Looking beyond the peace talks

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

By attempting to win legitimacy for the instruments of "state power" it has established in northern Sri Lanka, the LTTE plans to present a fait accompli in the event of a federal model evolving out of the current peace process.

in Colombo

AT a time when the United States' war moves dominated international media headlines, the negotiating teams representing the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) kept their peace process going in Hakone, Japan, seemingly undisturbed by factors that were external and internal to the conflict-resolution process.

There were several developments that could have affected the sixth round of talks that were held between March 18 and 21. The first was the sinking of an LTTE merchant vessel on March 10 by the Sri Lankan Navy, raising the hackles of an organisation that has stubbornly refused to permit any dilution of its military strength. The other development, of course, was the war on Iraq. If the talks did not collapse under the weight of these developments, it is because both sides have much to lose from a failure of the peace process.

At stake for the Ranil Wickremasinghe government are its own political future and the revival of the economy, which is in a mess. Behind the LTTE's willingness to stick to the peace course, are two factors - international pressure and, more important, its single-minded effort to gain legitimacy in the domestic and global spheres. The statement made by the LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton S. Balasingham, when talks commenced last September, is proof that more than anything else, the Tigers have progressed in their efforts to find a political settlement to the decades-long conflict. Asked if an interim administration was a stepping stone to separation, Balasingham told Frontline then: "We already have a permanent administration. What we are seeking is international legitimacy for an administrative structure where we can work with the Government of Sri Lanka."

Six months down the line, in the run-up to the talks, the trappings of this legitimacy had started to trickle in slowly. Kilinochchi, in rebel-held northern Sri Lanka, is now on the travel itineraries of the prominent international players in the conflict-resolution process. Be it heads of multilateral agencies or ambassadors and facilitators of the peace process, a visit to Kilinochchi to meet the LTTE leadership is considered necessary.

More tangibly, in the run-up to the talks, Balasingham had declared open a reconstructed "Tamil Eelam courts complex" in Kilinochchi and a building of the "Tamil Eelam bank" in rebel-held Pallai town further north. Former Secretary General of Amnesty International Ian Martin even met with members of the "Tamil Eelam police force". Given the fact that these instruments of "state power" have been present for nearly a decade, the recent events are only pointers that the LTTE wants them to be legitimised. Seen against the willingness expressed by Colombo and the LTTE "to explore" federal models, the moves seem to be meant to present a fait accompli when serious discussions start. The various rounds of talks have to be viewed against this backdrop.

The Hakone talks are of a piece with this trend. The priorities were also clear. On the first day, the two sides took up matters relating to the ceasefire. Coming as it did after the March 10 episode, the LTTE had pressed for effective safeguards to be brought in and implemented in order to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. The two sides agreed to initiate a military-level dialogue over the coming weeks to evolve a suitable mechanism. Indications are that the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) will be given more powers. The crux of this empowerment is that if Colombo or the LTTE arrests a member of the opposite side in its territory, those taken into custody will be handed over to the SLMM. The LTTE is also likely to press for a clearer ruling on the status of the seas. According to the Ceasefire Agreement, the state has the sole control over the waters, unlike in the case of the land territory, which is shared. The LTTE's participation in the talks, despite the sinking of its merchant vessel, therefore, was also aimed at getting some territorial demarcation on the seas as well.

Referring to these two issues, Norwegian facilitators said: "The two sides discussed the recent incident of an LTTE vessel being sunk off the Mullaitivu coast and how effective safeguards could be implemented to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. They also discussed formalities relating to situations in which soldiers or cadres transgressing into areas dominated by each other and ways and means of resolving the problem."

On the second day, when host Japan joined the head table, it was time to take up matters relating to rehabilitation and resettlement, and human rights.

Putting in place the North-East Reconstruction Fund (NERF), to be run by the World Bank is crucial for the continuation of the peace process. The two sides therefore "agreed to take up measures that would expedite the establishment of the fund, in view of the rapidly changing international environment". During the talks, the two sides were informed by the World Bank that procedural matters relating to the NERF had been finalised and the Fund had become operational. Iraq had weighed heavily in the minds of the two sides for the past few months, as international pressure was an important factor in keeping them at the negotiating table. Hence the concern that the war would mean less attention for the south Asian island.

Balasingham said on the last day of talks that the U.S. and Iraq could take a tip from the Sri Lankan negotiators and work towards peace. "It is regrettable that the U.S. attacked Iraq without the proper endorsement of the United Nations, though we are also against the dictatorship of the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, and his not respecting the U.N. resolution, he said." The Tigers also reportedly threw a spanner in the works when it rejected a conceptual road map on human rights prepared by Ian Martin, who is involved in the peace talks as the international adviser on human rights. According to indications, the differences are over implementing the steps envisioned by the road map. However, Martin is likely to present a revised plan at the next round of talks.

On day three, the talks centred on "political issues relating to power sharing". According to the facilitators, the "conceptual nature of fiscal devolution provided the parties with a better understanding of the issues involved in revenue collection and disbursement. In the ensuing discussion, the delegations expressed the need to map out the trajectory of the process, in order to have a clearer vision of the steps ahead."

When the sixth round came to an end, the LTTE hardened its position by asking for a clearer idea about "maintaining the military balance". If the Tigers pulled out of the talks, they would have lost more than what they have gained by sticking on.

However, several issues remain unaddressed, the primary one being the inclusion of a separate Muslim delegation in the talks. Going by the present trend, the inclusion of such a delegation would come at a time when the Tigers are on a firmer footing, as they are now on issues such as federalism and instruments of state. These moves towards legitimacy, however, "will vanish if there is a resumption of war'', says a Tamil political analyst.

Amidst all the "international pressure" on the peace negotiators, a crucial factor that has remained dormant is the Indian interest. New Delhi, which consistently held the view that it supported a peaceful, negotiated settlement that met the just aspirations of all elements of the Sri Lankan society within the island's framework of unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity, added yet another important clause last December - "ensuring that the principles of democracy, pluralism and human rights are respected on the ground''. The broad parameters of the peace moves have also seemingly been in conformity with these.

However, the larger question is that of the extradition of LTTE leader V. Prabakaran and others to stand trial in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Given the pace at which the talks are progressing, and the indications of a fait accompli in the making, it is time New Delhi makes clear its position on a post-conflict resolution scenario, howsoever bleak it may seem now. Sri Lanka's southern politics is also undergoing a slow but steady change, with a coming together of the main Opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and the hardline Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna now on the cards. This move, based on electoral arithmetic, also raises a sense of uncertainty over the future of the peace talks. In the mean time, the staring game involving the three major players - the LTTE, the Ranil Wickremasinghe administration and the main Opposition party led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga - goes on with each one waiting for the other to blink first. The only certainty about Sri Lanka's peace process is that it will last just till one of the players starts to blink. It is then that the much-talked about "international pressure" will come into play.

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