Peace process on the brink

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

Sri Lanka's latest round of peace-making efforts is set on a precipitous course. What are the imponderables, and the options, ahead?

in Colombo

When you starve with the tiger, the tiger starves last.

- popular saying, origin unknown.

FIFTEEN months after Sri Lanka's latest round of peace-making efforts started, the process faces a serious threat. As in war, so in peace, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has stuck to its broadly predictable strategy of pushing Colombo to the edge and then going for the jugular.

The LTTE has unilaterally called off the talks between the Sri Lanka government and itself and declared that unless its core demands are met, it will not participate in the donors' conference scheduled to be held in Tokyo in June. These core demands are an interim administrative structure and the de-escalation of the military situation in the northern Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE is, simply put, demanding its pound of flesh for playing ball with a politically shaky Ranil Wickremasinghe administration.

The LTTE's latest rejection of Wickremasinghe's offer of a development-oriented structure for the process of rehabilitation and reconstruction of the North-East is not unexpected, and the focus of the Tigers remains unchanged with regard to both its demands. The tone and substance of the letter of rejection from the chief LTTE negotiator, Anton S. Balasingham, made it clear that there is no prospect of an immediate climb-down on the part of the LTTE from its latest entrenched position - despite all the prodding and nudging by the international community. On the contrary, the Tigers expressed annoyance over this turn of events. Efforts were on early in June by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to give a reply to the rejection letter. Given the circumstances, there is nothing much that the PMO will be able to do in order to extricate itself from the bind. In early June, the PMO started efforts to explain the position to the Tigers, possibly directly. However, Wickremasinghe's emphatic stand that any solution would have to be within the framework of the statute is in conflict with the LTTE's demand.

International pressure, far from helping to overcome the difficulties, could prolong the impasse. The Tigers' demand for an interim administration with a majority stake for themselves was made by their leader V. Prabakaran at a meeting with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen in rebel-held Kilinochchi on May 15.

As the country's unitary Constitution does not provide for this, the rebels' argument was that it required "new thinking" in order to come up with a solution outside the framework of the Constitution. The "new thinking" refers to Prabakaran's proposals, which would "supersede the multiplicity of existing structures". No details of the proposal have been made public, but S.P. Tamilchelvan, the leader of the LTTE's political wing, subsequently described them as "tangible, workable, practical and conceptually new".

Given the politically vulnerable situation facing Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, that was a nearly impossible demand. Predictably, the Wickremasinghe administration offered a `development-oriented structure' for the Tigers, which envisages a role for them in the process of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Balasingham dismissed this offer. "What is sought and what is delivered are two different sets of structures", he said.

In conformity with its pattern of conduct during previous rounds of negotiations - putting out a broad-ranging demand and leaving it to Colombo to come up with any offers - the Tigers had not spelt out the powers, functions and mechanism of the interim administrative model that Prabakaran wanted. (The only point of time at which the Tigers had fine-tuned their demand, so to say, was during the currently stalled peace talks. Through the decades the Tigers have maintained that they would consider an alternative to a separate Eelam, but have never elaborated on this. Last December, they made the point that they were willing to consider "federal models" as an alternative.)

Rejecting the offer, Balasingham said that the Tigers had "entrusted" that task to the Prime Minister's administration "with the hope that you will act with courage and creativity" as Wickremasinghe had "an overwhelming mandate from the Sinhala masses to establish an interim administrative structure for the North-East". The offer of a "development-oriented structure" was rejected as an "unacceptable" alternative to its demand for an interim administration for the North-East.

The Tigers also showed, for the first time, that they were annoyed at being "treated shabbily" by the major "regional" and "international" players. Since the snapping of talks on April 21, there has been evident international pressure on the Tigers to resume the negotiating process and join Colombo at the head table at the donors' conference in Tokyo. The Japanese special envoy, Yasushi Akashi, Norwegian Foreign Minister Petersen and his deputy Vidar Helgessen and Oslo's special envoy Erik Solheim, were among the high-profile figures to visit rebel-held Kilinochchi to meet Prabakaran.

That the Tigers were in no hurry to join the Tokyo conference and that they would remain unfazed by the international calls was clear when Prabakaran told Akashi that they wanted their demands to be met before they could resume the process. Undertaking a task that is normally left to his juniors, Prabakaran conveyed regrets to a visiting dignitary for the first time during the current peace process. The picture of a moustachioed Prabakaran greeting Akashi did not go unnoticed. The same message was conveyed to Petersen and others.

In its reply to Wickremasinghe's offer, the LTTE did not conceal its annoyance over the treatment meted out to it as a bunch of "terrorists" by the main "international" and "regional" governments. The U.S. and India have banned the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. Moreover, while New Delhi kept away from last year's Oslo conference of mini donors where the LTTE was present, it participated in the Washington seminar held in April 2003 to discuss aid to Sri Lanka, and from which the LTTE was kept out, thus sending a strong signal that it would not share any international forum as long as the Tigers were present there.

Against this backdrop, Balasingham said in his letter that the "continuous hardline attitude" adopted by "powerful international governments" against the Tigers "under their proscription laws casts a negative impact on promoting peace and ethnic reconciliation". The LTTE, he said, had been "very flexible, accommodative and conciliatory" during the talks, had "offered major political concessions" from its "entrenched positions" and "maintained peace under extreme provocations" despite the "main international and regional players" continuing to treat the LTTE "shabbily as a proscribed entity with a terrorist label to be excluded from international forums". The rebels expressed concern over "the growing involvement of formidable international forces" from which Colombo was "soliciting... aid" and along with which it was also seeking to set up a "grand international safety net to bring undue pressure on the freedom of our people to determine their political status and destiny".

That the LTTE is not very keen on making a good impression with an international audience has also been clear for decades. As early as the period of the India-mediated Thimphu talks in the mid-1980s, the Tigers have shown a marked reluctance, bordering on annoyance, at being pushed around by international forces. At times this could even turn counter-productive. In a way, the LTTE would prefer, and be comfortable in, a situation of insularity rather than having to change its stripes to meet international requirements and expectations.

A senior military analyst once observed that the LTTE's edginess will intensify if it gets the feeling that it is being coaxed into accepting a solution that it will not otherwise be willing to accept. The record of the conflict-resolution process has such examples, particularly during the phase of Indian involvement in the 1980s. In simple terms, the LTTE has too many dead to count and account for, making it difficult to strike a deal as Colombo and the international backers of the Wickremasinghe administration hope for. Even as early as the period of the India-mediated Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, the LTTE leadership made the point that it had too many dead cadres to account for. Since then, that figure has grown considerably. The toll was 17,648 in October 2002. Since then, 13 cadres were killed during the period of the current ceasefire, taking the toll to 17,661, including 3,766 women. Clearly, this is far in excess of the toll at the point when the 1987 Agreement was signed.

In his reply, Balasingham said: "As a liberation organisation which has fought a freedom struggle for more than two and half decades with enormous sacrifices, the interests and welfare of our people are of paramount importance to us. You must understand our predicament when no progress has been made through the peace effort towards alleviating the extreme hardships and suffering of our people. The people are losing confidence in us as if we are involved in a futile exercise that produces no dividends." The LTTE, therefore, faces the sheer impossibility of being able to justify any climb-down from the position it has taken during the conflict.

Balasingham's four-page letter minced no words in stating what the LTTE's demand was - an interim administrative structure as envisaged by its leadership. Any demand, simple laws of economics would say, is effective only if it is backed by the willingness and the ability to meet it. That this is not the case with the LTTE's demand is evident from the fact that even if the Wickremasinghe administration is "willing" to embark on a politically sensitive exercise, constitutionally it simply does not have the ability to do so. This demand, marked by brinkmanship, has effectively complicated the peace process. It is now a Gordian knot that would be suicidal for the Wickremasinghe government to cut given his position in a bitter cohabitation government headed by the constitutionally powerful, but politically opposed President, Chandrika Kumaratunga. That it is nearly impossible for him to meet the demands without inviting the President's wrath is clear from what Kumaratunga said on May 23, when she addressed the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Sri Lanka: that she would dismiss the government if it acted in a manner that went against Sri Lanka's sovereign status.

That the LTTE was aware of this was evident from Balasingham's reply to Wickremasinghe: "You have commented that the government has to operate within the laws of the land," he said, adding: "We can certainly understand the fragile position of your government caught up with an enraged President seeking revenge and an entrenched Constitution that allows no space for manoeuvre".

However, he made the point that it was Wickremasinghe's problem to sort out the matter on his own. In its own way, the political division in the south has fuelled the LTTE for decades. "You will certainly agree that if the political system is unstable and your administration is powerless, it will be impossible to resolve the ethnic conflict either by interim means or by permanent settlement," Balasingham said. Striking a strident note, particularly aimed at the latest international backers of the peace process, he asked: "How long can our people wait and tolerate their hardships if your government seeks refuge under legal and constitutional obstacles? Have they not been waiting for more than half a century for redemption while the Sinhala political classes fought ferociously among themselves to deny the inalienable political rights of our people?" It was against this domestic and international backdrop that the Tigers said they were "surprised" and "dismayed" that the government "did not address the critical issue of setting up an interim administrative structure as suggested by the LTTE leadership".

The development-oriented structure was dismissed as being one with "extremely limited administrative powers" and one in which "the participatory role of the LTTE is not clearly defined, or rather, left deliberately ambiguous", Balasingham said. The government had "effectively rejected" the LTTE's proposal "without specifying any reasons". Criticising Colombo for finding "refuge" under the Constitution, he said the government's offer would create an "apex bureaucracy linked to several other inefficient and defunct state agencies".

The LTTE started its push for the political jugular on April 21, exactly three years after it lunged for the military jugular by driving the Sri Lankan military to the edge and then moving into the until-then invincible Elephant Pass military garrison. One end that the Tigers are seeking through the unilateral snapping of talks is similar to what they wanted in the year 2000 - to control fully the northern Jaffna peninsula, the heartland of the decades-long separatist conflict. What the other end result they are seeking also became clear when the first round of peace talks started last September in Thailand - recognition for their "permanent administration" that has been in place through the years of the conflict.

Over the years, peace negotiations between Colombo and the LTTE have followed a predictable course - in the broad sense of the term. An initial phase displays a willingness to accommodate, when the core demands are also placed on the table. This would be followed by expressions of contentment indicating that all is well and the Tigers seemingly showing patience with Colombo while it tries to implement their demands. For its part, Colombo would embark on processes and procedures to work towards the demands of the LTTE. As both sides continue to stretch the process in order to gain time, and for international opinion to swing their respective sides, the sand clock is also turned around for the snapping of talks.

The Tigers normally start showing signs of impatience whenever they feel that they are being short-changed with respect to their demands. During this latest engagement, that phase started way back in December 2002, when the LTTE dismissed a sub-committee on de-escalation and normalisation over the Army's reluctance to relocate from Jaffna.

The problems that the peace process ran into since then remain. Attempts to make it appear that all is well and that matters would be back to normal could prove to be dangerous. More important, the impatience of the Tigers over demands that would be difficult for the Wickremasinghe administration to meet introduces a new sense of uncertainty over the latest efforts.

One difference during the current process is that the Tigers have laid their cards on the table, however tall their demands may be. By asking the government to step outside the Constitution, they have raised the stakes, both for themselves and for the Wickremasinghe administration. Having thus upped the ante, the LTTE has put itself in a position from which a climb-down will be difficult.

More seriously for Colombo, the all-or-nothing option that it put on the peace process has now left it on the edge of a political precipice. To move the peace process further, it has two options. One of these is to go beyond the statute book, in the process inviting constitutional trouble for itself. Alternatively, it could hope for the possibility of at least a protracted stalemate which, given its not-too-encouraging military position, cannot be cause for comfort.

Riding a tiger is a dangerous enough proposition. With the LTTE's rejection of the latest Wickremasinghe offer, terming it as one that does not meet its demand, the latest peace process is set on a precipitous course.

Does it involve feeding grass, as it were, to the already impatient and increasingly hungry Tigers?

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