United National Front (UNF) government is carrying on with the talks as though a political settlement to the conflict is possible. We have argued on many occasions in these columns that the fundamental provisions of the 1978 constitution will not permit any solution to the ethnic conflict that goes beyond the
13th Amendment in granting regional autonomy to the Tamil people.
Today we have sufficient reason to believe that the UNF leadership is fully aware of the fact that it is not possible at all to implement a settlement that can meet the ‘basic political aspirations’ of the Tamil people under the provisions of Sri Lanka’s constitution. If this is the case, how does the UNF see the future of the peace process?
Although we do not know what’s in the minds of UNF strategists who are handling the peace talks, we can safely venture to say that in theory and in practice they can, under the specific circumstance we have described here, expect the LTTE to get irreversibly inured to peace; build a strong and large peace constituency among the Tamils which the LTTE would increasingly be disinclined to oppose; expand the ‘democratic’ space in the northeast by encouraging diverse groups and parties to contest elections there in the future; ultimately make the LTTE ‘see’ or realise the futility of searching for a federal solution.
There are many parallels in other parts of the world where the condition of extended military stalemate (sometimes lasting over 2-3 generations) have impelled separatist movements to drop secession from the agenda of their peace talks with states; and long periods of negotiations and peace thereafter have induced them to settle within the status quo instead of insisting on a radical restructuring of the state in lieu secession.
The most current instance of this phenomenon is closer to home.
The Nagas in India’s northeast have been waging an armed struggle for an independent sovereign homeland for almost five decades. Nagaland was conquered by the British late in the 19th century and was annexed to India. The Nagas declared independence a day before the British formally granted India its freedom. Gandhi, however, convinced them to remain within the Indian union temporarily for ten years. He told them they would be free to leave at the end of the period.
But 10 years later Jawaharlal Nehru refused to honour Gandhi’s pledge and insisted that Nagaland was an inseparable part of the India. (Some of Gandhi’s detractors argue that he shrewdly bought time for India to prepare the ground for effectively opposing Naga independence).
The Nagas, being a war like people, began a ferocious armed struggle to achieve their freedom from Indian rule. The Indian army was sent in to crush the rebellion but it inevitably got mired in the longest counter insurgency campaign in the annals of modern warfare. The Indian armed forces have lost more soldiers in Nagaland than in Kashmir.
The Naga struggle acquired a cross border and trans national dimension as its militants set up training and supply bases in Burma amid allegations in India that they were getting support from China and Pakistan. Nevertheless, Indian counter-insurgency experts took the long-term view to eventually wear down the armed Naga separatists. In 1997, Delhi brought about a ceasefire and started a process to prepare the ground for peace talks with the Naga independence movement. In 2000, it unveiled a policy of rapprochement with Myanmar’s ruling Junta, with a view, among other things, to deny the Nagas their rear base.
Direct talks between Delhi and the Naga independence movement began this year in January when the leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland met Vajpayee. Delhi believes that the great majority of the people of Nagaland have been sufficiently convinced that war is futile, which in turn would act as a deterrent on Naga independence movement, preventing it from going back to war.
Delhi’s main aim, however, is to expand the ‘democratic’ space in Nagaland so that parties other than the Congress (I) would be able to contest elections for the state assembly there. Currently, the discredited Congress (I) led by S. C Jamir is the sole party in the Nagaland legislature. Congress (I) has none to oppose in the state assembly because all the militant groups of the Naga independence movement have been boycotting elections while regional parties and all Indian parties couldn’t find credible local candidates to contest the polls.
As a crucial aspect of the current peace deal, Delhi has got a commitment from the Nagas not to disrupt or call for a general boycott of any future election in the state. Counter-insurgency strategists in Delhi believe that this would encourage diverse parties and groups to contest elections to the state assembly and Parliament, thereby expanding the constituency of those in Nagaland who have a direct stake in the Indian Union or, in other words, the status quo.
The longer the Naga independence movement is locked in talks, the lesser would be the chances that the local population would countenance a return to war which, in turn, would create a suitable environment in Nagaland for expanding the constituency of direct stake holders in the Indian Union through elections and other means. If the number of these direct stake holders in the status quo and their support networks among the local populace expand sufficiently, then the compulsion in the Naga independence movement to insist on a radical restructuring of the Indian Union in lieu of Naga secession would be reduced to a negligible level, according to counter insurgency experts.
Then of course a long period of peace talks would offer inevitable opportunities for Indian intelligence agencies to widen direct contacts and engineer splits in the movement, buy over leaders, subject the Naga population to peace time psyops,
foster ethnic and tribal divisions, induce corruption in the ranks of the
militant groups etc.
In the same manner Indian counter insurgency experts succeeded in containing the two decade long armed struggle by the Mizo people to establish the independent state of Mizoram and in eventually co-opting Mizo secessionists into the Indian Union.
Delhi first brought about a military stalemate in Mizoram, then locked the Mizo independence movement into prolonged peace talks, induced it to drop the demand for a separate state and, later, its demand for a radical restructuring of the Indian state and eventually inveigled the Mizo leadership into accepting a solution within the parameters of the Indian constitution.
Given the specific circumstances in which the peace talks between the LTTE and the United National Front government are taking place, the application of a parallel strategy on the part of the Sri Lankan state and its international backers appears inevitable.
As we have reiterated, it is apparently quite clear to the UNF leadership and its constitutional experts that a federal solution to settle the conflict cannot be granted in any form within the parameters of Sri Lanka’s constitution.
Therefore in continuing the talks without acknowledging this reality, the UNF is obviously and inexorably committing itself to the well tested strategy for containing and co-opting a separatist insurgent movement into the status quo, sans any radical restructuring of the state.
The only hitch in all this, however, is that the UNF and its backers seem to often forget that they are dealing with the LTTE, which is a different kettle of fish.