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Tigers, Colombo remain locked in lethal dance

Both the separatists and the government must share the blame for Sri Lanka's ongoing troubles, says KT Rajasingham.
The expression ''holding the Tiger by its tail" sums up the true state of affairs in Sri Lanka today.

The government clings to a belligerent ideology of beating the Tamil minority into submission while the intransigent guerrilla opposition strikes back when it can.

The latest government offensive, aimed at flushing out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from the northern Wanni region and establishing a military land supply route from Colombo to the Jaffna peninsula has had catastrophic consequences. In the last week alone, 67 guerrillas and soldiers were killed in fighting, according to the government.

Code named ''Jayasikuru" (Sure Victory), the campaign's targets are the sprawling Tamil Tiger bastions in the districts of Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar in the Wanni region.

The military action, however, succinctly demonstrates the government's belligerence and its goal of beating the Tigers into submission, rather than accepting a political negotiation to settle conclusively the long-running civil war.

The recent troubles in Sri Lanka have their roots in the proclamation of the Republican Constitution in 1972, which led the successive governments to adopt a policy of sectarian appeasement of the majority Sinhalese community.

This Sinhalese nationalism propagated and fermented the emergence of Tamil nationalism, instead of unitary nationhood.

This one country two nations system lacked a firm ideological commitment to forge unity in diversity and instead focused on communal dissension.

Calls for a unitary nationhood and a plural state under a federal ruling arrangement were ignored, and the result has been the present dilapidated situation, where arrests, detentions, extortion, mayhem, murder and a host of other extra-judicial activities, both by the security forces and by the separatist guerillas, have become dark features of life in Sri Lanka.

Moderate Tamil political leaders, however, found themselves edged out forcefully by the separatist organisations, mostly dominated by Tamil youths in their teens after 1972. The separatists' declaration, ''Tamil Eelam," remains simply a slogan, rather than a political philosophy. Tamils bemoan the obstreperous, and obtrusive militant organisations that have emerged under this mesmerising slogan for the complete decadence of their ethos.

The separatist organisations introduced the politics of militancy and bellicosity at a time when Tamils were frustrated, when their Gandhian policies of non-violence had failed to achieve anything politically. The slogan thrilled mainstream Tamils in the beginning, but they acquiesced when the militancy of the youths took a turn for the worse.

Eventually, the LTTE eliminated the other militant organisations in a series of bloody manoeuvres and became the dominant force in the political arena. The LTTE's armed struggle has failed to obtain any political achievements.

India has banned the LTTE as a terrorist organisation after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991, and isolated them. Even Muthuvel Karunanithi, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu a home for 60 million Tamils repudiated any links with the LTTE. Amnesty International, the London based human rights group, too, had earlier criticised the LTTE for its attacks on non-combatant Sinhalese civilians.

In a recent report, the US State Department singled out the LTTE for its atrocious activities but noticeably refrained from calling it an international terrorist organisation. In its report, ''Patterns of Global Terrorism 1996," the State Department said the LTTE had refrained form targeting Western tourists, but said a front group, Eellalan Force, continued to send threatening letters to Western missions and the press.

In a recent development, the LTTE waylaid and captured a commercial vessel belonging to North Korea off the coast of Point Pedro and held 37 North Korean crewmen hostages. Though details were sketchy, the foreign hostage-taking drama of the LTTE warrants severe international condemnation.

While the Clinton administration took a dim view of the LTTE, it also had harsh words for the Colombo government as well in the State Department's ''Sri Lanka Country Report on Human rights Practices for 1996," released in February. The report squarely places the onus on the government to desist from its belligerency and take necessary precautionary measures to put an end to the alleged extra-judicial activities by its security forces.

Feeling the need to boost its international image, the Sri Lankan government responded by deploying information specialists at embassies abroad. The appointees, mostly media personnel from outside the framework of the Sri Lanka foreign service, were designated ''counsellors (information)" and sent initially to Britain, Canada, Sweden, India and Thailand. These professionals are tasked with liaising with opinion makers, communicators and policy planners in the host countries to stem the flow of bad news.

Expatriate Tamil academics regret the death of thousands of Sri Lankans in the see-saw battles between the government and the separatist guerillas. They note that since April 1995, more than 2,000 Sri Lanka security personnel and about 3,000 LTTE cadres have perished on the battle front.

This loss of life is pointless. Both the government and the LTTE should renounce all forms of belligerent activity and work to find a solution to the civil war through political negotiations. A meaningful approach through dialogue without any preconditions is the best political way to find a sustainable peace. These academics have suggested a ''Russian-Chechnya Peace" formula be applied starting with a temporary peace accord and ultimately, finding the necessary parameters that would enable a permanent and sustainable peace.

KT Rajasingham acts as a consultant for developing countries.

The Nation - Thailand - 08/02/97