The Guest Column by Victor Ivon

14th November 1999

Failure to see the wood for the trees

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If Prabhakaran has been able to reverse in a mat-ter of 72 hours any gains made by an armed force of 40,000 men in 33 months of toil, and if our society fails to understand, even after this tragic experience, that there is no military solution to the ethnic problem, then the day on which a separate state will be established for the Tamil people of the North-East cannot be far away.

No major political party in our country seems to have a sound idea as to what kind of solution is required to this problem.

Although a reform of the political system to permit the Tamil people of the North-East to substantially manage their affairs is necessary, that alone will not be adequate to solve this problem.

Although it will be possible to solve the ethnic issue through a sound political reform, there is also an additional problem centering on Prabhakaran and the LTTE. There is a further problem as to what should be done next to those people who have come to depend on the war for their sustenance.

Those two additional problems that exist within the main problem of the ethnic issue are more complex and sensitive.

It is not possible to presume that with an ending of the war through a workable solution to the ethnic issue, Prabhakaran and the leaders of his Tiger army who have been the other party to the war, will leave the country or go into an insecure retirement, allowing us to do whatever we like . A solution will have to be found beforehand to the complicated sensitive question of what should be given to or what should be done to Prabhakaran and the leaders of his Tiger army after the ending of the war. It will have to be a solution that will not endanger Sinhala security and will be acceptable to Prabhakaran and the LTTE. It is not possible to think that, whatever sound solution might be found to the ethnic issue alone without addressing that complex and sensitive problem, Prabhakaran and the LTTE will be agreeable to it. Neither the solution proposed by the PA, nor the ideas being presented in a general way, seem to have taken that problem into consideration at any level.

For that very reason, it is not possible to expect a good response from Prabhakaran or the LTTE to such solutions.

The next important and serious matter to which a solution has to be found is what should be done to the soldiers to whom the war was only one means of sustenance.

Although the effect of the ethnic crisis as a whole on the country and society has been destructive, that crisis has had favourable effects on some social groups in Sinhala and Tamil society, even within that destructive effect. Today a large percentage of the Tamil community of Sri Lanka live in Western countries.

The life they lead there is better in every way than the life they lived in this country. Such a transformation in their lives might not have taken place if not for the ethnic crisis.

On the other hand this crisis seems to have had beneficial results on the low income families of Sinhala society too.

While the biggest source of income for poor rural families is Middle East employment, the second biggest source is service in the military .

Incomes from paddy cultivation and from subsidiary crops are smaller. The number of Sri Lankans employed in the Middle East is reckoned at 500,000 and their earnings which Sri Lanka receives as foreign exchange amounts to Rs. 30,000 million. The number of those serving in the security services including the Army and the Police amounts to 275,000 persons, while their income as salaries and compensation for rural families amounts to about Rs. 25,000 million. The income derived by villagers from paddy cultivation and cultivation of subsidiary crops is very much less than that from these other two sources. The value of the annual paddy production of the country is Rs. 26,842 million. The value of the production of subsidiary crops is Rs. 33,126 million.

If the nett income to rural society is considered to be one third of the total value of these products, it amounts to Rs. 19,989 million. The income that comes as Samurdhi benefits amounts to Rs. 796 million only. The income that comes to rural society from the garment industry is Rs. 4,800 million.

While the most popular source of employment for young women of rural families is domestic service in the Middle East, the most popular source of employment for young men from rural families is joining the military service as soldiers. Hardly any educational qualifications are necessary to join the military service as soldiers.

What is required is physical strength only. A young man with such little education gets a salary about twice that earned by a young man with higher education, at the beginning.

In the military service food, accommodation and uniforms are provided free of charge. Even when he dies his dependants continue to get the salary he had been paid. Military service has not only guaranteed a good source of income for rural youth, but has also gained them social acceptance.

In a society where military service has become a major factor that determines the economic survival of poor families in rural society, any course of action that provides a solution to the war will invariably affect those social groups where subsistence depends on the war.

Although the rural youths who are linked to the war would not dislike a course of action that would bring a solution to the war, any fear on their part that their source of living would be affected would inevitably weaken any attempt to bring about a solution to the war. The soldiers are unlikely to be satisfied with any alternative means of employment.

They could only be satisfied if a means of employment can be guaranteed in which they would get an income similar to that which they get from military service.

No political party seeking a solution to the ethnic problem has given the appearance so far that it has paid attention to the question of Prabhakaran and the leaders of the LTTE or to the close connection that has been built up between the military service and the rural economy.

Due to the complexity and sensitivity of these additional problems, the political parties are unlikely to pay attention to these problems.

In the circumstances the only thing that might happen could be a declaration of a separate state before long by Prabhakaran, perhaps on the eve of the new century.

Although India and the world community might not approve of such a course of action, they too might come to the conclusion that, in view of the parochial attitudes and activities of Sri Lanka's political leaders, there is no other solution.

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