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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings - Adrian Wijemanne > Need for Candour in the Search for Peace in Sri Lanka

Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne

Need for Candour in the Search for Peace in Sri Lanka

12 July 2001

1. As the 18th anniversary (23rd July) of the commencement of war in Sri Lanka approaches, it is high time to identify a vitally important factor which has been notable by its absence in the search for peace. That factor is candour, complete, unvarnished, unequivocal, unambiguous candour in explaining to the Sinhala people the realities which necessitate the conclusion of the war by making peace with the LTTE. Not only has candour been totally lacking in the pronouncements of all government leaders; they have misled the Sinhala people utterly into a triumphalistic fools’ paradise. It is this which has impelled important sections of Sinhala society to draw conclusions which are completely unrealistic and to make pressing demands based upon such illusory conclusions.

2. All four presidents who have led the Sinhala war effort – Jayawardene, Premadasa, Wijetunga and Kumaratunga – have assured the Sinhala people explicitly, repeatedly and without any qualification that the war can be won. That is the incumbent president’s line today. She has stopped setting target dates - such as “by the end of 1997” etc – for total victory but she persists in the assertion that final and total victory is certain, if not soon, at least in the long run.

3. As a result of this presidential consistency on the subject very important, patriotic, national-minded elements of Sinhala society are convinced that the proper pre-requisite for peace must be the achievement of total military victory. Thus many leaders of the Maha Sangha urge the government and military leaders to go out there and win. Nationalist politicians – the JVP, the Sihala Urumaya, the National Movement against Terrorism – all urge, with one voice, and with impeccable logic, the same thing – “go out there and win”. When the war is won there will be no LTTE to negotiate with – a consummation devoutly to be desired.

4. They go further – and rightly. If the single, all-island state is to be preserved (or restored if it no longer exists) the LTTE must be eradicated root and branch as a military entity. There cannot be a single state with two contending armies within it; the existence of two contending armies within a territory signifies not the existence of a single state but of a state of war.

5. The conclusions that the Sinhala nationalist elements draw from the premise that the war is winnable are perfectly logical, irreproachable and, indeed, inevitable. Even if a successful negotiation with the LTTE were possible, the LTTE will continue in existence with responsibility for fulfilling its part of any settlement thus fatally compromising the existence of a single all-island state. Such a settlement will be a fig-leaf barely covering the nakedness of de facto separation and the sovereign independence of Thamil Eelam. So it will be seen that on the oft-repeated premise of total military victory lies a heavy baggage of nationalist expectation

6. Let us turn now to another oft repeated assertion which heavily influences Sinhala nationalist thinking, namely, that by military pressure the LTTE can be so weakened that it will be compelled to sue for peace on the government’s terms. This will enable the single all-island state to be restored and will eliminate the present threat to it.

7. Sections of Sinhala society, especially those who cling to the forlorn hope of a constitutional settlement, invest their hopes in this way ahead. They do not as yet, engage directly with the question of whether a militarily weakened LTTE will disarm totally or will continue in possession of their arms like the IRA in Northern Ireland where the peace process consists of laying down layer upon layer of fudge on the bedrock of irreversible armed reality. Such wavering optimism too is based on consistent government assertions without any qualifications.

8. Finally, there is the widely touted assertion that a constitutional reform, going some way beyond the 13th Amendment of 1987, could be negotiated with the non-LTTE Tamil political parties both within and outside parliament. It is asserted that that would wean away Tamil support from the LTTE thus “marginalising” the LTTE and compelling it to abandon its determination to secure an independent state and to sue for peace on the government’s terms. Six years 1995 to 2001 – of great effort have been invested in this course and a Sinhala political consensus is sought on the assurance of its success. The incumbent president seems totally sold on this line of thinking and keeps on pushing it despite ever-diminishing public conviction of its viability.

9. In this case too there are elements of Sinhala society convinced this is the way ahead. They assume that a constitutional reform can buy off a demand for total independence forgetting our own experience where repeated doses of constitutional reform under British colonial rule whetted, rather than quenched,, the desire for total, sovereign independence.

10. Let us now examine each of these assertions rationally. First, the certainty of total military victory. Despite unwavering presidential consistency it has proved unattainable after nearly 18 years of war. On the contrary, under the incumbent president the Sri Lanka army has suffered an unbroken series of severe military defeats – Mullaitivu (1996), Kilinochchi (1998), the Wanni(1999), Elephant Pass (2000) and the Pallai salient (2001). Despite this ominous military record the assertion of certain military victory remains without any rational explanation to back it.

11. There is no open, public examination of the reasons for such colossal military failure. Neither the government nor the Sinhala public seem to want to know why this has happened. The Press indulges in shallow surmises that it is due to corruption in military purchases and/or the pusillanimity of our generals. Both the incumbent Prime Minister and Deputy Defence Minister have hazarded military predictions which have been confounded by events. Neither has thought it necessary to explain to the listening public how they came to be so wrong. Nor has the public held these officials to account. There is no serious analytical study of any kind about the underlying fundamental reasons for such persistent and shattering failure.

12. There is now an whole canon of published literature on the subject of nationalist wars of secession waged against individual states commencing with the magisterial work by Stanley Karnow “VIETNAM –A HISTORY” (Viking books 1983) containing information on costs, ratios of troops to guerillas,strategy and tactics, military psychology, political motivation etc all of which militate against victory by the conventional army of even a rich and large state under attack from small bodies of nationalist guerillas fighting on their home ground. The Sri Lankan state is one of the poorest facing such a threat. Judging from the world’s consistent experience it has not the slightest prospect of military victory over the LTTE which is now universally acknowledged as the most formidable guerilla force anywhere in the world.

13. Both government and Press seem not even to have dipped a toe in this large body of literature or to have researched the world’s comparable experience. Both seem to be totally insulated from the lessons of recent history. Sinhala military leaders are even worse judging from their gung-ho assurances to their political masters. The war was pronounced “96% over”, victoriously no doubt, days before the army suffered a resounding defeat and expulsion from a large area – the Wanni – which it had held.

14. International experience of the very high costs of such wars and of the very high troops-to-guerillas ratios, (in the region of 100 troops to 1 guerilla) required for them indicate with crystal clarity that the Sri Lankan state has not the remotest possibility of military victory. It is, therefore, vitally important even at this late stage and before further battlefield disasters are experienced, that the president and her advisors should read and begin to understand the relevant international literature and begin to reverse candidly, openly and unambiguously the oft-repeated certainty of military victory.

15. If it is made absolutely clear to the Sinhala people that military victory over the LTTE is beyond the competence of the Sri Lankan state, regardless of the political complexion of its rulers, the entire Sinhala discourse on war and peace will be dramatically turned around thus setting the groundwork for attainable and sustainable peace on the island. Clearly this will entail a two-state island, a condition already in existence, and the prospect of prosperity in a context of good neighbourly relations between the two states.

16. The Sinhala people have proved over the last 50 years that they are as pragmatic as any in the world. They seem intransigent and uncompromising now because of the false premises on which they have been assured of military victory. Once the scales fall from their eyes in that respect the stage will be set for realistic peace-making.

17. The second assertion – weakening the LTTE militarily to the point at which it will sue for peace on the government’s terms – is as egregious as the first. Far from the LTTE being weakened by nearly 18 years of war it has emerged stronger than ever. All such movements have displayed the same trait – the longer the war lasts the stronger they become, not the weaker. The international literature on such wars bears eloquent witness to this paradox. It is due to ignorance of that literature and the world’s experience that the president and all Sinhala politicians hold this erroneous view and feed it to their unsuspecting people. It is high time to advance from ignorance to knowledge and to be forthrightly candid in admitting earlier error and making it quite clear that the longer the war lasts the stronger the LTTE will become exactly as it has done over the last 17 years. This will re-inforce the re-thinking by the Sinhala people of the realities of their situation and help them take a realistic attitude towards peace with the LTTE.

18. Of the three flawed premises fed to the Sinhala people by far the worst is the last. The worst because it flies in the face not only of the world’s experience but also , and flagrantly, of our own. The theory that a constitutional change can buy off an armed nationalist secessionist movement, persuading it to disband its forces, is pure and undiluted myth. It failed abysmally in 1987 with the 13th amendment. The huge effort invested in it from 1995 onwards has been a pure waste of time and a futile raising of expectations. It has been rejected by the LTTE and all the Tamil political parties except, perhaps, the Tamil party in the government. The manner in which its first draft of August 1995 was watered down at the behest of successive waves of Sinhala extremist objections demonstrated what little faith the Tamil people could repose in it. Some sections of Sinhala opinion are opposed to it on the ground that it concedes too much to the Tamil people; other sections oppose it on account of its unviability due to it having been rejected already by nearly all Tamil political parties. It is not backed by a parliamentary majority nor has it a societal consensus in its favour. It is just another example of the incumbent president’s inability to recognise manifest reality and of her propensity to believe that the impossible is possible.

19. All three assertions by the government - first, that the war can be won; second, that the LTTE can be weakened into accepting the government’s terms; and, third, that a constitutional reform could end the war - have not the slightest relationship to reality. All three are pure and simple myth and the political discourse based upon the acceptance of any of these myths is itself a snare and a delusion. The Sinhala political discourse has been stultified by adherence to these fallacies. No peace effort can be founded upon such egregious misconceptions which have separated the Sinhala people from existential reality. This is the basic reason for the difficulties that presently beset the peacemaking effort and also contribute very largely to the political turmoil now undermining any prospect of sane and sober government. It is inevitable that any society so thoroughly suffused with irrationality and ignorance must come to great grief. 18 years in a fools’ paradise have exacted an heavy price and portends even worse unless the Sinhala people and their government return to reality and rejoin the world and partake of its experience.

20. It is imperative now that fundamental changes which will return both government and people to the real world need to be undertaken. The rationale on which such changes are based needs to be clearly, courageously and unambiguously explained to the Sinhala people to overcome the initial bewilderment of a public fed for 18 long years on absurd triumphalistic hype devoid of any validity.

21. First and foremost the government needs to understand that Sinhala society can marshal neither the colossal financial resources nor the immense increase in manpower (itself having a further escalatory effect on costs) for an effort at outright military victory. It must point out to the Sinhala people the failure of much stronger nations and their governments to withstand secessionist challenge from foes weaker than the LTTE. It must acquaint itself of, and then clearly communicate to the Sinhala people, the underlying systemic factors that have already resulted in massive military defeat at the hands of a numerically smaller foe, factors that are not only irreversible but which will be exacerbated with the passage of time. It must understand, and then explain, the immense gap that is opening up in financial muscle between the 800,000 strong Eelam Tamil diaspora now resident in the world’s richest countries and the abject poverty of the 15 million Sinhala people condemned to live in one of the world’s poorest countries – Sri Lanka. It must understand, and then explain, that a country whose population has an annual per capita income of US$ 800- is in no position to wage war using modern weaponry purchased from the developed world in hard currency. It must understand, and then explain, how and why the steep decline in the value of the country’s currency and the evaporation of its meagre foreign exchange balances militate against the continuance of war. Thus every single one of the triumphalistic assumptions on which the certainty of military victort was trumpeted will need to be stood upon its head. Only thus will the Sinhala people understand their true plight and be delivered from the land of make-believe in which they have lived so long.

22. It is exactly the same with second flawed assertion –namely, the military weakening of the LTTE to the point of capitulation. The worldwide history of nationalist independence movements provides ample and eloquent reasons for the paradox of the success of the seemingly weaker over the seemingly stronger. The reality is that such wars strengthen, rather than weaken, the secessionist challenger to the state. Here too it is not merely empirical evidence but fundamental systemic factors that produce such a surprising result. The LTTE is one of the clearest exemplars of this phenomenon. The time has come for the government to understand, and then explain candidly, the great error in its assumption and the manifest reality that the very opposite is the case, namely, that continuance with the war will only strengthen rather than weaken the LTTE exactly as it has done over the last 17 years.

23. Finally, the grievously misconceived strategy of constitutional reform, so manifestly unviable on every conceivable ground, needs to be abandoned root and branch. It is a pretence and a delusion to imagine that the Sinhala people have both the right and the power to determine and then order the form of governance of a nation which has opted repeatedly and openly for sovereign independence. Just as much as we can determine the form of our own governance, so can the Tamil nation determine theirs. This is a reversal in thinking that the government needs to undertake and then explain to the Sinhala people the moral imperatives on which it is based.

24. Few governments are confronted with the need for a volte face of this magnitude a mea culpa to end all mea culpas. It has only itself to blame for finding itself in such a predicament, a predicament brought on by seizing on unthinking triumphalism in preference to serious analytical studyof its own shattering experiences in the context of the contemporary world’s reality. There has to be a return to reason sometime. For any government worthy of that name and which cherishes the interests of its people, that time is now.




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