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Coming closer to crunch time

By H. L. D. Mahindapala

After Ranil Wickremesinghe’s latest visit to India both prime ministers issued a joint statement. The focus of this communiqué was the establishment of Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. But media attention was on the following three lines:

“The two Prime Ministers discussed the ongoing cooperation in training and the supply of equipment to the Sri Lankan defence forces and agreed that the two sides will commence discussions with a view to concluding a defence cooperation agreement at the earliest.”

There is nothing new about these “defence cooperation agreements”. Sri Lanka already has “defence cooperation agreements” with America and Pakistan. Even without a defence cooperation agreement India has been providing “training and supply of equipment to the Sri Lankan defence forces,” as stated in the communiqué issued by the two prime ministers. Going way back to 1971 India rushed helicopters and engaged in aerial surveillance to protect Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government. A Gurka battalion was also stationed at Katunayake.

The next major IPKF intervention, following the infamous “parippu drop” by Rajiv Gandhi, is seen as a military exercise to keep Sri Lanka within the sphere of Indian influence. After that debacle, India withdrew into a non-committal position and at the height of the LTTE threat to take over Jaffna in 2000 India offered only humanitarian assistance to evacuate the 30,000 soldiers, if the LTTE agrees, and sanitize (i.e. disarm) them in Bangalore before sending them back as a defeated army to Sri Lanka. Pakistan, however, delivered multi-barrel rocket launchers and Czechoslovakia agreed to sell urgently required armaments.

Sri Lanka was facing the tigers at the gate all alone. It was at this stage that Maj-Gen. Janaka Perera forced the Tigers to run leaving their guns behind. His three-pronged attack targeted the long-range gun positions of the LTTE, interdicted the movements of their leaders and waged unrelenting depth charges on the LTTE frontlines. President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government was able to hold its head high because of this heroic victory scored by Maj-Gen. Janaka Perera.

Of late, India has been shifting its stance somewhat gingerly to restrain the military capability of the LTTE by providing aerial intelligence of LTTE ship movements and increasing its military training and supply of arms. These are, more or less, covert operations. However, none of these add up to a defence pact.

A defence pact is an upgraded, structured and a binding legal instrument which ties two or more countries together with guarantees to come to the aid of each other when the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the countries joined in the pact are imperilled. A “defence cooperation agreement” is of a lower category where military assistance is given in times of need. Besides, this proposed “defence cooperation agreement” between India and Sri Lanka is yet to be defined in detail and formalized.

The communiqué says categorically that “the two sides will commence discussions with a view to concluding a defence cooperation agreement at the earliest.” The operative words are “commence discussions” and, assuming that it is to be finalized to the mutual satisfaction of both parties, it is not likely to change the existing cooperation between India and Sri Lanka. Just to keep the idea floating around India will send a general, once in a while, to shake hands with he higher echelons of the Sri Lankan Security Forces. And America will occasionally park one or two of its cruisers outside Colombo or may even dock in for fuelling.

But these are mere cosmetics of a “defence cooperation agreement”. This is not a guaranteed “safety net” that will come to the rescue of Sri Lanka if the enemy attacks. In other words, India has not strategically changed its non-intervention stance initiated in the aftermath of the IPKF disaster. Armed with only words from members of his “safety net”, which doesn’t amount to much, come crunch time, Wickremesinghe is forced to run from one capital to another to impress (1) the restless south rising assertively,(2) his own uneasy backbenchers,(3) his President biding her time and (4) those whom he had illegally empowered in the Vanni (a) that he is in command, (b) that he can summon the forces of the “safety net” in the event of you know what and (c) that everything is going his way.

But his Foreign Minister, Tyronne Fernando, who praised Prabhakaran as a true patriot not so long ago, sounded warnings to the LTTE from Delhi. Probably boosted by “the defence cooperation agreement”, he told The Hindu: “…. we have been ready for a while and we have to be in a better state of preparedness." After admitting that the Tigers “have increased their cadre enormously" he added that “the people will not forgive them (the UNF) if they were not prepared.”

Predictably, the LTTE, which is always sensitive to Indian moves and counter-moves, reacted rather noisily and sharply. Condemning it as “military blackmail” The Tamil Guardian, the London-based mouthpiece of the LTTE, said that the recent visit by Ranil Wickremesinghe, has "seriously undermined'' the trust between the Government and the Tigers. Describing the latest move to initiate a defence cooperation agreement as "Colombo's frantic efforts to augment its military capability'', the newspaper said these "will undoubtedly prompt a strategic rethink in the Vanni'' — the headquarters of the LTTE.

It added that Wickremesinghe’s "predilection for shaking an `international safety net' at the LTTE has already raised the movement's hackles''. His "compulsive insistence on widening the conflict will inevitably lead to the Norwegian peace process being viewed less as a genuine effort to seek peace than as a device for securing space and time for Sri Lanka to acquire military superiority'', the paper said, and concluded with an ominous question: "What will the prospects for peace be then?'' (The Hindu, October 25, 2003)

Having got wind of this reaction G.L. Peiris rushed to calm the hostile and the expected reaction of the LTTE. He said, "I want to re-emphasize that these are not preemptive or precautionary measures the government of Sri Lanka has thought of in relation to possible attacks by the LTTE. That is not the motive at all."

What then is the motive? Tyronne Fernando is using the “defence cooperation agreement” (which is yet to be born) to threaten the LTTE. Peiris, who has been promising from April that the talks are coming round the corner is trying to make sure that the talks will come without the LTTE picking the proposed “defence cooperation agreement” as yet another excuse to pull out of the talks accusing the GOSL of attempting to force an agreement on “bayonet point”, as stated by The Tamil Guardian.

The two contradictory statements of the two ministers lead to an elementary question: why is the government blowing hot and cold at the same time? From the UNF point of view both statements serve a useful political purpose. Tyronne Fernando’s statement, which would have come with a nod from the Prime Minister, was meant to, first, threaten the LTTE and, second, to the lull the south into a false sense of security that India is ready to come to save the nation. Then when the UNF found that the LTTE was reacting adversely, Peiris stepped into calm the nerves of the Tigers with his usual gobbledygook.

In the meantime, Wickremesinghe and the international community are both expecting a revised version of the Thimpu demands (read: separate state) to come from the counter-proposals of the LTTE for the establishment of an Interim Administration of the LTTE, by the LTTE and for the LTTE. But the Americans had indicated to the LTTE not to insist on unreasonable demands. The Indian Prime Minister too stressed this aspect. He said: “India expects that the response to the proposals made by the Sri Lankan Government in July 2000 will be reasonable and comprehensive.”

What does “reasonable” mean? Does “reasonable” mean something less than a separate state but closer to a con-federal state? Does not the creation of a con-federal state violate the fundamentals of a united Sri Lanka, particularly by laying down permanently the foundations for the automatic break-up of the nation in the next phase of Tamil separatism? Though the foreign-funded NGOs (example: MARGA) are propagandizing for a con-federal state India’s position has been made clearer by the following statement: “India supports the process of seeking a negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society within the framework of a united Sri Lanka and consistent with democracy, pluralism, and respect for individual rights.” Clearly, if it is going to be “a negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society” then “con-federacy” cannot be a viable solution as the Sinhalese (73%) and the second largest majority, the Muslim (8.3%), will not accept it.

In any case, the principles of democracy, pluralism, rule of law etc., stipulated by India are anathema to Prabhakaran. He has already signalled his reaction to these conditions laid down by the international community at Tokyo, and the follow-up pressures of the visiting diplomats, by refusing to concede one bit – and he has survived with his powers intact. He has kicked the UN in the teeth by refusing to adhere to the agreement with Olaru Otunnu on child conscription – and he has survived with Kofi Anan, the chief defender of human rights, expressing a fond wish to visit Prabhakaran, the chief offender of human rights ! He has violated the MoU which he signed with the consent of the international community with impunity – and he has survived with the Norwegians backing him all the way. He laughs derisively in the face of Peace Monitors accusing him of committing 95% of the violations of the MoU– and he has survived with his powers elevated to be above the law. He is smuggling arms defying a basic conditions laid down in the MoU – and he has survived leaving the President with no powers to remove the Chief Monitor for having aided and abetted the smuggling of arms. In other words, he has assumed the powers to dictate the law to the nation and to the international community. His intransigence which has paid dividends (through the courtesy of the Norwegians) is forcing the “safety net” to put pressure on Wickremesinghe to concede more and more. So why should he wage a war when he can get all what he wants with the consent of Wickremesinghe?

Prabhakaran will rein in his apocalyptic horses as long as Wickremesinghe is in power -- and that too depends on how Wickremesinghe dances to his tune. But then for how long can Wickremesinghe dance to Prabhakaran’s tune? And also what happens if there is a change of administration in the south?

The reality, however, is that Prabhakaran and the international community, if we are to take them seriously, are at the opposite ends of the peace process. In its latest joint communiqué India categorically states that a final solution must be based on “a negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society”. This, no doubt, is a commendable formula if it can be applied to all issues related to a just and lasting peace. Any peace process that is stuck in the intransigence of only one extremist community is doomed to fail. For instance, Prabhakaran considers the merger of the north and the east as a non-negotiable issue? Will India and “the safety net” agree to hand over the Muslims and the Sinhalese in the east to Prabhakaran’s iron-fisted, fascist rule? Isn’t this the equivalent of handing over a primary school to an incurable paedophile? So who is going to make Prabhakaran – a man who has consistently refused to honour national or international agreements -- adhere to the requirements of human rights, pluralism, rule of law etc., stipulated by the international community?

The tensions generated by these conflicting forces are heating up the electorate and Wickremesinghe is beginning to feel the rising temperature too much for his own comfort. He has also given all what he could under the cover of “confidence-building measures” with no reciprocal benefits. What he proposes to give next is critical to his future. In any case, his room for maneuverability is limited with a President who is ready to strike after he completes his second year in office in December, on the one hand, and, on the other, the electorate voting with their feet to express their opinion about his peace process. Combined together, the two can be a deadly force that will decide the fate of Wickremesinghe – and, of course, the nation.


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