people can play in restoring civil society.

3.3 In Parliament

By the end of August there were some healthy signs amongst the opposition. On Sunday 26th August all major opposition groups, including the SLFP, MEP, SLMC, CP, SLMP, LSSP and the NSSP attended a meeting convened by the TELO to demand a half to the bombing in Jaffna and to get food and supplies urgently to the civilian population in the North-East. Once again, the Opposition launched into spirited attacks on the government’s human rights record. Violations in the South had been highlighted during the extension of emergency debate and at question time. The SLFP had for the first time since the outbreak of war decided to vote against the extension of emergency. The Tamil groups are also voicing concern and are talking about civilian suffering, instead of just bashing the LTTE. The SLMC too seems to have realised that simply going to the government with pleas to help the Muslims, is not just inadequate, but will only help the governments to use the Muslims in as disastrous manner. The SLMC has shown greater sensitivity to the sufferings of the Tamils as neighbours of suffering Muslims, and has recently been critical of the government’s handling of the problem, and of its conspire-torial wrecking of the North-East provincial council arrangements.

But given the urgency of the situation in the country, all this is far from adequate. We cannot wait 4 years for elections. The opposition is far from evolving a political consensus on how to find a political solution that will corner the government. It lacks the will to challenge the government by taking the political upper hand. The government is likely to go on by saying that the Opposition can talk while it has the serious business of fighting the war, until total disaster strikes.

Just to take the Tamil parties alone, their position is far from healthy. They have failed to take an open and critical view of their past and have done nothing to challenge the LTTE politically. For the first few weeks of the war, they angered Tamil civilians by being too pre-occupied with the LTTE, and paying less attention to civilian suffering.

During the early months of this year they were wary of the LTTE coming into the political mainstream. They did not appear too taken on the removal of the sixth amendment to the constitution and the cancellation of the Sinhalese ‘Sri’ from motorcar license plates, simply because these were demands put by the LTTE in its talks with the government. But these were more importantly Tamil demands. The LTTE had made its entry into the so called political mainstream conditional upon the removal of the six amendment. If the Tamil parties opposed to it were willing to be self-critical, they could have challenged the LTTE on its historical and human rights records. But instead some of them lobbied parliamentarians against voting for the removal of the sixth amendment. To do this they had to appeal to the Sinhalese chauvinism of some of the MP’s.

In other words they were fighting the LTTE with the same methods of deception and intrigue that the LTTE had used against them when they tried to run the North-East provincial council. On the other hand the LTTE was carrying on not wanting to offend the government in any way. It pulled up the EDF (EROS) for voting last March with the opposition on an Opposition amendment to the Buddha Sasana Bill. Thus the groups opposed to the LTTE were prepared to resort to any means to see that the LTTE was not allowed to do anything as the LTTE had previously done to them. Both were prepared to play into the hands previously done to them. Both were prepared to play into the hands of Sinhalese chauvinism for that purpose, and opened the door for the government to play one against the other. This is why we have said else where that as a pre-requisite for development or any revival of civil life, the destructive politics by which the Tigers have cornered themselves as well as others must be defeated. Make no mistake - if the Tigers try to hold power and run things as they did, there is enormous destructive potential, for what happened in parliament happening all the way down Tamil society Pre-occupation with so-called traitors will take precedence over everything else. A healthy change may be set in motion if the other Tamil groups start by looking at their past and their own past misbehaviour self-critically.

Asked about the president’s role in the breakdown of arrangements with the LTTE, a senior parliamentarian replied:

“ The president is surrounded by a group of conspirators. There is no evidence to say definitely where the president stood. But what happened does not say much for an all powerful president.”

There was a widespread sense of loss amongst Tamils over the absence from parliament of A.Amirthslingam and Sam Tambimuttu. Many felt that despite his serious faults Amirthaligam was a person who would have been very useful at this time. He would have made a noise and it would have been heard around the world. An Easterner who had worked closely with Sam Tambimuttu said:

“Sam did play his games. But he had enormous credit with international organisations like the Amnesty International. His reports were through and splendid. Had he been alive what happened to the people of the East and their sufferings would not have been shrouded in a veil of darkness. They should never have touched him.”

3.4 Diplomacy, Finance and Weapons

A curious event occurred in April this year, shortly after the IPKF’s departure. The government ordered the Israeli interests section in the US embassy to be closed. This was a sharp departure from the practice and instincts of an influential section of the ruling UNP. The UNP government under President Jayawardenea had invited the Israelis as part of a US package to help the government forces - particularly in intelligence matters. The Israeli agencies Mossad and Shin Bet are said to have been involved. Jaywardene’s son Ravi was closely associated with the Israeli role. President Premadasa’s own sympathies ar known to have been very pro Western. This was natural to the large section of the Sinhalese intelligentsia which looked to the West as a counter to India - perceived as the traditional enemy. There was also a substantial section of local opinion which saw Israel as a creature of Western imperialism and saw non-alignment as the correct policy for Sri Lanka. This was reflected in the foreign policy of the Bandaranayikes which found convergence with India’s. It was Mrs. Bandaranayake’s SLFP led coalition with the Left that in 1970 expelled the Israeli mission in Colombo, in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Some very responsible sources with access to police records of the JVP led insurgency in 1971, formed a strong impression that the JVP was infiltrated, armed and goaded prematurely into action on the calculation that it would be a disastrous failure. It also discredited the first left wing government of Sri Lanka, together with every form of socialism, for a long time to come.

For the Premadasa government, there were other considerations as well. The Arab countries in the Middle-East, unlike Israel, purchased large quantities of Ceylon tea and supplied this country with oil. In addition to this, strong Muslim opinion from within the country was being brought to bear on the government to expel the Israeli interests section, with the prospect of mediating with Arab nation to give Sri Lanka something material for its troubles. There was also some disenchantment within the US administration over its protege Israel’s rigidity on the Palestinian question. According to Sihabudeen Ossman writing in the Sunday Times of 12th August, a cabinet member told the SLMC ‘that a solution had been found by elevating both the Israeli Interests Section and the PLO to embassy status’. What then decided the expulsion of the Israeli Interests Section which earned an expression of disappointment from the US embassy? Some have suggested that the US was consulted and its disappointment was only formal. Other diplomatic sources in Colombo have said that the government was very upset when Senator Stephen Solarz from the Senate Foreign protested about its human rights record. It was about this time that the American and Western press carried some hard hitting articles about the government’s record, highlighting the murder of journalist Richard de Zoysa. These source regarded the expulsion of the Israelis as a means of hitting back at the US.

When the war with the LTTE broke out in June, despite the government having initially at least succeeded in claiming morality to be on its side, unlike in 1983, western enthusiasm to help the government was not visible. Australia turned down a, request to sell ammunition. This may also be related to the perception that India was presently neutralised. By August it became clear that the government was desperate.

In early August Minister Ranjan Wijeratne (Defence and Plantations) set off on a trip to Middle Eastern countries including Iraq, Iran and Libiya with Minister Munsoor (Commerce). It was taken for granted by the press that the purpose was to request arms and military help. The mission failed because Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which came to be known after the minister was airborne, threw everything in the Middle East topsy turvy. In a press conference after his return (Island, 10th August), the minister claimed that the purpose of the visit was to explain the ‘factual position in Sri Lanka’. He could not visit Iraq because Beghdad airport was closed, as he found out in Cairo. In Iran he met the president and several ministers who ‘gave him good hearing’. In Libya he met the No.2 as Colonel Gadaffi had to rush out of Tripoli on an urgent matter concerning the Gulf crisis. They were treated well, but had to leave for Iraq after 1 days. The Minister for Foreign Affairs had not been associated in the mission.

The worst was yet to come. The Sunday Times of 26th August reported on the economic impact of the Gulf crisis. If there was no further increase in the oil price Sri Lanka’s annual oil bill will go up US $110 million to $370 million. Its loss of annual earnings from Kuwait and Iraq alone is $120 million from Sri Lankan workers’ remittance. Iraq which purchased 20 per cent of Sri Lanka’s tea is now unable to do so. The war is said to be costing the government about $1 million a day.

As for allegations that Israel is helping the LTTE, diplomatic sources said that there is no evidence of the Israeli state being involved, except the possibility of involvement by some Israeli mercenaries. In all this, it is evident that the kind of foreign policy evidence the government has been receiving over the years needs to be questioned. Whatever the tactical reasons, one must question the sense of responsibility exercised by those who think that a weak Sri Lanka could drift from the well tested policy of non-alignment, could flirt with shady powers such as Israel, Iraq and Libya within a short space of time, and then come out in one piece.

There is a close link between the will for bold political initiatives at home to secure peace, and a foreign policy that reflects soundness and dignity. The alternative is to play with lives and hold on to power while the nation burns


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