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(DV) Sinnathurai: Conversation with PK Balachandran (Part One)







Focus on Sri Lanka
A Conversation with PK Balachandran (Part 1)
by Fr. Chandi Sinnathurai
August 10, 2006

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PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of The Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka. The following is a “conversation exclusive.” 


Chandi Sinnathurai: You have covered Sri Lanka even prior to your current Colombo assignment with The Hindustan Times. You must have enjoyed Tamil cuisine and hospitality in the Northeast territories haven’t you?


PK Balachandran: Yes, I have enjoyed the food and the hospitality. Sri Lankan Tamil food is very different from Tamil Nadu food and is much akin to the food of the Sinhalese. For a Tamil Nadu man, it is good for a change. I particularly liked the Jaffna Dosai or Thosai as they say in Sri Lanka.


As for hospitality, I found the Eastern Tamils, especially the Muslims, more hospitable and friendly than the Jaffna Tamils. Of course, I say this on the basis of my limited experience.


CS: Sinhalas don't use coconut in their cooking as the Tamils do. Tamils would call it "dry curries." But you must have found by now that these communities -- the majority Sinhalas and the principal minority have distinct cultures, traditions, languages, including different culinary habits and tastes etc. One is however, struck by the fact that there are two-nations in this country. History tells us once there were Sinhala and Tamil kingdoms. Uniting these two distinct nations under one country was only a British administrative device wasn't it? 

PKB: Is what you are saying not true of most modern nation-states? Most of them are creatures of circumstances or particular historical situations. Sri Lanka is not a special case.


However, diversity, by itself, is not problematic. No society is completely homogenous and uniform and has never been so. And societies have always worked out systems to accommodate differences of various kinds.


But diversity can become a problem under some circumstances.


Nation-states continue to exist or break up depending upon how they are run -- how the various groups in them are accommodated, how they interact with each other.


If the bases of interaction are perceived to be satisfactory, a nation-state will continue to exist in its current form. But if there are serious perceived grievances in this regard, there will be tension, conflict and perhaps a break up.


Many nation-states have stayed together, but many have broken up too.


The India that the British created broke into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947, because the Muslim minority feared Hindu domination in an independent India. However, Muslim Pakistan itself broke up into Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971 because there was a clash between the two major linguistic groups there -- the Urdu speakers of the Western wing and the Bengali speakers of the Eastern wing. In the beginning, language was less important than Islam. But later it became "the" issue and a cause of division.


Therefore, one can never predict what will unite and what will divide a people or a nation-state. We are constantly in for surprises when we watch world affairs or read history. 


People of different faiths, speaking different languages or belonging to different races, can coexist if there is genuine respect for each other, when there is genuine democracy in which each section gets its due.


But when there is undemocratic domination of one group (whether it is based on class, caste, linguistic affiliation or religious belief) there will be trouble and that nation-state stands in danger of a break up. The moral of the story is: no nation-state can take itself for granted. As it is said of marriage, the nation-state has to work on itself all the time to keep it going! 


In this day and age of global interaction, global movement and rising aspirations, people of different kinds will have to learn to live together and accommodate the rising aspirations and the diverse aspirations of various groups.


Groups not thought to be in existence can come up to confront society. New groups may be formed around new and unexpected rallying points. A nation-state, which is genuinely interested in preserving itself, has to be very alert, perceptive and alive to these possibilities, demands and aspirations and learn to accommodate them in an intelligent and democratic way.


In this fast changing world, this is going to be an every day challenge. There cannot be a moment's rest.


CS: You wouldn't have taken much rest in terms of your journalistic career during the IPKF [Indian Peace Keeping Force] in the Tamil territories. We know that the people in Tamil Nadu hated the guts of IPKF because they saw them as Indian People killing force -- killing their own in Eelam. You know as well as I do, thousands of innocent civilians fell a prey to the so-called "peace keepers." It was indeed a monumental error of judgement and a humiliating defeat to India. However, with out raking up the past too much what is in store for the future? Do you think currently there is pressure mounting up from Tamil Nadu that Delhi will play an important role in the peace initiative? How would Colombo view it? What’s your take on it? 


PKB: The IPKF was painted in the most horrible colours by the Tamils of Sri Lanka and was thought to be a completely unwelcome intrusion by the sovereignty conscious Sinhala majority.


Having watched the IPKF functioning under unenviable conditions, I had pity for it rather than scorn. The troops were functioning under horrible conditions. There was the hostility of the Sri Lankan government; armed resistance by the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam]; lack of cooperation from the Tamil civilians; the absence of a clear political and military mandate from the authorities in Delhi; and later, the loss of support in Tamil Nadu and the national opposition parties in Delhi. 


This is a situation no armed force in the world will want to get into. And I believe that any army made to function under such circumstances can fly off the handle, especially when the enemy cannot be seen and no clear distinction can be made between a civilian and a combatant.


This is a post-War War II military situation, which armies have still not learnt to tackle. We see SL-IPKF like situations all over the world and Iraq is only the latest example.


Given this situation and the IPKF's own experience, the Indian government has certainly given up the "IPKF route" as former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh put it when he was in office.


India's current position on a role in Sri Lanka has been clearly stated by Defence Minister Pranab Mukherji at a recent seminar in Singapore. He said that India's active participation in the Sri Lankan peace process will only "complicate the situation."


However, despite this, there are some factors which are making India take a greater interest in the peace process than before. These are: 


(1) mounting pressure from Tamil Nadu


(2) the influx of refugees


(3) India's growing economic stakes in Sri Lanka, especially in the context of the Sethusamudram canal project, which presupposes peace in North Sri Lanka, and the interest in the Trincomalee oil tank farm, which presupposes peace in East Sri Lanka


(4) the international community's view that India should take  up the responsibility of maintaining peace in Sri Lanka, as India is Sri Lanka's only neighbor.


(5) India's own historical interest in playing a leading role in the region as a potential regional power, which views Sri Lanka as being within its "sphere of influence."


Be that as it may, the key question is what India can practically do, leaving all the fancy theoretical constructs and grandiose notions apart?


1) Can it force the Sri Lankan government to draft a federal constitution, when every thing indicates that Colombo will never agree to it (despite statements about considering an Indian model and other models to fashion a Sri Lankan model)? 


2) Can India make the Sri Lankan state keep agreements and undertakings, when it had always reneged on them? (The row over subsidy for the Indian Oil Corporation is the latest example).


3) What are the levers available to India, if military intervention is rule out? None! India can only lecture to the Sri Lankan government, but who cares for lectures!


4) Can India make the LTTE listen to it? No way! Nobody has succeeded in doing that till now. Ask the Japanese or the Norwegians! In India's view, the LTTE is a law unto itself, with its own plans, goals, strategies and tactics. Furthermore, India has no channel of communication with the LTTE.


5) And how can India ask the LTTE to give in when the Sri Lankan government is not ready to go half way to meet even the moderate demands of the moderate Tamils?


6) The international community also has no lever against either the Sri Lankan government or the LTTE.


All that India and the international community can do is to prevent or discourage the two sides from going for a full-scale war. They can try and pressurize the two to observe a kind of ceasefire. 


I think this will be the bottom line and perhaps the only realistically achievable objective.


As for the political part of the conflict, it has to be resolved by the two sides on their own. No one can force them to do this or that. Nobody has the commitment or the resources to undertake that task. Nations, including India, have other more pressing preoccupations.


CS: I want to take up on your 6th point.  I quote: "The international community also has no lever against either the Sri Lankan government or the LTTE." Are you really saying that the international community including the US and the UN have no lever either against the SLG or the Tamil Tigers? Are you also implying the Oslo-inspired peace process was really a cosmetic exercise on the part of the IC?


What comments would you make on the SLMM [Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission]? What do you think their exit strategy [should] be before "September first" deadline?


PKB: That's a good question and I need to clarify. A leverage exists in reality only when it is meant to be used or is used. Any leverage the international community may have vis-a-vis the Sri Lankan state or the LTTE is not being used or is unlikely to be used.


Apparently, the international community has no real and deep interest in the Sri Lankan conflict or the solution of the conflict. It does not have the commitment to deploy adequate resources in terms of time, energy, manpower and finance to get the two warring parties to come to a settlement.


It does not have the commitment to impose a federal solution as per the Oslo and Tokyo declarations.


If it was interested, the members of the international community would not be saying, and that too so very frequently:" If you don't listen to our voice of reason, we would show less and less interest or quit. We have other more important things to do. We'll leave Sri Lanka to stew in its own juice. Sri Lankans are the losers, not we. "


If the international community is really interested in Sri Lanka, it won’t be thinking of an “exit” strategy but a “getting in” strategy as the US did in Afghanistan, Iraq etc.


However, what is possible is that the advanced countries of the West may indirectly impose some economic sanctions against Sri Lanka in case of war, with the intention of stopping the war. Shipping insurance may go up, aid may be reduced, a ban put on the sale of arms, and there could be travel advisories, which could adversely affect the tourism-dependent Sri Lanka.


My submission is that the same things will not be done to bring about a political solution. That will be left to the two parties. In fact, the US has been saying quite openly that it is for the Sri Lankans to decide what kind of solution they should have. This means that the US will not push for the implementation of the Oslo Declaration, to which it is supposedly committed.


One reason for this lukewarm approach may be the feeling that Sri Lanka is not yet that important for the West or the sole super power, the US. The other reason may be that the West thinks that Sri Lanka is India's baby and that it is India which must carry the cross.


But there is no means to force India to take up that responsibility either. There is every reason to be friends with India now, given its economic potential, than to antagonise it by forcing it to do this or that.

As regards the leverage against the LTTE, there is even less will or ability to use the levers. Non-state actors are difficult to control, especially if they are clandestine and well organised like the LTTE.


A lot of time, money, manpower and effort will have to be deployed to control its financing and gun running. Right now the West is involved in controlling the Al Qaeda. There is little will to pursue the LTTE, which is not a threat to the US, or the West as such, though it may have been described as a threat in the ordinances issued to ban it.


Imposing a ban or listing the LTTE as a terrorist organisation actually means nothing if there is no intention to apply the relevant provisions.


The EU ban means little because it is only meant to go after the financial assets of the LTTE. It does not ban other activities related to the LTTE.


India banned the LTTE in 1991; the US in 1998 and subsequently, other countries joined the bandwagon. But what is the net result? The LTTE has only become stronger in these years.


One important reason why the West (and India too) is not putting adequate pressure on the LTTE is that the Sri Lankan state has not kept its part of the bargain. Colombo has not shown any inclination to solve the political problem underlying Tamil militancy.


If the Sri Lankan state takes sincere, credible and practical steps towards a political solution, then the world will feel motivated to come to its help and twist the LTTE's arms if the LTTE does not go half way to come to an understanding with the Sri Lankan government.


But looking at the way things are going now, I doubt if the Sri Lankan state will do the needful, and I feel that the international community may just prefer to watch the proceedings from the sidelines, stepping in only to discourage a full-scale war, perhaps. 


I cannot predict what the truce monitors will do. Apparently, the Swedish special envoy has told the LTTE that the EU's "listing" is not a "ban" as such, and so, the LTTE is not justified in taking the hard stand it has taken vis-à-vis monitors from the EU countries. The listing is very specific and is restricted to financial assets it was pointed out.


While the LTTE is adamant on this issue, the Sri Lankan government is plainly telling Norway that it should not bow to the LTTE in this matter. There is therefore a deadlock.  


As of now, the SLMM is in the process of bowing to the LTTE because it cannot risk using monitors from the EU when the LTTE does not recognize them and may detain them or even do worse things, who knows?


The SLMM may eventually consist of personnel only from Norway and Iceland. But Norway and the SLMM will have lost face vis-a-vis the Sri Lankan state, the Sinhala majority and even the Tamils and the LTTE. Both sides will begin to take the SLMM and Norway for granted.


This hardly augurs well for the peace process and the political process (the two are different though inter-related).


CS: The sad thing though, however, is that since Geneva 2 its been reported over 420 Tamil civilians had been killed by the state terror. Think of all the fellow journalists who have been assassinated! Including humanitarian workers, intellectuals, human rights activists, and the likes of Joseph, Vigneswaran and the list goes on ... Trinco and Batticaloa have been bombarded by aerial bombings.


Firstly, would you reckon the war of independence is at hand?


Secondly, once the Tamils re-capture Trinco, one would reckon the power of leverage would have shifted nationally as well as internationally don't you think? US proxy in the region India would find that interesting wouldn't it?


PKB: As on date [July 30,2006], Sri Lanka seems to be on the verge of war. But whether it will be a skirmish, a series of skirmishes or a long drawn out and sustained war, we cannot say.


We have had four days of air strikes. The LTTE's air assets in Mullaitvu and Kilinochchi have been targeted. Its civilian facilities in Karadiyanaaru in Batticaloa district have been hit. There are unconfirmed reports that Bhanu [Col.Bhanu is the Eastern LTTE commander after Col Karuna’s defection] is critically injured.


Most observers expect the LTTE to strike back, using either a conventional military method or an unconventional terrorist method or a combination of both. With the SLMM rendered defunct, the situation is pregnant with dangerous possibilities.


But there are many who feel that the international community will prevent the outbreak of a full-scale war or will not allow it to go on for very long.


Nobody knows what will happen. Your guess will be as good as mine.


As regards Trinco, no one can say what will happen. But if the LTTE over-runs Trinco, India may be forced to interact with it.


But somehow at the topmost levels, Indians feel that their installations in Trinco are in no danger. This was stated in a press conference in Colombo by Yashwant Sinha when he was Foreign Minister in the BJP government. I have no reasons to believe that the Indian state's threat perception has changed. 


To be continued in Part 2


Reverend Sinnathurai, currently reading for his Doctorate, is a Christian priest trained in Canada and the UK. He traveled extensively in the northeastern Tamil territories post-tsunami for humanitarian work and did a series of interviews with the de facto Tamil state senior officials (LTTE Top Guns). These articles, entitled “Eelam Encounters,” can be read at www.Sangam.org.  

Other Articles by Fr. Chandi Sinnathurai

* “Democratic Deficit”: Sri Lanka
* Shifting the Balance of Power, Capturing the Power of Leverage
* Competing Geopolitical Monologues in Sri Lanka
* The Weapons of Misperceptions