Peace process in trouble

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

The LTTE unilaterally suspends the negotiations with the Sri Lankan government, insisting on the immediate implementation of its key demand - that the government troops be relocated from the Jaffna peninsula.

in Colombo

"The honeymoon is over. We have suspended talks to express our disenchantment."

- V. Balakumaran, a senior LTTE member after the unilateral suspension of talks.

"...brinkmanship - the art of bringing us to the edge of the abyss."

- Aldai Stevenson, speech in Hartford, Connecticut, February 25, 1956.

FOR the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which loves to live on the edge, April was a month of brinkmanship in full play. Through aptly timed statements and public postures, the LTTE pushed itself, and along with it Sri Lanka's fragile peace process, to the edge of a political-military abyss. Then it unilaterally suspended the direct talks with Colombo and withdrew from a donors' conference scheduled to be held in Tokyo this June.

When reports last came in, efforts were frantically on to "put the peace process back on track", according to Colombo and the international community trying to broker a peace deal. For the Tigers, however, it was another phase of going for the political kill - to extract the most out of the substantial international financial assistance that are likely to come cash-strapped Sri Lanka's way at the Tokyo meet.

Yasushi Akashi and Erik Solheim, special envoys from Japan and Norway respectively, were in the island along with Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, to talk the Tigers back to the negotiating table. The LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton S. Balasingham, has also arrived to hold discussions with the rest of the LTTE leadership.

On April 21, the Tigers unilaterally suspended the negotiations with the government citing slow implementation of the agreements reached during the last six sessions of direct talks. It could not have been timed better. Exactly three years ago, the LTTE made a point to the Sri Lankan military establishment that it could take it on its strongest ground - the Elephant Pass complex - considered then to be the "impregnable" gateway to the Jaffna peninsula.

This year, on the same day, coincidentally or otherwise, the Tigers made the political statement that they were not keen on going further along the path of negotiations if they did not get control over Jaffna, which is at the core of the decades-long separatist conflict.

With the twin objectives of pushing the Sri Lankan military out of the northern peninsula and asserting its claim for international legitimacy, the rebels suspended negotiations with Colombo "for the time being" and demanded "full implementation" of the ceasefire agreement. Attempting to retain the moral high ground while testing international public opinion, the Tigers charged the government with "grave breach of good faith" but reiterated their "commitment to seek a negotiated political solution to the ethnic question".

The attempt to swing international opinion was apparent in Balasingham's four-page letter to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, announcing the withdrawal from the negotiations.

The exclusion of the LTTE from a peace support seminar in Washington on April 14 was seen in the international community as an attempt to "marginalise" the organisation.

The LTTE's latest position was seen as one intended to seek international de-proscription. "The Tigers wants the international community to stop treating them as terrorists," Jayadeva Uyangoda, Professor of Political Science at Colombo University, told Frontline immediately after the LTTE's announcement. "There has been an asymmetry in favour of Colombo, for which the Tigers want redress by political means," he pointed out.

The most striking note of the organisation's brinkmanship was in the concluding lines of the letter, in which it demanded full implementation" of last year's ceasefire agreement, particularly the "resettlement of internally displaced persons". Behind this humanitarian precondition lies the most sensitive aspect of the peace talks so far - the demand made by LTTE leader V. Prabakaran last November that the Army "relocate" from its High Security Zones (HSZ) in Jaffna.

While it termed the negotiations conducted so far as "successful" in areas such as "the agreement to explore federalism", the LTTE said the progress was "not matched by any improvement in the continuing hardships being faced by our people". Making a direct reference to Jaffna, the letter said: "Tens of thousands of government troops continue to occupy our towns... suffocating the freedom of mobility of our people". This "massive military occupation" of Jaffna "during peace times is unfair and unjust", it said.

On the key issue of attracting foreign aid - a crying need for debt-ridden Sri Lanka - the Tigers said the present approach "fails" to examine the effects of the ethnic war and "the unique conditions of devastation in the Northeast". Terming the poverty in southern Sri Lanka as "a self-inflicted phenomenon", a result of the disastrous policies of all past governments in "dealing with the Tamil national conflict", the Tigers wanted the present government to "re-evaluate its economic development strategy to reconstruct the Tamil nation destroyed by war".

The formal letter was followed by an announcement by senior LTTE functionary V. Balakumaran. "The honeymoon is over. We have suspended talks to express our disenchantment," he said, adding: "There is no need to fear a return to war. The soft approach in the negotiations has ended. That is all. We want the people to understand this."

PRESIDENT Chandrika Kumaratunga described the LTTE's arguments as "feeble" and wanted it to return to the negotiating table.

The Wickremasinghe government's immediate response was that it was a "wake-up call" and nothing more. "We don't see this as a major setback. It is a warning bell," Bradman Weerakoon, a senior prime ministerial aide, said.

Drawing blood, but maintaining a careful political distance, the Opposition said it wanted "the talks to go on". Blaming both the Wickremasinghe administration and the Tigers for the crisis, the Opposition said the LTTE "must take a larger part of the blame" as it "walked away" and was "not acting responsibly".

The Left-radical Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which advocates a hardline approach to the ethnic conflict, also endorsed the view that talks should resume. International response to the recent development has been sharp. The U.S. envoy to Colombo, Ashley Wills, in an interview to Reuters, blasted the Tigers for delaying a solution to the ethnic conflict. Wills said: "The LTTE's weapons and armed cadre are not protecting Tamil rights; they're prolonging this conflict and delaying the day when Tamils can live in truly peaceful conditions." Wills' assertion directly challenged the LTTE claim that they are the "sole representatives of the island's Tamils and that their "military strength" was its main "bargaining power" in the negotiations.

The response from the Tigers indicated a change of mood. A day after Wills made his remarks, Balasingham said that the decision to suspend talks was to "pressure the government to implement crucial decisions". He justified it as a "fair and rational form of protest", to provide "time and space for the government". "We have intentionally created an interregnum for the government to take immediate and constructive measures to address urgent humanitarian issues faced by the Tamils," he said. There was no climbdown either on the crucial issue behind the present impasse - the LTTE demand that de-escalation precedes resettlement of displaced civilians in the northern HSZs. "I don't think Mr. Wills has understood the frustrations and enormous suffering of the uprooted Tamils," he said. Emphasising that the LTTE was "representing the interests" of the Tamils, Balasingham said: "As representatives of our people, we reserve the right to express our displeasure if decisions made at the talks are not implemented and bilateral agreements not fulfilled."

Said a former Tamil militant familiar with rebel vocabulary: "The language may have been softer, but there is no change in the basic position."

On the call made by the U.S. since last November that the LTTE renounce violence and terror, Balasingham maintained the known position that as the "ethnic conflict is not yet resolved" and the "threat of Sinhala military aggression of Tamil lands not yet over", and the "de-commissioning or abdication of arms is non-negotiable". Further, he said, he "sincerely" hoped that "the Americans will appreciate and understand the aspirations as well as apprehensions of a people who have faced genocidal oppression from state terrorism and violence."

At the core of the LTTE's latest position is the refusal of the Sri Lanka Army to "de-escalate" the northern HSZs. Given the importance of control over the Jaffna peninsula for both the government and the rebels, Colombo will find it difficult, politically and militarily, to reduce its military presence there. At a broader level, the LTTE continued to emphasise the "immediate (civilian) problems", a consistent rebel position as distinct from the "core (political and military) problems". The "failure to address immediate problems" was cited as a reason for the collapse of earlier talks too.

Apart from the demand for the relocation of the Sri Lanka Army, another key demand is the recognition of the Sea Tigers as a de facto naval unit. While the government highlighted the progress of implementing a decision made in January to pull the army out of two hotels in Jaffna, no mention was made of the northern HSZs, especially those around the Palaly air base and the Kankesanthurai port.

Colombo, apparently, is in no haste to give in to the core rebel demand on de-escalation. "There is no need to hurry," government sources said.

But with the LTTE firm on the relocation of troops, initially from Jaffna town and subsequently from the entire peninsula, the impasse is likely to continue.

One question high on the minds of decision-makers in Colombo is whether the LTTE will keep away from the donors' conference in Tokyo. There is an overwhelming feeling that the LTTE would not miss the meet as "money, which is needed for development, is involved". The battle-scarred Northeast is badly in need of reconstruction funds. However, the larger question is whether the Tigers will compromise on their de-escalation demand in its search for development funds.

"I don't think you can buy out Prabakaran," said a former Tamil militant, now opposed to the Tigers. "The government and the international community may be able to delay things, but nothing more," he said.

On the possibility of the LTTE returning to the negotiating table, he said the Tigers "may go for talks just to buy time and to make a point to the international community".

The government, however, has carried on, seemingly undeterred by the impasse. It responded to the rebels' demands in a soft, persuasive and explanatory manner. It also sent across the message that direct talks were the forum to sort out differences. Letters despatched by Wickremasinghe and the chief of the government's Peace Secretariat, Bernard Goonatilleke, made this point in slightly different tones.

Wickremasinghe, in his reply to Balasingham, hoped that the LTTE would "review" its present stance. Pointing out that "positive developments" were made during the peace talks, "albeit not at the pace which we might have desired", Wickremasinghe called for the continuation of the "partnership".

The Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo, Hans Bratskar, and Norway's former envoy, Jon Westborg, air-dashed to rebel-held Kilinochchi with Wickremasinghe's five-page reply.

Colombo remains confident that the Tokyo conference will be a "resounding success". Dismissing questions whether the government would go ahead with the conference without the LTTE's participation as "an improbable development" and "negative speculation", Colombo's chief negotiator G.L. Peiris said the government's wish is that the Tigers "should be present" in Tokyo. The government, he said, "is going ahead with detailed preparation" and "there is every reason to expect no changes in the conference". On the possible resumption of talks, Peiris said: "The deadlock has been broken. The logjam is no longer there. The outlook for the future is positive." However, though communication between Colombo and the Tigers has been restored through Norwegian facilitation, the issues raised by the LTTE remain largely unaddressed.

Continuing the international efforts to put the talks back on track, Yasushi Akashi, Balasingham and Vidar Helgessen are in Sri Lanka to talk to the rebel leadership.

The resumption of talks is significant for Sri Lanka from the economic, political and military perspectives. Its economy is in need of funds, which have been linked to the conflict resolution process. Politically, the ruling United National Front, led by Wickremasinghe, has staked its future on the outcome of the talks. Militarily, a resumption of violence will put the island back in time.

The LTTE would like to make the point that it has given the Wickremasinghe administration a long rope in terms of both abandoned demands and overlooked crises. Under the first category are the calls for an interim administration and a joint task force on rehabilitation. The LTTE would also make the point that it has stayed the course despite an attack on its merchant vessel in international waters. But, it has also made it clear that when it comes to the issue of the HSZs and Jaffna, there is no compromise.

Finally, if the LTTE decides to stop playing truant and head for the negotiating table, it would only mean that the concerns have been put off for another day, another time. The Tigers have their eyes fixed on the objective of regaining Jaffna - if not through talks, through war.

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