In a major effort towards achieving peace in Sri Lanka, the Wickremasinghe government eases security curbs and invites Oslo to resume peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
IF peace could be measured by the number of checkpoints in Colombo, then Sri Lanka would seem to have finally got rid of its long-drawn ethnic conflict. Overnight, after the United National Front (UNF) formed the government, roads that had been blocked by security barricades for seven years were thrown open to traffic. Checkpoints withdrew into discreet sentry boxes on the pavement. Gone was the menacing barbed wire on the tarmac and gone too were the mean-looking spikes and the barrels painted in camouflage colours that were used as road stoppers.
It was the UNF's first step in governance, and it came immediately after an announcement of a cessation of hostilities to match a unilateral truce announcement by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for a month from Christmas-eve.
The effect of this was of a city unleashed. There was virtual delirium. It was the first time since 1994 that both sides were voluntarily observing a truce for as long as a month. People celebrated by driving up and down the opened up roads just for the fun of it. Crowds thronged public places. It seemed as if people had gone crazed with joy by the mere absence of war.
Staring at the fledgling government now is the challenge to transform this lull somehow into a permanent peace. Fresh from his India visit, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe telephoned his Norwegian counterpart Kjell Magne Bondevik officially inviting Oslo to resume the facilitation for peace talks with the LTTE. The negotiations with the Tamil Tigers had got frozen in the chill of mutual distrust between the two conflicting sides and the political turbulence in the country in 2001.
The visit to New Delhi got Wickremasinghe a reiteration of India's support for the Norwegian role in the peace process. More important, it conveyed the message back home that India was not taking sides in the delicate political situation (with the Executive President and the Cabinet belonging to two opposing parties) that obtained in Sri Lanka after the December 2001 elections.
The telephone call to Bondevik was followed up with a letter asking that Norway to continue to keep India informed of developments in the peace process, as it had done in the past. In a bipartisan approach to the endevaour, Wickremasinghe also asked Oslo to brief regularly the Opposition People's Alliance (P.A.).
As promised during the run-up to the elections, the UNF has moved quickly to ease the situation in areas controlled by the LTTE by removing restrictions on the free movement of a range of items, at the same time retaining curbs on 10 items deemed to be of military significance. Six of these items, namely explosives, arms and ammunition, remote-controlled devices, barbed wire, binoculars and telescopes and penlight batteries, continue to remain banned. The rest, namely cement, diesel, petrol and iron rods, are to be allowed in on a restricted basis.
The new regulations are to come into force from January 15, the day after Pongal, a festival signifying plentitude. Civil and military authorities also began discussions on keeping the crossing point to LTTE-held areas in Pirmanalankulam in Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka, open on more days of the week than now in order to facilitate the movement of a greater number of food convoys into the so-called "uncleared areas", a term used to describe territory under LTTE control.
With these measures, the government seemed to have met at least two preconditions that the Tigers had placed as "essential prerequisites" for talks, for a cessation of hostilities and for the "normalisation" of civilian life in northern Sri Lanka.
On January 1, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran wrote to Bondevik inviting Oslo to resume its facilitation, thus fulfilling Norway's condition that it must be invited by both sides before it restarted the peace process.
Signalling a full-scale resumption of the process, a Norwegian delegation travelled to London to meet LTTE representative Anton Balasingham and was to arrive in Sri Lanka soon after. Heading the three-member team from Oslo was Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen. But it is expected that Erik Solheim, who is also in the team, will soon regain the pre-eminent position of chief facilitator from which he was dislodged by the P.A. government last year just before the initiative stalled.
The fresh process looked like it had received a shot in the arm when President Chandrika Kumaratunga declared at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Kathmandu that the peace process had her "blessings" and support. It all added to the feel-good climate in Sri Lanka ever since the UNF won the elections.
But as Wickremasinghe warned in his New Year message to the nation, the road ahead is strewn with thorns and not flowers. "We are embracing in our arms not a beautiful bouquet of flowers but a thorny branch. Yet, we are compelled to grip it. Let us tread the hazardous terrain and make the thorny branch bloom," he said.
Wickremasinghe should know, having witnessed at close range how previous attempts to talk to the LTTE ended in failure and a resumption of war more intense than before.
With almost a quarter of government expenditure already devoted to defence, the Sri Lankan economy may not be able to withstand another failed peace effort. Within days of assuming office, the UNF government announced the bad news: the economy did not grow in 2001, it shrank. For the first time in the country's record books, the economy registered a "growth rate" of minus -0.6.
"What we have is economic paralysis," Finance Minister K.N. Choksy announced, warning of belt-tightening measures ahead. With expenditure crossing unmanageable levels and revenue dropping, the last thing the government wants is another war that would require more defence spending than last year's Rs.75 billion or a little under a billion dollars.
War is not an option for the LTTE either, at least not for the present. The international campaign against terrorism post-September 11 has not left it untouched. It has been added to the terrorist lists of Australia and Canada. The LTTE remains on the United States' list of terrorist groups and on India's list of proscribed organisations. Earlier last year, the United Kingdom banned it under a new anti-terrorist legislation.
The concern was apparent in the speech made by Prabakaran on November 27, commemorated every year by the LTTE as "Heroes' Day". Sounding more conciliatory than on previous occasions, he made a case for peace talks and described the aspirations of Tamils as "neither separatism nor terrorism". The statements have led to a growing belief that the LTTE is now finally prepared to settle for something less than Eelam.
Wickremasinghe said at his first press conference after assuming office in December that peace talks could begin as early as March this year. He announced the setting up of a committee comprising Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and Economic Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda, that would work on a political solution to the conflict. The Prime Minister said the starting point for this could be the Constitution proposed by the previous government, but cautioned that it would be prudent to find out first what the LTTE had in mind.
But more than a quick political solution, talks for which could become messy and thus run the risk of a breakdown, the immediate priority for both sides would be somehow to keep the ceasefire going beyond the declared one-month period, and remain engaged in the peace process.
The ceasefire provides the LTTE a platform to announce to the world its sincere interest in a peaceful settlement, while affording the government valuable time to re-arrange the building blocks for the economy. And it is the absence of war, more important to both sides at the moment than a political resolution, that Oslo is likely to try and ensure in the months ahead.
But the interesting twist to the tale is the growing desire of both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE somehow to pull India back into the process for their own reasons. Wickremasinghe's visit to New Delhi saying India had a role to play in resolving the conflict, gave rise to much speculation about what that role could be.
Wickremasinghe himself gave no clue, and the Indian visit got him a reiteration of New Delhi's support for the Norwegian role in the island. But more important, it won him political points at home. It made Chandrika Kumaratunga seem more isolated than before, not just at home but abroad as well.
The LTTE agenda vis-a-vis India sounds more ominous. Its reported request through Norway for Anton Balasingham to be granted residence rights in Chennai, and for the talks to take place in a southern Indian city was nothing less than audacious. It seemed like an attempt by it to win de facto legitimacy in India, where it is banned, and re-activate its old networks in the southern Indian States. At the time of writing, the Norwegians were yet to convey the request to the Indian government, but it would be very surprising if New Delhi were to agree to it.