A year of talks and after

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

A year after negotiations involving the government and the LTTE began, the Sri Lankan peace process teeters on the brink with equal chances of any of the following happening: a revival of the talks, a continued stalemate, or a collapse of the peace process.

in Colombo

Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.

Khalil Gibran (The Garden of the Prophet)

A YEAR ago when the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) started direct talks, there were no great expectations of an early resolution to the decades-old separatist conflict. The dominant hope was that some way or the other the negotiations would be kept going.

Twelve months, six rounds of talks, reams of intentions, a mini-chronology of ceasefire violations, decibels of political opposition and a unilateral suspension of talks by the rebels later, the picture of a gloomy hiatus is not too surprising. The island's latest political attempt to resolve one of South Asia's most intractable conflicts teeters on the brink, with equal chances of any of the following: a revival of the peace process, a continued stalemate, or its collapse.

The deep political divisions that have plagued the peace process are most likely to put a damper on the latest process yet again. The known divisions within the mainstream political parties apart, the two strands of opinion that have surfaced within the LTTE, leading to the sidelining, at least momentarily, of the rebels' chief negotiator Anton S. Balasingham, point to a phase of continued brinkmanship.

For the first time in the LTTE's political interactions with the outside world, Balasingham, who as its chief ideologue set the rebel political discourse for decades, is not in the spotlight. The broad political arguments for much of the LTTE's demands, including the recognition of its existing apparatuses of state, were enunciated by Balasingham. At the end of the first round of talks, at a press conference, Balasingham made the LTTE's agenda very clear when he said: "What we are seeking is legitimacy - international legitimacy for [an] administrative structure where we can coordinate and work with the Government of Sri Lanka as well as to seek some recognition from the international community." That the crux of his argument was forgotten during the interregnum, which was marked by euphoria over declarations and agreements, underlines the public willingness to rest on the feel-good factor.

However, the seeming phase-out of Balasingham, particularly after the LTTE's decision to stick to its guns and boycott the Tokyo conference, gives the Tigers the advantage of a mid-course shuffling of the negotiating pack, which could put the government interlocutors in some confusion. With or without Balasingham the organisational diktat would prevail, but in terms of personal chemistry, a much-needed ingredient at negotiations, the change could mean a harder course for the government and much less of the feel-good diplomacy for the public.

Predictably, erstwhile critics of Balasingham, read his phase-out, or imminent phase-out, as a development that would bring the "hardliners" centre stage. However, if all the rebel pronouncements and postures are cut to the bone, the impact of Balasingham's presence or otherwise would be more on the atmospherics than on anything of substance.

The peace process has had its share of ups and downs since it was initiated by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe after his parliamentary electoral victory in 2001. International facilitators and the government see the December 5 Oslo declaration, in which the two parties agreed "to explore federal models within a united Sri Lanka", as the "high point". The low points have been many - the continued ceasefire violations by both sides, with more rulings against the LTTE; the unimplemented promises; and the shifting goalposts, to name a few. However, looking beyond these visible positive and negative contours, the undercurrents from the three main players - the ruling United National Party (UNP), the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the LTTE - suggest that a grim outcome cannot entirely be ruled out.

When it initiated the peace process, the government had explained the two settings for it - the internationalisation of the conflict resolution process, particularly against the backdrop of the post-September 11, 2001, worldview on terrorism, and the sense of war-weariness in the island, with its accompanying drain on economic resources and lost opportunities. The current stalemate is evidence that these two premises have had but minimal impact.

When the government and the LTTE started talks last September, they were primarily addressing the international community. The steps away from stated positions in the months that followed were also taken with an eye on international opinion. But the Oslo declaration remains a statement of intent, with both the government and the rebels yet to move in tangible terms towards charting the federal course.

THE major gainer in the year-long peace process has been the LTTE. From being a banned outfit in the island it has elevated itself to the position of an equal negotiating partner with the government. Though the international ban on the organisation remains, several governments, including those that continue to ban it, have changed their approach in small degrees, at least for the moment. The LTTE could not have asked for more in terms of acceptance by governments, particularly those in Europe, perhaps with the exception of the United Kingdom.

For the war-weary nation, the absence of fighting has had a tremendous effect, both in the north and the south. However, much more remains to be done in terms of development and reconstruction. Despite visible changes in the north and the south, the critical push is still lacking.

While the Tigers have made perceptible gains on the international front, they have hit a purple patch on the domestic front. With ground-level control over territory, they are now in a phase of entrenchment of the de facto trappings of state that have been in existence for over a decade. The `Tamil Eelam Police Service', the `Tamil Eelam Judicial Service', the `Tamil Eelam Revenue Service' and their accompanying mechanisms are a part of the administrative structure in the rebel-held areas of the north and east. Measures such as increasing the number of `police stations' and opening `headquarters' for the `police' and the `judiciary' have resulted in a certain degree of formalisation of the rebels' state apparatus.

ON the military front, where independent verification is not available, there are reports of a consolidation of forces, a sprouting of military bases and replenishment of armoury.

The latest phase of rebel military expansion, according to military sources, has been in the eastern theatre, which, with its near-equal mix of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, remains the most volatile zone.

According to sections of the military, the Tigers have 22 camps on the rim of the eastern Trincomalee harbour. Details of their location - whether they are in government territory or rebel-held areas - remain disputed because of the fuzzy demarcation lines in the east. When these camps were started is also not clear.

Unlike the north, where a clearly defined line separates the government and LTTE forces, in the east there are Tiger-controlled zones, particularly in Batticaloa district, and several areas where the claims of control over territory differ sharply. Adding to this grim situation is the fact that the eastern theatre has remained relatively secure from "conventional" strikes compared with the northern war zone, with both the Army and the rebels resorting largely to "flushing out" operations.

Against this backdrop, the situation in the east has become more volatile now, with the LTTE refusing to move out from a camp at Manirasakulam, about 17 km south of Trincomalee harbour. The ruling by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) that the camp was in government-held territory has been ignored by the Tigers, who initially linked their vacating this camp to the security forces pulling out of another base, which they claimed was in their territory. Subsequently, the LTTE said that the Manirasakulam camp was in existence for a long time.

While political critics have highlighted the military consequences of the camp, it also has ethnic ramifications. According to informed sources in the east, the general area of the camp is a Muslim pocket called Rahim Nagar and the LTTE positioning itself in this zone is seen as an attempt to change the ethnic dynamics of the place. "They want to dominate us and then control us," a Muslim resident told Frontline. Seen along with the earlier ethnic unrest in the east, which has abated for the moment, assuaging Muslim fears could be the most serious challenge for both the government and the LTTE.

The military complexity in the east is also the direct result of a glaring lapse during the year-long process of negotiations - the non-inclusion of a Muslim delegation at the peace talks. Close on the heels of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement, signed separately by Ranil Wickremasinghe and LTTE leader V. Prabakaran, and much before the dates were set for starting direct talks, the Tigers assured the Muslim political leadership that they would have a separate team at the talks. However, on the eve of its commencement, that assurance was reneged upon, with the LTTE saying that a separate Muslim team could be considered when issues concerning the community were raised. The Muslim argument that all issues in the northeast have a bearing on the community has been ignored.

One strand of Tamil argument against the inclusion of a Muslim delegation is that it would complicate issues, but the fear of the community is that security of Muslims would be compromised if they are not taken on board. The other strand of Tamil argument is that while it was the LTTE that "fought the war against the Sinhala armies", Muslims now want to be "free-riders" in the conflict-resolution process. This argument, clearly, does not weigh factors such as ethnic plurality, despite assurances from the LTTE that it would take into account Muslim interests when it said that it would seek a solution for "all Tamil-speaking people".

The delay in including a separate Muslim delegation cast the first political ripple during the negotiations process. As early as the December round of talks the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) saw a rebel group emerging, and its leader, Rauff Hakeem, who is also a member of the negotiating team, had to return to Sri Lanka without attending the Oslo meeting, where the government and the rebels agreed "to explore federal options".

The SLMC has subsequently split. The SLFP had earlier rallied behind the breakaway Muslim faction. However, since commencing talks with the Left-radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) earlier this year, its pronouncements have been less vocal. Meanwhile, the island's Muslim politics also show signs of a coming together, at least for the moment, with all Muslim MPs putting up a joint position on issues such as eastern security. A crucial question that will have to be answered during the conflict-resolution process is about having a separate administrative unit for Muslims.

The political strains that have accompanied the peace process have been on predictable lines. Though considerably sobered down compared with the earlier attempts, in nature and context they remain much the same. In a way, Sri Lanka, which was offered freedom from colonial rule in the wake of India's independence, is going through a tortuous nation-building process. For five decades now, the Sinhala and the Tamil `nations' have been building up, rather independent of each other, but with the island's unitary Constitution keeping them together. There is still a lot of convincing to be done by both the LTTE and the southern political forces that they are prepared to strike courses away from the paths taken so far.

Any further moves on the peace process would largely be directed by the manner in which the LTTE puts forward its "counter-proposals'' and the way in which the international community and Sri Lanka's southern polity react to it.

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