Truce in danger

Print edition : June 30, 2006

With a communiqu on June 9, the LTTE puts an end to the latest phase of negotiations with the Sri Lankan government.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

A LINE-UP OF LTTE cadre on the seafront in Mullativu; an undated photo.-LTTE/HANDOUT/REUTERS

ON June 9, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forced an end to the latest phase of the Sri Lankan conflict resolution process. In a lengthy unilateral communiqu from Oslo, the Norwegian capital, the Tigers reaffirmed their three-decade-old position that the Tamils' "right to self-determination" should be the basis of a solution to the separatist conflict.

With this, the LTTE marked the end of its interest in the latest phase of negotiations with the Sri Lankan government and pushed the country back to the situation that had confronted it at the turn of the century - a militaristic mode as a prelude to hard political bargaining.

In the five-page communiqu, in a format similar to legal declarations, the LTTE makes its points about "the de-facto state of Tamil Eelam" of which it is the "authentic representative" and "sole interlocutor".

In its own way, the LTTE's "Oslo Communiqu" is a continuation of its attitude towards negotiations with successive Sri Lankan governments, particularly after the election of Mahinda Rajapakse to the presidency last November. It was issued after the LTTE refused to talk to the government on issues relating to the role of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). With the refusal, the LTTE had rendered stillborn the third level of direct engagement with the government. The earlier two - the main peace talks and the talks to discuss implementation issues of the ceasefire agreement - were stalled with the LTTE pulling out unilaterally.

The communiqu, after a lengthy preamble, makes just one conclusion: that the LTTE "reaffirms its policy of finding a solution to the Tamil national question based on the realisation of its right to self-determination".

The Oslo communiqu is significant on two counts - what it sets out in its introduction and preamble and, more important, what it does not spell out in the five-page document. For instance, one critical omission was any reference to a "federal" framework for conflict resolution.

The full context of the document becomes clear when it is compared with the December 5, 2002 Oslo communiqu issued by Norway after the third round of talks between the government and the LTTE. That document is recognised as the high point of the direct talks that were held between Colombo and the Tigers from September 2002 to March 2003. The operative portion of the December 2002 communiqu was that the two parties "agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka".

The latest communiqu's introductory paragraph tells the tale of the organisation's move away from the 2002 position. The opening paragraph, for instance, makes clear the LTTE's reading of itself, while the subsequent sentences that commence with "noting that... " bring out its interpretation of the state of play in Sri Lanka's divided politics.

The LTTE refers to areas under its control as "the de-facto state of Tamil Eelam" which has "jurisdiction over 70 per cent of the Tamil Homeland with control over the seas appurtenant there, with its own laws, independent judiciary, police force and full administrative apparatus". The LTTE declares itself "the authentic representative of the Tamil Nation and its sole interlocutor in the current peace process facilitated by the Royal Norwegian Government" and "the sole defender and protector of the Tamil Nation, its People and the State institutions with its modern defence forces".

The remainder of the communiqu spells out the LTTE's interpretation of the decades of strained relationship between the island's two main ethnicities - Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese.

A significant chunk refers to the various developments since the coming into force of the ceasefire agreement (CFA) in February 2002. The list of complaints against the Sri Lankan state also reveals the LTTE's unmet desire to be both viewed and treated as a formal entity on a par with the Sri Lankan state by the international community.

TAMILS FROM PALAI village, which was close to the scene of an LTTE-Sri Lankan Army face-off, flee to Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka, on May 16.-

The points made and the phrases deployed are pointers to the unfolding game plan of the LTTE. Clearly, the political elements of its engagement with the state and the international community are coming to the fore, while there are no changes in its positions held since its formation three decades ago.

The core of the LTTE's approach to the ethnic conflict is that separation through military means is the only manner in which it can be resolved. That the international community has recognised the validity of neither the end (separation) nor the means (violence) is evident. The LTTE's disenchantment and angst at this international positioning was evident in one of the points.

"... [T[he international community's insistence that the solution should be found within a united Sri Lanka coupled with the military threat against the LTTE will not only disrupt the power equilibrium but also remove the incentive for the GoSL [Government of Sri Lanka] to seek a negotiated settlement."

The communiqu - which places developments over the past six years in a chronological order - also places on record the LTTE's recent visible thrust for parity with the Sri Lankan state, particularly in areas not covered by the CFA - control over sea and airspace in the north-east. "...Based on law and fact, sovereignty over and under the sea appurtenant to the northeast and over the air belongs to the people of the northeast," the communiqu says.

Read against the backdrop of recent developments in Sri Lanka, particularly involving the international community, the June 9 communiqu gains particular relevance.

The latest phase of internationalisation of the conflict commenced in the late 1990s with the involvement of Norwegian facilitation by mutual agreement between the then Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. The Norwegian facilitation involved two broad elements - domestic and international. Ending the militarised nature of engagement between the adversaries, the state and the rebels, was one domestic element. The second was steps towards facilitating common ground for negotiations to move towards a lasting solution. At the international level, the approach by the facilitators, and indeed other members of the international community that had a stake in peace in Sri Lanka was to keep the protagonists politically engaged.

However, as was evident to many from the commencement of the 2002 peace process, because of inherent contradictions within the Sri Lankan polity and the unchanged nature of the LTTE, the international involvement was interpreted in different ways by the parties in conflict. As was the case in the first international attempt at resolving the conflict - the Thimphu talks - the LTTE and the government were talking at each other before the international community rather than talking to each other.

Over the months, the political engagement between the government and the LTTE hit a rough patch. In terms of political dealings with successive governments, the Tigers have worked on creating a discontinuity between the several phases of negotiations. This was the experience during the talks led by former Presidents R. Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

In the latest instance, the LTTE's pullout from the talks held with the Wickremesinghe administration, commenced with what it termed as "excessive internationalisation" of the conflict resolution process. One of the factors that drove the LTTE to negotiations was the hope of international opinion turning towards it. However, when it became apparent that the international community wanted the LTTE to renounce separatism and violence as a form of meeting political demands, it stalled the peace negotiations, suspended its participation and then called off direct engagement.

The Oslo 2002 communiqu, which spoke of a solution within a "united Sri Lanka", has been completely and formally abandoned by the LTTE with its latest Oslo statement.

The turn of events could be a prelude to a period of uncertainty in the conflict resolution process. The developments since April - the LTTE's assassination attempt on Army commander Sarath Fonseka and the foiled attack by the Sea Tigers on a troop carrier - indicate that the LTTE's plan for the future is to veer away from any direct engagement with the government. The listing of the LTTE as a "terrorist organisation" by the European Union and the accompanying assets freeze and ban on fund-raising reflect the reality that the LTTE's much-sought-after international recognition will remain distant as long as it does not change itself.

After the Oslo pullout, the Norwegian facilitators wrote to Rajapakse and LTTE leader V. Prabakaran asking for written replies to five critical questions that would direct the current phase of the internationally facilitated conflict resolution process.

The facilitators themselves described this as an "unprecedented" step. The questions relate to the ceasefire agreement and the role of the monitors. In its statement, Norway blamed the LTTE for the failed Oslo talks and said the Tigers had accepted its invitation fully aware of the modalities.

The first of the five queries is whether Rajapakse and Prabakaran "stand committed" to the February 2002 ceasefire agreement. The other questions are whether the two parties "want the continued existence and operation" of the SLMM; whether they would be able to provide "full security guarantees" for the monitors, employees and physical assets of the SLMM "in all situations"; whether they accept amendments to the CFA (relating to the composition of the body) to "enable the continued functioning of the SLMM at the operational level and their willingness to provide full security guarantee" for the current SLMM personnel and assets during a six-month transition period in case of changes in the composition of the monitoring body.

The responses by the government and the LTTE to these, the Norwegian government said, would determine the further steps to be taken by Oslo and the SLMM.

Now, with one phase of the conflict resolution process having ended and another commenced, a few factors would decide how Sri Lanka grapples with its separatist problem. One pertains to the role that the international community would play and is expected to play by the parties in conflict. Another is the broad path that the two sides choose to adopt for conflict resolution. The current militarist mode, marked by belligerence by the Tigers and matching calls from Sinhalese hardliners, does not augur well for peace.

The overall solution, however, will remain elusive until the LTTE settles for a power-sharing mechanism that the government would deliver.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor