A revival of hope

Print edition : March 24, 2006

The talks in Geneva between the government and the LTTE have given rise to expectations of continued political engagement.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

At the end of the talks in Geneva on February 23, head of the government delegation Nimal Siripala de Silva (left) with LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham (right) and Norwegian Foreign Affairs Secretary-General Vidar Helgesen.-FRANCOIS MORI/AP

SRI LANKA is now going through its latest spring of hope. The talks in Geneva in February were significant in that they marked a resumption of direct political engagement between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The post-talks rhetoric, however, point to dissatisfaction with the dialogue process.

The latest round of talks - the first since the LTTE's unilateral pullout from the process in March 2003 - gave rise to some expectations of continued political engagement between Colombo and the rebels. The threat of a relapse into war has seemingly receded as the two parties have agreed to meet for a second round in April in Geneva.

When the government and LTTE delegations met behind closed doors at a chateau on the outskirts of the city on February 22 and 23, the ceasefire agreement (CFA) - the longest spell of relative peace in over two decades - had survived for four years, like a candle in the wind. The discussions were on "implementation issues" of the CFA. Differences, however, persisted on the approach and content of the discussions. After two days of talks, described as `tough negotiations,' the Norwegian facilitator, Erik Solheim, read out a statement in which the government and the LTTE agreed to a broad set of terms for continued political engagement.

The four Geneva commitments fall under two broad categories: two made jointly by the government and the Tigers and two made by each of them (see box).

The talks, according to the statement, discussed issues relating to the ceasefire, including the concerns of Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil civilians. Discussions were also held on "all issues concerning the welfare of children in the north east, including the recruitment of children".

The commitments have important implications for the military and political aspects of the conflict-resolution process. Militarily, they point to a momentary waning of the threat of war. The political undercurrents are far more potent. To the government delegation, led by Nimal Siripala de Silva, Health Minister and a senior member of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the talks meant reconciling an inherent conceptual contradiction.

President Mahinda Rajapakse. The challenge for the government is to carry along the JVP and the JHU.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The SLFP's contention was that the CFA was "illegal" as the then President had not signed it, that it was "unconstitutional" and that it was in favour of the LTTE. In addition to this position of the party was the constraint of President Mahinda Rajapakse's electoral pacts with the unitarist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the majoritarian Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which have wanted the ceasefire reviewed.

For the LTTE, the basic issue at Geneva was the disarming of what it termed "paramilitaries" - a term for the forces led by its former special commander for Batticaloa-Amparai, V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna). In effect, the LTTE shut out the possibility of a review of the CFA, implying that the document signed in 2002 separately by the then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the LTTE leader, V. Prabakaran, had to be taken as it was. It was, hence, a situation in which the government found itself in conflict with its own ranks and with its adversary, the LTTE.

The inherent contradiction within the government and the need to balance it politically were evident in the opening address made by de Silva. He termed the CFA "unconstitutional" but said the government was "committed" to upholding it. The LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton S. Balasingham, put forward his organisation's main demand - disarming of "paramilitaries" - and wanted the talks to explore "ways and means to stabilise and strengthen the CFA".

The two sides saw the CFA as being critical to continued peace. Expressing the government's "strong determination and desire to preserve the ceasefire", de Silva said: "We also consider the CFA as the first step to arrive at a negotiated settlement." He said the CFA entered into in 2002 was "contrary to Constitution and law" and that it was "prejudicial to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Sri Lanka". Balasingham described the signing of the CFA four years ago as the "most constructive achievement of the Norwegian-facilitated peace process". The similarities at Geneva, however, were largely limited to these broad endorsements of the CFA. The two sides blamed each other for the continued deadlock, displaying a lack of mutual trust.

REUTERS/HANDOUT LTTE

A few days after the talks concluded, a fresh controversy came up. H.L. de Silva, a government delegate, best known in Sri Lanka for equating federalism to a "beguiling serpent", was emphatic in his interpretation that the Geneva commitments constituted an `amendment' to the CFA. The LTTE found this position unacceptable and Balasingham dismissed it as "illogical and incoherent and based on pure fantasy". He termed the intervention as "politically motivated, aimed at placating the Sinhala hardliners, but certainly not a constructive engagement to promote peace". The LTTE's reaction followed its insistence that no amendments be made to the CFA.

The Opposition United National Party (UNP) - which signed the CFA when it was in power - said the government was making contradictory statements and wanted President Rajapakse to "reveal the clauses that were amended at the talks". The JVP objected to the government's "acceptance" of the CFA and wanted it to be corrected at future talks. The majoritarian JHU, for its part, rejected the government's claim that the CFA was amended. It wanted "stronger amendments to the CFA to control the LTTE's atrocities in the north and east", and one of its senior members proposed amendments to the clauses of the CFA.

LTTE chief V. Prabakaran. His group's main concern is disarming the rebel group led by `Col.' Karuna.-REUTERS/HANDOUT LTTE

The next round of talks in Geneva is scheduled to be held from April 19 to 21. However, with the now-familiar Sri Lankan pattern of rhetoric overtaking serious issues, the prospects of Geneva II remain uncertain.

Sri Lanka's rapidly changing political seasons could be arrested only if all parties concerned show a strong determination to stay the course of political engagement. For a nation bitterly at war with itself, addressing the long-term issues of conflict resolution remains critical.

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