by Dayan Jayatilleka
Testimony by former senior officials at the Lessons Learnt panel has provided useful insights into what went wrong with policy perceptions, process and prescriptions during the CFA
Meanwhile the grapevine has it that the Royal Norwegian Government has called for tenders for academics and think tanks which can participate in its own ‘lessons learnt’ inquiry into what went wrong with its own efforts at a ‘peace process’ in Sri Lanka.
All this is necessary and useful. However, after thirty years of war, the crucial question remains, could any of the lessons now being learnt, actually have been predicted? Could any of this have been foreseen and avoided? Were there more accurate perceptions, assessments and analyses? Were other courses of action recommended?
Every Sri Lankan and Lankan-watching intellectual, policy commentator/analyst, ex-DPL ‘elder’, academic and Colombo-based diplomat should subject themselves to this test: what did they say at the time? How far wrong were they and why? Where and why did they get it wrong and how could that have happened?
The flip side of the coin also needs examination. Is it true that only a virulent strand of Sinhala nationalism got it right, or got it right first and got it mostly right? Is it correct that all contending strands of modernist-universalist provenance be they liberal, Marxist, or left-liberal, clung to the view that a military victory was impossible? Was this due to an intrinsic superiority of the ‘nativist’ or more politely, ‘indigenist’ perspective as distinct from a rational-modernist-universalist (‘Western/Westernised’) world view?
I shall reproduce extracts from two texts, the longer one from 1990, almost exactly twenty years ago, and the much shorter from 1993, and leave the reading public to exercise judgement and answer these questions.
The brief text is almost 18 years old, dates from the beginning of 1993, and is a gruelling five-page interview, almost an ideological interrogation, conducted by one of the best Tamil ultranationalist minds, DP Sivaram (alias ‘Taraki’). It appeared in The Northeastern Herald’s issue of January-February 1993, Volume 1, No 6, pp8-12. Readers will recall that the N.E. Herald is the publication that journalist and ex-detainee Tissainayagam was editing at the time of his arrest, having succeeded Sivaram in that post.
Particular attention is drawn to the question and answer about the possibility of a military victory over the LTTE. (The bold type is mine).
“Q. Which means it is possible for the Army in its current form to defeat the LTTE and restore the primacy of the democratic forces in Sri Lanka?
A. I think so. Of course, it will require enormous improvement in command and control, in strategy and tactics, in weapons systems and so on. But it can be done. It should and must be done.”
The interview was run by Sivaram with the caption ‘President Premadasa Should Be Little More of a Warmonger’ and is an abbreviation of the concluding remark by the interviewee: “Personally I would prefer President Premadasa to be a little more of a war-monger towards the LTTE than he has been so far!”
The 1990 text, i.e. dating from twenty years ago, deals with the question of understanding the Tigers and fashioning a strategy for negotiations. As is evident, the actual and potential disasters of the CFA and PTOMS respectively were clearly foreseeable and could have been designed in such a manner as to avoid disaster. The question is why did this not happen?
The 1990 text from which I share extracts was presented, with minor modifications, to two audiences, foreign and local. The first was at the Third Annual sessions of the Organization of Professionals Associations (OPA) dedicated to the theme ‘New Visions and New Initiatives for the Nineties’ held on October 4-6, 1990 at the BMICH in Colombo. The paper I quote from was classified under ‘Reducing Social Tensions’. The second, slightly longer version was presented days later at a seminar on Obstacles to Peace in Sri Lanka, organised by the Minority Rights Group, Swedish section, Sunnersta Herrgard, Uppsala, Sweden, October 7-10, 1990.
“I feel that the LTTE's current actions are quite consistent with their conduct over the years. Here. I am not referring to terrorism but rather to the fact that whenever there seemed to be a chance for a negotiated solution, the Tigers launched an attack so as to abort that possibility. You would recall that the attack on the 13 soldiers in July 1983 took place in a context in which President Jayewardene had finally invited the TULF to a roundtable discussion on Tamil grievances and terrorism. Prabakaran pre-empted it by the ambush...The Habarana massacre of 1987 and the Pettah bomb blast took place in early April just at the time that Mr. Athulathmudali, at the insistence of Dixit had announced a one week unilateral cessation of hostilities, restored telephone links and promised the lifting of the fuel embargo on Jaffna within weeks, if the ceasefire met with a positive response on the part of the Tigers. The LTTE reacted with the Habarana and Pettah attacks. These in turn provoked the aerial bombing of Jaffna, which the Tigers used to get international sympathy and Indian support. The Sri Lankan army followed the bombing with the Vadamaarachchi Operation. The rest is history.
My point then is that there is a certain pattern and consistency in the Tigers behaviour which we must discern and comprehend. Their conduct is not random, arbitrary, illogical. The pattern can be understood if we study their history just as Lord Buddha used to refer to the conduct of certain persons in their previous incarnations, so as to point out the consistent pattern.
What is the pattern?
(1) They fear a negotiated settlement through reforms because that will undercut their armed struggle and will be a substitute for their maximum goal. This is also the reason why the JVP opposed genuine negotiations.
(2) Therefore, they do everything possible to de-rail negotiations and force the 'closing off' of reformist options. They seek to polarize the situation so that armed struggle is the only option.
(3) They seek to discredit, undermine and annihilate all Tamil moderate political entities which would abandon the armed struggle and settle for less than Eelam.
(4) They try to provoke the Sinhala Armed Forces into massacring Tamil and Muslim civilians, the Sinhala people into starting ethnic riots and the Sinhala Government into calling off the search for a reform package. In this way, they polarize the situation and gain legitimacy or their form of struggle (violence) and for their goal (Eelam and nothing less).
...I believe that Prabakaran does not want any real reforms which will undercut his Eelam struggle. He did not and does not want the Tamil people and his cadres to get accustomed to a prolonged peace. Therefore he created incidents, situations of tension and finally precipitated the conflicts. The period before June 11th 1990 reminds me of two other phases that after the signing of the Accord in July '87 and the beginning of hostilities with the IPKF in October 1987 and earlier, the period before July '83.
..This does not mean that we must write off the negotiated settlement option. However we must bear in mind that the L TTE, like the JVP, is not a rational revolutionary guerrilla movement. Such liberation movements (e.g. Salvadoran FMLN, Zimbabwe's Zanu, the PLO) are usually amenable to negotiated solutions. The LTTE (like the JVP) is a fanatical movement which will not stop short of its maximum goaIs. The cyanide capsule is the best example of this, No other guerrilla/liberation movement has such a practice - except for certain individual agents on special missions. The Tigers are like the Japanese fascists in World War II the Kamikaze pilots. Therefore a negotiated settlement is that much more difficult. Even if one is arrived at, it is doubtful that they will adhere to it. Still, it is best to try...
...One of the few - very few - advantages the SLA have in this war, is experience. The SLA has fought a war with the Tigers before and some of us have also keenly observed the IPKF - LTTE war. If we derive the correct lessons from these, we can avoid certain errors, minimize our losses, shorten the war and also reduce the adverse political consequences that may flow from this conflict.”
Space constraints prevented the paragraphs below, which were in the Uppsala seminar paper (all papers were reprinted in LANKA, Uppsala University) being in the OPA’s printed digest.
“...I do not mean that the Government should negotiate insincerely as it did with Tamil groups including the TULF during the JRJ - Harry Jayewardene-Athulathmudali years. What I mean is that:
(i) The Government must not permit the LTTE to gain unilateral advantage through and during the talks and
(ii) That battlefield gains of the Government should not be bartered away at the negotiating table. This is what happened when the Accord was signed - though perhaps that was unavoidable then. This must not be repeated. A negotiated settlement must accurately reflect the battlefield situation, the prevailing correlation of forces. The Sri Lankan side must not be tricked or pressured into giving up at the negotiating table what it has won on the battleground.”
No prizes for guessing the interviewee of the ’93 Sivaram interview or the presenter at the ’90 symposia in Uppsala and Colombo. It was yours truly, this writer, (at the time in my early and mid 30s respectively). In 1990, I still entertained the possibility as an ‘outlier’ scenario, of a negotiated endgame with regional and international support, provided it was informed by the tough-minded Realist perspective I had set out. The early ’93 text shows that I was decidedly no longer of that view. What had changed? The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi proved that Prabhakaran was uninterested in and incapable of a negotiated final settlement, while the fall of the USSR and the shift to uni-polarity meant that Sri Lanka could no longer count on a balance in international institutions.
Is anyone listening to what I’ve been saying since the war was won?