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Deepening Political Crisis in Sri Lanka

The theme of this seminar, “Deepening Political Crisis in Sri Lanka”, may be an under-statement. The current situation in Sri Lanka is in reality more than just a political crisis. It is a military crisis (that has already caused nearly 70,000 deaths), a crisis of governance (with fairness and equity), a crisis of confidence between the different ethnic groups – all of which threaten the very existence a united and integrated Sri Lanka. What started as apparent linguistic chauvinism (and the reaction to it) has taken on most of the aspects of an ethnic civil war.

The India Factor

India, with its growing influence in international affairs, should reasonably be expected to make her overall national interest the primary and supreme consideration in formulating foreign and security policies. Domestic politics and partisan interests would continue to provide major inputs during the stage of consultations, but are unlikely to become reasons for casting doubts on the credibility of the evolved national foreign policy. It is not difficult to perceive that India’s long-term strategic and regional interests require a special relationship with Sri Lanka, going well beyond the immediate Tamil ethnic issue – considering the increasing interest of USA, China, Pakistan and Iran in Sri Lanka.

The regional political parties in Tamil Nadu often find it difficult to adopt moderate positions on Sri Lanka related issues, lest they surrender ground to the more radical amongst them. Even considering their present disproportionate influence in decision-making by the Central Government, I do not think that the mainstream politicians in Tamil Nadu would attempt to make the Central Government agree to intervene physically in the crisis in Sri Lanka; or that they would succeed if they made the attempt.

India and Sri Lanka are physically separated by a narrow strip of sea, but the peoples of the two countries are bound together by bonds of geographic proximity, historical ties, religious and cultural affinities and similarities etc. State level relations tend to fluctuate from time to time, influenced by domestic political compulsions, international situation, economic needs etc. Stable state level relations are possible only when they closely reflect the reality of people-to-people ties.

A major irritant in Indo-Sri Lankan relations relates to Kachchativu. The issue is really less about ownership and sovereignty over a small island than about fishing rights around it. Despite the Maritime Boundary Agreements, Indian fishermen have continued to fish in areas (including those in Sri Lankan territorial waters) where they have traditionally been carrying on their vocation. It is unfortunate that all the concerned entities seem to find it convenient to let the situation simmer and be available (whenever required) as a stick to beat the other entities with. The issue needs to be defused with a sense of urgency. The fishing communities on both sides of Palk Bay had jointly exploited (with hardly any outside intervention) the local marine resources for centuries. An effort needs to be made to restore to those communities the right and responsibility to work out friendly, cooperative and sustainable fishing in these waters that are the common heritage of India and Sri Lanka.

India cannot easily shrug off her moral responsibility to support the aspiration of the Tamils to be “equal” citizens of Sri Lanka. However, India has consistently been opposed to the carving out of a separate sovereign state of Tamil Eelam. Such an entity is unlikely to function as a classical “buffer state”, but is more likely to have the potential of becoming a focus for pan-Tamil parochialism and nationalism. That this is not a hypothetical fear is shown by a recent appeal by LTTE political wing leader B Nadesan, made directly to the people of Tamil Nadu, “to rise in solidarity with our cause”. He said that the “Tamils in Tamil Nadu should not remain silent spectators as we suffer. … Eelam Tamils could record Himalayan victories if they had an upsurge in Tamil Nadu in their support, as well as the backing of the estimated 80 million Tamils living in the world.” If LTTE could make such an open call for the Tamils of Tamil Nadu to revolt against the Indian State and the elected governments in Tamil Nadu and at the Centre, when it is still on the defensive and is in need of support, what could one expect from it if and when it becomes the power-holder in the sovereign state of Tamil Eelam?

A week later (on 16 June 2008), in what could be termed a damage-control exercise, KV Balakumaran assured the Australian Tamil Broadcasting Corporation that the demand for Tamil Eelam is not against India’s interest. LTTE sought only ‘credible alternate proposals’ to resolve the 25-year-old ethnic conflict. “We believe firmly, our strong cultural ties to our brothers and sisters in India will help their policy makers to select a just and fair path towards our people. …. We will uphold Indian welfare as our own. There was a time when India looked after our welfare as her own. India will change its current policy towards us one day.” He added, “We cannot wait for India’s change of mind to continue with our liberation. One fact should be clear; no one should doubt our friendship, and strong ties to India.”


LTTE was one of the many parallel Tamil movements that came up in protest against SLG’s decisions that were seen as being discriminatory against the Tamils. Over a period of time, mainly through the free use of the weapons of violence and assassination, LTTE has eliminated or marginalized most other Tamil movements. LTTE has arguably been the most effective champion of the Tamil cause, but its other face of a dreaded terrorist organization does not elicit the same extent of willing support from the Tamils. However, the reality of LTTE cannot be ignored when attempting any solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, though it may still be very difficult for India officially to deal with an LTTE led by those involved in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

LTTE’s alternating tirades against and appeals to the international community to rethink their approach of supporting the SLG, as well as the repeated appeals for support from Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, seem to display elements of frustration and desperation at the present situation. I feel that the stage has come when LTTE should undertake a serious exercise of introspection, taking into account all the realities, and decide whether or not to pursue the goal of an independent Eelam, through violent means.

Way Forward

When Mahinda Rajapakse won the Presidential election in November 2005, with the support of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), it could be anticipated that his government would move away from Chandrika’s federal formula and towards an attempted military solution. Historical evidence shows that ethnic or ideological insurrections or revolutionary movements suffer from their own versions of revolutionary (battle) fatigue. Some time after the CFA stabilized to a certain extent, LTTE showed signs of having reached that critical stage. Though the LTTE was initially nudged back to the negotiating table at Geneva, the repeated provocative attacks by the Tigers on the security forces and the retaliatory attacks by SLG on Tamil areas led to a situation where the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) died and was formally revoked. The intensified military offensives by SLG have probably done more to re-motivate and re-invigorate the fighting cadres of LTTE than any exhortation by Pirabhakaran could have achieved. Though LTTE has repeatedly shown great resilience and capacity to rebound, it seems that its best days are behind it.

It would appear that the capabilities of the Sea Tigers have been severely crippled, at least for the present. Though advances on the ground have been claimed, aerial bombardment of one’s own territory (not under foreign occupation), with resultant casualties amongst innocent civilians, does not show SLG as being in total control of the situation. Some of the counter-attacks (particularly the recent claymore mine attacks on soft targets) by LTTE have highlighted the weaknesses of the government. It seems that the military offensives cannot be carried to their logical conclusion. I doubt the ability of the Sri Lankan Security Forces totally to eradicate the presence or influence of militant LTTE cadres from the areas presently controlled by them, much less from all of Sri Lanka. There will always be bitter remnants, which will continue to destabilize society.

The continued military offensive by SLG ignores the lessons of history. Any movement by an ethnic minority, essentially based on legitimate grievances of discrimination and perceived suppression, cannot be eradicated totally by military means alone. Military measures should be accompanied by sincere and sympathetic efforts to address the legitimate grievances and to minimize any discrimination by the state. Ideally, the solution should be totally indigenous and arrived at by consensus. Less ideally, it can be achieved with the help of mediators or intermediaries from outside. It should be realized that any solution imposed only by military force or majoritarian fiat would neither be effective nor durable.

On its part, the LTTE has clearly demonstrated that it is not prepared to work within the existing (or a slightly modified) system. Along with the LTTE, the legitimate and democratically elected SLG has done little to help in resolving the “Tamil problem”. If anything, the Mahinda government has been equally responsible for escalating an intractable problem into one that is becoming near-impossible to solve. One suspects that there is an absence of any serious desire for a settlement.

It has been reported that the JVP is planning to mount a legal challenge (in the Supreme Court) to the dissolution of the North-Central and Sabaragamuva Provincial Councils. It seems to me that this would be an indirect challenge to ‘unitary’ Constitution that empowers the President to dissolve the Parliament and Provincial Assemblies.

It is unrealistic to expect any miracle cure to the deepening crisis. The existing crisis of confidence needs to be overcome and the first essential step would be to take measures to convince the majority of the Tamils that their legitimate grievances and aspirations would be attended to, without their having to resort to coercive actions. As a comprehensive agreement with the different Tamil protagonists seems unattainable, President Rajapakse and his party should display the courage and vision to take the initial steps unilaterally and hope that the rest of the Sinhala leaders and the Tamils would respond favorably to those gestures of reconciliation. Terminology like “unitary”, “federal”, “self-determination” etc. could be jettisoned as excess baggage and pragmatic efforts made – placing the overall interests of an integrated Sri Lankan State above those of individuals, parties etc. Any such package should give legal sanctity to Sri Lanka being a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual country. It should address all major grievances of all ethnic minorities and meet their minimum legitimate aspirations – particularly relating to equality of all citizens (under the law and in reality); inclusive economic development; and constitutionally sanctioned, significant participation in their own governance.

Such an action would strengthen and embolden the presently silent moderates amongst the Tamils. It may be noted in this context that V. Anandasangaree, President of TULF, issued a press release on 8 June 2008, inter alia reiterating that the SLG should come out with a reasonable proposal acceptable to the International Community, not out of fear of the LTTE , but to enable the International Community to step in and to tell the LTTE to stop all their brutal killings of innocent civilians. He described the present situation as one in which a group that claims to be waging a war against the Government for the liberation of the Tamils is fighting against another group of ultra-nationalists claiming to be great patriots trying to save the country from the former. Neither group realizes that a patriot is not one who merely loves his country but also its people as well. The ultra-nationalists should appreciate that the [moderate] Tamil Leadership openly opposes separation, defying the LTTE at grave risk to their lives. They have declared that they will be satisfied with a reasonable and an acceptable solution within a United Sri Lanka. Whatever be the solution that is arrived at should be the last and final one that will strongly unite all sections of the people of Sri Lanka to a common identity as Sri Lankans, to live in peace and amity, enjoying all rights equally with others. Could such views be supported by the Sinhala leadership of different hues and could they summon the necessary sagacity, maturity, tolerance and pragmatism to do so? Let us hope so.

(This note was prepared by R.Swaminathan, IPS (Retd), Former Special Secretary, DG (Security), Govt. of India and now Vice-President of the Chennai Centre of China Studies, Chennai ,India, to form the basis of his valedictory address on 19 June 2008 at a two-day, bi-national seminar on “Deepening Political Crisis in Sri Lanka”, organized by the Indian Centre for South Asian Studies, Chennai. The author can be contacted at]

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