Sri Lanka claims end to war 'soon'

[TamilNet, Friday, 15 August 1997, 23:59 GMT]
At a graduation ceremony for army officers last week, the Sri Lankan President said she expects the war to be over soon. She told the troops that she needed their help to 'impose peace' on the Tamils and that the LTTE would soon be defeated. Mrs. Chandrika's bravado, is at odds with the developments in the battle zones. The government has also raised the price of basic food stuffs to help fund the war.

Addressing the Sinhalese graduates of Colombo's Kotelawala Military Academy, President Chandrika delivered a speech drafted primarily for the benefit of the Sinhalese people and the international community. The speech is one of many expected in the coming weeks as part of the preparation for the unveiling of the much vaunted devolution package in November.

The emphasis of the speech was therefore on the 'war ending soon' and the 'grievances of the Tamils having to be addressed' and 'a political settlement being needed'. The LTTE was referred to as a 'small, ruthless and murderous group' and as 'the world's most dangerous terrorist group' which had to be defeated.

The President also told the all-Sinhalese troops that they were "fighting only terrorists and never civilians and the Tamil people", eliciting a few wry smiles.

However, Mrs. Kumaratunga's speech is at odds with developments on the ground. Despite a succession of government offensives, the LTTE has been extending its military capability. Sri Lankan military intelligence accepts that the LTTE has about 15,000 troops and that this number is rising. The Sri Lankan army's troops have been unable to weaken the Tigers despite a 10 to 1 superiority in numbers alone.

The Sri Lankan government's offensive to open a supply route to its garrison on the Jaffna peninsula is looking increasingly unlikely to conclude successfully: devastating counter attacks by the LTTE have slowed the advance to a crawl.

Amid exceedingly high military expenditure, the Sri Lankan government is raising the price of wheat flour and bread to fund the war. The Sri Lankan government subsidises the price of many basic food items.

Whilst this will clearly hit the poorer sections of the Sinhalese public hardest, Mrs. Kumaratunga's promise that the war 'will soon be over' is calculated to silence protest. Previous hikes in the price of basic food stuffs have also been preceded or accompanied by promises of an early end to the war.

The Sri Lankan government is now shifting its strategy. Frustrated militarily, the intention now seems to be to corner the Tigers politically. Mrs. Kumaratunga's claims that the Tigers are 'small' (and hence irrelevant), 'ruthless and murderous' (and hence should not be entered into discussion with) and 'incapable of talking peace (and hence should be attacked militarily) are intended to ensure she cannot be pressured into talking with the Tigers at this point.

What she hopes to achieve on the diplomatic front is to unveil a devolution package in November, so that a solution of some kind is on offer. As long as she can secure the support of all the other players in Sri Lanka, she can justify a prolonged war against the Tigers as the 'war for peace'.

The much vaunted package has not even been defined yet. In particular, which aspects of power the Tamils would have control of, whether the Tamil homeland will be preserved as an entity (or fragmented to assist Sinhala colonisation), how the physical security of the Tamil people would be assured, etc have been deliberately left unspecified.

To launch the package, she needs the support of the UNP (the main opposition party). Although the UNP has been prudently keeping its cards to its chest, it is widely expected that the package will be sufficiently watered down as to be acceptable to the Sinhalese populace and therefore to the UNP.

The Sri Lankan government is also working to develop an alternative Tamil leadership which can accept the package 'on behalf of the Tamils'. To this end, the Tamil groups opposed to the LTTE are being projected as 'moderate' Tamils in Colombo's diplomatic circles.

Most of these groups fought the Sri Lankan military at one stage, but were goaded into (unsuccessfully) attacking the Tigers by their primary backer, the Indian government. With little, if any support amongst the Tamil people, the leaders of these groups play politics in Colombo while the few hundred men they command act as mercenaries for the Sri Lankan army.

The TULF, a moderate party (opposed to violence) has shown a frail readiness to compromise which has severely undermined its negotiating ability. While some of the TULF's MPs have been vociferous in articulating the injustices suffered by the Tamils, the party's support amongst the Tamils has dwindled primarily due to its willingness to forsake positions it has vowed to defend before.

The Sri Lankan government is confident the Tamil parties will not be able to mount any credible opposition to the devolution packages, irrespective of how insipid it is.

Given the 'support' of the UNP can be obtained and that of the Tamil parties is assured, the Sri Lankan government is setting about projecting the LTTE as 'the only obstacle to peace'. Whilst most western nations involved in the conflict recognise the fragility of foundations of this 'peace package', for the moment they are content to play along to the fashionable 'quest of peace'.

The Sri Lankan government is aware that were they to negotiate with the LTTE, which is not vulnerable to its arm-twisting unlike the other Tamil parties, a genuine and just settlement will need to be discussed and perhaps, finally entered into.

The extent to which the proposals can genuinely address the 'grievances of the Tamils' as Mrs. Kumaratunga so blithely puts it, is evident from recent history: any Sinhalese leader who makes any concessions to the Tamils will be effectively committing political suicide, as Sinhala nationalism is never far from Sri Lankan politics.

The Buddhist clergy which in the past has opposed even the slightest idea of accommodating the Tamils would easily mobilise Sinhala public sentiment against the government.

Conversely, taking a hard-line against the Tamils would enhance any Sri Lankan leader's stature amongst the Sinhalese public and the Buddhist clergy and thereby guarantee his or her political longevity. Every Sinhalese leader including Mrs. Kumaratunga has been able to successfully exploit this facet of Sinhalese nationalism, albeit with different levels of sophistication.


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