A crucial round

Print edition : February 24, 2006

The outcome of the February talks in Geneva between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government will have a major impact on the chances of long-term peace in the island.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

Norwegian facilitator Erik Solheim with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse in Colombo.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

ON January 25, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) agreed to hold direct talks in Geneva on the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, raising slender hopes of a resumption of the stalled peace process. The talks are to be held in February. The announcement was made after LTTE leader V. Prabakaran and the group's chief negotiator Anton S. Balasingham met with the Norwegian facilitator Erik Solheim. The hopes, however, are tempered by the current ground situation and the political and diplomatic dynamics that are at play - within Sri Lanka and abroad.

There is considerable relief too and it stems from the feeling that the announcement has prevented an imminent escalation in military operations. This feeling is largely on account of the increase in the level of violence in northern and eastern Sri Lanka since December 2005, which put to test a fragile four-year-old truce.

Going by the public pronouncements, the Geneva talks will deal only with the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. Although limited in its scope, it is a daunting task. Sri Lanka's separatist war since the 1980s has taken the country to a situation in which there is no clear demarcation between the military and political aspects of conflict resolution. This is particularly so given the LTTE's adherence to the concepts of "armed struggle" and "sole representation". Hence the conflict resolution process has become badly entangled with the threat of heightened militarisation. The path ahead will be indicated by the extent to which this is untangled in Geneva. The prospects, however, do not appear bright.

The most significant question that was facing Sri Lanka when Solheim arrived in Colombo in late January was whether the tottering ceasefire agreement would last. Continued killings in the north and east of both civilians and LTTE cadre had pushed the nation further to the brink. There was also considerable international pressure on both the government and the LTTE, more directly on the latter, that there should be no return to war.

A convergence of international opinion on the need to break the deadlock and resume direct negotiations was one factor. Be it New Delhi, Oslo, Brussels, Washington or Tokyo, the larger message was the same: resume talks and stick to the ceasefire agreement. Close on the heels of the sharp criticism of the LTTE's role in conflict resolution by the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jeffrey Lunstead, a stronger message was delivered by the visiting U.S. Under-Secretary for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, who visited the country in January. Stepping up the pressure on the organisation to abandon violence, Burns described it as a "reprehensive terrorist group" which was "keeping the country on the edge of war".

Continuing Lunstead's observations in early January, Burns said that while the Tamils had "legitimate grievances", the LTTE bore the "full responsibility" either to choose peace or to continue with its "repugnant policies of the past decade and a half". In early January, the U.S. Ambassador said that the "LTTE's current actions call into question its `leadership' of the Tamil people". Strongly condemning the continued killings, he said: "It is very important for the LTTE to end its violence, to stop all violence so that negotiations may begin and peace may return to Sri Lanka."

Burns' comments, made at a media conference in Colombo, came against the backdrop of the killing of nearly 80 security force personnel since December in the sharpest escalation of violence in four years.

Replying to a question on why the U.S. was encouraging negotiations with the LTTE while not doing so with Al Qaeda, Burns described the latter as "a terrorist group" that represented "no grievances". Burns said he had raised issues such as the operations of paramilitary groups and attacks on Tamils during his meetings in Colombo. During his visit, Burns met President Mahinda Rajapakse and other Sri Lankan political leaders. He also met the visiting Norwegian Minister for International Development.

"The U.S. supports ending violence, a return to negotiations and the maintenance and building up of the ceasefire agreement," Burns said. "It is imperative that every step be taken by the Sri Lankan government and other parties to the conflict to show support to the Tamil community, for the needs of the Tamil community and respect for the rights of the Tamil community," he added.

Burns' comments were significant as they made an explicit difference between the grievances of the Tamils and the role played by the LTTE. His nuanced interpretation of the Tamil question brought home the point that India had been making for decades - that the issue of Tamil grievances was separate from that of the LTTE's modus operandi.

Solheim with LTTE leader V. Prabakaran in Kilinochchi.-AP

BROADLY speaking, two outcomes are possible in Geneva. In the short term, it is hoped that the talks will halt the spiral of violence in the north and east. If this happens, it is expected that it will catalyse a full-fledged resumption of the peace talks. Another factor that is at play relates to the propaganda value of such a meeting. For the LTTE, one elusive element in its separatist end-game has been international support. After the latest escalation of violence, the group has been further isolated internationally. Hence, an attempt at negotiations will suit its long-term goals, as any failure of the talks can be portrayed as a result of the inability of the Sri Lankan state to meet its demand.

The other element of the external propaganda factor is that Rajapakse, backed by the unitarist parties - the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) - had committed to preserving and maintaining the unitary structure of the Sri Lankan state. For long there has been an agreement that negotiations are the way towards finding a solution to the decades-old separatist conflict.

There, however, remain sections of hardliners among Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists who believe in the utility of a military onslaught, if not as a final offensive, before taking their respective sides to negotiations because they can talk from a position of strength. Against this backdrop, the ability of Rajapakse to make headway in the main negotiations - signs of which are not in immediate sight - depends on his ability to address the insecurities of the majoritarian hardliners, while meeting the demands of the minorities.

There is also the additional dimension of Rajapakse's ongoing efforts of domestic political consolidation. This effort is on two fronts - within the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and among its allies. With the party's leadership vested with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the manner in which it rallies behind Rajapakse's efforts is critical. Another thorny issue is Rajapakse's relationship with the Left-radical JVP, given the differences between Chandrika Kumaratunga and the JVP.

Yet another element of political consolidation is "defections" from the main Opposition United National Party (UNP). The UNP has offered its support to the peace efforts and is more open to the concept of political power-sharing. However, an irritant is likely to emerge in the form of political discomfort, which could snowball into opposition to the peace efforts, if the UNP is threatened by further crossovers.

As Sri Lanka starts its latest attempt at negotiations, the prospects of peace or war depend on how carefully the dynamics of peace and politics are handled.

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