A speech and an agenda

Print edition : December 19, 1998

LTTE Supremo V. Prabakaran presents his preconditions for any move towards negotiations in order to gain manoeuvring space, but the People's Alliance Government has no political space to resume talks.

VELUPILLAI PRABAKARAN has proved once again that he is a clever political player too. No bombs were exploded in Colombo on November 27, the day observed as Heroes' Day by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Instead, the LTTE leader delivered a bombshell of a political kind. On hearing the report of Prabakaran's speech, excited foreign correspondents in Colombo asked political analysts: how will the Sri Lankan Government respond to the LTTE's offer for negotiations?

Prabakaran's speech also excited Sri Lanka's main Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP). Its leader Ranil Wickremasinghe told the People's Alliance Government to take steps immediately in order to begin unconditional talks with the LTTE through a mediator.

However, the Government does not seem to have been excited at all about either negotiations or mediation. It only reiterated its extremely cautious stand on resumption of negotiations.

It is time to ask whether Prabakaran's speech contains any significant message concerning negotiations and a negotiated settlement. This is how Prabakaran begins the theme of negotiations: "We have not closed the doors for peace. We are open to the civilised method of resolving conflicts through rational dialogue. Since the Sinhala leadership lacks the political will and sincerity to resolve the problem, we favour third-party mediation for political negotiations. But we are not prepared to accept any preconditions for political dialogue." (From the detailed English excerpts released by the International Secretariat of the LTTE.)

Then come the preconditions which the LTTE wants to lay down for any move towards negotiations. "We want the political negotiations to be held in an atmosphere of peace and normalcy, free from the conditions of war, military aggression and economic blockades. We are not stipulating any preconditions for peace talks. We are suggesting the creation of a climate for peace talks."

Then what are the elements that should constitute "the climate of peace and goodwill" that will be conducive to "peace talks"? One: "A congenial environment in which our people must be free from the heavy burden of suffering imposed on them." Two: Political negotiations cannot be "free, fair and just" as long as "the Government utilises the military aggression on our soil and the restrictions imposed on the economic life of our people as political pressures." One does not need to be an expert in negotiations to identify two major preconditions for negotiations proposed in these two formulations. The first is economic and the second is military.

The LTTE has always been clear about what it should achieve in the short run through negotiations or talks. The two conditions mentioned earlier have been formulated with certain short-term strategic objectives in mind. The creation of a free, fair and just atmosphere merely to hold talks - with no suggestions about any political outcome of such talks - is a short-term goal. This does not at all suggest that the LTTE has decided to bring a new political process to the centre of its strategic goals.

Prabakaran's speech has once again demonstrated the LTTE's conceptualisation of the approach to negotiations. The organisation appears to have worked out a two-stage formula concerning negotiations. The first stage is "initial talks" to discuss "the removal of pressures" imposed on the Tamil people. The second stage is working out a "basic framework for political negotiations". Prabakaran's speech does not provide any clue whatsoever as to how the LTTE views the second stage of political negotiations, but it deals extensively with the first stage.

The long, penultimate paragraph of the English excerpts from Prabakaran's speech is the one that is crucial to understanding the LTTE's own handling of the first stage of negotiations. It talks about the "unbearable suffering" which "our people are facing". The Tamil people are described as "prisoners of their homeland, facing daily various forms of military atrocities." Then comes a line containing an idea which repeatedly figured in the letters that Prabakaran wrote to President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 and 1995. "Our people want their day-to-day urgent problems resolved immediately. They cannot wait over an indefinite time until peace talks resume and the ethnic conflict is discussed, resolved and the solution implemented. They want the war to come to an end and the occupation army that torments them to withdraw and their urgent existential problems addressed immediately."

July 29, 1987: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene sign the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in Colombo.-N. RAM

The contours of "a congenial atmosphere" for talks are now clear. The argument goes step by step. The day-to-day problems of the Tamil people need to be solved immediately. Political negotiations to find a solution to the ethnic problem are a long-term, uncertain affair. The war, meanwhile, should come to an end. The withdrawal of the Army and the solving of the "urgent existential problems" of the Tamil people are linked. The reasoning of this most important paragraph of Prabakaran's speech suggests that the withdrawal of the Army from the Jaffna Peninsula is a key element of the LTTE's approach to the first stage of negotiations. The LTTE's proposal for "international mediation" thus makes sense.

WHY has the LTTE adopted this particular two-stage approach to negotiations with the Sri Lankan Government? The obvious answer is that it will give the organisation enough room for manoeuvring, if and when negotiations begin on the agenda and the framework suggested in that approach. No party to an internal armed conflict can be expected to go in for negotiations without ensuring for itself a flexible space for options and tactical alternatives. Prabakaran has indirectly proposed an agenda and framework for negotiations, which is worked out with clear tactical advantages built into it. To use the language of negotiations, this is a hard-bargaining offer.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the Government commences talks with the LTTE. The LTTE is certain to insist on the satisfactory implementation of the conditions it has laid down for the first stage of negotiations. The demands for "the normalisation of civilian life in Jaffna", and "addressing the urgent existential problems of Tamil people" would entail a whole lot of things, as witnessed in 1994-1995. The withdrawal of certain military camps, the ending of the economic embargo, freedom for fishermen to fish freely in the sea, the security of LTTE cadres in an atmosphere of cessation of hostilities, rebuilding infrastructure - it can very well be an unending list.

Then it will be entirely up to the Government to prove its "honesty, sincerity and genuineness of purpose". The Government will certainly find it difficult to distinguish between the demands for the normalisation of civilian life in Jaffna and the LTTE's military considerations. With the ball in the court of the Government, the LTTE can then decide whether to continue the talks or not.

It is significant that the LTTE does not believe that a political settlement to Sri Lanka's ethnic question can be worked out early. During the negotiations between the People's Alliance Government and the LTTE in 1994-95, the LTTE constantly argued that the Government should first address the consequences of the 13-year war rather than discuss the causes of the conflict. This position is once again articulated in Prabakaran's speech: "Our people... cannot wait over an indefinite time until peace talks resume and the ethnic conflict is discussed, resolved and the solution implemented. They want the war to come to an end..." There is then a clear distinction being made between a solution to the ethnic problem and the end of the war.

In the current atmosphere of Sri Lanka's politics, there is no political space for the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government to resume talks with the LTTE. To begin with, there is no political compulsion for the Government to change its present military approach to the LTTE. And no government in Colombo, approaching the end of its term and facing crucial elections within the span of a year, would want to burn its hands again with the LTTE. Positions are now hardened. Amidst severe setbacks on the battlefront, the Government cannot even appear to be relaxing its military campaign against the LTTE. In the current political thinking in Colombo, negotiations with the LTTE will represent a trap and the continuation of the war is the logical option.

Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Colombo.

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