From bad to worse

Print edition : November 17, 2006

The failure of talks between the government and the LTTE has made the already tense atmosphere in the country turn grave.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Colombo

PRESIDENT MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA with Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe after signing the deal to work together.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

THE collapse of the talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), christened Geneva-II and held on October 28 and 29, typifies the tragedy that has engulfed the island nation for well over two decades.

The development, fraught with serious implications for the ordinary citizens caught in the conflict, took place even before the ink had dried on the unprecedented pact between arch political rivals Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the ruling party, and United National Party (UNP), the principal Opposition. The agreement was hailed as one with the potential to herald a new era of peace and development.

With the failure of the government and the LTTE to agree on anything, including possible future engagement, the already tense atmosphere in the country has turned grave. Open threats by the LTTE that any further "military ventures" by the government could lead to an "all-out war" have brought Sri Lanka to yet another critical juncture. Apprehensions are that there will be another season of bloodletting before the two sides return to the negotiating table. Everyone would be happy if the prognosis proves wrong.

What went wrong at Geneva? Objectively speaking, nothing. But failure was writ large on Geneva-II. After all, neither the government nor the LTTE went there of its own volition. They were dragged, kicking and screaming, by an international community alarmed over the state of affairs in the country throughout 2006. It was done under the noble assumption that getting the two at a table could help ease tensions and perhaps pave the way for an environment conducive to future talks. But the wishes of the world did not come true as the adversaries stuck to their ostrich-like positions and the talks broke down on the issue of the closure of the A 9 highway, a road that links the Jaffna peninsula to the outside world.

It all began with the September 12 Brussels Declaration of the Co-chairs of Sri Lanka, which announced the commitment of the government and the LTTE to resume talks. Nevertheless, even as the two sides showered platitudes on the Co-chairs, who represent Sri Lanka's 58 donor countries, and pledged their word for peace, the situation on the ground deteriorated. The military campaigns of the government resulted in deadly attacks by the LTTE and vice versa. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was virtually confined to Colombo and the 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA) was in shreds. Nearly 3,000 people have died and 2.5 lakh have been displaced in 2006 alone.

Norwegian peace-broker Eric Solheim made a telling point at the Geneva conference that the fatalities in the latest phase of hostilities in Sri Lanka far exceeded, in numbers, the casualties in the recent attack on Lebanon by Israel. Between the Brussels statement of the Co-chairs and the futile Geneva-II, the Lanka military and the LTTE were engaged in a series of deadly attacks targeting each other.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, in his analysis of the dynamics currently at play (Frontline, November 3), pointed out that for both sides the ground battles were not over yet. There was just no meeting point; Norway could not even fix a commonly agreeable agenda. The government sought engagement with the LTTE on an ambitious seven-point agenda, including "democracy and human rights". The LTTE insisted that the prevailing "human crisis" in the North and the East was the only "core issue" before the meeting.

The exasperation of the peace-broker was reflected in the closing comments of Solheim: "No date for a new meeting was agreed upon. Norway will be in ongoing dialogue with the parties to discuss all possible ideas on how to move the peace process forward. Both parties reiterated their commitment to the ceasefire agreement and promised not to launch any military offensives. The international community has repeatedly expressed that it expects the parties to show restraint and fulfil these commitments."

Nimal Siripala de Silva, Sri Lanka Minister and government delegation leader at the talks, chose to make a 6,600-word opening statement. It was a reconstruction of events since the last talks and an explanation for the government agenda for engagement with the LTTE. Such a long statement was unwarranted, particularly when the focus of the Tigers was on the "human crisis" and their "concern" for the well-being of the displaced.

The Minister dealt with the A9 closure and the justification for it in his closing statement. "On humanitarian issues, the government side said it would continue to supply all the needs of the Jaffna peninsula by a sea route. When the LTTE was asked to provide safety assurances for the ships, this was refused. The government maintained that it will still make every effort to provide the Jaffna peninsula all its needs including food and other supplies using the sea route till such time that Muhamalai entry check-point of A9 route could be restored with adequate protection for the civilians," he said.

The government's chief negotiator found half a match, at least in words, in the LTTE political head and leader of the delegation, S.P. Thamilchelvan, who made a 3,300-word opening statement at the conference. In the closing statement, the LTTE said: "The closure of the A9 highway has resulted in open prison for more than six hundred thousand people in the Jaffna peninsula under the occupation of sixty thousand Sri Lankan military personnel and constituted a new Berlin Wall... . The LTTE agreed to fix a date for next round of talks and asked the A9 highway is opened before that date. However, the GoSL [Government of Sri Lanka] did not respond positively. The LTTE has requested the facilitators and the SLMM to use their good offices to have A9 opened before fixing a date for the next round of talks."

On the "final solution", interestingly, the LTTE welcomed the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by the two major Sinhala political parties and said that once the Sinhala polity reached a consensus with respect to the resolution to the conflict, the LTTE would enter into political negotiations with the government. Of course, the LTTE would not have agreed on anything less than Eelam. However, on the issue of the closure of A9, the Tigers have clearly boxed the government in.

Security considerations should be important criteria for the military on the A9 highway question. At the same time, no democratic government can be oblivious to the mounting miseries of the people, particularly in LTTE-held territory. Colombo should get down to the task of finding an imaginative solution to the A9 highway impasse while ensuring that the LTTE does not take advantage of it. Otherwise, it is bound to come under pressure from within and outside on the subject.

The failure of Geneva-II has no doubt eclipsed temporarily the significance of the pact between the SLFP, headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the UNP, led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Looking at it in another way, the developments in Geneva should redouble the resolve of the leaderships of the two parties to carry forward the spirit of the pact, which has the potential to herald a new era of peace and development.

The MoU is one of the best things that have happened to the nation, especially in the context of the long-standing animosity between the two parties. As things stand now, it is valid for a period of two years and there is consensus that its sincere implementation would go a long way in addressing some of the serious political issues.

What is the meaning and significance of the agreement? The MoU outlines the common approach of the parties on all the major issues facing Sri Lanka. These are the ethnic conflict in the North and the East; electoral reforms; good governance and social development. Some ticklish questions, such as the structures to implement the understanding and the UNP's participation in the government, are yet to be worked out.

The LTTE's political head, S.P. Thamilchelvan, with Norwegian Minister of International Development Erik Solheim at a press conference after Geneva II.-SALVATORE DI NOLFI/AP

Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe together form a powerful combination. In the November presidential election, Rajapaksa made it to the post with a difference of less than one and a half per cent of the votes. The SLFP and the UNP, along with their friendly parties, account for a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Why has Wickremesinghe chosen to team up with the SLFP? It is true that a section of the UNP, particularly the parliamentary wing, was getting restive in the Opposition. Wickremesinghe has nothing to gain by giving in to them unless the SLFP is ready to make him the Prime Minister. The answer to the union perhaps lies in the earnestness of Wickremesinghe to save whatever is left of the "peace process".

As the architect of the Norwegian-facilitated CFA with the LTTE, Wickremesinghe is convinced that political dialogue and negotiations constitute the only way to settle the ethnic issue. The strained peace process posed the danger of bringing down the Rajapaksa government, which is backed by the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

It goes to the credit of Wickremesinghe that he reposed faith in Rajapaksa despite induced defections from his own party. (Just days before the accord, the UNP-backed independent Colombo Mayor and his entire team crossed over to the SLFP under a cloud of controversy.) With the MoU, Wickremesinghe and his group could provide the space for Rajapaksa to liberate himself from the "conservative-nationalist" policy framework, perhaps partly dictated by the JVP and the JHU, which brought him to the presidency in November 2005. The election promises of Rajapaksa included a review of the CFA and disengagement of Norway as the peace facilitator.

Just before the presidential election, Rajapaksa had entered into an MoU with the JVP and the JHU, wherein he had promised to review the CFA, which in their perception only helped strengthen the LTTE, and replace Norway as the peace-broker.

Interestingly, at the signing ceremony, Rajapaksa made it a point to refer to his other allies and sought to assure them that his joining hands with the UNP did not mean he was about to abandon them. As President, he has to take everyone with him, but if Rajapaksa means business with the UNP he will have to disassociate himself from the philosophy of the JVP that Sri Lanka is not just an island nation but should remain so in the literal sense of the term.

The timing of the accord is appropriate on other counts as well. It came at a juncture when the LTTE stepped up its acts of terrorism, taking the country to the brink of a full-fledged war, and the JVP was busy mustering street support against the CFA and the internationally backed Norwegian peace efforts. The MoU will come handy for the government, particularly in dealing with the LTTE.

It is the absence of a "southern consensus" on the ethnic issue that has provided the oxygen and an excuse to the LTTE in its campaign against the Sri Lankan state. Now the government team could wave the MoU at the LTTE as proof of a beginning of the process of a "southern consensus" and demand discussion on subjects such as "political plurality and human rights" in the territories under its control.

The agreement on resolution of the ethnic issue in the North and the East between the SLFP and the UNP as part of the MoU, subject to fine-tuning and ratification at various other levels, is a radical advance from the solutions so far offered by the Sri Lankan polity to accommodate legitimate aspirations of the minorities. It has identified six subjects, including defence and foreign affairs, as exclusive jurisdiction of the Central government, leaving the rest under the purview of "regional administrators".

As Wickremesinghe pointed out in his speech at the signing of the MoU, it is just a beginning; both sides have a long way to go and there would be several obstacles. Good faith is crucial and the onus is clearly on the leadership of both the parties to build on the spirit rather than fritter it away, avoiding the temptation of short-term gains even as the nation gears up for all the drama and trauma in the coming days and weeks.

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