Tuesday, April 14, 2009

To be able to call for a Ceasefire

I posted this on kafila. org in reponse to an article by Rohini Hensman.

Rohini Hensaman: “One of the demands, for example, has been for a ceasefire and peace talks with the LTTE. But Rajan Hoole and K.Sritharan of the award-winning University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) report that Sri Lankan Tamils are wary of any peace talks that will give oxygen to the LTTE.”

Just to clarify should there then be no ceasefire? Even if one is to agree with Hensman that the destruction of the LTTE is in the interest of peace in Sri Lanka - at what cost? Is it that we can sacrifice a few thousand lives because it is in the long term interest of achieving peace? More on this later but to remain on the question of a ceasefire let’s look at Hensman’s alternative:

“Stop shelling safe areas and civilian targets within LTTE-controlled territory; this only results in propaganda gains for the LTTE.”

For any even layman observer of the history of the war in Sri Lanka or for that matter any civil war it is an obvious fact that you cannot do this. Distinguishing civilian targets from rebel targets is impossible especially now in the No fire Zone which is heavily congested. So how do we save the people? If the LTTE will never release the people what should be the option? Still go ahead and finish off the LTTE (and in the process a few thousand people) because its good for peace?

Is it possible at all to argue for a ceasefire without being then associated with the LTTE? The fear of such association should it prevent us from calling for a ceasefire? I am not sure of how one handles the LTTE. It is not easy. But their destruction at any cost is not an option for me.

The other point that Tamil alternative political commentators have to consider is, if we agree that both the warring parties are equally brutal in the execution of their military agenda and that both parties’ political agendas are absolutist how can one party winning over the other in a war desirable? She’s definitely worried about the war crimes that the Govt is committing but minus that is the war acceptable then?

Added 15 April 2009

Nirmala Rajasingham Responded:

“Is it possible at all to argue for a ceasefire without being then associated with the LTTE? The fear of such association should it prevent us from calling for a ceasefire? I am not sure of how one handles the LTTE. It is not easy. But their destruction at any cost is not an option for me.” Aacharya

Could Aacharya explain why the destruction of the LTTE is not an option for him? Is it because in the course of the government prosecuting a continued war against the LTTE to destroy it, it would end up killing many civilians? Or is it for other reasons? Why is the continued existence of the LTTE desirable?

I think the key is in Acharya’s own question:
“If the LTTE will never release the people what should be the option?”

That is the problem. Let us look at a couple of scenarios:

1. If a temporary ceasefire for humanitarian reasons is announced the LTTE will not let the civilians go. That is what is happening now. The 100,000 people are their only chance of survival. The civilians are the forward defence lines , unarmed and totally exposed. We note that more people escape during hostilities than during the pauses, because when there is active fighting going on the LTTE finds it difficult to prevent the people from fleeing. This is the macabre irony of the situation.

2. If there is a ceasefire and the LTTE is asked to come for talks they will still not let the civilians go out, as they need to hold territory and people under their control, to be able to go for talks to legitimate their claims. This bank of people is necessary for the LTTE as labour, as reproductive resources to provide man/woman power. They need to rebuild their fortifications and earth bunds; rebuild their army, and get fresh recruits. If they let go of these 100,000 civilians where will they go? Even during the Norwegian peace process when they controlled a large area of land and had a very advantageous ceasefire agreement civilians in the Vanni were in an open prison, having to get passes to go out for even funerals, urgent medical treatment; family members were held as guarantors till they returned. If there is a new ceasefire a desperate LTTE will be even worse than it was before the war.

The government is opposed to the ceasefire as it believes that its military gains could be undone if the LTTE is given a respite. I am opposed to it for different reasons – as any ceasefire in which the LTTE is allowed to dictate terms, it would not be in the interests of the trapped civilians as it would want to hold them.

These 100,000 people will never be released by the LTTE, ceasefire or no ceasefire. For the LTTE the civilians do not count for anything except as a resource. A blanket ceasefire solution is only helpful if we want to rescue the LTTE from its current defeat. If we want to save the civilians we have to think of something else.

The government wants to press on with the war and destroy the LTTE militarily. but that will in the current circumstances result in massive civilian killings. The government cannot pursue this option. Any military objective of the government should be subordinate to that of civilian safety.

Because of what has happened the LTTE has lost all credibility and legitimacy. Its sole strength lay in it being a mighty fighting force and now it has lost even that. All those who desire peace but with democracy, must emphatically state that there is no room for an organisation like the LTTE. All those who want to secure the future of these trapped civilians and the Tamil people should publicly denounce the LTTE, regardless of their views about the State. A powerful message should be sent to the SL government and the international community by Tamils that they are willing to ditch the LTTE but want the civilians to be saved. We have to make it clear that we understand that the military survival of the LTTE is irreconcilable with the objective of saving the civilians but that no military action should be taken to jeopardize civilian safety. There were reports in the press that the international community was to negotiate a deal in which the LTTE leadership could be offered a way out of its presumed political responsibilities to lead the Tamil people. If the LTTE meets the conditions then that could be one solution for the moment to save the civilians. There could be offers of amnesty for the cadres. This could save civilian lives more than any other option.

I am opposed to any talks with the LTTE before it is willing to renounce the armed struggle,, without giving up the demand of secession and while holding onto the notion of sole representation. All of this is a must in the interests of the Vanni civilians. These are conditions essential to ensure the security of the Tamil people, much abused by the LTTE apart from the broader interests of democracy. What is unfortunate is that I do not believe that the LTTE is capable of acceding to these demands. Even if it agrees to these demands it then has to let go of the civilians as a good faith measure first.

As for the correctness of the war, many of us from the Tamil dissenting community opposed the war when it first began and have consistently done so, including Hensman, if I remember correctly. This is a war of LTTE’s own choosing. It walked out of the Norwegian backed peace process barely a year after it began in a pique for not having been invited to the international donor conference. It refused to discuss substantive issues. It had a most advantageous ceasefire agreement through which it wreaked its revenge on Tamil dissent and ran its writ across the whole country through murder and assassination. In 2005 itself it began its attacks on the SL Army which was then confined to the barracks. These unprovoked attacks intent on teasing the SL Army to a war was capitalised on by Mahinda when he was elected and he mobilised the Sinhala Buddhist constituency behind him and went to war with the LTTE but then used that as an excuse to wage war on the Tamil people as well. The war that was courted by the LTTE has become its nemesis. This is a military contest between two extreme nationalist armies, and the vagaries of military success of either party is immaterial to us except in terms of their impact on the peoples of Sri Lanka.

The bottom line here is that one has to be clear about where the future of the Tamil people lies – in cohabitation with other communities within a united Sri Lanka or in a tryst with death in the company of the LTTE. We have to develop a clear perspective on the fact that the LTTE’s continued presence and survival is inimical to civilian safety in the short term and the future of the Tamils in the long term. If we are for the former option then we can begin anew , to build a democratic struggle to challenge the Sri Lankan majoritarian state and its Sinhala Buddhist nationalist backers. We need to join forces with the other minority communities and with progressives in the South in a common effort to challenge the Sri Lankan State for peace democratisation and demilitarisation. We can begin to do this without having to watch over our shoulders that we will get shot at from behind by the LTTE. Tamil progressives and the Tamil people have to opt out of the exclusivist Tamil mindset that the LTTE has trapped us in.

And I responded:

Nirmala, my stances have been that 1) I say ceasefire because it will stop people being killed. 2) I do not comment on the desirability of annihilating the LTTE in any of my comments but what i did ask why it would be better to have one devil annihilate the other.

Nirmala my question is then are we prepared to make an ‘instrumentalist’ use of the State - A majoritarian state that is at the root of all these problems- to finish off the LTTE because the latter is bad.

And then after the LTTE is done what is the the way forward?: Build a grand coalition with other minorities and the South? Yes this is important. But what would be the incentive for the other minority communities to join hands with the SL Tamil community? Cooperating with the Majoritarian state is how the leadership of the Muslim Community and the Up Country Tamils seem to think is the best operandi for them to achieve their goals. And who in the SL Tamil community is going to stand up to build this coalition? What does the experience of the formation of TULF where Thondaman and Ashraff were on board tell us about the scope for a grand coalition? Given that we see no indications that the majoritarian state is not going to let go its coercive tactics wont such an initiative be crushed in its budding stage? Nirmala makes it sound so simple. And i am confident that she knows that it is not simple.

The discrediting of the armed struggle is painful. The fact that it was not conceived properly; that it was monopolised and delinked from the people; it lacked politics in it - should not discredit it as a response. It was the only response and the only plausible response that the Tamil people have and had. If not for armed struggle what are the other options? Go back to Parliamentary coalition politics? Or for a grass root movement? How is such a movement going to succeed within a heavily militarised society? Haven’t movements like this been crushed in the past by both violent actors. None of these suggestions are novel. (I am aware of Ahilan and Raghavan’s similar view points on this and the post on Lines to this effect. I am hoping to write regarding this on my blog in the near future)

Finally then, while Nirmala is good at pointing out how the LTTE will not release people under any circumstance, she does not offer then what the option that will save the people would be.

So my question remains for the sake of finishing off the LTTE are we then not to call for a ceasefire?

As for my stance on the long term question i think the Tamil community is doomed. (i am very much typing this from within inside the country with family still in Jaffna). The South will not offer anything, they will deal with the Tamils’ political demands minimalistically. Will crush all dissenters and assimilation will continue.

The LTTE has no doubt contributed to where the Tamils stand right now but the only option (if there is an option at all) is to see how the armed struggle can be brought back to its basics. This can only happen either 1) by starting all over again or 2) the LTTE changing course. Of course i am tired of deaths and hence even i am not happy with my suggestion and that’s why i say that there is nothing much to hope for. You can call me a defeatist.

Niran Anketell also commented:

Nirmala Rajasingham’s argument that a ceasefire at this stage would be inimical to the interests of the civilians within the safe zone is perplexing, bewildering, and if she is to be understood to mean what she says, downright facetious. She argues that the LTTE will not allow people to come out, and thus the destruction of the LTTE is desirable. This is patent nonsense. Yes, the LTTE cannot be expected, brutal and cynical as they are to allow the civilians to come out, even during a ceasefire. But doesn’t she realise that a ceasefire will bring the number of daily dead from 70 to 0. Is this not a sufficient incentive to stop the fighting? The killings will not stop until the guns are silenced, and the guns will not be silenced unless there is a ceasefire. Pure and simple. No ceasefire = more killings, and yet she deigns to suggest that no ceasefire = better for the civilians, at a time when all the world is calling for a ceasefire from the UN to the EU to the White House.

To be fair she seems to suggest that, (even if she doesn’t, it remains a popular view), that a ceasefire will only delay the inevitable. The war will resume again, and the LTTE will use the civilians as shields again. Again, this is possible, but isn’t it less inevitable than the certain prospect of increasing civilian deaths! Are we as certain that of 70 people being killed per day after the presumed resumption of the war after the presumed breakdown of the presumed ceaefire, as we are certain that in the next few days hundreds of civilians will lose their lives, and hundreds more will be injured?

But perhaps I am not going to the root cause driving Rajasingham to her opposition of a ceasfire, that seems to me to be a sure way of saving lives in the now. And that root cause is her political agenda, the one that undergirds her opposition to the ceasefire, although such opposition is facetiously framed as one that is civilian friendly. But what is this political position.

She articulates it best

“I am opposed to any talks with the LTTE before it is willing to renounce the armed struggle, without giving up the demand of secession and while holding onto the notion of sole representation”, she announces.

Ok, that is what it is isn’t it. There is a logic here. The temporary ceasefire is opposed because it will inevitably break down. But is it not her position that a temporary ceasefire MUST and SHOULD break down, because a permanent ceasefire and peacetalks with the LTTE should not take place. So she doesn’t want unconditional peacetalks, and because she doesn’t and is aware that the LTTE will not meet her, and incidentally Rajapaskshe and JHU’s conditions, she sees no need for a brief interlude to the fighting she anticipates will happen anyway. This is not an unpopular view. The Southern polities clearest thinkers share this view. It is deeply thought out, and it stems from a political position that views unconditional talks with the LTTE as repulsive. This is unfortunate, that Nirmala Rajasingham can consider the lives of the civilians as a worthwhile sacrifice to the utilitarian political objectives she is committed to. It is also sheer hypocrisy, because that is what she, rightly , accuses the LTTE of doing.

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