FOCUS / SRI LANKA NEGOTIATIONS
Talks are first step on long road
The Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka want their
own state with a strategic port city as their capital.
This is something the government is never likely to
RICHARD S. EHRLICH
The US war on terrorism may help Sri Lanka trap suicide Tamil Tiger guerrillas into months of negotiations starting with this week's peace talks, but no one expects the cyanide-eating rebels to soon surrender their dream of independence.
During the past 30 years of escalating civil war, the
Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) have never
abandoned their struggle for a crescent-shaped nation to
be called Tamil Eelam carved into the north and east of
The capital would be the strategic port of Trincomalee,
used by British and Allied nations during World War Two
as the chief naval base for Southeast Asia and the Far
The Tigers' claim to that prized port has worried the
United States, England, Israel and other foreign powers
who have supported Sri Lanka with money, weapons and
training against the rebels.
Trincomalee is potentially
the best deep-water port in Asia anywhere between the
Philippines and Diego Garcia.
The LTTE has claimed the
US secretly wants base rights in Trincomalee, but US
officials have denied the allegation.
The stubborn civil war, meanwhile, has killed 64,000
After aerial assaults on Manhattan and the Pentagon on
Sept 11, 2001, killed nearly 3,000 people, the US
reiterated its list of various unrelated groups which
Washington described as terrorist organisations --
including the LTTE.
That move placed the Sri Lankan
government in a stronger position.
"This narrow definition has erased the distinctions
between genuine struggles for political independence and
terrorist violence," Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran said in his annual Heroes' Day speech in November 2001.
"As a consequence, our liberation organisation is also being discredited in the international arena.
"We are not terrorists. We are not mentally demented as
to commit blind acts of violence impelled by racist and
The US list "sends a wrong message to [Sri Lanka's]
Sinhala racist rulers. It will further harden their
hardline, intransigent attitude," he said. "It will
encourage their policy of military repression."
Atrocities, including the indiscriminate killing of
innocent civilians, have been committed by both sides
during the civil war, according to eyewitnesses,
London-based Amnesty International and other groups.
Tamils have awoken to find a bullet-riddled body of a
man or woman tied to a lamp post with a big sign warning
that this would be the fate of all government informers.
Car bombs and other mass attacks blamed on the Tigers
have caused widespread bloodshed.
Sri Lankan troops have
bombed and strafed villagers in emotional revenge
To prop up the government against the guerrillas, Israel
has sent intelligence agents, ammunition and equipment.
British mercenaries have helped pilot helicopter
gunships and train Sri Lankan troops.
More recently, US
military officers and assistance have arrived to boost
They have all failed to kill Mr Prabhakaran
or destroy the LTTE.
In and around the Tigers' stronghold in the northern
town of Jaffna, Tamils express either idolisation or
fear of Mr Prabhakaran.
One of their biggest complaints is the Tigers' reliance on Tamil teenagers -- boys and girls -- to fill their endless need for fresh rebels.
The fighting, bomb blasts and assassinations on the
island recently lapsed into a cease-fire, allowing the
three days of peace talks now taking place at the
Sattahip naval base in Chon Buri on the Thai eastern
Sri Lanka's US-backed government is not expected to gain
its demand at the talks that the Tigers give up their
bid for a breakaway nation.
The talks are thought to be the start of lengthy negotiations -- continuing at various venues later this year -- about allowing more goods, services, travel, money and other facilities in and out of Jaffna so its skeletal economy can grow.
The LTTE includes some of the world's most intelligent
yet ruthless guerrillas.
Every one of its minority ethnic Tamil rebels wears a leather thong necklace containing a glass vial of cyanide.
If captured, the
guerrillas bite down on the vial and die a frothing,
painful death to prevent them revealing secrets to the
Sri Lankan military.
The Tamil rebels' commitment and the war's roots
originated decades ago in response to official racial
discrimination by the ruling majority Sinhalese
Buddhists who placed restrictions on all Tamils in education and employment.
When the Sri Lankan government belatedly eased its
racial policies, so much bloodshed had been spilled on
both sides that it was difficult to restore peace.
Tigers' remedy was to demand a Marxist regime, ruled by
a politburo under Mr Prabhakaran, who declared himself
their leader until death.
Mr Prabhakaran formed the LTTE in 1972 and since then
has eliminated all rival Tamil guerrilla groups fighting
for equality or greater autonomy.
Today he is believed
to be hiding in jungle lairs in the northeast zone that
the Tigers boast is a de facto state.
The LTTE and its supporters, meanwhile, tap Tamil
communities in the United States, Canada, England,
Australia and elsewhere to finance, arm and publicise
Stung by increasing isolation, the
guerrillas recently indicated they have shrugged off
their quasi-Marxism and instead endorse democracy.
The nearest both sides have ever come to agreeing,
however, came years ago when they argued over possible
provincial autonomy in the north and east.
versions of that plan, the Tamil population would be
allowed to elect their own provincial councils which
would enjoy expanded powers.
But the idea failed when the Tigers demanded the
Northern Province and Eastern Province be united so that
Tamils would form a majority throughout the region,
which would include Trincomalee on its eastern coast.
The government rejected that demand because it
calculated that the Tamils constitute 90 percent of the
Northern Province's population, but only an estimated
42 percent of the Eastern Province's residents.
To boost their numbers, the Tigers tried to expel the
Eastern Province's other residents, who include
Sinhalese and Muslims.
"The Muslims have been asked to
leave the Tamil Eelam territory until the independence
of Tamil Eelam," the Tigers have said.
supported the aggressive Sri Lankan Sinhala and Muslim
military against the freedom of Tamil Eelam."
If the two provinces remain separate, Tamils can
dominate only the Northern Province, which is bleak,
arid and poor, and the Tigers would never control
Trincomalee and its potentially prosperous Eastern
Many Sri Lankan officials and citizens suspect
that if the LTTE ever achieves autonomy in a united
north and east, it will then go for all out
Those sticking points may be set aside at the peace
talks this week in Sattahip, but if the two sides ever
discuss autonomy again they are likely to merely
reiterate their original positions -- thus ensuring no
end in sight to the civil war.
The three days of talks end with a press conference
tomorrow (Sept. 18).
Invited delegates include Sri Lankan officials
and the LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, who wrote
the book The Politics of Duplicity.
* Richard S. Ehrlich is a former UPI correspondent who has reported from Asia for the past 24 years.