Daily Mirror – Opinion

Learning once again from the past to bring peace to the East

By Jehan Perera

The alliance between the breakaway faction of the ruling party (SLFP M) headed by former minister Mangala Samaraweera and the UNP has re-energised opposition politics. The large show of strength at the inaugural meeting of the new alliance last week has caused anxiety in the government. A government response is to conduct celebrations throughout the country to keep alive patriotic sentiment in the aftermath of its military victory over the LTTE in the east. By itself this is unlikely to assuage the hunger for economic progress and normalcy in the lives of the majority of the electorate. The most recent increase in the price of petrol and cooking fuel, and the continuing reports of military encounters and associated costs of war, are an indicator of the difficulties that need to be overcome.
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This time of political flux and violence is an opportune one for reflecting on the past. The month of July in particular holds special significance on account of two events of momentous significance. The first is that it marks the 24th anniversary of the July riots of 1983. Most commentators consider the war for Eelam to have commenced with that anti-Tamil pogrom. In the context of the present governmentA?a??a??s emphasis on Sinhalese nationalism, there was limited reference to these events that finally convinced the Tamil polity in the country that separation was the answer to their terrible plight. The presence of war and a dispirited Tamil polity offered little space for even civil society to publicly mourn the past.

The second momentous event that took place in July was the signing, two decades ago, of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord in July 1987. Prior to this landmark agreement, the main hope of Tamil nationalists and militants alike was that India would continue with its political and military assistance that had taken separatist sentiment to the point of no-return. But the signing of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord should have ended that dream. It did not, and the political conviction of an entire generation on the need for Tamil separation has needed the succeeding two decades to fade away as being unachievable and unrealistic.

The indications on the ground at the present time are that the LTTE is fighting a rearguard action on behalf of a cause that has diminished relevance to a generation of younger of Tamils whose aspirations for the future lie elsewhere. The departure of the LTTE is also a relief to many people in the east who, despite retaining their desire for equal rights and autonomy, feared above all losing their children to forced conscription.

I formed these impressions during a five day visit to the three districts of the east last week in the company of several leading journalists. The areas we covered included the Mutur and Vakarai areas. These are names which have been in the news in recent months in view of the major battles fought there between the government forces and the LTTE to gain control of them on account of their strategic importance.

Continuing legacy
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The Indo Lanka Peace Accord was signed by the leaders of the two countries to establish a sustainable political solution. It envisaged a new political framework of devolved power for the provinces, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, the disarming of the LTTE and the meeting of Indian foreign policy imperatives in relation to Sri Lanka. The agreement also saw the entry into Sri Lanka of an Indian peacekeeping presence that came in the form of a large army called the Indian Peace Keeping Force. When the LTTE backed out of its commitment to go along with this agreement, to which it was not even a signatory, a terrible war broke out that marred the relations between the two countries.

The present provincial council system that is operative in the country is today the sole remaining legacy of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord. If it had been implemented properly in law and in spirit it could have provided the basis for a sustainable political solution as envisaged by its architects. It could have saved the country at least 50,000 lives and led to an economy that could have generated an income stream for the people that is double that of today. Unfortunately, from the very beginning, the Indo Lanka Peace Accord was highly contested, with only a section of the government supporting it, and the LTTE and most of the mainstream political opposition parties opposed to it.

The problem with the Indo Lanka Peace Accord was that it attempted to achieve too many controversial objectives in too short a time. There was no consultation with the main actors or information supplied to the population at large.

Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali were two prominent dissenters from the agreement. The LTTE was informed but not consulted, and muscled into the process, and no one else was either consulted or informed. It did not take long before the agreement began to unravel. Not even the might of the regional superpower, that had stationed its battleships within sight of Colombo, could compel a solution.

The desire for solutions that are imposed on others by virtue of superior power is a continuing saga in Sri Lanka. IndiaA?a??a??s present reluctance to get directly and openly involved in peace making in Sri Lanka may stem from its own learning experience from the past. But in Sri Lanka itself the lesson does not seem to have been learnt. The present strategy of the government is to impose a political solution upon a militarily weakened LTTE and a dispirited Tamil polity. The triumphant celebration that the government is conducting throughout the country is to take political advantage of its military victories.

Not Sustainable

There is no denying that the government has been more successful than anticipated in taking the military battle to the LTTE and forcing them to retreat. On the other hand, the Indo Lanka Peace Accord shows the danger of giving priority to imposed solutions in the resolution of long standing disputes such as the ethnic conflict. Today in the east, all the LTTEA?a??a??s political offices in the east have been closed, and most of them have been replaced by cadres of the Karuna group who work in collaboration with the government. Their multi coloured streamers flutter in the wind on the streets on which their offices are located. Karuna cadres also stand as the eyes of the security forces to tell them if there is LTTE infiltration back into the east. It would seem to be an uphill task for the LTTE to stage a comeback into the areas they have lost.

But this was also the situation two decades ago when the Indian Peace Keeping Force cleared the LTTE out of the east. In place of the LTTE, the Indian decision makers put the EPRLF to govern the east, and even had an election carried out to legitimise the new dispensation. But this reconfiguration of power was not sustainable and it collapsed with the IPKFA?a??a??s withdrawal from Sri Lanka at the behest of President Premadasa. Despite the battering they had received at the hands of the IPKF, the LTTE were soon back again. Whether the LTTE will be able to stage a similar come back two decades later will depend on how the situation evolves.

On the last day of our stay in the east, we stopped briefly at the Uganthai Kovil (Hokanda Devale) in the Pottuvil area. Devotees from the east go to this temple on their way to Kataragama. They believe that Lord Murugan and his consort Valli, lived here for a while before settling down in Kataragama. Crowds of devotees were visible in the temple and on the road.

The temple officials informed us that this year they expected 20,000 devotees for the festival, as against 13,000 last year. They attributed this increase to the greater sense of security that the people felt following the end of the battles for the east. It appeared that at least in this southernmost point of the Eastern Province, the people felt a greater sense of freedom to move after the governmentA?a??a??s eviction of the LTTE.

But whether this security will prove to be sustainable is the question. In the more northern part of the Eastern Province, in Mutur and Vakarai, which were the scenes of battle and large scale displacement of people, we saw the terrible suffering of the displaced people, and the children, that could be compared to the poorest parts of Africa.

In the east there is a vast reservoir of grievance that can once again lead to an LTTE come back in the east unless the government comes up with a hearts and minds strategy, the likes of which Sri Lanka is yet to see. The urgent need today, as it has been for the past two decades, is for a viable political package that can meet with Tamil aspirations, a whole hearted reconstruction programme for the north and east, and a genuine willingness to engage in peace talks with the LTTE. Unfortunately, the present government has not yet been able to even make a start on any one of these three essentials for sustainable peace.

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