Explaining Sri Lanka’s political and military dynamic

The high-powered Indian delegation consisting of the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary and the National Security Advisor have come and gone. There has been much speculation as to the purpose of the visit. Whatever the reason or reasons, their meeting with Minister Douglas Devananda was beneficial to Sri Lanka judging from media reports (The Sunday Island, June 22, 2008). According to these reports the Minister had used the opportunity to explain to the delegation the limitations within which Sri Lanka's President was compelled to address its decades old national question.

The Indian delegation as well as other members of the International Community have been consistent in their recommendation to successive Sri Lankan governments that the approach to the resolution of its national question has to be political and not military. Minister Devananda had explained to the delegation that the only political solution that could be implemented is what is enshrined in the current constitution and anything beyond is practically impossible since it entails revising the constitution; a process that requires 2/3 approval by Parliament followed by the approval of the people at a referendum. Such an exercise is not possible given the prevailing political formations in Sri Lanka's Parliament.

Prospects for a political solution

Several analysts and commentators have drawn attention to the limits of what is politically possible. They have elaborated on the fact that all the efforts at devising political arrangements to resolve Sri Lanka's national question whether through Constitutional Assemblies or All Party Representative Committees, finally have to face the gauntlet of a constitutional revision. The impossibility of overcoming this constitutional constraint limits the scope of political solutions to what could be passed by a simple Parliamentary majority. This fact is not recognized for its true import and successive governments have failed to impress upon members of the International Community the full impact of these limitations. Consequently governments are seen as being obdurate and not heeding international advice.

The inability to appreciate the limitations involved has presumably been the reason for critics of successive governments to conclude that the Sinhalese are not serious about sharing power with minorities. Such perceptions are due to a failure to appreciate the hard fact that notwithstanding the reasonableness and fairness of the political arrangements negotiated, political parochialism coupled with party rivalries prevent political formations coming together to satisfy the constitutional requirements needed to make such arrangements real. In their absence, the only pragmatic course for the government is to implement what is constitutionally permissible; that being the 13th Amendment.

Under these Constitutional constraints negotiating political arrangements beyond existing Constitutional provisions becomes an exercise in futility. Consequently, the notion that the military capabilities of the LTTE are what would enable the Sri Lankan Tamil community to negotiate from a position of strength makes no sense, because whatever the arrangements negotiated, they would become subject to Constitutional endorsement. In this context, the military capabilities have no relevance. Equally nonsensical is the attempt to militarily establish a separate state in the Northern Province now that the Eastern Province has committed itself to function within the existing Constitutional framework.

Futility of the LTTE’s military approach

The hope of evolving a political solution beyond what exists is what motivates the LTTE and its backers to continue with the military campaign, interspersing it with acts of terrorism. As long as this hope persists, no interest would be shown by the LTTE and its backers to benefit from existing constitutional provisions because of the belief that doing so would dilute the efforts needed to explore more expansive arrangements. Consequently, no attempts are being made to seriously pursue benefit from current provisions because of the hope of gaining more under arrangements that are realistically beyond reach because of constitutional impediments.

As for successive governments, they too are disinterested in implementing existing constitutional provisions due to the rejection of these provisions not only by the LTTE but also by the Tamil community on grounds that they are inadequate. To expect governments to implement provisions that they know would not even partially help to resolve national issues is to invest in endeavours without tangible returns. The notion that implementing current provisions would wean away support for the LTTE has no merit because whatever support the LTTE wants it gets by force.

By holding out for more, the LTTE is losing out on what is possible as amply demonstrated by the break away faction of the LTTE in the Eastern Province. Not only is its continued military approach taking them any closer to its cherished goal but also denying the Tamils in the North opportunities to recapture their shattered lives.

Under these existential realities what meaningful purpose would be served by the LTTE continuing to build its military capabilities? The LTTE was never in a position to militarily establish a separate state territorially comprising the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The LTTE lost control of the Eastern Province twice. It has lost control of most of Jaffna nearly two decades ago and now is losing control of major portions of the Vanni. If its hope was that a war weary South would some day concede a political arrangement even short of a separate state, it should be convinced by now that such a possibility is unrealistic because of the inability to secure the needed approvals for constitutional change with the People's referendum serving as the last bastion.

In this background, hoping to pressure the government to abandon the military offensive and focus on evolving political arrangements by using the human rights situation in the country as a weapon is futile because of the disconnect between the human rights situation in the country and the limitations of the constitutional constraints explained above. It is only by neutralizing the impediments that hinder the implementation of current constitutional provisions, however limited, that the government can hope to restore the lives of the Tamil people as it has done in the Eastern Province. This requires the Government to pursue the military option until such time that the LTTE realizes the futility of its current approach. .


The current constitutional provisions are viewed by the Tamil community as inadequate to meet their expectations. Meeting expectations would therefore require a constitutional change. Such a change requires 2/3 approval by Parliament and approval at a national referendum. Since election to Parliament is based on proportional representation no political party can secure an outright majority leave alone a 2/3 majority. Consequently, the majority needed to effect constitutional change would require parties coming together. But, given the rivalry among political parties this is an unlikely prospect. This dynamic prevents Sri Lanka to explore options other than the provisions in the current constitution; a stark reality that has NO bearing on the political will of governments or the lack thereof. This leaves Sri Lanka with NO political options other than the provisions in the current constitution. Therefore, the current constitution HAS TO BE the political solution.

The military dynamic is such that the LTTE is not in a position to militarily establish a separate state. Its commitment to make war backed up with terrorism leaves the Sri Lankan state with NO option other than to accept war. For the LTTE to continue to make war, and especially to continue terror attacks on civilians in the South, have to be in the hope that a war weary South would concede the arrangements it seeks (e.g., the ISGA). Since such concessions would amount to changes in the constitution, their legitimization would be an insurmountable hurdle. Under the circumstances, the notion that military capability is what assures "balance of power" when it comes to negotiating political arrangements has no place in the particular dynamic that exists in Sri Lanka. In this particular dynamic, while retaining the LTTE's military capabilities would cast doubt as to the seriousness of its commitment to a ceasefire, decommissioning weapons of war would demonstrate its commitment to peace. Either action would not in any way alter the limits of the political options. Therefore, the level of military capability of the LTTE would in the end not enable the LTTE to pursue expansive arrangements because what is politically possible cannot go beyond what currently exists.

It appears that Minister Devananda apprised the high powered team from India of the political dynamics involved. As for the military dynamic, the team must be already aware of what is at stake. What is needed is for the Sri Lankan government to engage in a concerted campaign to explain to the International Community the dynamics involved. It is such a campaign that would enable the Government to project itself as one that is seeking to sufficiently weaken the LTTE without which what is politically possible cannot be implemented. In the absence of a clear explanation, the Sri Lankan government is seen as one that seeks war without a political objective. The International Community needs to understand that the political solution is what currently exists and that the military objective is to create the conditions that would make possible the implementation of the only political solution available, as was done in the Eastern Province. This, in short, is the only possible agenda and it needs to be explained over and over with clarity to the world community.

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