A shaky phase

Published : Feb 28, 2003 00:00 IST

The Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam conclude the fifth round of peace talks in Berlin despite a suicide explosion that pointed to the precariousness of the peace process.

in Colombo

FIVE months after it started, the Sri Lankan Peace Process has entered choppy waters. With the emergence of the first clear evidence of illegal transportation of weapons by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the year-long ceasefire, the peace negotiators faced a difficult situation that added to the strains on the peace process.

When curtains came down on the abridged fifth round of talks in Berlin on February 8, it marked the completion of the shakiest negotiation session so far. Even as the peace boat weathered another gale and the voyage of negotiations continued, the euphoria over the process evaporated. The months ahead are bound to see a protracted stalemate.

The peace process faced a new uncertainty on February 7, when a 23-hour battle of wits on the sea ended in a fiery suicide blast off the northern Jaffna peninsula, a few hours before the Sri Lankan government representatives and the LTTE were to start their direct negotiations. The incident occurred when the LTTE went "trawling" in the troubled waters. Found for the first time with weapons and ammunition on-board one of their vessels, three LTTE Sea Tigers blasted themselves, taking down with them the trawler with an anti-aircraft gun, an AK-47 assault rifle, several rounds of ammunition and three hand grenades.

The drama started around 2 p.m. on February 6 when the Sri Lanka Navy spotted an LTTE fast boat and a trawler. The Tigers have reportedly said that the trawler ran into difficulty and the fast boat had approached it for assistance, when it was spotted by the Navy. The LTTE's version is that their boat "shifted their gun" to the trawler and approached the naval craft. When they were told that the Navy wanted to inspect the trawler, the Tigers refused and said that they would have to wait for the Nordic truce overseers from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM).

The LTTE blamed the Navy and the peace monitors for the blast. A report on the website, TamilNet, criticised the SLMM for not handling the incident in a "fair and responsible manner" and the Navy for "provocative, belligerent conduct". However, SLMM spokesperson Teitur Torkelsson refuted this version. He told Frontline: "When the monitors found this gun, the gun barrel was covered with grease and packed, the ammunition boxes were sealed. These were not on the deck, but in a hidden compartment, behind a false wall, which had some new nails and looked quite fresh compared to the rest of the timber on the boat. The monitors then tore it down and found the gun and the ammunition behind it. It was unlikely that it was recently removed from another boat on sea."

The issue, Torkelsson said, was not even whether the gun came from another boat. According to the ceasefire agreement it was illegal to transport weapons and ammunition across areas that are not held by the respective parties. In July 2002, after LTTE cadre manhandled two SLMM monitors who were on an inspection trip, it was agreed that the Navy would carry out the inspections. However, on February 7, the LTTE cadre on-board the trawler had said that they would commit suicide if the Navy boarded it. This brought the SLMM back into the picture, resulting in the find of the hidden weapons.

When the SLMM monitors were on-board, one of them saw a Sea Tiger move to the back of the trawler and another went mid-ship with a kerosene bottle and a lighter. One of the monitors quickly snatched the lighter, but when they saw that the back of the vessel, where the first Sea Tiger had gone, was already on fire, they jumped from the trawler. As they swam towards the Navy boat, they heard explosions from the trawler. The suicide blast came as yet another grim reminder of the reality that several issues will have to be meaningfully addressed before holding out hopes of a successful resolution of the Sri Lankan conflict.

The negotiators have walked "one more threshold", Torkelsson told Frontline, pointing out that there was both a negative and a positive outcome from the timing of the incident. Although it put the talks under a cloud, "maybe it was also good because the leaders of both peace delegations were in the same place at the same time".

Meanwhile, President Chandrika Kumaratunga has issued instructions to seize the weapons and release the LTTE cadres after obtaining a written assurance that they would not repeat such acts.

EXPECTATIONS in some quarters were that the incident would sink the Berlin talks as well. However, buzzing communication lines between Colombo and Berlin, coupled with back-channel diplomacy insulated the negotiations, for the moment, from meeting the same fate as the trawler.

Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim told Frontline that although the Berlin talks touched upon several issues, including the sensitive ones of child recruitment by the LTTE and violation of human rights, the explosion ranked high. He said "the most important" decision taken was to convene a meeting with the SLMM representatives to evolve safeguards "to avoid repetition" of such incidents. Solheim pointed out that the very fact that the talks endured the gloomy prognosis was indication that the two sides were "not allowing these incidents to destroy the peace process". The decision to ask the former head of Amnesty International, Ian Martin, to draw up a draft roadmap on human rights issues related to the peace process and a "clear commitment from the LTTE not to recruit child soldiers" were the other highpoints of the talks.

A statement issued by the facilitator, Norway, at the end of the meeting said that it was decided to set up three committees - one each for the three eastern districts - to address land issues and other areas of mutual concern. The committees "will consist of six representatives of the Muslim population and six representatives of the LTTE". The statement said that work of the committees will "start immediately", and similar ones "will be appointed to address such issues relating to other communities as and when required".

Martin's draft roadmap, to be prepared for discussion in the sixth session of talks to be held in Japan in March, will include "substantive human rights activities and commitments to be implemented throughout the negotiation process, effective mechanisms for the monitoring of human rights, training of LTTE cadres and GoSL (Government of Sri Lanka) officials in human rights and humanitarian law and training of police and prison officers".

On the sensitive issue of recruitment of combatants by the LTTE, the statement said the LTTE had agreed for a "complete cessation" of both recruitment and enrolment campaigns that targeted those under the age of 18. An action plan is also to be worked out between the Tigers and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which will include an intensified effort by the LTTE to stop underage recruitment. The plan would "include rehabilitation assistance, including provisions for schooling, vocational training, employment facilitation, and health and psychosocial care, with the active support of the government".

On the issue of the World Bank acting as the custodian of the North and East Reconstruction Fund (NERF), to be raised globally by the Sub-committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs (SIRHN), the two sides said an agreement was "close to finalisation and will be signed within the next week''.

The statement said that the next round of talks, which will be held between March 18 and 21, would include "a discussion on the fiscal aspects of a federal structure". It added that the "LTTE has already taken action to set up a Political Affairs Committee to address in depth issues pertaining to alternative structures of power sharing".

PUBLIC optimism notwithstanding, the two sides will have to tackle several issues as the peace process unravels. Some of these, such as the issue of recruitment of child soldiers, have found mention in the talks because of international pressure. However, only time will tell how the intention is translated into verifiable action.

That making peace meaningful for those most affected by the conflict - the civilian population in the north and east of the island - is bound to be the most difficult task is evident from the economic stagnation in rebel-held areas of the country. Regaining Sri Lanka has been an important economic slogan for the government. However, reports from rebel-held areas point to a clear economic dichotomy in an already conflict-ravaged economy.

While there are renewed calls for greater international funding for developing the north and east, there are also reports that the LTTE is financially much stronger than what it was a year ago, largely on account of its revenues through levies imposed on goods flowing into their areas. Ironically, these levies have also restricted the full flow of commerce.

A recent research paper, written by Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), identified two main impediments to the economic revival of the north and east. These were the high security zones (HSZ), maintained by the government and the stiff levy of "taxes" by the Tigers. While there has been some attempt to address the HSZ issue by requesting the former head of the United Nations peace-keeping forces in Yugoslavia, Satish Nambiar, to prepare a report on it, there is little evidence that those pushing for peace have considered this issue an impediment.

The paper notes that though "the tiger tax regime has been in operation since 1990, and is not an outcome of last year's ceasefire agreement", it has become more open and systematic during the last year. It noted that the LTTE's annual revenues, which could work out to $30 million, were based on both commercial operation, which reportedly includes dominating the fishing trade, and levies. Moreover, the public health and education sectors are in a bad shape. Although less known and less dramatic, these are bound to have a huge impact on the civilians.

The economic hardships of the civilians in the north and east reveal that the true benefits of the latest peace process are trickling down at a slow pace. While the larger political and military issues are discussed, the more serious and causative issues such as economic backwardness, lack of employment opportunities and infrastructural underdevelopment remain to be taken note of. Given the enormity of the task, the manner in which these issues are taken up will come as a true marker of the progress of the peace process.

Colombo's strategy for the peace process - a step-by-step approach - coupled with its implementing mechanism of constituting committees for contentious issues, has kept the negotiations going. It is hoped that the process will gain momentum, thereby making a return to war difficult.

However, Sri Lanka's bitter bipartisan politics, the LTTE's refusal to make public commitments to renounce the goal of secession or a return to violence and the mid-sea suicide explosion are pointers to a tempest in the making.

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