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Peace in war – ravaged Sri Lanka

1. October 2002


Needed sooner than later

At long last after a most horrendous 20-year-long war between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a new peace process has nen set in motion with a 3-day preliminary talks between the two sides that commenced on 16.09.2002. Of course there is just no other way out for the United National Front (UNF) G0vt. led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, UNP leader, who grabbed the hand extended by LTTE leader, Velupillai Pirabakaran, symbolised by the ceasefire unilaterally declared by the latter, effective from December 24, 2001, barely 3 weeks after Wickramasinghe assumed office after the defeat of the People`s Alliance ( PA) led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in the December 5 General Elections. Of course it was long obvious to all sane elements that there could never be a military solution to the underlying problem, viz., the Tamil national question. The Sinhala chauvinist segments which successive Governments since 1948 have always pandered to, at great peril to the whole country, believed otherwise. They calculated or rather miscalculated that the armed national liberation struggle led by the LTTE since the 1980s could be crushed as , in fact,happened to the non-violent liberation struggle hitherto waged by the Tamil old guard since the l940s.

And those on the lunatic fringe such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and Sihala Urumaya (SU) etc. have been crying hoarse that the LTTE should be destroyed, hook, line and sinker.

It is certainly not too much to stress that Sinhala majoritarian hegemony has been the bane and blight of Sri Lanka especially during the last half a century. That Sri Lanka is a plural polity with its rich multi-ethnic, multucultural diversity just did not penetrate the skulls of the ruling elites. They were content to playing politics all the way, inexorably riding the Island into the valley of death, destruction and doom. Apparently the new Government has learnt some lessons from past blunders.

Previous ceasefire by the LTTE

The LTTE had made unilaterally declared a ceasefire earlier, too, for a month, in Aprl, 2001. In the absence of reciprocation from the the Govt., and reportedly persuaded by the Norwegian facilitator, Erik Solheim, the LTTE extended its ceasefire by a further 2 months. The Govt. stuck to its guns, dismissing the LTTE`s gesture as a ploy to regroup itself. The Govt., refused to reckon with the series of military reverses it had suffered both before and after the fall of the second biggest garrison in the North, viz., the Elephant pass military complex. Deluding itself that it could still beat the LTTE and thus take the upper hand , the PA Govt. indulged in a veritable military gamble. Also, it worked overtime to get the LTTE banned by other countries such as Britain, Canada and Australia, while the US and India had already banned the outfit. Former Foreign Minister, Laksman Kadirgamar, a close confidante of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and presently her advisor on international affairs bent over backwards to get the LTTE banned by these countries on the assumption that the LTTE could thus be weakened and starved of foreign financial resources for its military project. However, such calculations proved to be absolutely counter productive. Just as the LTTE terminated its unreciprocated 3-month-long ceasefire, the Govt. launched what it perhaps believed would be a blitzkrieg, codenamed “Akinikeela” (Roll of Flame) That was quickly counter-attacked by the LTTE devastatingly.

Solheim downsized

Meanwhile, the Norwegian facilitator, Solheim, was downsized and virtually dismissed by the PA govt. on suspicion that he was pro- LTTE. The Goivt maintained that it wanted to upgrade the Norwegian facilitation. Thus, Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgessen took over the role from Solheim with the latter also remaining on the job. And then came the December 2001 general elections and the advent of the Ranil Wickramasinghe Govt.

Wickremasinhe seizes opportunity

As stated above, Prime Minister Wickramasinghe seized with both hands the opportunity presented by the LTTE`s unilateral ceasefire. The Govt. then clinched the deal and a common ceasefire was in place in late January 2001, followed by the signing of the Memorandum Of Understanding(MoU) between Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and LTTE leadr Velupillai Pirabakaran in February 2002. The UNF Govt. has also removed the local ban imposed on the LTTE since 1998 though resented by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who contended that the deban should only be considered after negotiations commenced. She had also asserted, earlier, that she could even get the February MoU cancelled if she so decided. In the matter of the deprosscription of the LTTE President Chandrika Kumaratunge had chosen to be obstinate, when countries such as even U.S. has welcomed the deban to facilitate the peace process, notwithstanding the proscription of the LTTE in their respective countries being still in place.

President Chandrika did commence negotiations in 1994

Now, it should be recalled that President Chandrika Kumaratunge herself had negotiations commenced with the LTTE soon after her election first as Prime Minister in 1994. And then also arranged for the Norwegian facilitation herself. Nevertheless, she left much to be desired in the strategy adopted by her to carry through that excercise, and her resort to the military approach soon afterwards. Negotiations which commenced in September 1994 broke down in April 1995, bringing a 4- month – long ceasefire to an end. Charge levelled by the LTTE was that the Chandrika regime was neither sincere nor serious about the peace process but was overly concerned with sunshine propaganda. For one thing, President Chandrika had deployed a bureaucrats level low – profile delegation sans political clout. Secondly, much of the inhuman economic blockade that the previous UNP Govt. led by President J.R. Jayawardena, and later Premadasa, had imposed on the North for nearly 10 years were not removed by the Chandrika Govt. despite the enormous suffering that the people continued to undergo. Persistent appeals to remove the blockade went unheeded. Thirdly, there was no proposal on the table for a political solution to the problem.

No attempt by Chandrika Govt to resuscitate talks

Against such a scenario, without making any attempt to resuscitate the negotitations, the Chandrika Govt. chose to pursue its infamous war-for-peace doctrine, launching its first military operation code-named “Operation leapforward” in early July, 1995. It was doubtlessly a response to the LTTE`s April 19 attack on the two 2 ships in the Trincomalee harbour after the 4-month long ceasefire ended with the breakdown of the negotiations. Cohabitation with the new Govt.

Now, since the advent of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe`s UNF., there arose the need for President Chandrika Kumaratunga, leader of the PA to cohabit with the new Govt. In a TV address to the country early last August, the President stressed: “I have a duty to work in cohabitation with the Cabinet of a different Party…… under the present Constitution where the President and the Cabinet are from 2 different political parties it has become obligatory to adopt a policy of cohabitation and reconciliation which demands mutual co-operation betwen the President and the Cabinet…………I am pleased that the new Govt. is carrying forward the peace process initiated by my Government. Throughout my political career I have remained resolute that the ethnic issue required a negotiated political settlement, Accordingly, I have extended my fullest support to the peace process.”

President`s negative approach

However, in practice the President has contrived to be obstructive, claiming that this or that step taken by the government was questionable. To begin with, she contended that the Wickremasinghe – Pirabakaran MoU left much to be desired. Then she resented the deproscription of the LTTE before the commencement of the Thailand talks. She also opposed the Sea Tiger movement with Govt. concurrence, also harking back to her hackneyed reference to the LTTE as the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world, whereas she herself had talks initiated with the self same organization in 1994.

Hypocritic lament

Certainly not that the President is unaware of the complexity and gravity of the problem. Let us look at what she stated in her First Madhavrao Scindia Memorial Lecture in New Delhi on April 23, 2002. She said, “The refusal by hegemonistic Sates to recognize the justice and legitimacy of the demands of some of the communities living within the State is one of the major causes of ethno-religious conflicts within States in modern times…..we have to seek alternatives to the monolithic unitary concept of State sovreignty…….In Sri Lanka we have faltered in the essential tasks of nation building since Independence. With much less diversity of race, religion and languages than you have, we have failed to address the issue of building a truly pluralist nation – state. You are aware of the horrendous consequences of this neglect – the rise of armed atruggle of one of the minority communities in my country which has grown into the most ruthless armed conflict seen anywhere in the world, in modern times”.

Preliminary talks in Thailand

Now let us focus on the 16th September preliminary negotiations in Thailand between the GOSL and the LTTE. Government`s Chief Negotiator and Constitutional Affairs Minister, G.L.Peiris said, “Together we repudiate today the legacy of rancour and hatred, which has torn asunder the fabric of aur nation for decades……nothing is clearer, in the interest of national survival, let alone national prosperity, than that this is the time for a fresh point of departure….we stand unwaveringly for the amplest degree of devolution and for the estsblishment and strenghening of institutions designed to serve this purpose.

While on the other hand, LTTE`s Chief Negotiator, Dr. Anton Balasingam said, “As far as the Liberation Tigers are concerned, I can assure you that we are seriously and sincerely committed to peace and that we will strive our utmost to ensure the success of the negotations. Peace and stability are being restored in the Island for the first time after 2 decades of relentless and sustained war that has torn the country apart…… the deepest aspiration of our people is peace, a peace with justice and freedom, a permanent peace in which our people can enjoy their right to self-determination and co-exist with others. Peace, stability and ethnic harmony are the foundations upon which economic prosperity in the Island can be built. Let us strive genuinnely , with hope and confidence, to consolidate these foundations at this forum to bring about a peaceful and prosperous life to all peoples in the Island”

Top Govt. sources, among other circles , have opined that there could be hiccups, stutters and even breakdowns in the peace process and that it would take quite a long time to arrive at a final solution. One must, however, stress that time is of the essence; it has to hapen sooner than later, leaving no time or space or quarter for the racist, anti-peace forces to bounce back to upset the apple cart. Now both sides have underlined the fact that the countryis torn asunder. This is what the Sri Lankan old Left grimly warned would happen, while strongly opposing the bill brought up by the then Prime Minister,Bandaranaike, in l956 to make Sinhala only as the official language. Bandaranaike refused to heed that historic warning, even though he himself advocated in l951, when he formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), that Sinhala and Tamil should be made the official languages .

The Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP), followed by the New Left Front (NLF), has over the last 25 years, uncompromisingly campaigned for the right of the Tamils to self-determination, homeland and autonomy. Sinhala chauvinists have kept lambasting this position as an advocacy of separatism. Those traitrous ignoramuses will do well, better late than never, to realise that there is no better prescription for the country`s unity and forward march. The solution, after all, has to be more home-grown than than so overly Western interventionist, because while peace is paramount, the West with its anti-Third World agenda of capitalist globalisation is set to bring the Island`s vital economic resources and even its sovreignty under its hegemony in exchange for its “overwhelming ” support for the peace process.