Do not leave Tamil issue to another Prabhakaran

Many events with a lasting significance have come to pass in recent weeks, not least among them, the capture of Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass and the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader.

If the military victories in the north were cause for jubilation in the south of the country, Wickrematunge’s killing led to some grave concerns being raised amidst a lot of introspection as to where Sri Lanka was heading as a nation.

Now, as the security forces report regaining control of village after village of northern territory, the country awaits with baited breath for the day when the entire north can be declared to be under government writ.

There is even speculation on the capture of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the elusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It is a hope that can be justified in that many believe it was Prabhakaran’s intransigence that has led to the ethnic conflict escalating thus far.

Amidst the advances of the military, we must however caution against the euphoria going into overdrive, relegating that other important aspect of the ethnic crisis - a political solution that provides minorities with adequate devolution of power - into oblivion.

Since the ethnic crisis erupted on a major scale twenty five years ago, numerous attempts have been made to negotiate with the LTTE. With the exception of the late President D.B. Wijetunge-who ruled but for a short period - all other Presidents including current President Mahinda Rajapaksa tried their hand at talking to the Tigers. Even Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s short-lived government did so.

None of them succeeded. J.R.Jayewardene had to finally enlist the help of the Indians, R. Premadasa paid with his life for trusting the Tigers and Chandrika Kumaratunge almost did so too. Ranil Wickremasinghe is still paying for the sin of entering into a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with loss after loss at the elections. What then, went wrong?

In hindsight, it would appear that all these leaders negotiated with a strategy of appeasing the Tigers instead of cornering them. Whenever a government launched a thrust against the LTTE, it was not prosecuted to a finish as political considerations superseded military objectives.

The difference between this approach and that of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime is now manifesting. It has allowed the armed forces a free hand and has not reined in the troops. The underlying rationale is simple: The LTTE understands only one language and that is one which is spoken through the barrel of a gun.

How far the Rajapaksa government will be allowed to adopt this tactic by the international community has been an eternal worry. So far, Colombo has succeeded in doing what it wants on the battlefront, even if it may have affected its credibility in the process.
This week, as discussed elsewhere in this page, there were renewed calls for a ceasefire from none other than the Prime Minister of Britain who wished to raise the issue with France and Germany as well.

What we can say is that such distractions can gain undue credibility if the government does not match its military thrust with a credible and sincere political solution for the grievances of the minority communities.

Historically, Sinhalese leaders of the south have been loath to offer concessions to the minorities, not because they were inherently racist but because they feared that the opposition would capitalise on such leniencies, resulting in them being voted out of office.
Indeed, other Sinhalese leaders have been opportunistic enough to play the nationalistic card to come to power, the most notable of them being S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956.

In retrospect, Dudley Senanayake, Sirima Bandaranaike and J.R.Jayewardene all missed opportunities that came their way when they were in power to redress the grievances of the minorities and we are still paying the price for these lapses today.

That is where the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime has been presented with a unique opportunity. Because it has prosecuted the war with the LTTE to a near finish, it enjoys the confidence of the south like no other government ever did which is why it is winning election after election even with a plethora of allegations of economic mismanagement and corruption.

From that vantage point, the present government is in a strong position to sell a meaningful package of devolution to minorities and agreeable to the southern electorate and it is more likely than not that it will be accepted by the majority community without a whimper of protest, simply because it is coming from the government that liberated them from the clutches of the Tiger.

It is a challenge that this government has to rise to. So far, steps in that direction have been few and far between. An All-Party Representative Conference (APRC) summoned for the purpose of evolving a political package is still doodling on the details of devolution. Little has happened while some hardliners who are part and parcel of the government make chauvinist remarks that could be interpreted to reflect the insincerity of the government.

While this makes the Rajapaksa government more vulnerable to those who upbraid it for alleged human rights offences, the government may also be missing a once in a generation the chance of redressing Sri Lanka’s vexed ethnic question. That is why a political solution must follow hot on the heels of any military victory in the North.

If not, it is a safe bet that another Prabhakaran - perhaps even more vengeful - will emerge twenty years from now, even if Velupillai Prabhakaran is captured, tried and executed!