Government forces and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels engage in fierce clashes.
|A quarter century of war in Sri Lanka has claimed more than 70,000 lives [GALLO/GETTY]|
“The ceasefire has failed,” Sri Lanka’s president says, and peace is not far away.
Compared to the otherwise complex details of Sri Lankan politics, this paradoxical formulation is relatively simple to interpret: although the war against the Tamil Tigers has resumed, the army is winning, and it will not be long before the rebels’ leader, Prabhakaran, recognises this and stops his aggression.
|Rajapaksa insisted the military had
weakened the Tamil Tigers
At that point, a peace agreement will be negotiated.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president, is a forthcoming interviewee, and this unusually frank assessment of the conflict was far from the only interesting observation that emerged from a long conversation on Thursday.
He also told me that there is no religious or ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka; that the international community is completely wrong in accusing his army of human rights violations; and that India holds the key to Sri Lanka‘s political future.
But mostly we talked about the Tamil Tigers.
It was the administration of his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga that coined the Orwellian phrase ‘Peace through War’, but it seems apt enough as a description of Rajapaksa’s policy, too.
“Until the terrorists are weakened, they will not come for talks,” he says.
Watch the full interview with Mahinda Rajapaksa on 101 East on Al Jazeera at these times:
But the president strongly rejects the suggestion that this amounts to pursuit of a “military solution”.
Instead he says his increasing emphasis on military action is a minor element in the pursuit of a political compromise.
Isn’t this just political finessing? Maybe we can describe his game plan as “ready for immediate negotiation depending on prior military victory?”
Empathically no, he says. A political solution is his only aim, but at the same time Prabakharan must be weakened militarily, and although they do not have to surrender arms, the Tigers must stop fighting first.
“I am ready if Prabhakaran is ready,” he says. “We have said that very clearly. I am ready, but I am not prepared to kneel before the terrorism of the LTTE. I have said that many times.
“If I am attacked, I will counter attack. That is what we have done at every occasion.”
Eighteen months into his term, a quarter century-long conflict has reignited and some 5,000 more people are dead.
|On the scene|
Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley gets exclusive access to the heart of the conflict in the east of Sri Lanka
The Tigers have brought their campaign to Colombo and to Galle, and for the first time in their history they have demonstrated air power.
Is this military weakening/political solution even vaguely plausible? Rajapaksa has no doubts: yes, he says, and sooner than most people realise.
“I must say this very clearly. We have cleared the East from terrorism.”
It won’t be long, he says, before Prabhakaran realises that he has no choice but to negotiate.
“We have weakened them…. When he is weak he talks about peace. When he becomes strong, then he wants war.”
|Conflict in Sri Lanka|
Tamil minority make up 12 per cent of island’s 20m population
They complain of discrimination from strengthening Sinhalese nationalism
Decades of protest erupted into civil war in 1983
Up to 70,000 have died in fighting, both sides accused of atrocities
Ceasefire in 2002 led to period of relative peace
Rebel attacks surged in late 2005, intensified fighting since and renewed calls for Tamil state
News of our interview with the president leaked out fast, making Sri Lanka‘s papers the following morning.
According to “The Morning Leader”, Rajapaksa is angry that Sri Lanka is being treated unfairly, because other countries accused of human rights violations do not attract as much criticism.
It’s not quite what he said, but the leak does illuminate what some people in the administration believe.
Certainly the president was critical of Europe, and the US, both of which have talked of cutting off aid.
He accused European leaders in particular of callously stopping humanitarian aid for tsunami victims.
Sri Lanka “is not a colony of England, America or any other country” he said, accusing those of who would criticise his policies of interfering in Sri Lanka‘s internal affairs.
When I asked specifically about the accusations of human rights violations, of the reported abductions of more than 700 people, Rajapaksa denied it categorically.
Instead, in an elaborate and circuitous explanation, he placed the blame on almost everyone else – the LTTE, the breakaway Karuna group, international powers, even the abductees themselves.
“Many of those people who are said to have been abducted are in England, Germany, gone abroad,” he says.
“They have made complaints that they were abducted, but when they return they don’t say.”
Asked whether talk of a humanitarian intervention, or a Kosovo-style imposed separation, disturbs him, he says there is only one country that can acceptably involve itself in Sri Lanka – the giant next door, India.
“India’s support is necessary,” he says, “There must be more support from the Indian government.”
Roots of conflict
There are more interpretations of Sri Lankan history than there are political parties represented in the country’s parliament.
But common to most of them is the belief that at the root of the conflict is political distrust between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority.
But as Rajapakse is concerned the roots have long been buried. The real divide, he says, is now between the terrorists and the rest of the country.
“Prabhakaran does not represent the aspirations of the Tamil people,” he says.
“What he represents, is the interests of a small group. Not the needs of the Tamil people.”
The Tigers, he says, are “not a Tamil terrorist organization, there are Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils in this group.”
So while many argue that the roots of the problem remain important, and that reform of the domestic electoral system is a vital stepping stone to real peace, it seems Rajapaksa’s solution to the problem relies on an unyielding principle.
It is one that might be called ‘Washington terms’: First you accept my position, then we talk.