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Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne
The Rhetoric of Impotence
20 August 2002
1. The President, members of her political party and leading members of the JVP ask the Prime Minister with increasing frequency whether he is aware that the LTTE is setting up an administration in the areas controlled by it and what the Prime Minister proposes to do about it. They make no suggestion as to what should be done nor do they say what can be done. Clearly they are unhappy with what is going on and would like to see it ended. They do not say what they would do if they were in the Prime Minister's shoes. Indeed, they do not convey the impression that they could, in some rational way, fill the yawning gap that exists between their wish and its fulfillment.
2. For nearly two decades now the LTTE has engaged in establishing and expanding its armed forces both terrestrial and naval in the area under its control. These forces have fought a long war against the forces of the state and during the last six years they have been conspicuously successful in all the battles that have been fought. These are facts well known to the Prime Minister's interlocutors and to the whole population of the island. For six years, from April 1995 to April 2001 the last government led by the President's party made a desperate attempt to defeat the LTTE militarily and if possible exterminate it. That attempt bankrupted the country and ballooned its public debt. It ended the possibility of any further military activity. No government of Sri Lanka has ever committed all its resources to such a massive military effort. No holds were barred as the saying goes. Yet the President and the entire population of the country know only too well that that final despairing effort failed and that the LTTE today is incomparably more powerful than it was at the beginning of the conflict. No one ever asks the Prime Minister why he allows the LTTE to maintain and expand its armed forces. This question is not asked because everyone knows that the Prime Minister can do nothing about it. There are large areas of the public domain where unpleasant realities exist which we can do nothing to reverse.
3. However, political discourse in Sri Lanka at the highest level, and lower down as well, seems to evade engagement with these realities. For instance, both the President and the Prime Minister are united in the determination to preserve the single all-island state. In all their pronouncements there is not the slightest hint that the single all-island state has long ceased to exist and our desperate efforts to resurrect it have failed. Both lead their listeners to cling to the forlorn hope that by some sleight of hand the status quo ante helium will reappear. It is impotence that produces such vain hopes.
4. The simple fact that the state has had to ask for foreign mediation is a clear indication that reliance on a military solution is no longer available. The foreign mediator will be dealing with two parties whose armed forces have failed to exterminate, or drive to unconditional surrender, one or the other. The state is unable to impose a solution on the LTTE. Peace has to be secured by a peace treaty negotiated between the two sides. Despite this, the ministers of the government, including the two who are likely to be involved in the forthcoming peace talks, talk of 'Devolving_ Powers on the LTTE(!)', to enable the latter to set up an Interim Administration in the area under its control. There is not the slightest recognition of the manifest fact that the LTTE already has a growing administrative organisation operating openly in the area under its control regardless of whether the government likes it or not. The LTTE is an autonomous body not deriving its authority from the government. On the contrary at every turn it has acted in defiance of the government which has shown its impotence to do anything about it. The talk of devolution of powers to the LTTE is nothing but another example of the rhetoric of impotence.
5. Conceptual misconceptions of this nature derive from the seminal illusion that a single all-island state still exists. It has disappeared long ago and survives only in vestigial form. The two armed protagonists in the recently concluded war each has its own organisational set up and area of control. The peace that is envisaged is the establishment of arrangements for each of these entities to live in peace with its neighbour and provide the benefits of peace to their respective populations. Talk of the restoration or (the even more illusionary) maintenance of the single all-island state is but a striking example of the rhetoric of impotence.
6. The talks due to commence in Bangkok in mid-September – and possibly go on for a very long time, even years perhaps – will take place in a radically different context to the three previous rounds of talks. The differences may be enumerated as follows:-
7. First, the period of war since the last meeting is the longest on record, six years and eight months from April 1995 to December 2001. During that period both sides made the maximum military effort of which they were capable and the result was inconclusive. Indeed, in the last five years and eight months from July 1996 (Mullaitivu) to April 2001(Pallai) the state's forces have suffered an unbroken series of severe military defeats. At sea too the state's naval forces have suffered many reverses and lost many expensive warships. There was no such military imbalance before any of the three earlier meetings. Then the state had a military fall-back option which no longer exists.
8. Secondly, there has been a devastating change in the state's financial situation caused by large purchases of expensive military hardware after the fall of the Elephant Pass complex of military camps to the LTTE in April 2000. These purchases were financed by foreign borrowings which ballooned the public debt to barely imaginable dimensions. The annual debt servicing charge rose from around LKR 60 billion per year to its current level of LKR 327 billion. (The entire revenue of the government for this year is LKR 278 billion.) This has foreclosed irrevocably any possibility of a return to war by the state. On the other hand, the LTTE not being a state and so having no possibility of public borrowing or printing currency, has financed its war expenditure entirely from grants from the worldwide Tamil Diaspora which has raised funds by sacrificing its savings. Not only is the LTTE unburdened with debt, its financial resources are received in the world's hardest currencies because the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora lives and works and saves in the world's most prosperous countries. Contrariwise, the Sri Lankan government's spree of borrowing and printing has devalued the country's currency to such an extent that it is virtually a straw currency in comparison with the currencies of the rest of the world. Not only is war-making capability ended even the most basic elements of public expenditure on public utilities and infrastructure maintenance are jeopardised.
9. Thirdly, this time around the talks are to be mediated by the Royal Norwegian Government which has the backing not only of other Nordic countries but also of the whole European Union which is a large aid giver to Sri Lanka. This arrangement has been welcomed by the USA and Japan, another pair of big aid givers. So, the content of the talks including the positions of the two sides will be communicated widely within the international community. There was no such exposure to world opinion in the three earlier meetings.
10. Fourthly, on this occasion the talks take place after a far-reaching Cessation of Hostilities Agreement has been in place for over six months and been observed by both sides despite minor hiccups. Government embargoes on food and medicines to the LTTE-held areas have been lifted under monitoring supervision and restrictions on fishing by Tamil fishermen have been eased. These confidence-building measures augur well for a rational and productive encounter.
11. Fifthly, the Sri Lankan government has successfully resisted the public pressures of extreme Sinhala nationalists unlike on the two previous occasions on which agreements with Tamil leaders were resiled from in response to such pressures. The strident protests of the JVP and elements of the PA are widely recognised for what they are – the rhetoric of the impotent.
12. The stage is set therefore for the most serious peacemaking effort of the last twenty years. International involvement not only of the international community but also of the international Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora has imposed imperatives that need to be heeded in the quest for peace. That quest must not be held hostage to ancient imaginings of a single all-island state at the expense of the national aspirations of one of the two nations inhabiting the island.
13. The talks due to take place in Bangkok are peace talks, because both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE are deeply concerned with providing peace for their respective peoples and ending the war that has cost them so dearly. They are not talks about the integrity of the single all-island state. Only one side, the Sri Lankan government, is interested in the integrity of the single all-island state. The LTTE has no interest in it. The Tamil people regard the single all-island state as the arena in which they were subjected over a long period to adverse legislative discrimination, recurrent bouts of physical violence, with neither redress nor restraint under due process of law and, finally, military repression of their attempts to realise their national rights. The consequence has been the mounting of armed resistance by them since 1983. This unhappy evolution is not due to the shape or size of the state but to the folly and ignorance of the people who ran the institutions of the state. The insistence of the Sri Lankan government on the preservation(!) of the single all-island state shows that it is concerned only with the result and not with the cause of the war. This is why the Tamil people can aspire to peace and justice for themselves only in a separate state of their own in the area of their domicile.
14. The Bangkok talks need to focus on peace rather than on a return to the past. If peace can be more securely founded on two separate states on the island that should be the way ahead. In many theatres of secessionist war peace has been founded on separation into two independent states and peace has prevailed between them in almost every case. One of the best examples is the United Kingdom which split into two independent states in 1922, eighty years ago, and in all that long period there has been complete peace between the shrunken United Kingdom and The Republic of Ireland. Tens of thousands of Sinhala and Tamil people living in the UK today enjoythe inestimable benefits of that peace.
Pakistan and Bangladesh are building good relations slowly but surely. So are Eritrea and Ethiopia despite recent disturbances, now happily ended with UN Mediation. The same can be expected between East Timor and Indonesia. An UN intervention force has maintained peace since 1974 on the very small island of Cyprus between The Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot Republic on the island. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been to a Commonwealth Conference in Limassol and knows at first hand what great prosperity peace has brought to the people of The Republic.
In every one of these cases the peoples whose lives have been so enormously benefited by peace with separation into independent states do not wish to return to the single state from which secession took place. Even the secession of Pakistan from India, though fraught with such grievous tensions between them, has produced three short periods of war between them which added together are a small fraction of the 18 years of war in Sri Lanka that the attempt to preserve a single state has produced. It is the diametrical opposite of the world's experience to imagine that separation into two states will perpetuate rather than end war. It is the willful failure to recognise the world's experience and to learn from it that perpetuates war. These are cobwebs that we must sweep away from our minds as we set about a serious attempt at securing peace for ourselves and good neighbourly relations with our brethren of the Tamil nation on the island.
15. The Sinhala nation is mired in impotence because we seek not a peace which is attainable, but a single all-island state which is unattainable. So our discourse on peace is stultified by the rhetoric of impotence and gets us nowhere. It must be our fervent hope that as a pragmatic people with a rational and pragmatic leadership we will abandon what is unattainable and settle for what is attainable, and then set out on the long march to the prosperity which has so long eluded us.