needed, not euphoria
There was a sense of national celebration last week as the
Armed Forces announced the capture of Pooneryn, a strategic base
in the North. Regaining control of the camp after more than a
decade is indeed a landmark in the Eelam War and congratulations
are due to the Army, Navy and Air Force for executing a task
that has eluded them for many years.
The significance of the achievement was underscored in the
government reaction to the event. President Mahinda Rajapaksa
chose to announce the triumph through a brief address to the
nation and the government declared a week of national
celebration. The state media broadcast special programmes-and
even some of the private media joined in.
Since that event, two other bastions of the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Mankulam and Muhamalai have both been
captured by troops. Indications are that the Armed Forces are
continuing their thrust downwards and eastwards in the Northern
peninsula and that there would be no let up in the military
What was more significant though was President Rajapaksa’s
articulation of the government’s stance in his address to the
nation. He appealed to the LTTE to return to the negotiating
table to discuss a political solution even at this stage, but
was firm that there would be a condition attached: the Tigers
should lay down arms and renounce separatism.
This is not the first instance that governments in Colombo have
offered to negotiate with the LTTE and its leader Velupillai
Prabhakaran. In fact, all of Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidents
except the late D.B. Wijetunge have negotiated with the Tigers.
But this appears to be the first instance where Colombo is
calling the shots and demanding negotiations.
Previously, the trend has been for the Tigers to have the upper
hand and the government has been frog marched to the negotiating
table-at times under pressure from the international community
and in other instances, because negotiations had been forced
upon them due to their military vulnerabilities.
There have also been instances in this long separatist war where
the LTTE has used negotiations when they were militarily weak to
recover, regroup and rejuvenate. Often the negotiations have
then been abruptly called off and the violence and terrorist
attacks have resumed with even greater intensity.
This has been possible because successive governments in Colombo
have previously been tempted by the possibility of peace and
have commenced talks with the LTTE without pre-conditions-which
meant that the Tigers retained arms and hadn’t renounced
violence and terrorism. Therefore, the LTTE was effectively
negotiating from a position of strength.
That is precisely why President Rajapaksa’s current call to the
LTTE is noteworthy; while the government is clearly indicating
its willingness to negotiate and hammer out a political solution
to the grievances of ethnic minorities, it is also sending
another powerful message-there will be no negotiations until
separatism is renounced and arms are laid down.
Critics of this policy towards the Tigers will argue that the
LTTE will never agree to these conditions and that therefore,
the negotiations will be a non-starter. That may well be true.
But to be fair by Colombo, its fingers have been burnt not once
but many times by negotiating with the LTTE in good faith.
Hence, the policy now is not fearing to negotiate but never
negotiating out of fear.
It is remarkable that when President Rajapaksa visited New Delhi
this week and met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,
although military matters were discussed there was no
disapproval of what the President and the government in Colombo
has been consistently articulating.
It must be appreciated that the government in New Delhi itself
is under enormous pressure from the state government in Tamil
Nadu to espouse not only the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils but
also the cause of the LTTE. The Central Government in New Delhi,
we must remember, is dependent on the support of legislators
from Tamil Nadu for its survival.
And the specific demand from most of the vociferous Tamil Nadu
lobby was to call for a halt to the military offensives in the
North of Sri Lanka. Despite this, all that New Delhi would
insist on was the need for a political solution in Sri Lanka;
there was no re-echoing of the sentiments expressed in Tamil
Of course, as the government forces become stronger in the
theatre of conflict, there would be a temptation to cast aside
the political options and go all out for a totally military
solution to the crisis in the North - a luxury that has not been
available to previous Presidents since this conflict began.
There will also be demands from the more chauvinistic elements
in the south for such an exercise, since some of them do form
part and parcel of this coalition government. But the government
and the President, we are sure, realise the folly of such a move
and will have the sagacity to devise and implement a political
settlement to the ethnic question.
While that remains the duty of the government in office, it will
then also be the incumbent duty of the opposition to support
such a move-and not opt for the perennial role of opposing what
the government does for the sake of being in the opposition.
Whether the collective opposition can rise to that challenge
remains to be seen.
But of course, more remains to be done. Pooneryn maybe a
landmark battle but we must also realise that the war has yet to
be won. And until then, vigilance-and not euphoria-should be the
order of the day.