In his annual address marking Heroes' Day in late November LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran spoke of the need to solve the Sri Lankan conflict in a civilised manner. His statement assumes great significance coming as it did only a week after President Chandrika Kumaratunga had told leaders of the Tamil parliamentary parties that she was willing to negotiate with the LTTE.

Prabhakaran and Kumaratunga need to be commended, and supported, if their willingness to talk peace is genuine. But, unfortunately, neither peace offer can be viewed in isolation from the two leaders' strategies to promote their own interests. The LTTE and the government have a multiplicity of means through which they seek to achieve their own goals, offers to talk are one and military operations are another.

The international media gave considerable play to Prabakaran's peace offer. And this should not be grudged, for it is certainly preferable that the LTTE should pile pressure on the Sri Lankan government through political means (words) rather than through its more accustomed military means (bombs). This change in tactics may herald the beginning of a real search for a lasting solution to the country's ethnic conflict.

But, to be realistic, a peaceful solution is still a while away. The government continues with its ban on the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, and has not let up in its efforts to have it outlawed internationally as well. It has denied legitimacy to the LTTE. Perhaps the time has come for the LTTE to consider setting up a fullfledged political organisation, on the lines of the IRA-Sinn Fein arrangement, if peace through political negotiations is to be a reality.

On the other hand, it does not help that the LTTE continues to demonstrate the least concern for other peoples living in the island. Any community that seeks justice cannot do so on the basis of totally ignoring the rights of others. Nor does it help that the Tigers also insist on a black-and-white portrayal of the conflict. In his speech Prabhakaran said, "So far not a single voice of rationality has been heard from the Sinhala nation against the war.

None so far has made a plea to put an end to the war and resolve the problem by peaceful means. From politicians to monks, from intellectuals to journalists, everyone calls for an intensification of the war. The Sinhala nation wants to continue the war to subjugate the Tamil nation."

Assertions of this kind demonise the Sinhalese people in the eyes of Tamils, especially those of the younger generation cocooned in the northeast and who do not know better. From the very beginning of the conflict in 1983, there have been many among the Sinhalese who have opposed the war and have stood for genuine power-sharing with the Tamils in the form of regional autonomy or federalism. They were not strong or numerous enough to stand up and halt the juggernaut of war. But in recent times the voice for peace in Sinhalese civil society has grown louder. In the past two months, not only the country's business leaders, but also an Alliance for Peace of more than 100 organisations are campaigning to end the war. Evidence of the changing consciousness of the Sinhalese also emerged from the results of a public opinion survey carried out by the University of Colombo in which as many as 77 percent of the near-total-Sinhalese respondent group said that war could not bring about a solution to the ethnic conflict (see Himal October 1998). The task of the peace movement is to take more and more Sinhalese in the direction of accepting the basis of a political framework that could satisfy the Tamil people.

Without the backing of a large section of public opinion, however, the government cannot be expected to deliver to Tamils a genuinely federal framework that would do away with the rationale for the war. A parallel can be found in the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians only after hundreds of thousands of Israelis were prepared to come out in the streets in support of the principle of "land for peace" did the government get the courage to reach a new level of agreement with the PLO. It is evident that a great deal of work needs to be done on both sides if peace talks between the LTTE and government are to yield a political settlement.

In the meantime, the government could take up Prabhakaran's proposal for talks with foreign mediation. There is a pressing need to humanise the take-no-prisoner war in which the the ratio of those killed to those injured is about one to two compared to the usual one to nine.

The government could also take steps to lift the economic embargo on Jaffna, especially on kitchen fuels and fertiliser. Even government soldiers at the front have been saying that this blockade affects the civilian population much more than it does the LTTE. The Tamil Tigers get all they want from the government forces themselves, by overrunning army camps or by bribing soldiers, when they are not smuggling supplies from India.

For its part, the LTTE could agree not to launch specific and targeted attacks against civilian establishments. The suicide bombings of civilian targets have strengthened its terrorist image and made it easier for the government to delegitimise the ltte in the eyes of the world. These actions not only make it difficult for ordinary Tamil civilians to defend the LTTE as an organisation fighting for the rights of Tamils in the country, but also make it difficult for the Sinhalese engaged in peace work.

The return to peace and normalcy will be a step-by-step process, not a once and for all event.

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Himal Southasian