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LTTE to be neutral!

However, Tamils of the North and the East may be free to choose their leader in the presidential poll, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2005 18:09 IST

Current indications are that the LTTE will remain neutral in the November 17 Sri Lankan Presidential election. But it may allow the Tamils of the North and the East to vote for whosoever they like, or even boycott the election if they so wish.

This decision seems likely despite the importance of the election for the settlement of the long standing Tamil question. The election is expected to reveal the political mood in Sinhala-dominated South Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the Tamil problem, the country's "national" question.

"The information we have is that the LTTE would like to use the election to test the mood in the Sinhala South, without making the Tamil vote a significant factor in the outcome. It'll be like a referendum in the Sinhala South on the ethnic question," said a top aide of one of the principal candidates.

However, Tamilselvan has made it clear through press interviews that the LTTE will not stop the Tamils from voting. "They can vote freely," he told Sudar Oli and Thinakkural dailies last week.

Perhaps the LTTE is aware that a call for boycott may be construed as being politically incorrect by the international community, which is currently testing the democratic credentials of this organisation.

Reasons for neutrality

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has taken the initiative to make the ethnic question the key issue. To the Tamil and Sinhala voter, he is clearly fighting to uphold Sinhala Buddhist interests vis-à-vis the Tamil demand for autonomy/separation. This has forced his principal rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP), to back out of his earlier pro-Tamil stand, and play the Sinhala Buddhist card instead, albeit in a less strident way.

According to Tamilselvan, both the principal candidates are bending over backwards to pander to the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian sentiment. Neither has any plan to address the long standing demands of the Tamil minority and resolve the national question. Neither the UNP nor the SLFP has any thing worthwhile to offer to the Tamils as far as their political demands are concerned.

The SLFP's candidate is committed to finding a solution within a 'unitary' constitution, thanks to his alliance with the Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). And the UNP's candidate is afraid of saying that he is for a 'federal' constitution, which is the least, the LTTE and the Tamils expect from the Sri Lankan Establishment.

Indeed, Rajapaksa has said that he will start direct talks with the LTTE leader Prabhakaran, as soon as he becomes President. But the LTTE finds the idea laughable, as Rajapaksa may just be wanting an open ended discussion without any sense of direction.

As for Wickremesinghe, his manifesto says that a solution will be found on the basis of the Oslo and Tokyo Declarations, but he deliberately avoids mentioning that these had called for a "federal"
solution. In his manifesto, the accent is on finding a political consensus between the UNP and SLFP on the ethnic issue and then finding a solution "within a united Sri Lanka" without giving in to "separatism".

The process chalked out by Wickremesinghe is going to be a long and contentious one given the confrontationist politics of Sri Lanka. The LTTE's patience is going to wear thin.

The LTTE is aware that it was Wickremesinghe who had brought in the international community into the conflict. It feels that the international community, headed by the US, is a millstone around its neck. The UNP leader makes no secret of the fact that he had brought in the international community to put pressure on the LTTE to stop assassinations and other violent acts. He had cleverly used the post-9/11 sentiment in the US and the West to sew up an "International Safety Net" for Sri Lanka.

The LTTE views with deep suspicion Wickremesinghe's attempts to get India on board as a Co-Chair of the international effort to aid the peace process. The LTTE fears that India might be coaxed or enticed into sending the army again. A two and a half year war had to be fought between 1987 and 1990, to get the Indian army out.

Only recently, the LTTE got a taste of the "International Safety Net" when the European Union (EU) clamped a ban on member states receiving delegations of the LTTE "until further notice". The EU was reacting to the assassination of the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgarmar, allegedly by the LTTE, and the continued recruitment of children to its combat units.

The most alarming thing about the EU statement was the threat that if the LTTE did not reform, it could be banned by the EU. An EU ban will be quite terrible for the LTTE because hundreds of thousands of Tamils are in the EU countries, supporting the LTTE materially, politically and morally. In the case of an international organisation like the LTTE, international pressure can have a telling effect.

The LTTE has sought a review of the EU travel ban saying that such a step will only strengthen the hands of the Sinhala extremists who will now be even more determined not to yield to the just demands of the Tamils. The other plea is that the travel ban will prevent the LTTE from interacting with the international community whose help is needed to solve the Tamil question. But the EU is in no mood to relent, though later in October, it is sending a team to Sri Lanka to study the situation first hand.

In this context, the LTTE must be regretting that it signed the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the MOU with the Wickremesinghe government in 2002. It may also be wondering what Wickremesinghe will do if he came back to power as the powerful Executive President of Sri Lanka. Will he not make the "International Safety Net" stronger and more effective? If he did, it would be bad for the LTTE.

Wickremesinghe's current lurch towards the Sinhala Buddhist constituency has made the line differentiating him from Rajapaksa quite thin.

"Under these circumstances it does not matter who becomes President, whether it is Rama or Ravana," said a Tamil from Jaffna, agreeing with Tamilselvan.

Ranil not all black

However, Wickremesinghe is not all black, even from the LTTE's limited point of view. The LTTE knows that the CFA and MOU signed in February 2002 helped it escape from the consequences of 9/11. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US and the world led by it, could have taken an uncompromising stand against it and sided fully with the Sri Lankan State.

The CFA and MOU helped the LTTE gain political access to areas in the North East and other parts of Sri Lanka to which it did not have legitimate access earlier. LTTE delegations travelled across Europe and presented the organisation's and the Tamils' case to key officials in these countries. The LTTE secured a good image abroad, unlike other terrorist groups in the world.

The peace process also prevented the Sri Lankan government from supporting the LTTE dissident Col Karuna in the crucial early days of the latter's revolt in March-April 2004. Subsequently, the government under Kumaratunga and Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa did help Karuna, but only clandestinely. If Wickremesinghe comes to power, it is likely that the government will stop encouraging Karuna.

Wickremesinghe tended to yield in a lot matters, though he was unyielding on core issues. During his stewardship of the government, he had been very tolerant of the LTTE's provocations and transgressions, though he never gave in on essentials like the continuance of the High Security Zones. His policy was to coax and entice the LTTE into participating in the institutions of the Sri Lankan state and the international community, and abjuring armed rebellion as a consequence.

Wickremesinghe allowed unarmed LTTE cadres to enter the cleared areas and do political work, without insisting that the LTTE, in turn, allow rival Tamil groups to do political work in areas controlled by it. He did not bar the LTTE from collecting taxes and customs duties and running its own courts, police and armed forces. "All this is alright so long as they don't shoot," Wickremesinghe once said.

Since Wickremesinghe's decision was based on the ground reality in the North East, even the successor government of Rajapaksa continued his policies in these matters.

The greatest advantage accruing to the LTTE from the peace process has been that it has transformed itself from being a rebel group confined to small areas in the North and the East, into a force with sway over the entire North East. It is able to hold huge rallies called Pongu Tamil or "Tamil Awakening rallies", commandeer everybody and everything for these rallies, and even get the top most local Tamil government officials to participate in them and endorse resolutions calling for the recognition of the Tamils' right to "self determination."

The LTTE has also got through the peace process initiated by the Wickremesinghe government, access to international development aid to do social and economic welfare projects. As a de facto ruler in some parts of the country, it has acquired the responsibility to attend to the civic, social and economic needs of the people living there. The LTTE knows that it cannot always be a military organization, forever asking the people it controls to forego development and stability in favour of a struggle for liberation.

But the LTTE wants to do development work without losing its ardour for the cause of Tamils' liberation. This is why it did not go to the Tokyo Donors Conference in June 2003 where it knew that parameters for a final solution would be prescribed. In this context, the LTTE has been viewing Japan's "cheque book diplomacy" with deep suspicion.

The LTTE, therefore, views Wickremesinghe both favourably and unfavourably. He can be useful, though extreme caution is called for.

LTTE's view of Rajapaksa

The LTTE's view of Rajapaksa, on the other hand, is relatively uncomplicated. To the LTTE he is a quintessential Sinhala chauvinist, who will not give an inch to the Tamils. While Rajapaksa himself is neither a war monger nor an extremist, nor even a man of action, his allies, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) are very radical. Under the influence of these two organisations, he might take a tough line on the LTTE's political demands and react strongly to any transgressions of the CFA and MOU. He also might maintain or step up the alleged clandestine state support given to the dissident LTTE leader, Karuna.

However, to the LTTE, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it helps it justify a return to war, and terrorist strikes - techniques it is very good at. Rajapaksa's policies may help it justify the armed liberation struggle to the international community, which also has not been happy with successive Sri Lankan governments' for their lack of commitment to solving the Tamil question through reasonable devolution proposals.

Tamils want to vote Ranil

Ideally, the LTTE would like to be neutral as between Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa. But it is also aware that the Tamil people may like to vote in an election in which their issue is the principal issue, and that most of them are praying for Wickremesinghe's victory. They want peace, a government which will accommodate the LTTE, and which will not criticise the international community. For the common man in this region, these are the ingredients of a sound peace process

Most Tamils also have a history of supporting the UNP and most see Ranil Wickremesinghe as being pro-minority, pro-Tamil and more accommodative towards the LTTE.

Since Rajapaksa has aligned himself with the radical Sinhala nationalist parties like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), it is very unlikely that the Tamils of the North East will vote for the SLFP candidate. If he had not aligned with these parties, they might have voted for him, as he would have been seen as a new candidate with no past of handling the Tamil question. But the alliance has cost him valuable Tamil support.

Therefore, if forced to make a choice between the Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe, the LTTE may support the latter.

Consequences of boycott

If the LTTE decides not to canvass or facilitate the election process in areas under its direct control, a substantial number of Tamils may not be able to vote at all. This is because the voters in the LTTE-controlled areas will have to be transported to polling booths in the cleared or government controlled areas. The absence of transport and other facilities will deprive Wickremesinghe of a large number of valuable votes in a contest, which is expected to be neck to neck.

However, sources say that some talks are on to get the Tamil National Alliance to support the UNP, even if only informally. But the LTTE, which decides for the TNA, is unlikely to make up its mind soon. It is expected to keep the UNP on tenterhooks till the last minute. If it finally decides to ask the TNA to back the UNP, it will be a shot in the arm for Wickremesinghe, who will then get hundreds of thousands of votes, which will be denied to Rajapaksa. In a close contest, which the November 17 election is likely to be, these votes may help carry Wickremesinghe to the Sri Lankan Presidency.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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First Published: Oct 10, 2005 00:00 IST