PARTICIPANTS in a seminar held in Washington have pledged $3.5 billion to be paid over a three-year period for the reconstruction and development of war-ravaged Sri Lanka. The conclave, held on April 14 and 15 and chaired by United States Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, was a precursor to a meeting on aid for the reconstruction and development of Sri Lanka, to be held in Tokyo in June. The Tokyo conference will have four co-chairs representing Norway, Japan, the U.S. and the European Union (E.U.).
The Washington conclave was also meant to demonstrate that the U.S. was becoming increasingly "interested" in Sri Lankan affairs. The time and venue were determined to coincide with the spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to facilitate the participation of key officials attending those sessions. The invitations were signed by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and sent to 29 countries, 23 international organisations and two foundations. Representatives of 21 countries and 16 organisations attended the Washington seminar.
India was represented by its Ambassador to the U.S., Lalit Mansingh.
Addressing the seminar, Mansingh reiterated India's commitment to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The presence of the Indian envoy was significant against the backdrop of recent events. Having proscribed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 1992, New Delhi has been wary of associating itself with the Tigers at any level. India boycotted a conference organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka in which the LTTE played a prominent role.
When Norway, which is brokering the peace process in Sri Lanka, arranged a conference in Oslo on November 25, 2002, the LTTE's chief negotiator Anton Balasingham addressed it. However, India sent a Third Secretary from its Oslo Embassy as an observer, instead of its envoy, Gopal Gandhi. In such a context, the role played by Mansingh at the Washington seminar was important.
There is no doubt that the U.S. was gratified by the Indian participation, as New Delhi's concerns about the developments in Sri Lanka constitute an acknowledged fact. It is doubtful whether India would have participated in the Washington conclave had the LTTE been invited. There was speculation in the Sri Lankan media that the LTTE was kept out by the U.S. to ensure Indian attendance. Sri Lankan Economic Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda, who led the country's delegation to the conference, is a key member of the Sri Lankan government team that has engaged the LTTE in six rounds of discussions from September 2002. Addressing the seminar, he said: "Some donors may, as a matter of policy, think it desirable to postpone granting us assistance until the current negotiations are concluded and a peace accord has been signed. We appeal to them to reconsider that approach in the circumstances of our case. There are many instances where accords have remained on paper, where beneficiaries have been denied a chance to feel the benefits of peace. There is no doubt that without donor support from the outset, economic recovery could turn out to be a distant prospect." Moragoda outlined the critical spheres where urgent financial support was required thus:
* Locating and neutralising the one million landmines scattered in unmarked areas.
* Rebuilding whole towns and villages with the basic services restored.
* Providing shelter and other means of livelihood to an estimated one million internally displaced persons who are currently accommodated in camps or staying with relatives.
* Renovating schools destroyed or damaged in the conflict-affected areas and providing necessary funds for cash-strapped schools in other parts of the country.
* Helping people to get back to work throughout the island.
People who have been staying in refugee camps for long periods without hope and regular employment tend to acquire a culture of dependency. But, with a little assistance they can be encouraged to return to their livelihoods as fishermen, farmers and small traders. The social returns on such small investments will be substantial. Although there was no official announcement regarding aid at the conclusion of the seminar, there was agreement on providing aid for rehabilitation, reconstruction and development. The assessment provided by Sri Lankan officials estimated a sum of $6 billion over a period of six years. The preliminary phase needed $1.3 billion, of which $459 million was for immediate needs in the northeastern part of the island.The billion-dollar question now is whether the LTTE will really boycott the Tokyo conference. If the Tigers are indeed adamant, the formal allocation in Tokyo of the aid pledged in Washington could be affected. Given the track record of the LTTE, any sign of recalcitrance by it would be perceived negatively. Such a negative perception, in turn, would retard the allocation of aid and undermine the trajectory of the peace process.
On the other hand, there are doubts about the LTTE's real intentions in the matter. One compelling reason for the LTTE in pursuing the peace negotiations has been the alluring prospect of getting its hands on vast sums of money meant for reconstructing and developing the northeast. Would it be prepared to jeopardise that at this juncture? Despite its complaint about being sidelined in Washington, it would be privy to all need assessments and envisaged projects prior to the Tokyo summit. It can therefore provide its input on relevant matters. Moreover, the Sri Lankan government would be on the defensive on account of the Tigers being excluded from Washington and adopt a highly accommodative approach towards the demands of the LTTE.
However, indications are that the LTTE is "willing" to participate in the Tokyo meeting. Despite the threat to boycott Tokyo, it has not said anything about attending the seventh round of talks in Thailand on April 29. Hence it is possible that after generating some heat at the talks the Tigers could agree to attend the Tokyo meet. It could always say that it is acting magnanimously in the interests of peace and the well-being of the Tamil people. Another way out for the Tigers would be to utilise the visit of Japanese special adviser Yasushi Akashi to Kilinochchi in late April. The Tigers could, after holding discussions with the Japanese representative, say that they will attend the Tokyo meeting in deference to the wishes of Japan. Japan has already pledged $270 million for projects in the northeast under a different aid programme.