Heed the lesson from Sri Lanka

Rediff.Com, India
November 10, 2003

By Swapan Dasgupta

Most civilised countries recoil in absolute horror at the mention of a coup and Indians go into a double tizzy whenever the term Emergency is bandied. Coup is something we associate with inadequate societies like Pakistan, and Emergency revives memories of a popular leader who turned desperado and did the unthinkable.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga did both herself and her country a disservice by attempting a very constitutional coup against Prime Minister Ranil Wickramsinghe and declaring, what turned out to be, a very gentle and short-lived Emergency.

It was the timing that did her in. It is just not cricket to suspend Parliament, sack a handful of ministers and bring the stodgy state-owned media under her direct control when the prime minister is in Washington for a meeting with God Almighty.

The whole action smacked a bit too much like what happens in a banana republic and Sri Lanka is too decent a place to deserve such a monstrous tag. Let us never forget that democracy has never faltered in the island since 1948, although there have been occasions when it came perilously close to being subverted.

Chandrika's "half-coup", as The Island dubbed it, predictably, turned out to be a monumental misadventure. Yet, the collective loss of face in Colombo is about the least of Sri Lanka's problems. What is shameful is that a disoriented country had to be subjected to a cacophony of gratuitous messages from Washington, London, Brussels and New Delhi about the need to preserve the peace process with the Tamil rebels.

So compelling was the chorus of concern at the internal mess in Colombo that it enabled the LTTE to strike a superior note. "We are fighting for our people's rights but Sri Lankan politicians are tussling for personal gains, exhibiting their sheer greed for power", said a smug LTTE military commander.

In the quest for simple solutions to complex issues, the "peace process" has become the template global mantra for Sri Lanka, just as "dialogue" has become the standard international response to every terrorist outrage in Kashmir.

India has the size, the economic depth and the military resilience to withstand some of the pressure some of the time. Sri Lanka, tragically, has no such internal cushioning. Anxious to buy some peace after a civil war that has raged for 15 years and killed some 65,000 people, it settled for international mediation by Norway, a country that has no stake in the region but which has made a national philosophy out of sanctimoniousness.

The Norwegians enjoyed the full backing of the US, the European Union and Japan. After an initial bout of hesitation, India too gave its stamp of approval, apparently after some pressure from Washington.

The record of this peace process is worth examining, not least because it is felt by many to offer a model for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

On the positive side, the entire island has experienced a two-year respite from the devastations of war. Colombo, Bentota and Galle have once again become appealing tourist destinations where you can blend sun, sand and cheap Lacoste T-shirts. A private airline even operates daily flights to Jaffna and there are said to be tourists in Trincomalee.

At the same time, it has led to the virtual partition of the country, with the area north of Vavuniya under total LTTE control and a cat-and-mouse game between the government forces and the Tigers for hegemony in the Eastern province. The LTTE runs it own border checks, imposes customs duty on goods entering its area and even operates its own police and judicial system. There are no Sri Lankan flags in evidence and had it not been for the fact that the currency notes issued from Colombo are valid, there is nothing to suggest that the LTTE-held areas are part of Sri Lanka. Needless to say, the Sinhalese minority was driven out of the North more than a decade and the Muslims in the Eastern province are threatened.

Now it wants to legitimise this separation through an interim arrangement that will also give the LTTE the right to raise foreign loans and control the coastline from Jaffna to Trincomalee. In fact, create a de-facto Eelam which can be declared fully independent in due course.

If the LTTE plan looks like succeeding, it is not merely because Ranil's government is pursuing a policy of craven appeasement. The willingness to oblige the LTTE at any cost is being fostered by the Norwegian mediators who insist on treating both the legitimate authority and the rebels on par. Colombo wants to discuss regional autonomy but the LTTE is steering the talks into the realms of sovereignty. And an international community that looks upon Sri Lanka as just another exotic island is busy looking the other way and facilitating the partition of a nation and the victory of terrorism.

War is a terrible thing and no one would wish Sri Lanka another dose of human suffering. However, what has been taking place under the cover of the "peace process" is the complete vivisection of a nation. In her own inept way, Chandrika was trying to mobilise opinion in her country against this outrage.

She failed miserably, not least because the international community came down hard on her. But her failure also signalled the death knell of a united Sri Lanka. An Eelam run by the most ruthless, bloodthirsty and intolerant band of terrorists is now more or less a reality. Thanks to some Scandinavian bleeding-hearts and some American strategists who are unable to distinguish between good and evil, India may soon be faced with a new hostile force along its southern coastline.

Will we also look the other way and permit the poison to enter Tamil Nadu, like we did in the Eighties?

There is a lesson from Sri Lanka for those who believe that New Delhi should be talking to the separatists in Kashmir without preconditions and using the services of a third country.


Copyright © 2003 rediff.com India Limited.


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