Looking for an Indian role

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

THE dawn of the new year saw fresh hope emerging that Sri Lanka is back on track towards its peace destination. The best indicator of this is Norway resuming its intermediary role.

The new United National Front government in Colombo led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe announced that Norway's facilitatory role would resume. But Oslo took the position that no forward movement was possible without an official LTTE invitation to it to do so. That invitation came on New Year's day when LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran wrote to Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik. A Norwegian delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen went to London and met the LTTE's political adviser and chief negotiator Anton Balasingham. The delegation also comprised Erik Solheim and a Foreign Ministry official, Kjirste Tromsdal. Both were old hands who were involved in all aspects of the previous round of peace efforts. The meeting with Balasingham was cordial and constructive. The LTTE stance on peace was outlined. During these discussions, the LTTE outlined its position with regard to measures undertaken by the new government in Colombo towards resolving the conflict.

While welcoming the moves in principle, the Tigers also made certain tentative suggestions. It was accepted that several preliminary measures were necessary to pave the way for regular negotiations. These include the removal of the economic embargo, the setting up of an international monitoring committee, the conversion of the current temporary ceasefire into a permanent one on mutually agreed terms, the formulation of codes of conduct to be followed by both parties during ceasefire, a framework, agenda and itinerary for direct talks, and a joint memorandum of understanding, and discussions on de-proscription. It was pointed out that a more elaborate and comprehensive approach could be finalised only after Balasingham meets Prabakaran on a one-to-one basis.

For this the Tigers require Balasingham to communicate frequently and freely with the LTTE leadership based in the Wanni, particularly Prabakaran, to engage in spadework discussions of a confidential nature ahead of regular talks. But Balasingham cannot rely on current communication modes and needs face-to-face meetings with Prabakaran. It is known that communications between the LTTE hierarchy in the northern mainland of the Wanni and its overseas branches are conducted through satellite telephone, facsimile, electronic mail and "special" couriers. It is against this backdrop that the LTTE made two interrelated requests seeking Indian assistance for talks.

First, it wants the Indian government's permission for its 64-year-old theoretician Balasingham and his wife Adele Anne to reside in Chennai for health and security reasons. Balasingham is not in good health. He is a diabetic who needs daily insulin infusion and is still recovering after a kidney transplant. Balasingham and his wife left Sri Lanka clandestinely by ship and made their way to London primarily because of his deteriorating health. The Tigers want arrangements made for the Balasinghams to relocate to Chennai in order to commute easily for regular consultations with the LTTE leadership. It would be a security risk for him to undertake periodic trips from London to Wanni via Colombo for this purpose. At the same time, his fragile health requires intensive medical care, which is not readily available in the Wanni region. Security reasons prevent him from staying elsewhere in the island at this juncture.

The LTTE position is that Balasingham could shuttle back and forth from Chennai to the Wanni by helicopter. Informed sources said that it is hoped this way it would be possible for Balasingham to avail himself of sophisticated medical care in Chennai and also communicate directly with Prabakaran whenever required.

If Colombo, Oslo and New Delhi agree to this arrangement, the second aspect of the Tiger request would become operative. This is to request permission and arrangements from the Indian government for talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to be held in India, preferably in Chennai, Thiruvanantha-puram or Bangalore. The rationale behind this request is that a high-power LTTE delegation comprising its military commanders as well as political leaders will have to participate in the talks. The Tiger representatives may also need to report back to their high command and obtain additional inputs during talks. It would pose practical difficulties and security risk for the LTTE team to move to and from Sri Lanka to a European venue. It may also become necessary to change the composition of the delegation at times for specific purposes. Also, the abiding presence and advice of Balasingham is required for the talks. Under these circumstances, the LTTE would like the talks to be held in India in order to enable its representatives to shuttle freely and conveniently and would like arrangements to be made with New Delhi for it.

It is learnt that Balasingham, while explaining this position to the Norwegians, emphasised that his organisation and the Tamil people were heartened by the positive response in New Delhi to Wickremasinghe's visit in December. India had promised all assistance and support to the Oslo-facilitated peace process and so it was possible that New Delhi would agree to this special arrangement as a cordial and crucial gesture of goodwill, Balasingham reportedly stated. From the LTTE's standpoint, Wickremasinghe's rapport with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, and other Indian leaders, was also expected to help in getting India's consent to the arrangement.

The LTTE also stated that it had no objections to Indian non-participant observers at the direct talks if negotiations are held in India. Although the LTTE does not welcome any country that has banned it, including India which banned the group in May 1992, to be a direct third party intermediary, it is amenable to the presence of Indian observers if India hosts the talks. While Norway would facilitate, India as the "host" would observe. It is, however, possible that simultaneously the LTTE and its supporters in India would continue their efforts to get the Indian ban reviewed.

The Norwegians were expected to convey the LTTE viewpoint to Wickremasinghe and to the Indian High Commi-ssioner in Colombo, Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Forward movement on the issue depends on the response first from Sri Lanka and later from India to these requests. The Tigers have also drawn attention to the fact that given the abundance of goodwill among the Sinhala majority community as well as the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka towards India, an Indian venue should be welcome in the island.

Security concerns, convenience and proximity to the "homeland" are seen as the reasons behind the LTTE's requests. New Delhi's response will be determined by a number of factors, keeping the "enlightened self-interests" of India as the paramount consideration.

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