April 24, 2002


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G Parthasarathy

New turns to Sri Lankan ethnic conflict

LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran's press conference received widespread international media attention. Around 200 media persons gathered in Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka for the press conference. While the world expected to see a battle-hardened and self-assured warrior appearing from the jungles, what it got to see instead was a middle-aged personality clad in a tight safari suit, with his hair dyed jet black, looking more like a B-grade Tamil actor than a guerilla fighter.

What was even more surprising was that the man who had terrorised both the Sinhala and Tamil leaderships in Sri Lanka and engineered the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on Indian soil seemed diffident and unsure what to say. He had to be constantly prompted and assisted by the LTTE political ideologue Anton Balasingham, as he sought to respond to difficult and probing questions.

But appearances are often deceptive. It would be wrong to assume that Prabhakaran has either mellowed or changed his methods with the passage of time.

One of the major difficulties in implementing the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 was Prabhakaran's unwillingness to adjust to the imperatives of sharing power with others in a democratic polity. He firmly believed that he should rule his Tamil 'Eelam' with the gun.

His horrendous record of killing fellow Tamils establishes this trait in his character. There is little doubt that the most brilliant field commander in the LTTE was Mahattya. Yet, when Prabhakaran felt that Mahattya had attained a stature that could challenge his hegemony, he had no hesitation in having him executed.

Earlier in 1986 he had the rival Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation leader Sri Sabarathinam killed -- an action that was strongly condemned by M Karunanidhi. Popular Tamil political leaders like A Amrithalingam, Alalasundaram and Dharmalingam of the Tamil United Liberation Front and perhaps the most articulate proponent of the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka, Neelan Tiruchelvam, met the same fate. The list of those executed by the LTTE includes prominent human rights activists like Sam Thambimuthu.

But perhaps the most gruesome example of Prabhakaran's determination to eliminate all potential rivals was the killing of nearly 20 leaders of the rival Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front group led by its supremo Padmanabha in broad daylight in the very heart of Madras city. It was essentially the inaction of the V P Singh government in dealing with this act of terrorism on Indian soil that emboldened Prabhakaran to engineer the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Prabhakaran's comments at his press conference were clouded in deliberate ambiguity. He did not give up his demand for a separate Tamil state, even though the LTTE had told the Norwegian deputy foreign minister that it was prepared to reach a solution within "the framework of a united Sri Lanka". Prabhakaran obviously intends to establish his unchallenged rule within the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka by setting up an 'Interim Administrative Council' dominated by the LTTE, before he would even be prepared to commence substantive negotiations.

He also expects the Sri Lankan government to lift the ban on the LTTE and end its blockade of areas to be controlled by the LTTE, before negotiations commence. As Balasingham noted, Prabhakaran aims to assume the role of "President and Prime Minister of Tamil Eelam".

Politically, Prabhakaran has moved fast to assuage the Muslims of the Northeast, who have legitimate fears about the LTTE. Prabhakaran had, after all, not too long ago driven out over 70,000 Muslims from their homes in the Northern Province and destroyed two mosques and killed over 100 Muslims in the East.

But perhaps the most significant political development is that the 1.5 million Tamils in the plantation areas of Nuwara Eliya, who have kept away from the ethnic conflict in the North and East, appear to be joining hands with the LTTE. More significantly, the LTTE's rapprochement with the Muslims and the plantation Tamils was effected by Sri Lankan ministers in the United National Party government.

There are clearly differences between President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe on how to deal with the ethnic issue. Wickremasinghe appears prepared to go much further than any other Sri Lankan leader in accommodating the LTTE. But it was precisely the belief that the LTTE could be trusted to keep its word that led President Premadasa to seek the exit of the IPKF and to his subsequent moves to give the LTTE a dominant role in the Northeast. These moves ultimately resulted in the assassination of Premadasa, National Security Minister R Wijeratne and other leaders like Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali.

Thus, while New Delhi should support the efforts of the Sri Lankan prime minister to achieve ethnic peace, it may be appropriate to also suggest a measure of caution in conceding too much too early to the LTTE. Giving the LTTE an overly dominant role in the Northeast could well lead to Prabhakaran becoming the de facto 'President and Prime Minister of Tamil Eelam'. This would have adverse security implications for us.

In the meantime, it is imperative that the pressure on the LTTE should be maintained. Full cooperation should be extended to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the LTTE remains a declared international terrorist organisation, subjected to all measures and sanctions envisaged in UN Security Council Resolution 1373.

Prime Minister Vajpayee recently indicated that he would not be averse to considering sympathetically the request of LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham to live and get medical treatment in India. Around the same time, the Tamil Nadu assembly adopted a resolution urging the Government of India to send the army to Sri Lanka with the consent of the Sri Lankan government to capture Prabhakaran, if the Sri Lankan government is unable to extradite him to India.

Balasingham has connived with and sought to justify the horrendous acts of the LTTE for around three decades. Any approval accorded to him to visit India would be construed as a weakening of our will to bring Prabhakaran to justice for his role in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The people of India cannot forgive or forget that act. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a foreign terrorist group in the midst of a national election campaign was, after all, aimed at undermining our democratic process.

India is today widely viewed as a soft state in its neighbourhood. Weakening our stand against the LTTE will only reinforce this perception. We should, therefore, send a clear signal to Prabhakaran and the world at large that even though the Sri Lankan government may have its compulsions in dealing with him, we would not hesitate to use all available means, including the use of special forces, to capture and bring him to justice in India.

The international media has reported that a Vishwa Hindu Parishad representative, Swami Vigyanand, was present at Prabhakaran's press conference. Swami Vigyanand is said to have visited northeast Sri Lanka with the concurrence and support of the LTTE on around 10 occasions since 1999. He had tacitly expressed an understanding of the LTTE's aims at the press conference by stating: "I made it clear to them [the LTTE] that we [the VHP] had nothing against their struggle." He added: "I said we have a problem with Islam and Christianity and we are trying to build Hindu unity."

The LTTE has always claimed that its main enemies are in the Buddhist Sinhala establishment. It has never projected its cause in religious terms. The LTTE, in fact, enjoys the support of several church groups. Its cadres include several Christian Tamils. Its attacks on Muslims in the 1990s were because of political and not religious reasons. It is counterproductive and dangerous to give a communal dimension to the ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka. New Delhi should make this clear to all concerned.

Face to face with Prabhakaran
What game is he playing now?
India's Vietnam

G Parthasarathy

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