A resented visit

Print edition : December 19, 2003

"If you don't want any Foreign Minister or European Commissioner like me to come, just say so."

- Chris Patten, the E.U.'s Commissioner in-charge for External Relations (at a press conference in Colombo on November 26, 2003)

Chris Patten addresses a press conference in Colombo on November 26.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/ AFP

IT was not the first visit by a European political heavyweight to extend support to Sri Lanka's peace process. It is unlikely to be the last either. But the visit of Chris Patten, the European Union's Commissioner in-charge for External Relations, in late November was the one that stoked up emotions to the highest level since the commencement of the latest peace process.

The timing, more than the content of the visit, resulted in a fierce, though short-lived, emotional upsurge among the hardliners in mainstream politics. Patten came on November 24, 10 days after the Norwegian facilitators were criticised by the hardliners for putting the peace process on hold. The red-rag was his meeting with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader V. Prabakaran, on the latter's 49th birthday.

The protests began in Sri Lanka even before Patten boarded his flight from London. A signed editorial in a newspaper on November 22 slammed Europeans in general and Patten in particular, for their "interference" in Sri Lanka and "collusion" with terrorists. When Patten arrived in Colombo, the self-styled Patriotic Nationalist Movement, comprising the radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and other hardline sections of the island's polity, organised a demonstration outside the hotel where Patten was staying. The European Commissioner was called a "white tiger" and his effigy was burnt outside the hotel.

"We want Patten to go back," JVP's propaganda secretary Wimal Weerawansa told Frontline. "It is an interference". By "colluding with the LTTE", Patten "threatened the sovereignty of Sri Lanka and India" as Prabakaran is wanted by Indian courts and the Tigers are banned by New Delhi, said Weerawansa.

Unfazed, Patten, who was involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, stuck to his schedule. He met, among others, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Colombo's Chief Negotiator G.L. Peiris and Prabakaran.

Although Patten repeated the standard prescription given by visiting dignitaries - that the rebels have to renounce violence, settle for a solution within a united Sri Lanka, stop child conscription and show commitment to the peace process - he went a step further. He made it clear that a return to violence would "earn the implacable criticism" of the international community.

Briefing a packed media conference on his meeting with Prabakaran on November 26 in rebel-held Kilinochchi, Patten said that the international community expected the LTTE to "turn its back once and for all, to violence and commit itself to the peace process".

Demonstrators burn an effigy of Patten in Colombo on November 25.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

The international community, he said, "cannot expect any fudging" between attaining "political ends" through "violence" and through "persuasion and the ballot box". The EU Commissioner "hoped" that the counter-proposals submitted by the LTTE recently "represented a first set of proposals" and not a "final position" for negotiations as it was "quite difficult to associate them with any federal" solution. Recalling last year's Oslo agreement, Patten also pointed out that the LTTE had "made it clear" that it would work towards a federal solution.

The main point made by the LTTE chief "on six occasions" during the 75-minute meeting was the group's "commitment to the peace process" and the "wish" that it reached a "satisfactory conclusion", Patten said.

Asked what he had achieved by meeting Prabakaran, the E.U. Commissioner said that it was his hope that as a result of his visit, those whom he had met would continue "with generosity of spirit to achieve peace that will be lasting".

"I was asked by everybody to come. I hope I will be able to come again," Patten said. He added: "If you don't want any Foreign Minister or European Commissioner like me to come, just say so." Patten's comments come against the backdrop of hostile criticism by hardline political parties.

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