No farewell to arms

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

The fourth round of talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, held in Thailand last fortnight, witnesses uneven progress with both sides airing significant differences of opinion. Yet, both sides tread softly.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Nakorn Pathom, Thailand

Disarming of our cadres or decommissioning of our weapons at this stage without a permanent settlement is suicidal on our part because military power is - the bargaining power of the Tamils.

- Anton S. Balasingham, the LTTE chief negotiator, on January 9, 2003.

WHAT was expected to be the toughest round of talks in the fledgling peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), turned out to be one that witnessed the softest approach by the two sides.

Yet, for the first time in four months of negotiations in the latest attempt to find peace in the war-torn island, Colombo and the LTTE made public certain differences of opinion. In the run-up to the fourth round, held in the riverside resort of Nakorn Pathom in Thailand, the "federal compromise" that was agreed upon in December 2002 at the Oslo round was overtaken by serious differences of opinion between the Army and the LTTE over what is often a sensitive issue in any conflict resolution process - the disarmament of rebels.

That this would be a difficult round was obvious by mid-December, with the Tigers pushing the case for de-militarising the high security zones (HSZs) in the most sensitive military sector - Valigamam division in the northern stretch of Jaffna peninsula (see separate story). The strategically important Palaly airbase and the Kankesanthurai seaport are located here. Whether the government's writ will run in the northern peninsula is heavily dependent on its military hold over the Valigamam sector.

The Tigers, who lost control over Jaffna in 1995, have made it clear that regaining Jaffna, with or without war, is their priority. The attempt to regain it through military means stopped in May 2000, a month after the Tigers overran the strategic Elephant Pass military base.

Now with a ceasefire in place, the LTTE's demand for de-escalation in the HSZs in order to facilitate the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) was seen as an attempt to regain Jaffna without firing a single shot. Predictably, the Army, which had already expressed its unwillingness to give up control over the peninsula, linked any such de-escalation to the disarming of cadres and de-commissioning of weapons by the LTTE. A meeting of the sub-committee on de-escalation and normalisation (SDN), which was formed at the end of the second session of talks, had run into rough weather in December, with the Tigers saying that they would discuss such issues at the January round of talks.

The gloomy backdrop to the talks was evident on the first day, January 6. The body language conveyed more rigidity than before. The smiles that were seen at earlier pre-talks appearances had given way to a more restrained carriage. Signs of unease were evident, and not many were willing to put their money on what the four days of talks would hold.

At the end of the day's deliberations, a way out was found: the hard issue was deferred. But the full smiles were not back yet. The two sides, it was said, had decided to take up the sensitive issue on the second day. Day Two saw a little more cheer on the faces of the negotiators and the facilitators. The Tigers, it was announced, had agreed to await the report of an "international expert'' on the issue of relocating the HSZs and consented to talk about the resettlement of IDPs outside the HSZs.

A breakdown, it was evident, was averted by taking the soft approach of deferring sensitive issues and taking on less-contentious ones, but there was going to be no farewell to arms either by the Sri Lankan security forces or the LTTE.

The talks then went on, but not before the first such public expression of differences of opinion between the government and the rebels. The status of the SDN remained unclear. Through the second day, the chief government negotiator, Gamini Lakshman Peiris, maintained that there was no problem with the SDN.

That evening, however, the LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton S. Balasingham, made it clear that the Tigers had considered the SDN to have been "suspended". In his sharpest criticism yet of the Sri Lanka Army during the current phase, Balasingham termed the Jaffna military commander, Major General Sarath Fonseka, who had proposed the linking of the de-escalation of HSZs to rebel disarming, as being "paranoid" and "intransigent". He dismissed the Army's view that the LTTE would launch attacks on Palaly and Kankesanthurai, saying that the LTTE's weapons were not in the range to do so. Balasingham told journalists: "Before we enter a permanent solution, to demand that the LTTE cadres have to be disarmed just for the humanitarian sake of resettling refugees in our own homeland, is unfair, unacceptable and unrealistic. The government understands that. They assume that it is a military strategy than a government demand. They try to disassociate themselves from the Army's position, they accept that the problem of resettlement is a crucial issue and should not be conditional."

The LTTE leader added: "Our people have the unconditional right to return to their homes. There are about one million people languishing in various refugee camps unable to go there because of the overwhelming presence of the Army in Jaffna peninsula, which is a tiny geographical area. The entire Jaffna peninsula has turned into a massive military complex. It is very, very unfair." He saw the decision to look at the issues concerning resettlement of "refugees outside the HSZs at the first stage" as representing an amicable settlement. The talks, he said, were held "cordially", and the government had "realised the entire demand".

On the LTTE's reluctance to disarm or decommission weapons, Balasingham said: "The Tamil people have had bitter historical experiences of being given promises. We have signed accords and agreements, which have been abrogated." Later, at the joint media conference, he elaborated on this.

Categorising the decommissioning issue as a "non-negotiable" one, Balasingham said: "Disarming of our cadres or decommissioning of our weapons at this stage without a permanent settlement is suicidal on our part because military power is the power of our people. It is the bargaining power of the Tamils. It is the instrument of security of our people." He added: "We have to bargain from a position of strength. We have to work out a solution that satisfies the aspirations of our people. Till then the question of disarming doesn't arise. But it doesn't mean that there will be a need to recourse to violence. I don't think so. There is no need to recourse to violence."

The LTTE's forces, unlike those of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the Palestinian freedom movement, possessed major conventional weapons, but these were "confined to the barracks" after last year's ceasefire agreement, he said, adding: "We are not a threat to anybody." He said with a tone of finality: "Until a final political settlement is reached, the question of disarming will not arise." The reluctance to disarm and the manner in which the issue was addressed were reminiscent of developments in the late-1980s, when the issue of disarming the Tigers had changed the dimension of the Indian involvement in finding peace in the island. Putting down weapons, it is evident, will be the last thing the LTTE will do.

ON another topic, Balasingham strongly refuted the view that the LTTE's nod to explore a federal option represented a tactical shift. He said: "It is true that we are sincerely and seriously seeking a substantial political settlement. We have been fighting the ethnic war for the past two decades. We want something substantial and we will demand and fight. We will persuade the government to offer us a substantial solution. There is nothing secret about it. There is no secret agenda. I think this categorisation of a genuine effort on our part in the form of a strategy is totally unfair and unacceptable."

The much-talked-about federal compromise reached in Oslo found less play during this session. The reason given for this by the two sides was that as "much progress" was made on the political issues, it was time to look at "urgent, existential" issues. The continued interplay of "immediate issues" and "core issues" in the ongoing peace talks, and its link to the heating up of or cooling down of Sri Lanka's political dynamics, continues to be in evidence.

The Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgessen, summed up the deliberations thus: "It hasn't been a historic meeting in parallel with the Olso meeting last month, but history is in the making and that requires a lot of hard work in a very constructive manner."

In the run-up to the talks, the role of the facilitators had come under a cloud with President Chandrika Kumaratunga objecting to the supply to the LTTE of radio broadcasting equipment, which arrived as a consignment to the Norwegian embassy in Colombo. Asked how he viewed the change in the role of the facilitators with the progress of the talks, Helgessen said: "We are at the service of the parties.'' He said that they would "respond to the request by the parties".

Reading out a "joint statement by the parties" at the end of the talks, Helgessen said: "The deliberations were conducted in a frank and constructive atmosphere, with both parties demonstrating their conviction that the peace process must be sustained even when difficult issues are addressed."

As the fourth session took up issues that were of a humanitarian nature and less contentious than those that came up in the previous sessions, it ended on a cordial note with the two sides agreeing to look at a number of issues relating to human rights. A statement made at the end of the talks by the Norwegian facilitators said that the two sides had consented to work out a "schedule on human rights'' with the assistance of an "agreed human rights adviser".

With the ceasefire agreement, signed separately in February 2002 by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and LTTE leader V. Prabakaran, in place, there have been just two military casualties for the government forces during the last year.

However, two decades of war have taken a toll of an estimated 60,000 lives. Then there are the contested figures on those Missing in Action (MIAs). Against this backdrop, the two sides have agreed to set up an "independent verification mechanism" with regard to MIAs and instances of involuntary disappearances, with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In view of complaints of violations of the 11-month-old bilateral ceasefire, the two sides also agreed to hold "monthly meetings" with the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to discuss issues arising from the regular summaries of the SLMM on the complaints. Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Austin Fernando and the LTTE's military commander for two eastern districts, V. Muraleetharan (alias `Col' Karuna), would be "responsible for organising these meetings".

WITH the two sides having agreed at the start of the talks to address the resettlement of IDPs outside the northern HSZs, the fourth session came out with a road map on the issue. A preliminary physical assessment would be completed by February 7, project recommendations would be formulated and potential implementing agencies would be identified by February 14 and funds would be identified by January 20. By January 31, a plan to release premises now being used by the security forces, to the original owners or intended purposes would be submitted.

Sensitive and crucial Muslim concerns found mention for the first time during the negotiations, in a formal statement. "The particular needs of the displaced Muslim population will be duly accommodated in the resettlement process," the statement said, bringing into focus the plight of an estimated 70,000 Muslims who were ordered out of Jaffna peninsula by the LTTE in 1990.

One of the issues that remain contentious is the inclusion in the talks of a separate Muslim delegation, as agreed at the start of the process. This was formalised during the fourth session, during which an informal meeting was held between Balasingham and the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Rauf Hakeem. "The parties agreed that a Muslim delegation will be invited to the peace talk at an appropriate time for deliberations on relevant substantive political issues," it was stated.

The two sides named the members of their respective committees to "ensure the effective inclusion of gender issues in the peace process." The Sri Lankan academic Kumari Jayawardene and four others will constitute the government team, while the LTTE women's wing member Sivahami Subramaniyam and four others will constitute the LTTE team.

Even on the seemingly less-conten<147,2,1>tious matter of resettling persons outside the HSZs, the path is not going to be an easy one. Serious differences exist between the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE on the number of the displaced persons involved. A census of IDPs conducted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has determined the number of displaced families in the Valigamam North division (which is within an HSZ) as 11,098. In the two neighbouring divisions, Valigamam South-West and Valigamam East (parts of which are in an HSZ), the figures are 9,382 and 11,836 respectively. However, the LTTE considers these figures to be under-estimations. This makes the task trickier. Three sets of figures have been placed before the island's administration for the areas surrounding the Palaly HSZ alone. The Army's estimate is 7,200 to 8,000 houses. The figure given by the Government Agent (the equivalent of a District Collector in India) is 15,000 to 16,000 houses. The LTTE's version is that there are 29,000 houses. Apart from the emotive element involved, the varying estimates have financial implications.

While the negotiations go on, the ground situation reveals a picture of difficulty. Concerns have been expressed about a fast-consolidating LTTE position in the rebel-held areas. That apart, conditions have been far from normal for the people in the Vanni. Nearly a year after the ceasefire agreement was reached, basic healthcare facilities remain a distant dream.

Peiris saw "a window of opportunity" in the decision to bring in the World Bank and its assistance to manage funds for rehabilitation in the northeastern region. While that is bound to take some time, the immediate priorities for both the government and the Tigers should be to restore basic services to the civilians, and address issues such as basic facilities and to ensure normalcy.

For if the talks have to proceed in a meaningful manner, and the confidence of the people is to be gained, the much talked about "peace dividend" should become visible to the ordinary people who have been directly affected by the decades of war. The months ahead are bound to witness further brinkmanship in the negotiations between Colombo and the Tigers. Considering the sharply divided southern politics and the hardline resistance to any form of power sharing, the peace process could well be headed for more difficult days unless course corrections are made.

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