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Now, piece by peace

We must not forget that it was not Prabhakaran who created the ethnic conflict but the ethnic conflict that spawned a Prabhakaran. If the Lankan Govt does not address the root causes of the conflict, the end of the LTTE or its leader would be a short-term victory, writes AS Kalkat.

india Updated: Apr 23, 2009 21:21 IST

In an article published two years ago, I wrote that a gigantic human tragedy was waiting to happen in Sri Lanka. Today, as over 100,000 people flee the LTTE-held ‘no fire zone’, this was surprisingly allowed to happen despite the concerns of the international community and human rights organisations.

The LTTE rebels are fighting for their survival while the Lankan Army is fighting for the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Sandwiched between the two are thousands living in inhuman conditions. As the fighting escalates, so will the casualties. This may be the endgame for the LTTE and its leader V. Prabhakaran, but certainly not for the country’s Tamils. We must not forget that it was not Prabhakaran who created the ethnic conflict but the ethnic conflict that spawned a Prabhakaran. If the Lankan government does not address the root causes of the conflict, the end of the LTTE or its leader would be a short-term victory.

For the LTTE, the defeat would be a self-inflicted injury. After their early successes in 2007, they lost focus and acquired the trappings of a ‘State’ and started believing they had achieved ‘Eelam’ in the North-Eastern Province by setting up their ‘capital’ in Killinochi in their pretence of governance. This was the undoing of a guerrilla force, which thought it had become a conventional State army and tried to fight like one. The saddest part of this tragedy is that Prabhakaran and the LTTE rejected what India proposed in 1988 to ensure Tamil interests, to further their political gains and because the concept of democracy is anathema to Prabhakaran.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations had ensured the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, a giant step in devolution of power to the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces, resulting in their merger as a single North-Eastern Province, which has been the ultimate dream of the traditional Tamil homeland. The North and Eastern Provinces have been de-merged and status and regional provincial autonomy of any kind stands compromised. Twenty years of violent conflict, broken promises and human rights violations by both sides and the deprivations suffered by both Sinhalas and Tamils have left deep wounds and hardened positions.

A military force alone cannot ensure defeat. Simultaneous political, economic and societal initiatives are necessary to end the conflict. The success of the government forces may give the population some respite but, for the Tamils, their political future remains a big question mark depending entirely on President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ability to deliver the political dispensation. But his ability to withstand political opposition from the hard-line Sinhala chauvinists within his party and outside in the Parliament is questionable. It is likely he will go in for a poll to get the requisite numbers before taking the next major political step.

It is critical that both India and Sri Lanka not lose focus. The issue is not about the future of any militant organisation or its leader but about the safety, welfare and legitimate rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils. India is committed to this and not to any militant organisation. The canard that the LTTE represents all the Tamils of Sri Lanka is not true. Sri Lanka has legitimate concerns about its sovereignty and territorial integrity; India for the security environment in its backyard and the sentiments of its own 44 million Tamils. The leaders of both countries have displayed remarkable maturity and restraint, but the time has now come to ‘bell the cat’. Although the immediate requirement is for President Rajapaksa to focus on rehabilitation, he must also push forward the political dialogue. In this political vacuum, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord 1987, passed by both parliaments, can serve as the pilot paper.

Whether it’s a coincidence or political astuteness, it's strange how the crisis in Lanka and the demand of President Premadasa for recall of the IPKF in 1998, have both coincided with general elections in India. The danger is great and the stakes high for anyone to try holding the Indian polity hostage.

A.S. Kalkat is a retired Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army & former chief of the IPKF