Another chance for peace

Print edition : February 02, 2002

Sri Lanka's Ranil Wickremasinghe government eases restrictions on LTTE-held areas, and even hints at withdrawing the ban on the terrorist organisation. But does it add up to too much, too soon?

THE people of northern Sri Lanka have not seen so much abundance of anything before - except war. As the government eased after seven years, economic restrictions on areas held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a confidence-building measure as part of the ongoing Norwegian-facilitated peace process, the worry now is that they might not have the purchasing power to buy all the goods coming through.

Bicycles atop a bus at Vavuniya after the government eased restrictions on the entry of such goods into LTTE-held areas.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Bicycles, roofing sheets, computers, laboratory equipment for schools and photocopying machines were just some of the items that went through on January 15, the day the restrictions were lifted. These came in their hundreds, not just in trucks, but on top of buses and by every other type of vehicle that people could find, or just on their plain shoulders.

"The message the government is giving the civilians is that it is concerned about them, that it wants to treat them the same as people living in other parts of Sri Lanka, that people will get whatever they want for their existence," said V. Ganesh, the Government Agent, or the top civilian administrator of Vavuniya, which is the gateway to the Vanni or mainland northern Sri Lanka.

Even restrictions on the movement of civilians to and from the Vanni have been relaxed. There were 18 types of passes depending on whether one was living, staying or just passing through Vavuniya, the main transit point for northern Sri Lanka. It was meant to prevent LTTE cadres from infiltrating southern Sri Lanka. It is open to question whether the system ever achieved that purpose, but it did cause innocent civilians a lot of hardship. Now, there are just three categories of passes. "It was a pointless system that created corruption and sent people running around in circles," Ganesh said.

For the first time too since 1995, the government allowed journalists to cross into LTTE-held northern Sri Lanka. Over 3.7 lakh Tamils live in the region, but there is no economic activity worth the name. Aid workers believe that the standards of living, health and education in the region are considerably lower than in the rest of Sri Lanka. The area has not seen power supply or telephone services since 1990, when the government snapped them. Roads are virtually non-existent. In any case, because of the embargo on fuel, there is no public transport.

S.P. Thamilselvan, leader of the LTTE's political wing.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The measures implemented by the government should go a long way in restoring what the LTTE describes as "conditions of normalcy" for Tamil civilians in the war zone, one of its preconditions for participating in peace talks.

Already, the hapless people believe that peace is around the corner even though the two sides are yet far from talking to each other. "Everybody says that there will be peace. We are happy because we can go back to our homes," said 26-year-old Jagajeeva Chandrakanthan, mother of three. She and her husband trekked from Jaffna to Mallavi in Mullaithivu district in 1995 when the LTTE asked them to vacate the peninsula as the Sri Lankan Army took control of it. Since then, they have been living off government rations and meagre earnings from selling bundles of firewood.

A severe shortage of essential goods sent prices of whatever was available shooting up. A litre of kerosene which retails normally for Rs.25, cost Rs.150 in the Vanni. Sugar cost Rs.60 a kilogram - more than double its normal price. According to the LTTE, the economic restrictions imposed by the People's Alliance government caused untold misery to the people.

President Chandrika Kumara-tunga maintained that while her government was sending in food and other items in adequate quantities to the Vanni, it was the LTTE that created artificial shortages by cornering substantial portions of it. True enough, in the days before the new United National Front government lifted the restrictions, prices came tumbling down in the Vanni as hoarders released their stocks.

Following the removal of restrictions, 30 trucks carrying food and essential items will be allowed into the Vanni on four days of the week through the main Pirmanalankulam checkpoint, 24 km east of Vavuniya town - instead of 23 trucks on three days of the week previously. Civilians can travel to and from LTTE-held areas on five days of the week instead of just two earlier. The government is considering opening up another checkpoint for food convoys and civilians.

Through the Norwegians, both the government and the LTTE are to convert the present truce, being unilaterally observed by both sides, into a structured ceasefire with mutually agreed rules.

In Colombo, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe meets the members of the Norwegian peace delegation. From left, they are Special Envoy Erik Solheim, Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jon Westborg and Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen. At right is the Sri Lankan Minister for Industry G.L. Peiris.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Although the measures provide welcome relief to the Tamil people, the military is understandably worried. Its top brass, all too used to peace processes and ceasefires abruptly ending in even more ferocious fighting after the LTTE used the lull to rearm and regroup itself, believes that the military has to give top priority to intelligence gathering if it is not to be taken by surprise yet again.

"Our intelligence has to be 100 per cent, nothing less," said one official. With previously banned items such as cement and iron rods now allowed into LTTE-held areas, the Army fears that if the fighting were to begin once again, it would have to deal with a well-fortified force.

In the early hours of January 21, the Sri Lanka Navy missile boat Nandhimitra, which was on a routine patrol south of Point Pedro, detected a flotilla of LTTE boats. When the boats did not respond to the Navy's call, Nandhimitra fired on the flotilla. The Sea Tigers responded in kind and the two exchanged more fire. On orders from Colombo, the Navy was asked to pull back from the confrontation before it escalated, and the flotilla beached safely at the Sea Tiger base of Chalai, near Mullaithivu on the northeastern coast. The incident has raised questions about whether the LTTE is continuing to bring in arms and other supplies during the ceasefire.

But if the military believes that the government has given away too much, the LTTE thinks it is too little. Face-to-face with a group of representatives from the media for the first time in seven years, the LTTE presented its wish-list to journalists in the air-conditioned conference room of its well-appointed guest house in Mallavi.

Leader of the LTTE political wing S.P. Thamilselvan, who addressed the press conference, said the government must remove all economic restrictions in order to restore "normalcy". "All the facilities available to the Sinhala nation should be made available to the Tamil nation to enable them to lead their lives in the same way as the Sinhalese, without military pressure or coercion. Since time is of the essence, the new government should take these steps immediately, which alone will lay the foundation for peace negotiations," Thamilselvan said.

But that was not all. The LTTE also made it clear that it would not participate in peace talks as an "illegitimate organisation", and demanded to be de-proscribed by Sri Lanka. "It is all in the hands of the Sri Lanka government. As legislators, they have the power to remove the ban on the LTTE. That alone will enable us to participate in talks as equal partners," he said.

Amidst growing concern that the peace process is fast becoming a one-way street in which the government is making all the concessions without receiving any in return from the LTTE as proof of its sincerity, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe indicated that this precondition too might be met. Outlining his government's policy in Parliament, Wickremasinghe said that the ban should not be allowed to become an impediment to peace. Aware that lifting the ban could become a politically explosive issue, the Prime Minister took refuge behind "international opinion", which was against terrorism but wanted the government to arrive at a politically negotiated settlement with the LTTE. Sri Lanka would ignore the international community only at its own peril, especially at a time when the economy was in paralysis, he argued, making a case for lifting the ban.

Kumaratunga, who as President remains Sri Lanka's supreme executive even though her P.A. lost the last elections to Wickremasinghe's UNF, has declared that lifting the ban could be "dangerous" at this stage. And if she wants to, she could well block a decision by the government to do so. Expressing concern that too much was being given away too early in the process, Kumaratunga has said the government should be seeking more guarantees from the LTTE.

In fact, Thamilselvan could even be said to have diluted the hope created in several quarters by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran's November 2001 declaration that the Tamil demands were "neither separatist nor terrorist". He said it was not "prudent" for the LTTE to commit itself on whether it was prepared to settle for anything less than an independent state, thus shaking one of the basic premises of the latest peace process.