by Bernard Goonetilleke
As far as the Western world is concerned, the history of democracy begins during the times of ancient Greeks and Romans. However, coming as I do from the East, we are aware that a form of democracy existed in ancient India, long before Athenians even began to practice democracy.
The system of governance in ancient Sri Lanka also goes back several centuries before the Christian era, and many of you may be aware, that the history and culture of our island is intertwined with India's. That being the case, it is safe to assume, that some form of participatory democracy existed in ancient Sri Lanka as well.
Despite its sheer size and diversity, India remains a stalwart of democracy, and Sri Lanka, despite the challenges it has had to face over the past several decades, with a bloody armed conflict that consumed over 60,000 lives, continues its democratic traditions and is currently engaged in a process of consolidation.
A little known fact is that in Sri Lanka, the seeds of democracy were sown long before its independence in 1948.
In fact, universal adult suffrage, an essential ingredient of democracy, was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1931; a mere 14 years after the U.S. afforded that facility to its people. Thus, Sri Lanka became the first country in Asia, where its people enjoyed the opportunity to vote without any distinction.
Addressing the Indian parliament on January 2, 1978, President Jimmy Carter said, "Democracy is like the experience of life itself - always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested for adversity."
Strength of democracy
Taken in the context of Sri Lanka, this compelling description of democracy by President Carter, involuntarily moves to a more powerful echelon of thought, for, democracy in Sri Lanka has indeed been tested more than once, for adversity. And, it is an achievement of considerable significance, that despite the challenges it had to face over the years, the democratic fabric of our country yet remains intact.
In fact, it ought to be said that, the strength of democracy in any country should be assessed, not when those countries are enjoying relative peace, security and prosperity, but when they are compelled to face adversity, and challenges, which threaten the very sinews of freedom and democracy.
This is the case of Sri Lanka: a country that has endured untrammelled terrorism for several decades, which has violently pulled apart the country and its people, as never before in history.
Despite the magnitude of the challenge and the death and destruction that spewed because of unmitigated acts terrorism, Sri Lanka, has no choice but to respond to such threats appropriately, in keeping with norms expected of democracies.
This, I must say, is not an easy task, and am confident that there will be no disagreement on that score.
History of Terrorism
The 20th century saw terrorism being practised widely when it became the hallmark of subversive movements, representing the extreme right to the extreme left of the political spectrum.
Technological advances, the spread of small arms and light weapons, deadly explosive devices that can be electrically or electronically detonated, and the ability to purchase air tickets on the internet, with freely available credit cards, and circle the globe, thanks to rapid air transportation, have given terrorists a new lethality and mobility.
The Baader-Meinhof gang of West Germany, the Japanese Red Army, Italy's Red Brigade, the Puerto Rican FALN, the Shining Path of Peru, PKK claiming to represent the Kurds, the universally dreaded Al Qaeda and the LTTE of Sri Lanka, to name a few, were among the most feared terrorist groups of the latter part of the 20th century.
The increasing use of terrorism to achieve political objectives, is a relatively new phenomenon that developed in the second half of the 20th century. At first, the world witnessed a spate of hijackings of civilian aircraft by Palestinian organisations.
Gradually it began to witness other acts of terrorism, such as the attack against the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, followed by another truck bombing against US Marine Corps headquarters in Beirut six month later, together causing more than 300 deaths. On the heels of these attacks, civilian airliners became targets.
Over the years, we have heard the LTTE, and similar organisations in many parts of the world, express their view, that their acts of terrorism can be justified, in exercising their right to self-determination.
However, it must be pointed out, that although the universal right to self-determination is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, and embodied in the International Covenants on Human Rights and in the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, contained in General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960, none of those international instruments encourage or condone terrorism in pursuit of that objective.
Indeed, some groups tend to bolster their case by making reference, to the 1970 Declaration on Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States, albeit partially.
However, it is pertinent to point out that in 1993, having deliberated on the matter extensively, UN member States, while recognising that all peoples have the right to self-determination, declared, and I quote, "Taking into account the particular situation of peoples under colonial or other forms of alien domination or foreign occupation, the World Conference on Human Rights recognizes the right of peoples to take any legitimate action, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations." End of quote.
The crucial point made in the Vienna Declaration is that, those who seek to exercise the right to self-determination should take "legitimate action," and such action should be "in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations."
I need not emphasize here that acts of unbridled terrorism are wholly illegitimate and such actions are not condoned, or encouraged in the UN Charter.
The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Relations, state that, "All peoples have the right of self determination and by virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic social and cultural development."
However, both these conventions also make it clear that those rights can only be promoted, "in conformity of the Charter of the United Nations."
Focusing on the Sri Lankan conflict, language and standardization in university admissions, are among the major issues highlighted by the Sri Lankan Tamil community, to establish that their community was discriminated against, by successive administrations, thus, prompting them to demand a separate state.
To buttress their claim for a separate state, they also claim that the North and the East had been the traditional homeland of Tamils since time immemorial.
However, the fact remains that at no time in the history of the island was there a 'Tamil Eelam,' encompassing the North and the East.
Furthermore, when a separate sub-kingdom did exist in the North, it never encompassed the east of the island. Even the so called Jaffna kingdom came to a partial end in 1561 A.D. and to a complete end in 1621 A.D., when Cankili the Second, a usurper to the throne, was removed by the Portuguese to Goa, and was promptly hanged.
Therefore, the vain attempt made by the TULF in 1976, to claim statehood on historical basis, relying on an erroneous minute made by the first British colonial secretary Hugh Cleghorn, can be put to rest.
However, when the allegation of discrimination relating to the language issue is discussed, one can understand why the newly independent Ceylon decided to introduce the Official Languages Act (33) of 1956, with a view to making Sinhala the official language of the country.
Ceylon was emerging from colonial rule that had lasted several centuries, where English had been the language of administration, irrespective of the fact that over 70 per cent of the population spoke Sinhala.
From a Tamil viewpoint, the Official Language Act, while giving prominence to the Sinhala language, ignored the fact that Tamils comprised approximately 23 per cent of the population.
Even though the administration of that time attempted to address this lacuna, two years later, through the The Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act of 1958, it must be admitted that, the measure did not fully remedy the situation.
Standardization was also a contentious issue, as the Tamils saw it as a measure to admit Sinhalese to the universities at the expense of Tamils.
However, the Sinhalese saw it as a corrective measure, to give the Sinhala youth their dues in university admissions, particularly to the medical and engineering faculties, which had a much higher percentage of Tamil students in comparison to their ethnic ratio.
While one can sympathise with the Sri Lankan Tamils, for losing the privileged position they enjoyed during the colonial era, it must be pointed out that even before independence, Tamil politicians made it a practice to make submissions to the colonial administration that their community was subjected to discrimination on several areas.
However, having examined the alleged discriminatory practices, the colonial administration said "a careful review of the evidence submitted to us provides no substantial indication of a general policy on the part of the government of Ceylon of discrimination against minority communities."
Similarly, responding to another complaint made by the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), that there was discrimination with regard to public appointments affecting their community, the Soulbury Commission said, "we received from the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress, complaints of discrimination against the members of their community in regard to appointments in the Public Services.
Apart from real or perceived grievances, such as those relating to discrimination, Sri Lankan Tamils have other issues that make them feel they have been short changed by respective governments, over the decades.
Take for example, the pacts, the leader of the Federal Party, Chelvanayakam, signed in 1957, with then Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and in 1965, with Dudley Senanayake, representing the United National Party (UNP).
In both instances, two agreements signed with two different administrations in two different decades by Chelvanayakam, failed to see the light of day, due to protests, primarily from the opposition parties in Parliament.
First, it was the UNP, which opposed the Chelvanayakam /Bandaranaike Pact, and hit the streets with massive protests.
Eight years later, the SLFP returned the favour to the UNP. While Sri Lankan Tamils can fault the southern polity for reneging agreements signed in good faith, and for their inability to make concessions to the Tamils, there have been inherent weaknesses, not only in the manner in which agreements were negotiated, but also in the content.
One of the major drawbacks was, the administrations of the time, not understanding the importance of taking the electorate into confidence, and briefing them on the need for reaching accommodation with a substantial group of citizens, and getting their consent, which is part and parcel of participatory democracy.
Thus, both Bandaranaike and Senanayake, failed to make good of their understanding with the Sri Lankan Tamil leadership, and succumbed to political pressure exerted by opposition political parties of the day, whose interest was not to accommodate the Tamil leadership, but to use the opportunity provided to weaken the administration, in the hope of grabbing power.
The LTTE too, had no intention of reaching a political arrangement, in place of a separate state.
In the first instance, in its quest for power and unadulterated supremacy over other Tamil political parties, and the numerous Tamil armed groups that emerged in the late 70s, the LTTE systematically decimated leaders of other Tamil political parties and armed groups, until it succeeded in emerging as the single most powerful organization.
In this process of elimination, the LTTE assassinated the TULF leadership, including its party leader, A. Amirthalingam, along with politburo member, V. Yogeswaran, in 1989.
It can be safely said that the LTTE believed the goal of a separate state could be realized, not democratically, but only through violence.
The role of the LTTE in the ensuing years in decimating the Tamil intelligentsia, and in coercing the TULF to step aside and make way, was described by the current leader of the party, V. Anandasangaree, whose lone voice of reasoning is still heard from time to time.
The Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) in February 2002, was a watershed for the LTTE, as that event facilitated the LTTE to climb on to the world stage.
Moreover, thanks to the Norwegian insistence, the LTTE was received and recognized as an equal to the government of Sri Lanka.
The leader of the LTTE delegation was addressed by the Norwegian facilitator as, "Excellency Anton Balasingham."
Even though the CFA provided an ideal opportunity for both sides to reach an understanding, the LTTE was not prepared to negotiate in any real sense, for one good reason.
That was, that they had not hit the peace alley with a view to giving up their demand for a separate state, but took that path with the intention of taking a short cut to a separate state.
If they failed, they would yet use the opportunity provided by the CFA, to remove the debilitating blockade of the North imposed by the Government, and use the relatively peaceful period to arm themselves, so that they could once again challenge the Government militarily, at an opportune time.
In fairness, it must be said that the LTTE entertained the idea of engaging in negotiations with the Government, with a certain amount of trepidation, not being certain as to which way the water would flow.
I remember accompanying a minister of the administration of that time to Oslo in August 2002, meeting with late Anton Balasingham, and giving him an assurance that the government would not try to gain undue advantage, or pressure the LTTE, as they gingerly ventured into negotiations with the Government, for the first time since 1990.
That was how Balasingham obtained the concurrence of the LTTE leadership to begin negotiations.
When the going was good, the international media described the Sri Lanka peace process as ‘the fastest forward moving peace process,’ at that time.
However, the enthusiasm of Sri Lankans and the world was to be dampened soon, and it became evident that LTTE chief negotiator Balasingham was pressed against a rock and a hard place, as the Sri Lankan Government wanted to engage in real negotiations, and the LTTE leadership did not see any reason to comply, as it would have adversely impacted on its claim for a separate state.
However much the Government delegation pushed, and the Norwegian facilitators prodded, the LTTE stubbornly refused to budge, until negotiations virtually came to a standstill one chilly evening of December 2002, in Oslo.
To be fair by the Norwegian facilitators, they persisted until Balasingham yielded, and came up with a draft on the following morning, later known as the Oslo Declaration.
It said, “Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities.”
Which ever way one looks at the understanding reached in Oslo, it can be taken as a landmark decision. First, it was a decision to look for internal self-determination in place of external self-determination.
Second, it was a decision to look for a solution on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka and third, there was an agreement that the solution had to be acceptable to all communities.
In essence, the LTTE had moved away from its demand for a separate state, and returned to the original demand of the Tamils for a federal state, first made in 1949, and the Sri Lanka Government had moved away from its long standing opposition to a federal arrangement.
It soon became apparent, that either Balasingham had exceeded his authority, or the LTTE leadership realized they were speeding down the wrong track, which would rob them of their quest for statehood.
What followed was an apparent disagreement between the LTTE leadership and Balasingham, and this time around, ‘federalism’ became a dirty word, not for the Southern politicians, but for the LTTE.
Soon thereafter, Balasingham retreated from the “Proposal by the LTTE leadership,” as the Oslo understanding stated, for internal self determination, based on a federal structure, thus, providing an opportunity for some parties in the South to insist on a ‘unitary state’.
I went to great lengths to explain what happened in the spring of 2003, in order to demonstrate that the LTTE was primarily responsible for derailing the peace process. Having agreed to explore a federal solution, the LTTE pulled out of negotiations, describing it as suspension of “its participation in the negotiations for the time being.”
That the LTTE hijacked the Tamil demand for a separate State in the North and East of Sri Lanka, and systematically used violence and acts of terrorism, to achieve that objective, are undeniable facts. Also, nobody can disprove that several attempts were made by different administrations to bring the conflict to an end through negotiations.
The strategy employed by the LTTE was to walk away from the Thimpu talks, the Indo Lanka agreement etc., following it up with the assassinations of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President R. Premadasa, and attempting to take the life of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, employing suicide bombers.
Among the long line of government leaders assassinated by the LTTE, while the CFA was still operative, was Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.
Against this background, it is ironical that organizations such as Amnesty International, and even some friendly countries, should have expressed the view that the so-called unilateral abrogation of the CFA by the Sri Lanka Government in January this year, resulted in increasing the incidence of violence in the island.
They fail to see and refuse to acknowledge, that the CFA in fact did provide for one of the parties to the agreement, to withdraw from it, if it became necessary to do so.
It was the repeated violations of the CFA by the LTTE, on a massive scale, which compelled the Government to see the futility of hanging on to the CFA, which had practically become defunct due to LTTE intransigence.
Just for record purposes, by April 2007, the LTTE had violated the CFA 3830 times as against 351 times by the government.
Against such a number to its credit, it is ironical that the LTTE had to wait until the government issued notice of termination of the CFA in keeping with Article 4.4 of the agreement, to assure 100 per cent compliance of the CFA from thereon.
The resumption of the conflict in 2006 was no accident. Events that unfolded since early December 2005 indicate that the LTTE was moving in the direction of provoking the Government, and using the Government response to justify a thrust to capture Jaffna. The Government was cautious at the beginning, and practically ignored many grave provocations.
However, when the LTTE employed a suicide bomber in the attempted assassination of the Army Commander, in April 2006, and followed it by cutting off vital water supplies to some 60,000 farmers in the east several months later, the government reacted firmly, and with resolve.
The LTTE’s folly ended, with their losing of the Eastern Province to the Government, where steps have been taken toward democratic elections on May 10, after a lapse of 14 long years.
The Government’s response to the challenges seems to have caused concern, not only the LTTE, but also some friendly governments, who believe that the current military operations in the Northern Province, is aimed at seeking a military solution to the conflict.
These sources repeat themselves, every now and then, by proclaiming, “There is no military solution to the conflict, and a solution must be found through negotiations,” as if they are privy to a formula, of which the Government is unaware.
What is being said by them is a mere repetition of the government position, and there is no fundamental difference between the Government position and that of some countries, which are engaged in the situation in Sri Lanka.
The irony is that, such views continue to be expressed despite repeated assurances given by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, that his desire is to grant maximum possible devolution within one country. The Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka has made his position clear as well.
The government’s position is clear. While it believes in a political solution to resolve the issues faced by the minorities, it has no choice but to act firmly and decisively against the LTTE’s armed incursions within and outside the North and the East, so that, that organisation will entertain no illusion that it could achieve its political objectives by resorting to acts of violence and terrorism. The message is loud and clear for all interested parties to hear.
Eventually, there will have to be a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and the LTTE should realise that resorting to terrorism will not achieve for them a separate state.
A democratic solution
This brings us to the most important issue concerning the conflict in Sri Lanka. That is, the solution to the conflict, or issues affecting the minorities, must first be discussed and negotiated, with the involvement of all interested parties in the island.
That is the only way, a sustainable solution that is fair and reasonable to all, can be arrived at. It is also crucially important that the final agreement should be democratically approved by the people.
The question we have to answer is, what should be a fair and lasting solution ? How do we reach that goal ? What process should be employed to reach that goal ? Needless to say, whatever shape of the solution, it will have to be arrived at through a democratic process.
The irony is that, the LTTE in its current form, cannot be a party to a democratic process.
If the past provides us with a guideline, then we know, that throughout its existence, the LTTE has done its best to stifle democracy. Assassinating moderate Tamil political leaders such as A. Amirthalingam and Neelan Thiruchelvam, and preventing Tamil people in the North and the East from voting at the 2005 presidential election, are but two examples of how alien democratic practices are to the LTTE.
If the demand for a separate state is a non-negotiable issue to the LTTE, one cannot expect that organisation to engage in negotiations in good faith, for a political settlement.
In such a backdrop, the Government will have the unenviable task of deciding how to proceed.
One way to address the issue is to consult the Tamil people in the North and the East.
And such an opportunity has arisen at least in the East, as a result of the bold decision taken by President Rajapaksa, to go ahead with provincial council elections in the Eastern Province in May, which was preceded by the peaceful and successful local election held in Batticaloa District last March.
At least, there are signs of the long standing logjam being gradually broken. The first is, the decision to hold provincial council elections in the Eastern Province, consisting of three districts, and a mixed population of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese. In fact, this exercise will be a test bed for turning the Eastern Province around.
The second important aspect is, the decision taken by none other than the LTTE, to field candidates under its political party, the People’s Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT), which was registered by them, many years ago.
The third and equally important issue, is the TMVP, the breakaway Eastern group of the LTTE, which participated in the local elections in the Batticaloa District in March, which has also fielded candidates at the forthcoming provincial election.
All in all, the governing party, the opposition party, the parties representing the LTTE and its breakaway group, the TMVP, the SLMC and many others, will join the hustings, seeking the vote of the long-suffering people of the Eastern Province, a feat that would not have been predicted, even by the most confident soothsayers.
To say the least, it is a near miracle, how democracy triumphed in the Eastern Province, while the people in some part of the Northern Province are still under the jackboots of the LTTE.
President Rajapaksa has accomplished the impossible task, of providing an opportunity for the people in the East, to elect their representatives through the ballot, in place of those who have, for so long, imposed their will on a long-suffering people, through the barrel of their guns.
Rarely has the world seen such a feat of democratization of a region held to ransom by terrorists, for such a long time. The people of the East now have to move on, from democratic elections to ensuring their personal security, development and prosperity.
It is here that the international community, including the U.S., has a role to play. In this context, Sri Lanka welcomes the stand taken in the U.S. Department of State Budget for the Financial Year 2009, where it is stated: “The liberation of the East from the LTTE control in July 2007, presents strategically important opportunities for the United States to advance human rights by promoting economic, political and social development.”
The international community, with its concern for stability in Sri Lanka, should move in and assist generously, in developing the Eastern Province, and wean the youth away from the culture of violence, by providing them with employment opportunities. Now is the time to act decisively, and to allow the process of healing to begin.
The writer is Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US