A chorus of international voices have in the past few days
decried the heightened violence gripping Sri Lanka’s Northeast. Calls for
restraint and new talks on stabilising the
fraying February 2002 ceasefire have come from key states and the
international monitors overseeing the truce, amongst others. Nevertheless,
the violence is continuing. There have been numerous attacks on Sri Lankan
security forces and the Liberation Tigers.
against civilians, tacitly encouraged by the government in Colombo, have
also escalated. Dozens of people have disappeared after being taken into
estimated four thousand families have fled Jaffna for the LTTE-held Vanni.
Thousands of people in Trincomalee have also moved – or are being blocked by
the military from moving – into LTTE-controlled parts of the district. It is
amid this climate of fear and despair that
Norwegian Special Envoy Erik
Solheim will return to Sri Lanka next week in yet another attempt to
broker talks on the ceasefire. It remains to be seen whether Sri Lanka will
agree to hold talks in Oslo or continue to prioritise its insistence that
LTTE officials be excluded from Europe over stopping the slide to war.
The Tamil community,
now under widespread and sustained harassment by the security forces, is
as anxious for peace as any of the observers. But by peace we mean a genuine
return to normalcy – not just the doldrums that the peace process was
drifting in a few short weeks ago. In other words, we want the long overdue
implementation of the normalcy clauses of the February 2002 ceasefire: the
disarming of the Army-backed paramilitaries, the withdrawal of Sri Lankan
security forces from our homes, schools, places of worship and other public
places, the lifting of the restrictions on fishing and farming, and so on.
This is not some radical new concept – the Tamil community has been asked
for this repeatedly for four years now, to no avail.
Amid the international community’s expressions of concern and disapproval,
one stands out in the Tamil perspective:
that of US Ambassador to Sri
Lanka, Mr. Jeffrey Lunstead. Speaking to the American Chamber of
Commerce in Sri Lanka last week, Mr. Lunstead lambasted the LTTE. Amid what
is a spiral of violence and counter violence, he singled out the LTTE for
blame. As thousands of Tamils fled military reprisals he congratulated the
Colombo government ‘for its restraint.’ Holding the LTTE responsible for the
wider failures of the peace process, Mr. Lunstead even blamed it for the
lack of ‘investment and industry’ in the Northeast. We wonder whether the US
has - even once in the past four years - encouraged the members of Mr.
Lunstead’s audience in the American Chamber of Commerce to invest in the
Tamil territories.We do know, however, that in all that time, the LTTE has
been striving to mobilise the Tamil Diaspora to this end. We do not recall
Mr. Lunstead protesting last year when the PTOMS joint mechanism for sharing
international aid with the Tamil areas was abrogated by the Colombo
government – though we do recall the US refusing to put funds through it
when it was finally signed.
The Tigers must, Mr. Lunstead said, repeating a standard US maxim, ‘renounce
terrorism in word and deed.’ Then, he suggested, probably less reassuringly
than he intended, there ‘might be’ a role for the LTTE - in Sri Lanka’s
development. But curiously enough, his government’s attitude towards the
Colombo government does not seem contingent on its behaviour. There has
been, for example, no mention of human rights of late - even when
‘disappearances’ and assaults of civilians are reported from the North. Or
when five students were summarily executed in Trincomalee. Or when almost a
thousand Tamils were arrested enmasse in Colombo. Most importantly, amid
widely expressed fears of a renewed war, Mr. Lunstead last week assured the
Sinhala nationalist government of his government’s military support in the
event of war.
The Tamils have repeatedly argued that international support for Sri Lanka’s
military emboldens the Sinhala nationalists and buttresses Colombo’s
intransigence in the peace process. Little wonder then that the JVP and JHU
are this week again urging a military solution to the Tamil question.
The United States is one of the four Co-Chairs overseeing
the peace process. Mr. Lunstead’s comments have thus not only damaged the
Co-Chairs credibility as even-handed advocates of a solution amongst Sri
Lanka’s communities, but changed the dynamic between the two protagonists at
a crucial and sensitive time. As many amongst us are pointing out, the
Tamils are receiving a lesson in realpolitik: interests matter more rather
values. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Solheim’s visit will end Sri
Lanka’s slide towards the abyss. But in the meantime, the Tamils must brace
for difficult times ahead. Ambassador Lunstead has said the US ‘wants the
cost of war to be high’ and, as the unreconstructed devastation across our
homeland testifies, Sri Lanka will, with US support, ensure that.