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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Can the LTTE unlock itself from ‘limbo statehood?’
Can the LTTE unlock itself from ‘limbo statehood?’
D. Sivaram (Taraki), 13 March 2003
(courtesy North Eastern Herald)
Semi-states have always lurked on the margins of long established and recognised states from the beginning of known history. In ancient times, little known warlords and their armed followers often rose out of dark backwaters on the periphery or the hinterlands of old civilizations to overwhelm great kingdoms.
Aryans, Hittites, Huns, Vandals, Mongols and a host of such peoples who were little known to the great civilizations of their time, rose out of semi-states in the inhospitable Tundra and steppes to swoop in on long established and militarily secure states.
Military historians such as John Keegan have attributed this phenomenon to the superiority of killing and manoeuvring skills of nomadic life over the tame mores of long settled civilizations (History of Warfare).
(It is but a version of a Darwinian interpretation of war and civilization – that the most aggressive of the species succeed over those who live in environments which no longer require the honing of basic, brutal skills of human survival).
In the 20th century, however, semi-states came into being largely due to the struggles of ethnic groups that wanted to secede from modern nation states.During the cold war semi-states did not survive for long within the strategic power balance between the Soviet Union and the West, which permeated the world order during that period.
In this context, secessionists either succeeded where the geo-strategic equation was conducive, as in East Pakistan, or just withered away or were destroyed where the Cold War equations were wrong, as in the cases of Katanga in Congo and Biafra in Nigeria.
Biafra unilaterally declared its independence from Nigeria in May 1967. It constituted the former Eastern Region of Nigeria and was inhabited principally by Igbo (Ibo) people. Biafra ceased to exist as an independent state in January 1970.
In the mid-1960s economic and political instability and ethnic friction characterized Nigerian public life. In the mostly Hausa north, resentment against the more prosperous, educated Igbo minority erupted into violence. In September 1966, some 10,000 to 30,000 Igbo people were massacred in the Northern Region, and perhaps 1,000,000 fled as refugees to the Igbo-dominated east. The Non-Igbos were then expelled from the Eastern Region.
Attempts by representatives of all regions to come to an agreement were unsuccessful. On May 30, 1967, the head of the Eastern Region, Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Odumegwu Ojukwu, with the authorization of a consultative assembly, declared the region a sovereign and independent republic under the name of Biafra. General Yakubu Gowon, the leader of the federal government, refused to recognize Biafra’s secession.
In the hostilities that broke out the following July, Biafran troops were at first successful, but soon the numerically superior federal forces began to press Biafra’s boundaries inward from the south, west, and north. Biafra shrank to one-tenth its original area in the course of the war. By 1968 it had lost its seaports and become landlocked; supplies could be brought in only by air. Starvation and disease followed; estimates of mortality range from 500,000 to several million.
The Organization of African Unity, the papacy, and others tried to reconcile the combatants. Most countries continued to recognize Gowon’s regime as the government of all Nigeria, and the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union supplied it with arms. On the other hand, international sympathy for the plight of starving Biafran children brought airlifts of food and medicine from many countries. Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Tanzania, and Zambia recognized Biafra as an independent state, and France sent Biafra weapons.
Biafran forces were finally routed in a series of engagements in late December 1969 and early January 1970. Ojukwu fled to Côte d’Ivoire, and the remaining Biafran officers surrendered to the federal government on 15 January 1970. Biafra, on the point of total collapse, thereupon ceased to exist.
The fate of Congo’s resource rich Katanga province in the early 1960s was not dissimilar, though UN forces defeated the region’s secessionist army.At the end of the cold war, we saw the birth of Eritrea and East Timor. Both were brought into existence by the geo-strategic exigencies of the US and its military allies. The end of the cold war also saw the survival of several semi-states such as the Shan in Burma, the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and the northeast region of Sri Lanka. Unlike ancient and medieval times, today the big powers of the world tend to consider semi-states manageable and geo politically useful.
Take the Kurdish semi state in northern Iraq for example. It is a state for all purposes, except that it has no diplomatic status i.e. it is not recognised by the UN or by any country as a sovereign entity. It is the case despite a decade of direct military protection and patronage it got from the US and its military ally, Britain. The no fly zone imposed by the USAF and the RAF on northern Iraq gave the Kurds virtually a free hand to establish a state of their own.
For the US, the Kurdish semi-state in Iraq is nothing more than a strategic foothold to bring Saddam to his knees. What the US wants is the Iraqi state as a whole. It has no interest in the creation of a sovereign Kurdish state. America’s main ally in the region, Turkey, is dead opposed to one.
The armed Kurdish secessionist movement is unable to extricate itself out of this trap either politically or militarily.
If a puppet regime backed fully by the US is installed in Baghdad after Saddam’s defeat, we may see the withering away of the Kurdish semi-state in northern Iraq. But, on the other hand, if the US thinks that the continuation of this semi-state would be a strategic check on Turkey and on unfavourable political developments in Iraq itself in the future, then the Kurds may continue in their ‘limbo statehood’.
The Shan people too exist such ‘limbo statehood’ within Myanmar at China’s strategic convenience.
The Shan are extremely conscious of their ethnic identity. They dominated much of Myanmar from the 13th to the 16th century. After their power declined, there were more than 30 small Shan states, most of which paid tribute to the Burman kings; under the British the Shan states of Burma were ruled by hereditary chiefs, subject to the crown. In 1922 most of the states joined the Federated Shan state, which had considerable local autonomy. Like the other states in Myanmar after independence, however, Shan state lost much of its autonomy under the constitution of 1974.
However, several armed Shan separatist groups that were formed in the 1960s have succeeded in establishing a semi state in the Shan region. It is an independent state in every aspect, except that it is not recognised as such by any country.
It appears that the Shan secessionist movement is content with the ‘limbo statehood,’ as its principal interest by the late 20th century had apparently become the illegal production and export of opium from areas near the border with Thailand, an area known as the Golden Triangle.
For China, the Shan semi-state, which is contiguous with part of its Yunan Province, is a convenient wedge into Myanmar, one that gives it critical leverage over the strategic affairs of that country.
‘Thamileelam’ has also emerged as a 21st century semi state in the northeast of Sri Lanka. The Ceasefire Agreement cemented the semi state-status of Thamileelam in February 2002, based, as it is, on the line of control and the strategic parity of military force in the island.
Among other things, the semi state of Thamileelam lies at the post-Cold War geopolitical conjuncture intersected by the strategic ambitions of India, the US (and its military allies, including Japan) and China in the Indian Ocean.
Of these three, only India and the US led military coalition have the capability to impact directly on the future of the Thamileelam semi-state. But neither have the military or political compulsion necessary (as of now) to negate the semi statehood of Thamileelam. Instead, it appears that the inclination on either side is to prolong this semi statehood as a potential check against the growth of the other’s influence in the island.
For example, if we take Tamileelam’s semi-statehood out of the strategic equation in Sri Lanka, what would act, for Delhi, as a critical brake on the island’s slide into the US fold?
On the other hand, in the absence of Tamileelam’s semi statehood would the US and its allies be able to choreograph the peace process in a manner that could provide them a counter handle to India on the island’s strategic affairs?
Both India and the US coalition ‘managing’ the talks know full well that an acceptable political solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is not legally and practically possible. But both insist on the continuation of the talks.
This can mean only two things - they either want Thamileelam to continue in its current ‘limbo’ statehood for their respective strategic reasons or precipitate its withering through ‘containment.’ The former seems more probable in view of the emerging geopolitical scenario in this part of the Indian Ocean.
Either way ‘semi-statehood’ is an entrapment. (But one may still ponder the fact that powerful military forces in the past emerged out of ‘limbo states,’ which lurked long on the murky margins of the comity of ancient nations) Sliding smoothly out of this geo-strategic snare, unscathed, is the task that will politically preoccupy the LTTE in the next phase of the Tamil people’s struggle for justice.