Wednesday, August 16, 2006

LTTE Crises

For many and for some, the revival of the conflict in Sri Lanaka harks a sad but unsurprising moment for those familiar with ideas of how nation-states are formed. For others who have travelled to Sri Lanka, the names of towns like Trincomalee, Jaffna and Kilinochi must resonate somewhat all too familiar.

In the period after the 2002 Norweigian-brokered ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lanaka government and the LTTE rebels, I travelled to Sri Lanka. Motivated by stories of unspoilt beachs and Kandyan kings, and a school-boy curiosity in seeing the effects of a country plagued by civil war, the 'pearl of the Indian Ocean' was undeniably in gestation.

During a bus journey to the histroical town of Polonnarumwa, and in-between qeustions of whether I was was a journalist (apparently being one gets you everywhere), I was asked by a school teacher if there would be peace in Sri Lanka. He begged to differ with my answer and said with a smile, "Do you believe me, the LTTE are preparing for another war". One would have thought that the interim ceasefire in 2002 could have provided political space for Sri Lanka to negotiate the incommensurability of the Sinhalese and Tamil national projects. With the recent revival of Sri Lanka's war, I was sadly reminded of what the school teacher said. It seemed that the only space opened up was a military one to re-arm, re-supply, and re-consolidate.

One reason why the Sri Lankan conflict has dragged on for so long is that ethnic nationalism has become so embedded in the political thinking of the Sinhalese-majority and the Tamil-minority that their claims to statehood and nation-building cannot move beyond categories of ethnicity. To some extent, racialisation of politics in Sri Lanka was an inheritance of the governing institutions and mechanisms laid down by her British colonial masters since the mid-1700s. The British, and not the Dutch, were afterall the last arbitars of Sri Lanka's colonial heritage. In their efforts to devolve governance, the British were also mindful of the necessity to protect the interests of the minority Tamils for fear of violence in her colonies. India, at that time, was also undergoing her own transformation led by Ghandi. Many commentators have observed that, not surprisingly, these conditions further reinforced whatever perceived notions the Sinhalese had of the Tamils as the "favoured group of the colonial masters".

As a consequence, ethnicity became and has become the only framework in the process of Sri Lankan nation-building. And in this framework, all other factors crucial to nation-building had to fit in. One such factor is how nation-building processes demarcate boundaries within and between its people. How should the line be drawn for Tamils living in Sinhalese regions and vice versa? When the pieces don't fit, the nation-building process becomes increasingly convoluted for both the Sinhalese and the Tamil national projects. In Mar 2004, led by Colonel Karuna, commander of the LTTE's Eastern province, the LTTE factionalised in front of the world. Why? According to Colonel Karuna, the LTTE cadres living in the East had been neglected, and significantly, there were no LTTE cadres from the East who could count among the ranks of the main LTTE leadership. Colonel Karuna evidently believed that the main LTTE Tamil leadership was neglecting the LTTE Tamils in the East. How should the line be dranw for Tamils living in the East and Tamils living in the North? According to media reports in Jul 2006, Colonel Karuna has formed his own group called the "Tamil Freedom Panthers" and he is very much a part of the current conflict.

In her book "On Violence", political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1969) observed that power and violence were two qualitatively distinct entities. She pointed out that it was not violence, but power that formed the essence of governments. Violence can destroy the old power, she said, but it can never create the authority to legitimate the new. In a sense, the LTTE movement is not so much a violence to legitimate the new, as it is a violence to 'restore' Tamil rights and institutions, something not so new. The very same rights and institutions which were there from the time of the British, and also the very same rights and institutions which were contested and fought over with the Sinhalese since the time of the Indian epic the Ramayana, which tells the story of the conquest of Lanka in 3000BC by Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Let us hope that the Sri Lankan government's willingness to resume peace negotiations resume hold of the tiger's gaze.

Straits Times Interactive - Asia

Aug 14, 2006 Mon


COLOMBO - SRI Lanka's northern Jaffna peninsula has been cut off from the rest of the island as hundreds of residents try to flee heavy fighting in the area, military officials have said.

A senior Tamil Tiger rebel official denied government claims that the rebels had offered to renew peace talks, saying negotiations were impossible amid increased military attacks and the most intense fighting in four years.

Fighting that started on Friday and continued over the weekend has cut off the main road connecting government-held regions of the peninsula with the mainland.

The Defence Ministry said 36 troops and 150 Tamil rebels have been killed in the fighting on the peninsula and near Jaffna city, which the rebels controlled as their capital from 1990 to 1995.

The main airfield of Palaly has also been shut down, with private airlines ordered to halt flights there after the area took several artillery hits on Friday.

'There is a daytime curfew in Jaffna in addition to the night curfew in the high-security zones,'' a military official said. 'But we have reports of civilians moving out of their homes and taking shelter in public buildings.''

The bulk of supplies and troops to Jaffna are sent by sea from the north-east port of Trincomalee, which also came under artillery attacks.

'The army pulled back from some of the defensive positions because of heavy artillery attacks,'' a military source said. 'Troops are now in the process of re-establishing the bunkers they lost on Friday.'

The pro-rebel website said the guerillas had breached military defences in the Muhamalai area at the southern entrance to the government-held area of Jaffna.

The Tigers said they launched the latest attacks in defence against a government military onslaught. The Defence Ministry, however, denied the charge and blamed the rebels for initiating the latest fighting.

The upsurge in violence came amid reports of an offer of talks by Tamil Tiger rebels. The government said it received a message from the Tigers through ceasefire monitors on Friday, hours before fighting erupted on the Jaffna peninsula.

But Seevarathnam Puleedevan, a senior rebel official has denied making any peace overtures. He demanded the government stop their military offensives to allow some 50,000 displaced people to return home before considering a return to peace talks.

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