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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution: Sri Lanka - Tamil Eelam > Peace Talks & External Mediation, 1990
Peace Talks & External Mediation
The air is full of talks about talks. It all started with President Premadasa's statement on the 8th of July 1990 that "it is only with the involvement of the international community in a manner acceptable to us that the dialogue (with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) can recommence."
President Premadasa did not, however, specify the sort of involvement that he was thinking of, nor whether he had any mediators in mind. However, it is unlikely that he would have made the public declaration that he did, without having thought through some of these attendant matters of concern.
A few days after President Premadasa's statement, questions were raised in the Sri Lankan Parliament by the Sinhala opposition alleging that the UK High Commission in Colombo was involved in some way with the mediating process.
Again, a week or so later, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr.Gareth Evans visited Sri Lanka to discuss the Tamil question. On the one hand Mr.Gareth Evans was critical of the LTTE in resorting to armed resistance, and on the other hand he refused to accede to Sri Lanka's request for arms supplies.
International mediation - but without India
In the meantime, President Premadasa modified his stand somewhat and said that though his government believed in building a healthy relationship with the outside world, no country would be allowed to 'meddle' in the island's internal affairs.
He went on to accuse the LTTE of making concerted efforts to bring India into the picture and declared that the problem did not concern India and was a matter that 'has to be resolved by the government of Sri Lanka without external interference'.
But it appears that it was not only the 'concerted efforts' of the LTTE that concerned President Premadasa. India Abroad reported in its issue of the 20th of July that the Sri Lankan "authorities are perturbed over the arrival of former senior Cabinet Minister Gamini Dissanayake in New Delhi. Without naming him, the state controlled Sunday Observer said in a front page box:
But the paper failed to say how Dissanayake who was dropped by President Premadasa in February this year, would achieve this objective. Dissanayake was one of the architects of the Indo Sri Lanka agreement of 1987.'
The inference was clear. Whilst President Premadasa would find mediation by the 'international community' acceptable, he did not want India meddling in Sri Lanka's 'internal affairs'. In President Premadasa's lexicon, the 'international community' may include India but did not mean India alone. Be that as it may, it was clear that the stand of the Indian government to the mediatory process, had become a matter of central importance.
What then, was the stand of the Indian government?
What then, was the stand of the Indian government? A week before President Premadasa's statement, the Indian government had, expressed its concern that more than 21,000 refugees have arrived in Tamil Nadu since the outbreak of the recent hostilities. It had also expressed its concern at the possible involvement of 'third countries' (Pakistan and Israel) in Sri Lanka in view of the flare up. Prime Minister V.P.Singh also declared in an interview with Frontline:
The Indian government sent two navy vessels to the Indian side of the narrow Palk Straits presumably to 'ensure safe passage of Tamil refugee boats across'. Significantly, the Indian government did not seek to impose a blockade on traffic between Jaffna and Tamil Nadu across the Palk Strait.
At the same time, Indian External Affairs Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, at high level talks with Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov in the Kremlin on the 23rd of July, outlined India's proposal to share costs with Sri Lanka to maintain Tamil refugees on Sri Lankan soil, away from the theatre of violence in the north-east.
India Abroad reported in its issue of the 3rd of August that the Soviet Union had endorsed India's proposal and further that:
'It is imperative to move out the (Tamil) people en masse from the Jaffna peninsula'�
Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne appears to have taken India's proposal a stage further by declaring in the Sri Lankan Parliament on the 10th of August:
Faced with this declaration of genocidal intent, the LTTE Central Committee Member, Mr. Sathasivam Krishnakumar appealed from London to the Government of India on the 11th of August:
Mr.Krishnakumar's appeal from London reflected an earlier statement by the LTTE's Political Adviser, Anton Balasingham, in an interview with journalists, reported in the Hindu on the 5th of August:
The international frame..
The interest shown by members of the 'international community', during recent months, in the conflict in Sri Lanka, focuses attention yet again on the international frame of the Tamil national liberation struggle. Recent happenings in Eastern Europe have underlined the political reality that today, we are moving from a bipolar world of confrontation into a multi polar one, not so much of cooperation but of competition and manoeuvre.
It would be unwise to look at events simply through cold war eyes. We see this, for instance, in the stance taken by the Soviet Union in relation to the current Iraqi - Kuwait war. Whilst the Soviet Union has condemned the invasion, it has also kept open its avenues of communication with the Iraqi government and seeks to play the role of an influential mediator.
That the Indian government should have considered it necessary to raise the Tamil question at discussions with the Soviet Prime Minister and secure the endorsement of the Soviet Union is not without significance. In so far as the Indian region is concerned, India continues to have Soviet support for its role as a regional power and the United States, will no doubt, pay due regard to that political reality.
Again, whilst V.P.Singh's Indian government maintains relatively friendly relations with the United States, it is crucial to an understanding of India's foreign policy, to recognise that India is a large country with a large market and therefore a relatively large, powerful and influential 'national' bourgeoisie.
Whilst such a national bourgeoisie may have links with the industrialised West, at the same time it has also sought to protect its own interests by securing the continuance of import controls and licensing of industries. India seeks to build its own strength and compete on more equal terms in the world market and it feels that it has the capacity to succeed.
Successive Indian governments have been unwilling to 'open up' the Indian economy to foreign imports and this has remained a bone of contention between the U.S. and India. In a sense, this contradiction is structural and will tend to grow rather than lessen in the years to come.
A US diplomat in Washington in early 1985, put it in rather direct terms: 'India is not a super power and should not seek to behave as one'. But in the increasingly multi polar world towards which we are moving, viewpoints expressed in such harsh terms, may become less significant, as India may rightly have aspirations towards playing a larger role as one of the greater powers of the world.
When you say 'India' which 'India' are you talking about?"�
Ofcourse, when one speaks of 'India', one is reminded of something that an Indian who works for a human rights Organisation in Geneva said sometime in early 1985:
Today, the fact that V.P.Singh's government is a minority government dependent on the support of both the C.P.(M) and the B.J.P. lends even greater significance to the question 'which India are you talking about?'
The actions of the Indian government, from time to time, can be properly understood only in the context of the interplay of the different forces within the Indian political frame. But here too, it is to the nuances of the various relationships that one must look - manoeuvre and not confrontation is the order of the day. But, the broad elements of India's strategic policy remain clear.
The Indian government seeks to deny any intermediary role to extra regional powers in the affairs of the Indian region and it seeks to obtain the support of the Soviet Union to secure this end.
In what way does President Premadasa plan to use the international frame to his advantage?�
If these are some of the parameters of the international frame, in what way does President Premadasa plan to use this frame to his advantage? His government has adopted a twin track approach to further its objectives - the 'stick and carrot' approach.
On the one hand it is engaged in widespread aerial bombardment of the Tamil civilian population coupled with extra judicial killings of hundreds of Tamil civilians in those areas which are within the control of the Sri Lankan army. At the same time it seeks to isolate the Tamil people from the LTTE and thereby weaken both the Tamil people and the LTTE.
On the other hand, it talks of 'de militarized zones' and 'mediation'. Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne gives expression to the 'rough, tough ' approach whilst the soft spoken Minister for Industries, Mr.Ranil Wickremasinghe, talks about 'political solutions'.
Jeff and Mutt Act - or stick and carrot
It is what was once described by the United States Supreme Court as the 'Jeff and Mutt' act - Mr.Ranil Wickremasinghe plays the soft and kind Jeff to Mr.Ranjan Wijeratne's rough and tough Mutt act. But, ofcourse, both Jeff and Mutt are in it together and their actions are intended to serve President Premadasa's effort to 'soften up' Tamil resistance and push the LTTE to 'talks' in the most unfavourable conditions, so that the subjugation of the Tamil people within the constitutional frame of a unitary Sri Lanka can be satisfactorily concluded.
But in order that it may implement this policy of 'stick and carrot', the Sri Lankan government must obtain arms and aid from 'the international community'. India Abroad reported in its issue of the 13th of July:
The dependence of Sri Lanka for arms and aid on external sources has provided the 'international community' with the necessary leverage to persuade Sri Lanka to accept the mediatory path�
The dependence of Sri Lanka for arms and aid on external sources has provided the 'international community' with the necessary leverage to persuade Sri Lanka to accept the mediatory path - that is, so long as the broad interests of the 'international community' in the Indian region are also furthered.
Let us recognise that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The 'international community' has also sought to bring some pressure to bear on Tamil opinion to recognise the urgent need to start talks. On occasions, this has been done by open statements by western government sources which statements are critical of the present LTTE campaign in the north and east. A recent instance was the carefully worded statement of the UK High Commissioner in Madras that the LTTE was 'at the moment' carrying on a terrorist campaign but that he saw no reason to close the LTTE office in London, because their activities in the UK did not contravene English law.
The 'international community' has ofcourse, recognised for sometime that in relation to any mediatory process to settle the conflict in Sri Lanka, India would be unwilling to surrender its regional role to a power outside the Indian region.
The 'international community' through its support for the Sri Lankan government with arms and aid, has sought to bring home to India that it cannot resolve the conflict on its own, without the involvement of the 'international community'.
At the same time it is well known that it was India's concerns which led Indira Gandhi's government to give covert support to the Tamil militant movement in 1980s. Today, the threat that India may once again give such support, may serve as a restraint on the extent of the aid and arms that the 'international community' may give the Sri Lankan government.
Again, both India and the so called 'international community' do share a common interest in securing stability in the Indian region - and they may have both probably come to recognise that stability cannot be achieved by pumping more and more arms into the region.
India may support mediation if India was assured of its own say in the mediating process�
It may be thought therefore that a stage has been reached today that, in relation to the conflict in Sri Lanka, even though India may be unwilling to allow a country from outside the region to intervene as a mediator, India may support a mediating process initiated by say, a non governmental agency, particularly if the agency itself had some 'non aligned' credentials and if India was assured of its own say in the mediating process once it was underway - however difficult this latter safeguard may be a difficult one to structure.
Such an approach would presumably be acceptable to the 'international community' which clearly recognises that it will not be possible to ignore India's role in any mediating process involving affairs in the Indian region.
The bottom line however will be that any such mediation by an agency from outside India, will erode the fundamental premise of India's strategic policy - and that is to deny any intermediary role to extra regional powers in the affairs of South Asia. This, then is the crux of the matter.
To put it another way, whilst President Premadasa is willing to accept an erosion of the sovereignty of Sri Lanka by accepting 'international' mediation, India may be less willing to accept an erosion of its role in the Indian region, which such 'international' mediation may involve.
In the context of this matrix of power influences, in what way, may the struggle of the Tamils of Eelam for national self determination be taken forward?
In the context of this matrix of power influences, in what way, may the struggle of the Tamils of Eelam for national self determination be taken forward? Because in the same way as India has its own interests, and the so called 'international community' has its own interests, and the Sri Lankan government has its own interests, the Tamils of Eelam too have their interests - interests for which many thousands of Tamils have so willingly given their lives during the past several years.
What then should be our response to the mediatory process? It appears that three matters arise for consideration. Should we talk? Who should be the preferred mediator? What shall we talk about?
We are a reasonable people, and our struggle for national self determination is a reasonable cause. We should not fear to talk. What do we gain by talking? On the one hand, participation in an international mediatory process will give formal international recognition to our struggle.
Again, whilst, in the end, the strength of the Tamil people to defend both north and east and the strength of the Sri Lankan government to continue its onslaught on the Tamil people will have much to do with the success that our struggle will achieve, we need to recognise that the 'international community' has the capacity to help President Premadasa to sustain the war effort.
However, they will do so only if such a step will secure stability in Sri Lanka and in the Indian region. The talks will afford a forum for the Tamil people to bring home to the 'international community' that stability will come to the Indian region only if the 'international community' use their not inconsiderable influence on the Sri Lankan government, to put into place structures which recognise the right of self determination of the Tamils of Eelam.
National liberation struggles cannot be easily suppressed and a genocidal onslaught on the Tamils of Eelam will eventually lead to a consolidation of the feelings of solidarity amongst more than 50 million Tamils in the Indian region.
Again, it would not have escaped the notice of the 'international community' that though President Premadasa's government has been responsible for the killings of more than 30,000 persons in the South during a period of less than two years, the JVP has recently staged a resurgence in Sinhala areas.
An international mediatory process, properly handled, can serve to focus attention on the central issues of the Tamil national liberation struggle and help to show that our struggle is not in opposition to the search for stability in the Indian region, but that on the contrary, the success of our struggle will secure such stability.
Who should be our preferred mediator?
Should our preferred mediator be Australia? Or the United Kingdom? Or the Commonwealth Secretariat? Or Norway? Or the European Community? Or a Non Governmental Agency? Or an appointee of the Secretary General of the United Nations? Or India? These questions reduce themselves to the question whether the primary mediatory role should be played by the so called 'international community' or by India.
It would appear that President Premadasa does not welcome India as the mediator and this may be a reflection of his dependence on his patrons in the 'international community'. But though President Premadasa may seek to deny the links of the Sinhala people with India, we are Tamils and we do not deny our links with the Indian sub continent.
It is not only a matter of geography. It is also a matter of our history. We share an Indian heritage with our brothers and sisters of India. The national liberation struggle of the Tamils of Eelam cannot be, will not be and is not in opposition to the interests of the people of India.
The long term interests of the Tamils of Eelam lie within structures that will need to be developed to strengthen the economic and political union of the several nations which belong to the Indian region.
It is true that we live in an increasingly small world and that we need to recognise the international influences at work. By all means let us open our windows to the world, but let us not get blown off our feet - let us ensure that our feet are firmly rooted in our own heritage - and that heritage is India.
It is not that the 'international community' has no role to play in the mediatory process. It has. But the national liberation struggle of the Tamils of Eelam is taking place in the Indian region and the mediatory process must recognise that India's role is not of peripheral but of primary importance.
What shall we talk about?
Given the genocidal attack launched on the Tamil people, which continues today in our homelands, we must secure that the talks themselves are not utilised by the Sri Lankan government to perpetuate the subjugation of the Tamils of Eelam. The talks must be structured in such a way so as to lead to a meaningful dialogue in respect of the central issues of the struggle.
Here, let us remind those who continue to talk today about 'devolution' as the way to resolve the conflict, that more than 60 years have passed since we first talked about 'devolution' in 1928 and that we have moved from Provincial Councils to Regional Councils and from Regional Councils to District Councils and from District Councils to Development Councils and again to Provincial Councils. We have had the 'early consideration' of Mrs.Srimavo Bandaranaike and the 'earnest consideration' of the late Mr. Dudley Senanayake. There has been no shortage of Committees and Commissions, of reports and recommendations on 'devolution'.
But the failure of the Sinhala majority to genuinely 'devolve' power was no accidental omission. Because, whilst the talking continued for more than 60 years, the relentless attempt to 'integrate' and 'assimilate' the Tamils of Eelam also continued - unabated and with increasing ferocity, within the frame work of a so called 'parliamentary democracy' in a unitary state.
Whilst democracy may mean acceding to the rule of the majority, democracy also means government by discussion and persuasion. It is the belief that the minority of today may become the majority of tomorrow that ensures the stability of a functioning democracy.
But in Ceylon, where a unitary state, has sought to govern a territory inhabited by two peoples, the arithmetic of democracy has resulted in the continued and permanent dominance of one people by another. The reality of democracy in Ceylon is that no Tamil has ever been be elected to a predominantly Sinhala electorate and no Sinhalese has ever been elected to a predominantly Tamil electorate. And so the practise of democracy within the confines of a unitary state has inevitably resulted in rule by a permanent ethnic majority.
The Tamils of Eelam are not only a people, but clearly, they are also a people who are ruled by an alien people who do not speak their language and who do not share their culture and their heritage, and who, today, seek to perpetuate their rule by armed might.
The law of nations declares that a people who are subjugated by an alien people are entitled to the right of self determination and it is to secure this right of self determination, guarantied by international law, that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have engaged in an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan government for more than 17 years.
Let us remind those who continue to talk about the so called 'devolution' of power, that devolution means that power 'devolves' from some higher body, legitimately clothed with the power of the state. Devolution means that the power that is so devolved is subject to the control and direction of that higher body.
The Tamils of Eelam do not seek a so called 'devolution' of power which is subject to the control and direction of a Sinhala government - but they are certainly prepared to sit and talk, as equals, about the way in which the Tamil nation and the Sinhala nation may live in peace and harmony in the island of Ceylon.
Any effort to settle the conflict between the Tamil people and the Sinhala people must surely begin with the open recognition that there are two peoples - the Tamil people and the Sinhala people
The national liberation struggle of the Tamils of Eelam is not the expression of an exaggerated nationalism. The Tamils of Eelam are not chauvinists. They know that they are a nation but they also know that no nation is an island.
The Tamil people do not deny the existence of the Sinhala nation in Ceylon. They recognise the existence of the Sinhala people as a people. The question is whether the Sinhala people are ready and willing to recognise the Tamils of Eelam as a people and talk to the representatives of the Tamil people on equal terms. It is this which led the Tamil people to declare at the Thimpu Talks on the 17th of August 1985 :
This approach is basic and fundamental to any question about what we shall talk about. Because, on the answer to this basic question, depends not only the political status of the parties to any negotiating process intended to settle the conflict, but also the nature and content of any political solution, and the political will of both the Tamil people and the Sinhala people to work for the implementation of that which may be agreed.
The question whether in Sri Lanka today, there are two nations, the Tamil nation and the Sinhala nation, is a question which addresses itself openly and directly to the claims of an exaggerated Sinhala nationalism which has sought to feed on the latent fear of the Sinhala people of the Tamils of neighbouring Tamil Nadu in South India and which has sought to encourage the belief that a 'Sinhala national identity' can be secured only at the expense of erasing the identity of the Tamils as a 'people' in Sri Lanka, if not now, at least at some future date.
It is a Sinhala chauvinism which has sought to assimilate and integrate the Tamil people into a so called 'Sri Lankan nation' within the confines of an unitary state whose main official language is Sinhala and whose official religion is Buddhism - a Sinhala chauvinism which in pursuance of its objectives, has logically, sought to deny the existence of the Tamil nation in Eelam, and which in addition seeks to masquerade as 'Sri Lankan nationalism' by denying the existence of the Sinhala nation as well.
If it is the case that the existence of the Tamil nation is denied, then it must necessarily follow that talks conducted on the basis of such denial, are intended to secure the evolution of a single homogeneous Sinhala nation, masquerading as the so called 'Sri Lankan nation' in the island of Ceylon.
The concerns of the Tamil people for their 'physical security, employment and education' cannot be resolved by a negotiating process unless the Sinhala people recognise the Tamils as a people and the two people, together fashion a constitutional structure on the basis of such recognition.
It surely stands to reason that any effort to settle the conflict between the Tamil people and the Sinhala people must begin with the open recognition that in the island of Ceylon, there are two peoples - the Tamil people and the Sinhala people.
It will be idle to pretend that equity will be achieved through a negotiating process which does not itself commence and continue on an equitable footing. If this equitable footing is achieved, then that which the Tamil people jointly and unanimously declared at Thimpu in 1985 contains the answer to the question: what shall we talk about?
It should not be beyond the good sense and the capacity of the parties to a negotiating process structured on these lines, to resolve the conflict between the Tamil people and the Sinhala people - a conflict which has taken such a heavy toll in human suffering.
Two nations cannot be compelled to live together by force of arms. But they may agree to live together by force of reason. The question is: on what terms? Here, it will be futile to straight jacket the political reality on the ground into constitutional models belonging to a different time and place. On the contrary, the need is to work out constitutional structures which accord with the poltical reality on the ground - and that reality is that in the island of Ceylon there are two nations, the Tamil nation and the Sinhala nation.
The Tamil national liberation struggle is by no means unique. If the post war years from 1945 to the 1980s belonged to the colonial liberation movements, the 1990s will prove to be the decade of post colonial nationalism.
We hear the voice of emergent nations being raised within existing state boundaries in the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, in Yugoslavia, in Iraq, and in the Indian region.
In Western Europe, we see the eroding of the powers of existing states, in the opposite direction, by the maturing trans state role of the European Community.
In Sri Lanka the challenge will be to create structures which on the one hand recognise the political force generated by the two nations which exist in the island of Ceylon and which on the other hand recognises that nations do not live in the stratosphere but on land, in relation to each other.