The Sunday Leader

Re-building Mutual Confidence, Not Re-planting Mutual Mistrust

By N Sathiya Moorthy

By declaring that a South Africa-type Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), if at all, would be the ‘last component’ in (any) dialogue, TNA’s R Sampanthan may have put the peace ball back in the Government’s court even before the political process was set in motion. In doing so, he may have given the Government a rope to climb up the peace path – or get tied up again in knots as the UNHRC-driven Geneva processes have done already.

The TNA’s position seems to have taken into consideration the Sri Lankan State and Sinhala sensitivities attaching to ‘accountability issues’, and a consequent demand for the setting up of a South African model TRC. By indicating that such a TRC can wait, Sampanthan may have also sent out a clear signal that the TNA many not be unwilling to climb down if long-term, legitimate political aspirations of the Tamil community were irreversibly addressed, with adequate guarantees.

On every other occasion and non-occasion in the post-war period, Sampanthan and other TNA leaders have reiterated their exclusive commitment to a negotiated settlement within a united Sri Lanka. That remained their theme song for the historic elections to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) late last year. NPC Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, as honourable a person as he was when he was a Judge of the nation’s Supreme Court, particularly within the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community, both within and outside the country, too has given his word.

Under the circumstances, the Government could not ask for more from the TNA leaders for reviving the talks that the Government alone stalled unilaterally. The TNA cannot escape a share of the blame after the Tamil community, particularly ‘separatist’ sections of the Diaspora, began vitiating the atmosphere by talking about ‘accountability issues’, the UNHRC processes, etc. The Government’s fault was procedural, in not informing the TNA and even a lone official-level delegate, about the stalling of the talks. The TNA’s mistake was not just procedural but ran deeper.

Why and where they failed

Post-war, the Government/majority Sinhala leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the moderate Tamil leadership of the TNA identified with Sampanthan have missed the bus once earlier, by not doing enough to build mutual confidence and bury the mistrustful past, fed on years of competitive ethnic politics, violence and war within and outside of their defined territories. At a time when both had the luxury of the larger communities on their respective sides backing them almost to the hilt, they convinced themselves that the hard-liners were looking over their shoulders and were ever ready to hit from the back if they ‘stayed on course’ whatever they might spell.

With victory over the LTTE, President Rajapaksa could have ‘sold’ anything to the hard-liners among the peripheral Sinhala hard-liner masses, over the head of the self-styled guardians of the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ cause. After the LTTE used 300,000 Tamils as human-shields, almost every Tamil on the island, barring the few hard-line LTTE cadres, who would shoot at their own people when they tried to escape, had begun looking at Prabhakaran and the armed forces from a different perspective. The TNA refused to take charge at the time. Nor would the Government encourage it to do so, either. Whatever the reason, both lacked the courage to seize the nation’s moment of peace.

When they began talking, still not long afterward, each side wanted the other to believe that he (and he alone) was serious about the talks, and the other side was tentative at best, and tiring out the other. The talks that they initiated to find a political solution need not have been considered as a final step towards political reconciliation. It would have been enough if they had considered as the first, right and rightful step towards mutual confidence-building, which starts with burying the ghosts from the past. Both cited different reasons, adopted different approaches, yet in the end, they took only tentative steps at best – both convinced as they were that the other side was playing for time before hardening their position to traditional levels, if not worse.

Today, both the Government and the TNA are on a sticky-wicket. There is more to the same, as well. Having concerned itself more about the electoral fall-out of a political solution, the Government leadership would not want to lose the hard-liner Sinhala-nationalist constituency. It was blind to the ‘victory constituency’ and the ‘peace constituency’ that the military elimination of the LTTE had entailed. Put differently, it lacked the confidence, initiative and drive, in that order, to expand its traditional support-base that the short-lived war had identified for itself at commencement.

It was no different with the TNA. Wanting to assume charge now that the LTTE was not around, it did not have the self-confidence and unity of purpose and leadership to pursue the political role that it had set for itself and goals for the Tamil community. Nothing explained its lack of confidence than the empty promise and boast that it would want to carry the LTTE-supportive, ‘separatist’ sections of the SLT Diaspora, and win them over, too.

The NPC poll results, while looking to boost the TNA leadership morale, has only thrown up new, second and third-rung leaders in the local Tamil community with near-separatist intent and a more open line to counterparts in the Diaspora. It looks as if the moderate, collective community power may be slipping out of the TNA’s hands, though it may take time for things to become clearer. While the perceived and self-serving hard-liners within the Alliance leadership may have lost out to the Johnnies-come-lately, who in turn are the creatures and creations of the influential and well-stacked Diaspora groups, the weakening moderate leadership have begun looking as pale and irrelevant as their counterparts before the LTTE usurped their role and legitimacy – rather ‘forcefully’.

Global climate, domestic environment

When post-war negotiations became a non-starter, the TNA began reposing its faith in the Indian neighbour first, then the international community, starting/including India, and then the ‘international community’. After the South Africa visit, Sampanthan has begun referring to India, and hopes that the South African facilitators to the Sri Lankan negotiations would keep India in the loop. The Norwegians had done so in their time, but went and did precisely what they had otherwise decided to do.

Some of the Tamils’ politico-diplomatic successes, particularly in Geneva-2012, owed to the manipulated and calibrated public mood in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, which influenced their competitive polity and Government more than already, to pressure New Delhi into doing the SLT Diaspora’s bidding, albeit through the good offices of the US and the rest of the West in UNHRC. By the time Geneva-2014 arrived, sections of the Tamil polity in Sri Lanka was convinced that it would be more of barking and less of biting.

One more like this week’s twin-blasts in the Chennai Central railway station, the public mood in the State could swing the other way round, condemning the ‘air of permissiveness’ that the Geneva-centric political protests had entailed in the past years. Coupled with this is the new lessons that the State – both the local government and the people at large – are learning about the Pakistani ISI’s efforts at using Sri Lanka as a base, and the misled among the Muslims in that country, to target India, through and in Tamil Nadu. The pan-Tamil, pro-LTTE linkages cannot escape attention, either.

In its country report on Terrorism-2013, the US State Department has now acknowledged the continued, post-war existence of the LTTE’s financial network of support and its use of international contacts and the large Tamil Diaspora in North America, Europe, and Asia to procure weapons, communications, funding, and other needed supplies. The report said that the LTTE members or supporters are operating in Sri Lanka and India. This could add to the pressures on the Governments in India – not just the Centre and in Tamil Nadu – to review the nation’s existing policy on the ‘ethnic issue’ when a post-poll government assumes power in New Delhi later this month.
For the US, as the sole super-power, the Terrorism-2013 report has both queries and answers. The report has acknowledged that the LTTE was procuring weapons, hence the start-up legitimacy to the Sri Lankan Government naming LTTE entities across the world that the world had tried to push under the UNHRC carpet initially. Two, the LTTE continues to be a banned entity in most nations in which Sri Lankan Tamils have a substantial presence. The US is one of them. Now, the US report as a bench-mark annual assessment will cause all those nations to take the Sri Lankan ban seriously.

The US also has on its soil and citizenry, Viswanathan Rudrakumaran, the self-appointed ‘prime minister’ of a self-styled ‘trans-national government of Tamil eelam’, which too operates from within American territory. If the US takes itself and its own report seriously, it cannot but act on any specific Sri Lankan request pertaining to the ‘banned entities’ operating in and from its soil. That could sent out wrong signals to the SLT Diaspora on the one hand, and a wrong signal to the Tamil people back home, whom the TNA had told, could and should count on the international community from now on.

To these, one should add report that the US wanted to ‘resume comprehensive military relations’ with Sri Lanka. This is because the ‘military’ is one component in the Sri Lankan set-up that TNA despises just now, and for more than one reason. The ‘military’ would also be at the centre of any ‘accountability’ probe that the UNHRC may – or, may not be able to – initiate on the lines of the 2014 resolution. Any probe of the kind extricating the military out of the UNHRC mess would be unacceptable to the Tamils nearer home, and the TNA would have problems convincing them otherwise.

In context, the open invitation from the likes of Sarath Fonseka the politician, who on another day had worn the hat of the commander of the victorious Sri Lanka Army (SLA), seeking international help for upstaging President Rajapaksa. That he should have chosen the post-Libya, post-Egypt, post-Ukraine phase of American withdrawal from Afghanistan for making such an appeal apart, it all could boil down to reviving the dispersing ranks of peripheral ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ constituency around President Rajapaksa all over again. Even otherwise, the more recent Ukraine-Crimean controversy has called the American attention away from Sri Lanka and the UNHRC for now. When it returns, it could be a new US that the Tamils and the TNA might be seeing.

Just now, President Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan nation need relief from Sinhala-nationalist hard-liners, and both need to be relieved of them. Likewise, the TNA needs to free itself from ‘separatist’ sections of the SLT Diaspora. It needs to be freed of them, too, if anyone is serious about offering Sri Lanka any prescription for political reconciliation and permanent peace. Just now, it has to be a home-grown process, not just a home-grown solution. The Government and the TNA need each other more than they need anyone else.

South Africa, just now in the driver’s seat as an external facilitator, too, has its job(s) cut out. It needs to work outside Sri Lanka, and on those outside Sri Lanka, before it can consider entering Sri Lanka in any big way – with hopes and promises of repeating the ANC’s perceived success story on the home turf, which is also a perception of its own, to begin with.

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary public-policy think-tank headquartered in New Delhi. E-mail:


2 Comments for “Re-building Mutual Confidence, Not Re-planting Mutual Mistrust”

  1. Sangaralingham

    Responsibility to the country lies within politicians elected in the parliament who was elected to do a job morally honourably efficiently honestly with certain diplomacy respect to each other for the Benedict of the country. Delaying postponing letting things as they are are sign of procrastination lack of willingness to proceed. Time has parliamentarian use the allowances and pay checks to go around the country to listen to people hat they have to say and this apply to provincial elected officials as well.make sure take a talented intelligent translator with you so you can understand and communicate. Soth Africa truth and reconciliation will improve your attitude but need to understand the human psychology sociology and humanitarian behaviour well

  2. Sangaralingham

    The role of diaspora is minimal but supportive to politicians moral responsibility to solve the problems of the country not then and future as the past politicians fail to understand the psychology of the nation and it’s citizens slip slop role for selfish reasons time to act not for anything but to save the country and it’s people from dangerous elements which seem to crop nowhere as one can see now and then

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