Politics of brinkmanship

Print edition : July 04, 2003

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe delivers a speech at the start of the Tokyo Conference on June 9. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is at extreme left. - ISSEI KATO/REUTERS

By shying away from the Tokyo aid conference and steering clear of the Declaration on Sri Lanka, the LTTE pursues a course that could be dangerous for the peace boat.

THE euphoria generated by the "successful" special donor conference in Tokyo, which was aimed at strengthening the peace process in Sri Lanka, was dispelled within 24 hours of its conclusion when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) issued a hard-hitting statement from its Kilinochchi-based headquarters on June 11. While reiterating its hardline stance on the question of establishing an interim administrative structure for the Tamil-majority North-East province, the LTTE made it abundantly clear that it would not be bound by any provision in the unanimous declaration adopted at the end of the conference. Furthermore, the Tigers complained about international interference in Sri Lankan affairs and even implicitly censured the accredited facilitator, Norway.

The Tigers had been maintaining from mid-April onwards a fiercely intransigent attitude towards the peace process. A key component of this approach was their persistent refusal to participate in the aid conference hosted by Japan on June 9 and 10. Despite international pressure, the Tigers did not relent and were conspicuous absentees at Tokyo. The LTTE's dissatisfaction with the response of the United National Front-led government in Sri Lanka to its demand for an interim administration in the North-East was a key factor behind its non-attendance. The LTTE had argued that a mechanism to disburse and control the funds allocated at Tokyo be set up in the North-East prior to the actual obtaining of the aid.

Although the LTTE took the moral high ground in rationalising its position, there was ample evidence to show that the real reason was the organisation's desire to safeguard its own interests rather than the overall interests of Sri Lankan Tamils whose cause it claims to serve. Behind the LTTE's reluctance was its fear of international entrapment in Tokyo. The international donor community was planning to link aid with adherence to human rights and democratic principles in Sri Lanka. Moves were afoot to get both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to sign a benchmark document titled "Basic Principles of Peace and Democracy" (see Frontline, June 20) as an "unofficial" pre-requisite for allocating aid. The promised aid was to be given in phases, depending on the progress of the peace process. There was also going to be intensive international monitoring. The proposed document, though binding on both sides, was resented by the LTTE. The LTTE, which controlled Sri Lankan Tamil society with an iron hand, was not prepared to relax its grip in the name of democracy or human rights.

Unable or unwilling to publicise its motives behind keeping away from Tokyo, the LTTE increased pressure on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe to yield on the interim administration issue. The international community, however, felt that the LTTE's course of action was inappropriate and that it should participate in the Tokyo meet in the interests of the Tamil people. With the LTTE taking no heed of the opinion, the international community began flexing its muscles. It became a matter of prestige, particularly for the hosts. A strong signal that the world would not be cowed by the LTTE's threats had to be sent. The congratulatory words of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage about Japan for not capitulating to the LTTE's "blackmail" indicated the international mindset. The Tokyo summit, therefore, went ahead in spite of the LTTE boycott.

THE two-day session resulted in an unprecedented bonanza for Sri Lanka. Earlier it was envisaged that Sri Lanka would get $ 3-3.5 billion for a three-year period. The Tokyo conclave went far beyond this sum and pledged a staggering $4.5 billion for four years, from 2003-2006. It appeared as if the donor community wanted to impress upon the LTTE that the latter's absence would not hinder the peace process in any way.

The generosity displayed by 51 countries and 22 international organisations at Tokyo was, however, not unconditional. Even though the absence of the LTTE prevented a joint signing by the parties in conflict, the donors did make certain stipulations about the utilisation of the pledged aid. By linking aid to progress in the peace process, they paid special attention to the plight of the North-East and recognised the important role the LTTE can play in this regard. The door was therefore left open for the Tigers to make a re-entry.

Among other things, the Tokyo Declaration said: "The international community intends to review and monitor the progress of the peace process closely, with particular reference to objectives and milestones, including:

a. Full compliance with the ceasefire agreement by both parties.

b. Effective delivery mechanisms relating to development activity in the North and East.

c. Participation of a Muslim delegation as agreed in the declaration of the fourth session of peace talks in Thailand.

d. Parallel progress towards a final political settlement based on the principles of the Oslo Declaration.

e. Solutions for those displaced due to the armed conflict.

f. Effective promotion and protection of the human rights of all people.

g. Effective inclusion of gender equity and equality in the peace-building, conflict transformation and reconstruction process, emphasising equitable representation of women in political fora and at other decision-making levels.

h. Implementation of effective measures in accordance with the UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund)-supported Action Plan to stop underage recruitment and to facilitate the release of underage recruits and their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

i. Rehabilitation of former combatants and civilians in the North and East, who have been disabled physically or psychologically due to the armed conflict.

j. Agreement by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE on a phased, balanced, and verifiable de-escalation, de-militarisation and normalisation process at an appropriate time in the context of arriving at a political settlement."

The Tokyo declaration thereby laid down some basic expectations of the donor community as to how the peace process should continue. While the LTTE escaped being a signatory to specific guarantees, the Declaration certainly outlined some behavioural principles. The explicit condition that money allocated to the North-East should be spent only for those areas and that the Sri Lankan government should work in partnership with the LTTE to that purpose, was quite favourable to the Tigers. Thus Colombo too cannot ignore the LTTE in the matter of utilising aid. Since continuous supply of aid depends on the pace of the peace process, the LTTE is indispensable in its sustained procurement.

Wickremasinghe announced his government's decision to install what he termed a "provisional administrative structure" for the North-East. He invited the LTTE for direct talks to formulate the structure. This meant that the Tigers could re-enter the process and determine the modalities of reconstruction and development in the region. A Needs Assessment Study had allocated $1.38 billion for the North-East. This was enticing carrot, but the LTTE feared the hidden stick more. After decades of being a law unto themselves, the Tigers were not prepared to accept international dictates.

(From left) U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Japanese special envoy Yasushi Akashi and Sri Lankan Constitutional Affairs Minister Gamini Peiris at a press conference after the Tokyo Conference on June 10.-TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP

THE Tiger response was swift and brutal. Commenting on the resolutions and declarations adopted by the donor community at Tokyo, the LTTE said in a statement: "The LTTE was not involved in the deliberations or in the formulation of these declarations. We have not been consulted on the set of propositions and resolutions enunciated in the Tokyo Declaration. The Colombo government, with the active assistance of the facilitator and its international `tactical allies', has formulated this strategic paper to superimpose its own agenda on the LTTE. This is unacceptable to us."

Thus it was patently clear that the LTTE wanted "aid without strings attached". In a severe indictment of the international involvement, the LTTE charged "the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe for complicating the peace process by allowing undue and unwarranted interference by extra-territorial forces in the ethnic conflict, which is an internal political affair that has to be resolved by the parties in conflict".

LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham had in a previous letter to Wickremasinghe, made veiled references to the international factor in the peace process. The latest LTTE statement has accused the Colombo government of conspiring with its international tactical allies in imposing conditions on the LTTE. The somewhat uncomplimentary reference to Norway for providing "active assistance" in this enterprise was intriguing. Oslo had become the facilitator after the government of Chandrika Kumaratunga and the LTTE consented to its role. President Kumaratunga has been critical of the Norwegian role in recent times and members of her party had even denigrated the Scandinavians as "salmon-eating busybodies". Now the LTTE too is expressing its disapproval, but for different reasons.

This meant that the locus standi for a Norwegian role in the Sri Lankan peace process was diminishing. Norway was present in Tokyo only as a delegate nation, though it was expected to be a co-chair at the conference. Interestingly, it was the LTTE that had insisted on international mediation, saying that the Tamils could not trust a Sinhala government. The LTTE's present stand is somewhat reminiscent of the time when India was involved directly in the Sri Lankan peace process. The LTTE, which had said "we love India", did an about-turn later and described India as an outsider interfering in a dispute between brothers.

"The compulsions that arose from severe economic and political bankruptcy have compelled the government to seek the ultimate refuge in the so-called `international safety net' to resolve the economic and political crisis of the country. By seeking this `safety net', the Colombo regime has shifted the peace process from third party facilitation to the realm of international arbitration by formidable external forces that has far-reaching consequences to the political and economic destiny of the island," the LTTE's statement said.

Wickremasinghe had been describing the international role as a "safety net", in a bid to reassure the Sinhala people of the viability of the peace process. The LTTE suspects Wickremasinghe of using that net to trap it.

Apparently, in the LTTE's perception, the international dimension was becoming a problem. As long as its wishes were fulfilled unconditionally, international "interference" was good. The moment universal standards of human rights and democracy were sought to be introduced, it was bad.

In a stinging blow to Wickremasinghe's hopes of an early rapprochement, the LTTE reiterated its "position that it would participate in the negotiating process only when the Sri Lankan government puts forward a clearly defined draft framework for an interim administrative structure for the North-East". The LTTE also rejected the offer made by the Prime Minister of a `provisional administrative structure'. "We are disappointed to note that the Prime Minister's statement does not offer anything new. The so-called `provisional administrative structure' is the new name given to the Apex Council proposed by him for development and rejected by us as extremely limited and inadequate," the LTTE statement said.

It went on: "Furthermore, the LTTE and Mr. Wickremesinghe's government also hold starkly divergent views as to the nature of the final political solution to end Sri Lanka's protracted ethnic conflict. While the Prime Minister envisages piecemeal reforms to the present constitution, the LTTE has proposed a radical transformation of the system of governance in Sri Lanka, through the institutionalisation of a new, secular and equitable constitution which recognises the Tamils' right to self-determination and homeland. It is whilst recognising that this is an impossible task for Mr. Wickremesinghe's fragile ruling coalition that our organisation proposed the establishment of an Interim Administration."

IF there was any chance earlier that talks could resume on a "re-defined agenda" on setting up an interim administration for the North - East, it was ruined by the LTTE statement. Four aspects of the LTTE strategy were highlighted in the statement.

First, the LTTE was not going to rush into any type of discussion to lay its hands on the pledged aid. It ostensibly wants to set up a mechanism beforehand.

Secondly, the LTTE wanted the framework of Wickremasinghe's proposed provisional structure to be presented to it in writing. There were two reasons for this. One was that Wickremasinghe's pre-election promise of an interim structure had been merely conceptual. From the Tiger perspective, he backtracked later. Now the Tigers wanted a specific outline. They know that there are legal and constitutional hurdles to setting up an innovative structure. Written documents would help them gauge the government opinion better and perhaps suggest improvements and alterations.

Thirdly, the LTTE wants to emphasise the divergence in perspective between itself and the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE sees the interim structure as one having great politico-administrative powers encompassing the North-East. The government perceives it as a provisional arrangement for rehabilitation and reconstruction. The Tigers want it to be an extra-constitutional authority. The Sri Lankan government envisages it as conforming to the laws of the land. Even though Balasingham has said that the Tigers are not seeking an interim administration as an end in itself, there is no doubt that if the provisional structure is "innovative" enough for the LTTE it would continue with this arrangement for an extremely long period under the guise of "exploring" federalism.

Fourthly, the LTTE wants to delink international involvement from the workings of the interim mechanism. Wickremasinghe has set about conceptualising the structure as one that would involve the money pledged in Tokyo for the North-East. This means an enhanced role for the donors in monitoring and indirectly supervising projects. It also means the LTTE should adhere to the minimum level of good governance required. This is anathema to the Tigers.

It is against this backdrop that the LTTE issued its recent statement that undermined the Tokyo conference. It has also been daringly defiant of international opinion by asserting its independence vis-a-vis the Tokyo Declaration. By continuing its politics of brinkmanship, the LTTE must be hoping to pressure a beleaguered Colombo into granting all that it desires on a platter. However, it remains to be seen whether this dangerous course of action will result in the LTTE gaining its desired ends or will lead to a complete collapse of the fragile peace process.

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