Sri Lanka: Piecing together a Peace Deal

-- Sundaram

After a series of false starts throughout the nineties Sri Lanka at last seems to have got a real peace process going between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In the nine months since the election of the Ranil Wikramasinghe led United National Party (UNP) government things on the peace front have moved at breathtaking pace. Along with a complete cessation of hostilities between government troops and the LTTE, the country’s formerly embattled north and north-east have been opened up to over 70,000 returning refugees, civil institutions restored and most importantly the four-year old ban on the LTTE – considered a terrorist organisation till recently – lifted completely.

It was the last act of de-proscribing the LTTE by the new Sri Lankan government that paved the way finally for formal talks with the Tigers in mid-September at a location in Thailand. Though the agenda of the talks were supposed to be confined to ‘softer’ issues such as rehabilitation, reconstruction, exchange of prisoners, etc., the most contentious issue of ‘independence for the Tamil people’ cropped up inevitably.

And in a completely unpredictable change of policy the LTTE chief negotiation Anton Balasingham surprised everyone by stating categorically that the Tigers were willing to settle for ‘regional autonomy’ and give up the demand for separation from the Sri Lankan state.

“Homeland doesn’t mean a separate state as such. It refers to a territory where the Tamil-speaking people live,” the LTTE ideologue said. During two press conferences held during the day, Balasingham articulated that the LTTE concept of a homeland and of self-determination was that defined within the constructs of the Sri Lankan state, in consistency with current United Nations thinking, rather than that of a separate state.

He clarified that the LTTE did not, moreover, seek to use a provisional administration as the stepping-stone to the establishment of a separate state of Eelam.

“There was a misconception in Colombo that the LTTE was only interested in the interim administration and then (planned) to run away from the peace process”, he said. According to Balasingham, a final settlement to the ethnic conflict had to be “amicable to our people and Sinhalese and Muslims living in the North and East.” The LTTE’s vision of homeland was a place where “Tamils and Muslims live”, he maintained.

On their part, at the peace talks, the Sri Lankan government representatives – called repeatedly for the need “in all humility, to learn from the mistakes of the past, not to impute blame but simply to avoid their repetition and perpetuation.” While insisting on maintaining the unitary framework of the current Sri Lankan state they said, “We stand unwaveringly for the amplest degree of devolution and for the establishment and strengthening of institutions designed to achieve this purpose.”

Purely from the standpoint of the average Sri Lankan citizen, tired of war and conflict, the willingness of both sides to compromise on long-held positions augurs well for the prospects of a lasting peace. Just in the past nine months in the run up to the peace talks in Thailand, Sri Lankans have witnessed dramatic improvements in their quality of life – which went from being one of the best in South Asia to one of the worst – due to two decades of civil war.

The obvious question that comes to many minds however is why it took so many years, so many lives and so much suffering for the two sides to compromise, i.e., for the LTTE to water down its fight for an independent nation and for the Colombo political class to accept regional autonomy for the Tamils?

One important factor certainly has been fatigue – with the conflict becoming unsustainable for both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. But going beyond Sri Lankan shores the two sides also have to contend with the fact that in the post- September 11 world order increasingly shaped by a belligerent US government- all nations big or small and even ‘would-be nations’ like Eelam have to subordinate themselves to the priorities of Uncle Sam.

The LTTE, proscribed in the United Kingdom and under greater scrutiny in the US after September 11, has found it more and more difficult to operate internationally, to collect funds or procure arms.

The message going out is that organisations like the LTTE with their demands for national self-determination will not be tolerated any longer because the fact is that dividing Sri Lanka into two countries has no meaning when US imperialism plans to swallow the entire island – Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslims, the whole lot. It has been long the policy of all empires that they never allow their vassals to fight among themselves – violence is the prerogative of the masters and not meant for slaves. (There are reports that indicate the US is interested in using oil storage and naval docking facilities in coastal Sri Lanka as part of its so called War on Terror.)

For the Sinhala politicians, who not so long ago would have found it impossible to negotiate with the LTTE on any issue, the reasons for compromising on the issue of granting greater autonomy to the Tamil speaking regions in Sri Lanka has been the combined pressure from both their domestic business elite – unhappy over the economic costs of the war- and also the international cabal of donors, multilateral lending institutions and western governments who see their investments in the country as a loss-making proposition in the absence of peace.

There is of course even now opposition to the peace deal from predictable quarters such as sections of the Buddhist Sangha and political parties such as President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s People’s Alliance (PA) and the so called ‘Marxist’ (but in fact rabidly nationalist) Janata Vimukti Perumana (JVP) but it is nowhere as serious as it used to be when peace deals were talked about in the past. In both the national elections in December last year and during local body elections earlier this year the Sinhalese voters have overwhelmingly supported the UNP’s platform of peace while rejecting both the PA and JVP’s strident nationalism. (Ironically Chandrika and her PA were swept into power in 1994 on a similar promise of peace with the LTTE but obviously all the factors were not in place for the peace talks to be a success then)

To get an idea of the gravity of the economic situation in Sri Lanka one just has to look at recent government figures on external debt and growth rate indicators. Just to service the annual debt, Sri Lanka needs US $ 3.27 billion, but its total annual income is just US $ 2.78 billion. Total government debt stands at US $ 14.51 billion. And the recently released annual report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka for the year 2002 says there was a 3.7 percent decline in the country’s growth rate last year. Per capita GDP fell by 6.89 percent, from US $ 899 in 2000 to US $ 837 in 2001, indicating a drastic decline in living conditions for the majority of the population.

In many ways for the Sri Lankan elites the only way to get out of this economic mess is to cease hostilities with the LTTE and pave the way for more IMF-style neo-liberal economic policies. The plan in simple terms is to invite foreign capital in a big way, offer them a vast pool of cheap labour – and use the accruing income to pay off debts.

Which brings us to some curious comments made by the LTTE ideologue during the recent peace talks in Thailand. Apparently showing how the LTTE was keen to have a partnership with the government Anton Balasingham is quoted as saying: “The leaders of the Sri Lankan government have expressed a desire to transform the island into a successful Tiger economy. We appreciate their aspiration. Such an aspiration can best be realised by embracing the Tamil Tigers as their equal partners in the task of economic reconstruction of the country.”

Though it may seem natural for the Tigers to endorse the concept of the ‘Tiger economy’ they will do well to study the experience of east and south-east Asia where the so called Tiger economies collapsed in 1997 as part of the Asian economic crisis. Highly dependent on influx of speculative foreign capital and the exploitation of cheap domestic labour the ‘Tiger economy’ model is certainly the last thing that a devastated Sri Lanka needs right now.

In fact any casual glance through the modern history of Sri Lanka will show that the country’s two decade long civil war was largely a product of attempts by the Sinhalese elites to implement foreign-capital friendly policies and suppressing all class-based movements in both the city and the countryside. By whipping up majority linguistic chauvinism and scapegoating the Tamil population Sri Lankan politicians since the 1950s have tried to distract popular attention away from the deep socio-economic inequalities that characterise their society.

While the LTTE, for all its other faults, can be credited for standing up against the chauvinism of domestic elites it does not seem to have much clue while dealing with the onslaught of global neo-liberal capitalism. If the LTTE helps replicate the discredited ‘Tiger’ economy model based on exploitation of cheap labour, loss of economic sovereignty and extreme financial instability in its autonomous Tamil ‘homeland’ it will simply go down the same road as other bourgeois nationalist movements that have replaced one exploitative elite with the other.