A Prime Minister in Jaffna

Print edition : March 30, 2002

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe's visit to the Jaffna peninsula is a landmark event - and a strategic one.

THE chop-chop sound of helicopter blades is nothing unusual for the inhabitants of Jaffna. The mechanised giant grasshopper-lookalikes have usually brought bombs and destruction. But this time the payload was different, and instead of screaming in fright and scrambling for cover, the children actually came out to cheer and wave.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and his entourage on arrival at the Palali airfield.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

It would be an exaggeration to say that the inhabitants, burdened by the weight of 20 years of war, were delirious with joy as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe went about his whirlwind tour of Jaffna peninsula. But Wickremasinghe's two-day visit certainly did send hopes rising for an early settlement to the conflict that has reduced northern Sri Lanka to a shell of what it once was. The last time a government leader had stopped by in the peninsula was in 1982 when J.R. Jayewardene arrived to campaign for the presidential election. "You are our saviour," a retired government employee said as he welcomed Wickremasinghe to Chavakachcheri, the second-most important town in the peninsula after Jaffna was reduced to rubble in September 2000 when the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought for its control using long-range rockets fired from multi-barrel launchers.

On a walkabout among the concrete stalagmites, which is all that is left of the buildings in the town, Wickremasinghe said he had never seen anything like it before. "This is the tragedy of getting into a war. I don't think we want any more of this destruction," he said.

After signing the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE in February, Wickremasinghe's visit to Jaffna was the next strategic step in the peace process that has been put on a fast track with Norwegian assistance since he began running the government last December. Without a doubt, the visit has earned Wickremasinghe the respect of the Tamil minority as a leader who was prepared to take the personal risk of travelling to the war-ravaged peninsula in order to enquire after their well-being.

"I congratulate you for the courage to make the decision to visit Jaffna so soon after your election," said Jaffna Bishop Thomas Sauvenderanayagam. Thanks to the ceasefire, the Bishop said, the guns were silent and the people of the peninsula were sleeping in peace at night.

"Year by year, if others had come here regularly, they could have improved the relationship. This isolation that the Tamil people feel now from the rest of Sri Lanka would not have grown," commented V. Anandasangaree, vice-president of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and a Member of Parliament from Jaffna representing the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

At the Nallur Kandaswamy temple in Jaffna.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Aware of the symbolic value of the visit, Wickremasinghe went all out. In a gesture that provided one of the lasting images of the tour, the normally staid Wickremasinghe bowed to Sri Lankan Tamil custom and removed his shirt to enter the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, the peninsula's best known Hindu shrine. Outside the temple, he let himself be mobbed by the waiting crowd, unmindful of security considerations, and appealed to the people to assist his government in finding a lasting solution to the conflict.

But more than winning the hearts and minds of the Tamil people, Wickremasinghe seemed to be sending a message to the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Sri Lanka's Opposition parties, especially the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, have been shouting down the peace process as a precursor to the division of the country and the handing over of the northeast to the LTTE.

Against this background, the visit by a Prime Minister to Jaffna, which the LTTE virtually ran as an independent state only a few years ago, was more than anything else a reassertion of the fact that the peninsula was an integral part of Sri Lanka. Wickremasinghe's message to the majority community, whose anger is easily aroused by visions of a partitioned island, was that the peace process was not about dividing the country, but uniting it.

Wickremasinghe, who had strategically included a group of Buddhist monks in his large entourage, visited military lines in the forward defence areas and joshed with soldiers throughout the visit. At one point, asking the soldiers to uphold the ceasefire, he thanked them for their commitment in safeguarding the territorial integrity of the country.

"The present visit is historic because it signifies the beginning of a process to restore the country's unity and integrity that it lost de facto, some years ago," commented The Daily Mirror.

If the point needed to be driven home any further, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca, who was visiting Sri Lanka, travelled all the way to the peninsula for a meeting with Wickremasinghe. The message was clear: Jaffna belongs within a united Sri Lanka, and as the Prime Minister, Wickremasinghe can meet a visiting dignitary in any part of the country.

Rocca's visit illustrated what was becoming increasingly obvious, that the United National Front government is depending heavily on the U.S. not just to keep up the pressure on the LTTE, but also by so doing, to reassure the Sinhalese majority that the international community is watching the LTTE closely for any act of misdemeanour.

Days before Rocca arrived, the U.S. embassy in Colombo issued a statement that was surprisingly strong and unequivocal. Fall in line, the LTTE was told, or risk further international isolation. Citing reports that the LTTE was re-arming itself during the ceasefire, forcibly recruiting children and extorting money, especially targeting the Muslim community for this process, it asked the group to give up terrorism, respect the terms of the truce, and accept that an independent Tamil state was "both unnecessary and unattainable".

The LTTE, which had attacked a similar expression of concern by President Chandrika Kumaratunga a few days earlier and dismissed it as a move by her to sabotage the peace process, was forced to give a more measured response this time. It quickly denied the U.S. accusations. But in a demonstration of the pressure of global events on the LTTE after September 11, the tone and tenor of the reaction almost bordered on contrition. It also made a renewed commitment to the peace process. Reports said the London-based senior LTTE member Anton Balasingham would travel to Sri Lanka under Norwegian escort in April for a meeting with his leader Velupillai Prabakaran and to participate in "talks about talks".

The Prime Minister with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca in Jaffna-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

While the U.S. statement and its reiteration by Rocca strengthened Wickrema-singhe's hands in dealing with Sinhala opposition to the peace process, it has clearly put off the LTTE. Unhappy at being ticked off publicly by the superpower but unable to say so openly, it has started an indirect campaign against the U.S. through the TNA and the media. While the TNA accused the U.S. of attempting to sabotage the peace process, a columnist said the U.S. "sabre-rattling" had aroused the suspicions of Tamils and warned that it had sown the "seeds of destruction of the peace process".

The top leadership of the LTTE is yet to comment on the Wickremasinghe-Rocca meeting in its former bastion or on the warm reception accorded to the Prime Minister by the people of the peninsula. Both events are a direct challenge to the LTTE's claim of being the sole representative of the Tamil people as well as its claim over Jaffna.

Although some analysts believe that Wickremasinghe could not have visited Jaffna without a green signal from the LTTE, the flurry of excitement caused by Wickremasinghe and Rocca in Jaffna would have certainly given it cause for some concern. Going by the recent example of Kumaratunga, the LTTE has always been wary of any moves by leaders from the south to upstage it among those that it claims to represent. This time, the Sinhala leadership might be acting in the confident belief that the U.S.-led international community might provide the safety net but if the Tigers begin to perceive that net as a trap, it will only be a matter of time before the peace process begins to come apart.

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