The Separatist Problem at the Start of 2008

This year 2008 will see the 60th anniversary of Independence. It will furnish another opportunity to reflect on what went wrong. While many countries in Asia have made great strides to modernize their countries Sri Lanka is still languishing largely on the colonial inheritance with the country still dependent on foreign aid, remittances of housemaids doing menial work for Muslims under humiliating conditions, and tourism from mainly Western countries who despise it. Meanwhile official corruption has reached monstrous proportions with the President having the world's largest Cabinet and Ministry. Some Ministers are barely disguised thugs protected by those at the highest level of authority.

This year also marks 60 years of the Tamil separatist problem. While analyzing the current status of this problem it might be useful to cast a quick glance at the course taken by this dispute over these six decades, and the past year in particular. The problem arose right at independence when the demand for a 'Thamil Arasu' (or Tamil state) was articulated by SJV Chelvanayakam's "Federal Party" (an incorrect translation of the Tamil name). Other Tamil politicians like GG Ponnambalam and C Sunderalingam put their own proposals. Common to all these proposals was a distrust in a Government seeing as being led by Sinhalese leaders. While the leaders of the Tamils at Independence have all passed away their successors are not different to them when it comes to their views on the Hela leaders.

At least three developments since Independence have aggravated the problem.

  1. The Great Hela Revolution of 1956. This had as its principal slogan 'Sinhala Only'. Today the policy of Sinhala Only has been effectively buried with a bi-lingual (actually tri-lingual) policy reinstalled. More damaging to the nation was the policy of compulsorily imparting education in the mother tongue of students, effectively in Sinhala or Tamil. It is interesting to recall the reply of a former Prime Minister W. Dhanayaka to the then US Ambassador Spain when questioned whether he supported Sinhala Only in Education: "I had my education at S.Thomas College, Mt. Lavinia in the medium of English. The knowledge I have was the result of my English education. I know the value of English, and do you think I will ever deprive others of broadening their knowledge discouraging the learning of the English Language?" In this area too there has been a retreat with greater choice made available to students. But this has hardly affected the average Sinhala student who continues to languish without a modern education even though they may sport a string of degrees. The result of the changes brought about by the Hela Revolution aggravated the so-called "ethnic problem" and gave a convenient handle to communal extremists. It also resulted in a generation of ill-educated Helas. The subsequent back-tracking has not completely negated the damage done by this policy.
  2. The Emergence of Terrorism. The first significant armed challenge to the Government came in the first insurrection of the JVP. But the JVP terrorists lacked organization and technical competence and the rebellion was easily put down by the Government with considerable bloodshed. It is difficult to say if this episode gave the idea to Prabhakaran that the Government was vulnerable to armed rebellion. He organized the LTTE with the explicit objectives of realizing his goals by armed military action and perhaps succeeding where the other Tamil politicians had failed. The first major success of the LTTE was the ambush of security forces in 1982 which is now taken as the start of the Eelaam war. The LTTE had been able to mount an effective terrorist campaign which has held GOSL at bay for a quarter of a century. No other terrorist movement can boast of such record of success. It is certainly the only terrorist movement to have its own naval and air arm, however rudimentary they be. They also pioneered the techniques of suicide bombing which has been imitated by other terrorists and wrought havoc everywhere. Paradoxically it is the adoption of LTTE techniques by the Islamist terrorists that led to the global "War on Terror" which has been the beginning of the undoing of the LTTE. This together with the developments of splits amongst the Tamils (largely due to Prabhakaran's autocratic methods) that has brought the LTTE to the end of its tether. But despite these favourable factors GOSL has still not been able to deliver the coup de grace. The big question is whether this will take place in the course of 2008.
  3. Foreign Interference. The separatist problem should have been an exclusively internal problem for Sri Lanka but this was not to be. The first to intervene openly on the side of the Tamils was India under Rajiv Gandhi. The capitulation of JR Jaywardene to the Indian intervention was a grave error and the First Betrayal of the Nation to a foreign power. JR's gamble was to use the Indians to defeat the LTTE, but this did not happen. Instead the Indian occupation was effectively ended by the LTTE but with the assistance of the President Premadasa. But in the last few years new patterns of foreign interference have emerged, and like the original one have been due to GOSL connivance.

These three developments formed the underlying reasons why GOSL had not been able to tackle this problem which many other countries would have dealt with . We shall next notice some of the more recent developments which cast a long shadow over the nation in this 60th anniversary year.

The CFA and its Revocation

The CFA was concluded when the Chandrika Bandaranaike was President and Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister in February 2002. With Ranil losing the subsequent election MahindaR became the Prime Minister. But there was no opposition to the CFA coming from him. Far from it he strengthened it by introducing the TRO legislation in Parliament which gave further recognition to the LTTE and provided it also with a source of foreign funds ostensibly as Tsunami reconstruction in the area conceded to them by the CFA. Even after MahindaR became President he kept all the instrumentalities set up by the CFA in force, and welcomed the role played by the Norwegians. More than half the time that the CFA had been in force it was MahindaR who presided over it. So the CFA should be called the Mahinda-Ranil policy, giving priority to MahindaR rather than to the original signatory. But the so-called 'patriot lobby' try to blame Ranil alone for it. In fact when elected President the first thing MahindaR did was to embrace Solheim with both hands.

Several individuals and groups saw in the CFA the greatest impediment to the defeat of terrorism in Sri Lanka. ACSLU had repeatedly called for its revocations. But MahindaR would have nothing of it. Its revocation was not part of his Chintanaya. In fact the Chintanaya called for a "peaceful" resolution of the problem and the CFA was to be central to this peaceful resolution. This was despite the fact that it was abundantly clear that no peace negotiations with the LTTE would succeed. The CFA never worked as hoped by the Ranil Government, as the LTTE ignored it when it suited them. Even under the UNP regime it was only GOSL that was keen in respecting the terms of the CFA. This was continued by the Mahinda regime.

After the CFA had been in force for nearly six years, over half of which time MahindaR had been Prime Minister or President, he finally gave the two-weeks' notice to rescind the CFA on Jan 3, 2008. As a consequence the Status of Mission Agreement (SOMA), which gave Norway a legal right to be involved with the separatist problem, also becomes defunct. This was not something that the President did willingly. He had to be dragged, kicking and howling, to take this measure so obvious to any reasonable person. Why this happened is a matter for speculation, some claiming that it was done to placate the JVP which was demanding that it be done. The President needed every vote in Parliament and was prepared to do anything to get it.

The revocation of the CFA is one of the few sensible things that the President has done, but he can be given little credit for it as it was he who had made the CFA the monster it became (especially after he introduced the TRO). It was too late, and as will be shown too little. Ending the CFA is not mentioned in his Chintanaya even though the "patriot lobby" (also called 'cyber patriots" q.v. = see ACSLU Glossary) have gone raving mad over this Chintanaya. It is still too early to see what consequences follow from this step. Some comments on this will be made later in this article.

Banning of the LTTE

An issue that has not been addressed is the question of banning the LTTE. The JVP, following its populist line, has demanded this, and it is possible the MahindaR may eventually comply. Such a ban is essential if GOSL is to maintain its stance that the LTTE is a terrorist group, and that it is involved in its own 'War on Terror'. It is a curious fact that even though the LTTE is frequently described as a terrorist group there has been no attempt to ban it. This has been true of all SL governments that have been in power since this LTTE irrupted into the scene in 1982. The issue of terrorism came to the fore after the Islamic terrorists attacked the West, and the declaration of the 'War on Terror' by the US government. But Western governments have banned Al Qaeda following the declaration of this War. They have even banned the LTTE. But not GOSL, even though it is in SL that almost all the terrorist activity of the LTTE has taken place.

The reason why the LTTE has not been banned is because MahindaR and his minions still hope that it is possible to do a deal with the LTTE. After all they did a deal to fix the Presidential election. So MahindaR may be hoping that the LTTE will again come to pull him out of the dilemma of his own creation. This is that he really needs the IC because without its financial and (in the case of the US) its technical help he may not be able to maintain his posture as an anti-LTTE warrior. This is essential to maintain his credibility with his electorate and more so with the 'patriot lobby'. So MahindaR hopes that if the LTTE can be shown to be conciliatory to his move to negotiate with them he will be able to maintain his deception. But we know that the LTTE is not in the business of salvaging the President but in gaining Eelaam. The President may be hoping that he may be able persuade the LTTE to adopt a two step move to Eelaam. The first might be to accept "power sharing" with GOSL, and maybe later when the time is ripe to go out for outright separation. Whether this scenario will play out we cannot definitely say. But it explains why banning the LTTE is not one of the priority options of the President. The President is hopeful that whatever he does his devotees in the 'patriot lobby' will praise him for it.

One of the curious short-lived episodes of 2007 was MahindaR's MOU with Ranil Wickremesinghe. This Ranil-Mahinda Accord shows that there is really no fundamental difference between these two. The antagonism that is so publicly proclaimed is an attempt to hoodwink the public. The 'patriot lobby' need no hoodwinking as they will swallow anything that MahindaR does, no questions asked, but their constant debunking of Ranil is curious given that Mahinda though it worthwhile having a MOU with him. It is of course well known that negotiations with the LTTE are the UNP way out. This means that itis highly unlikely that MahindaR will ban the LTTE, another point in which he agrees with RanilW. Looking at the way that President MahindaR has been acting this is also ultimately his way out also.

But even without the CFA there could be little difference as far as relations with the LTTE are concerned. Already the Palitha Kohana the leading foreign affairs adviser to the Mahinda regime has stated that even without the CFA efforts to have negotiations with the LTTE will continue. In an interview to Australian TV after the revocation of the CFA he said: "There is still hope that Tamil Tigers the LTTE will return to the negotiating table. Our objective is to end this conflict in a peaceful manner so that there will be a honourable peace for all in the country". This shows that its original delusions stated in the Chintanaya are still dominating the thinking of the Rajapakse regime. So it will be business as usual with the LTTE. This may be placating the 'International Community' (IC) who have been critical of the abrogation of the CFA.

Foreign Involvement

As was mentioned earlier one of the greatest failings of GOSL has been its inability to keep foreigners from meddling in the internal affairs of SL. The first of these was India when Rajiv Gandhi sent planes to violate SL airspace and supply the LTTE terrorists who were then facing defeat. In that instance SL could do little as it could not confront India militarily. But even a simple thing like a complaint to the Security Council of the UN was not made. In the event President Jayawardene thought that he could use the Indians to confront the LTTE. But this strategy failed even though SL had to capitulate of some of the Indian demands like the unification of the North and East which has only recently been undone by the Supreme Court (not GOSL).

More recently however foreign intervention was solicited actively by GOSL. This occurred under the Ranil-Mahinda CFA and the SOMA arrangement which gave a role to Norway in the so-called monitoring of the cease-fire arrangement. But this has involved the tacit abandonment of national sovereignty equally by both RanilW and MahindaR. They both enthusiastically supported the role of Norway and got little by way of return.

The latest foreign intervention has come in the Western and UN criticism of the revocation of the CFA. It is still to early to state if the IC will make good its threat to cut off all aid, and if so how GOSL will retaliate. The attitude of the US will be critical, and it is speculated that it is the US which has been giving practical help in the current campaign against the LTTE by providing satellite intelligence, and in other ways. However the US has always insisted that the political concessions implicit in the Government's devolution proposals should be honoured. This is the real dilemma that confronts GOSL in the new situation created by the revocation of the CFA. If the economic sanctions are made effective it will provide the real test to GOSL.

"Liberation" of the East and the Wanni

The highlight for 2007 for the MahindaR regime, and of course the 'patriot lobby' was the capture of Thoppigala. This was celebrated in high fashion with a rally at Independence Square and extravagant hyperbole like 'New Dawn in the East', 'Liberation of the EP' etc.  After being for several years on the back foot this was certainly a welcome change. But the question arises whether the capture represents a real liberation of the East.

The EP was never under complete LTTE control. A majority of the population there are Sinhalese and Muslims and there is no record of the LTTE ruling completely over a non-Tamil majority area. Probably less than 10 percent of the EP was under effective LTTE control at any time. It is true that they did commit terrorist acts all over the EP but they have done this all over Sri Lanka as a whole. Therefore what happened is that the LTTE was dislodged from bases like Thoppigala, but the situation in other areas remained very much the same. Besides ever since the split in the LTTE a large part of the EP was controlled by the TVMP, the other Tamil terrorist group. This group is, of course, tactically supporting GOSL, but they will not be completely subservient to GOSL. If the LTTE is defeated the TVMP is well poised to step into its shoes. Its ultimate aim is to have the Tamil areas ruled by Tamils and other ethnic groups denied a foothold there. This is the same as the LTTE objective.

The capture of LTTE bases in the Wanni is the declared objective of the MahindaR regime. So far skirmishes have taken place on the borders of the Eelaam territory, and according to Government reports there is a systematic killing of LTTE cadres. But actual advances on the ground, including the capture of a prominent LTTE base like Elephant Pass or Killinochchi has still to be announced. The greatest victory so far has been the killing of Tamilselvan, the "smiling killer", but this is the result of an air raid. How the information to pinpoint Tamilselvan was obtained has not been revealed but some have hinted that information may have come from the surveillance systems deployed by the Americans. Meanwhile the 'patriot lobby' is anxiously waiting for the good news that Killinochchi has been taken.

Unless the LTTE is completely liquidated the talk of "liberation" may well be premature. Liquidating the LTTE means not only capturing their bases, and the elimination of their naval and air capability, but also eliminating them as a terrorist force. It is absurd to say that the East is liberated when bombs go off in Jaela and Colombo claiming the lives of highly protected persons. What is needed is to liquidate terrorism which poses a threat to people anywhere, not merely to occupy certain remote locations.

The Political Solution and "Power Sharing"

Even if the LTTE is eliminated, in the sense mentioned in the previous section, it does not mean that the separatist problem has been solved or has gone away. There is a common tendency to equate the separatist problem in SL with the terrorist problem created by the LTTE. This view is particularly common amongst the 'patriot lobby' and the supporters of the Government. LTTE terrorism was certainly an outgrowth of the separatist problem, but it is not the whole of this problem. Just as Prabhakaran capitalized on the Tamil agitation of the 1960s and 1970s there is always the possibility that some other Tamil leader will capitalize on the agitation that will occur even after the end of the LTTE. All that the elimination of the LTTE would have made possible is a return to square one.

It is for this purpose that a 'political solution' has been advocated by those concerned with the elimination of this problem from the body politic of Sri Lanka. But just as the dominant military strategy for the removal of the terrorist problem had been wrong for most of the time that the terrorist war was raging, so the solutions advanced to secure the "peace" that will result from the termination of the war is also wrong. The principal approach to this problem has been called "devolution" or "power sharing". An All Party Committee of Parliament has been deliberating on the exact nature of this devolution or power sharing for many months, but has not been able to come up with concrete proposals. Now it is claimed that the final draft will be released in February 2008. Pressure on GOSL to release a definite proposal for its plan to share power has been mounting. The latest demand has come from India and the Indian PM Manmohan Singh refused to visit Sri Lanka until such a proposal had been finalized. Sri Lankan politicians, whether of the current government or the Opposition UNP consider Indian support for any devolution plan to be essential for its success?

One aspect of the devolution or power sharing that is proposed is that it is going to be racial (or religious) devolution. This is hidden by calling it territorial devolution along Provincial Lines. The Northern Province (NP) will be a Tamil area while the status of the EP would be problematical as it will contain Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim communities. The further demand from the Muslims to create a further devision for the Muslims is a distinct possibility. This could be a Sharia state. According to this scheme Sri Lanka will be organized on the 'Apartheid Principle' rather than on the 'Multicultural Principle', (For a definition of these terms see ACSLU Glossary). On independence Sri Lanka was constituted on the Multicultural Principle without distinct areas of the country allocated to different ethnic or religious groups. But under the proposed 'Political Solution" But they are also to be given devolution to camouflage the fact that it is devolution to the Northern Tamils that is really contemplated. The objective is to give to Tamils an area of land which would be governed different from the rest of country emphasizing the Tamil ethnicity of the inhabitants.

Certainly there is no great demand for devolution from those Provinces where the Sinhalese constitute the majority. Even if devolution is given to these provinces (to camouflage the Apartheid nature of the devolution proposal) there is not likely to be any significant difference between the Sinhala Provinces. Thus the laws of, say, the Western Province would not be significantly different from those of the Southern province. The big differences under the proposed devolution scheme will be those between the Tamil region, the Muslim region and the Hela region. It is even possible that the Jesuhelas may demand a separate region (a Kithunu Purawaraya) to separate themselves from the Boduhelas. The Indian Tamil areas in the centre may also try to incorporate themselves into separate region (a Malayadesa). Thus the Apartheid principle which underlies the proposed scheme will open the door to further disintegration.

Whether the system contemplated is called Federalism or not does not matter much. Once the unitary principle is given up (and with it the Multicultural idea) the constitutional arrangement will define the degree of separation. There will be disputes on the division of powers between the provinces and the Centre, and it is possible that the powers of the Centre would be so weak that it may not be able to prevent an implosion. Yugoslavia, a Federal system organized on the racial principle provides a good example of such an implosion. Sri Lanka's fate under devolution, federalism or power sharing would not be different.

Final Comment

This survey of the separatist problem in Sri Lanka as at the dawn of 2008 has not been a comprehensive account. ACSLU Blogs throughout the year have looked at developments as they took place during the year. This policy will be continued throughout the New Year with this document being posted as the first Blog for the new year.

The main focus in the new year will move to the political solution to the problem . This of course assumes that the military objective of eliminating the LTTE has been achieved. In its Report Towards the Resolution of the Sri Lankan Problem ACSLU gave a way of resolving this problem that does not involve devolution of power, or power sharing on an ethnic base. This was of course in the light of the situation that prevailed in 2006 when this document was last revised. It will have to revised when GOSL releases the report of the All Party Committee said to be looking at this problem.