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Counselling caution

Published : May 01, 2002 00:00 IST

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President Chandrika Kumaratunga, on a non-state visit to India, gives a fine lecture on dealing with conflict, change and terrorism in a multi-ethnic, plural society and has fruitful political interactions.

THE presence of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga in Delhi in the fourth week of April generated much diplomatic and media interest, although her 10-day-long visit was not a state visit. The dates of the visit were finalised a couple of months ago, before the latest Norwegian-facilitated peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) got on track. The main purpose of her trip was to deliver the inaugural lecture in the Distinguished Lecture Series organised by the Madhavrao Scindia Memorial Trust in New Delhi. Kumaratunga was accompanied by former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Laxman Kadirgamar, who is currently her Senior Foreign Policy Adviser.

It is no secret that Chandrika Kumara-tunga and the present Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have somewhat differing perceptions on the way to go about achieving peace in the island. Some of the SLFP's leaders, notably former Speaker Anura Bandaranaike, have joined the Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in protesting against what they perceive as undue and dangerous concessions being given to the LTTE. President Kum-aratunga has recently cautioned the United National Party (UNP)-led government of Wickremasinghe to tread with caution while dealing with LTTE. She wants the Tigers to give a stronger commitment on safeguarding human rights before the Sri Lankan government starts formal talks with them in Thailand. President Kumaratunga has also favoured "simultaneous talks," that is, negotiations relating to an enduring political settlement side by side with talks about immediate, day to day issues, rather than the interim administration-centred 'talks about talks' favoured by Prime Minister Wickremasinghe.

The UNP-led alliance was elected to office on the campaign plank of bringing peace to the troubled island. It has fared well in the local polls recently. Wickremasinghe sees in his electoral victory a strong mandate for peace. In the process, he does not seem to be too averse to making a few concessions to the Tigers in order to bring them back to the negotiating table. He was also quite appreciative of most of the views expressed by LTTE leader V. Prabakaran at his recent press conference in Kilinochchi. There are indications that Wickremasinghe would like New Delhi also to be more accommodating towards the Tiger leadership.

While returning from his official visit to Cambodia, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told the media that he would "sympathetically" look at the request of the LTTE's political adviser Anton Balasingham to allow him to take treatment in Indian hospitals for his medical problems. Just weeks earlier, the Indian government had rejected the demand. The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the small constituents of the National Democratic Alliance from Tamil Nadu that are known for their pro-LTTE leanings, have been pressuring the beleaguered government to lift many of the curbs on the Tigers. Their support is important for the survival of the NDA government at this juncture.

The Opposition parties, including the Congress and the Left, have opposed any official-level dealings with the LTTE and have reiterated their demand for the extradition of Prabakaran to India to stand trial for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The softening of the Indian government's stance vis-a-vis the Tigers could also be traced to Washington's interest in getting the peace talks kick-started at the earliest. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca was in Sri Lanka recently for talks with the Sri Lankan government on the issue.

During her stay in Delhi, Kumaratunga had meetings with important leaders, including the Prime Minister, President K.R. Narayanan, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Leader of the Opposition and Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. During this non-state visit, some serious official work was also obviously done. President Kumaratunga kept the Indian leadership updated on the latest developments related to the proposed peace talks with the Tigers. She reportedly expressed her opinions about the subject by suggesting that the proposal to set up an LTTE-controlled administration in the north-east should be linked to guarantees that the Tigers would respect pluralism and give equal rights to the minority Muslims and Sinhalese who constitute more than one-third of the population in that region. New Delhi is being kept informed by the Norwegian facilitators also.

Wickremasinghe is also sending some senior representatives, notably Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, the point man in the peace talks, to brief the Indian government and political leaders about the fast-changing political situation in Sri Lanka, which, if mishandled, could have dangerous implications for the subcontinent. According to Indian officials, Wickremasinghe is also expected to visit New Delhi soon. Almost every other week, some senior Sri Lankan official is in Delhi to keep the government updated on the progress of the Norwegian peace initiative.

THE Madhavrao Scindia lecture was splendidly delivered to an impressive audience, which comprised a wide spectrum of India's political leadership, intellectuals, professionals, media representatives and others. The reflective and critical approach to managing change and responding to conflicts and tensions in a multi-ethnic, plural society was very well received. The deft distinction made between "the deep-rooted causes that divide groups of people" in a pluralistic society and "perceived injustice" on the one side, and the phenomenon of violent, extremist insurgency and terrorism on the other side, drew much praise. The rigorous academic approach of a Sorbonne-trained scholar was evident as President Kumaratunga analysed the causes for the present political impasse in the region. She noted that it was not enough to "simply ring the alarm bells" because South Asia "today is riven by perhaps more armed conflicts than any other region in the world." She highlighted the truth that all the states in the region, except the Maldives, are facing challenges from armed militant groups.

"The world's two most dangerous and ruthlessly efficient terrorist organisations were born, nurtured and operate in South Asia," Kumaratunga observed, specifically referring to the Al Qaeda and the LTTE. She admitted that Sri Lanka had "faltered in the essential task of nation-building since independence" despite the fact that it had "much less diversity of race, religion and language" than India. A "horrendous consequence of that neglect" was the growth of the "most ruthless armed conflict seen anywhere in the world, in our times," she pointed out.

Kumaratunga delved into the root causes of terrorism in the region. She quoted Leon Trotsky to identify the two emotions central to terrorism: "despair and vengeance." She emphasised that it "is perceived injustice that has engendered violent or terrorist responses from those who feel victims of that injustice." In her analysis, two major factors bedevilled South Asia since independence and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. These are: the failure to build a stable pluralistic society, where due recognition and power would be accorded to diverse communities and groups that comprise a nation-state and the failure of the states to emerge from economic poverty and lead their people towards the dream of a fully developed society.

Kumaratunga said that she strongly believed that the most effective response to conflict and terrorism was to root out the causes that generate them. "Peace is more than the simple absence of war. It entails active engagement in the battle for identifying and rectifying the root causes of conflict," she remarked. Kumaratunga has been saying since September 11 that the West has woken up to the dangers posed by terrorism only after the attacks in Washington and New York. On the other hand, "the numerous terrorist attacks perpetrated in all of the South Asian states as well as numerous other developing countries went almost unnoticed until September 11, 2001."

President Kumara-tunga indirectly blamed the West for some of the travails the South Asian region was facing, saying that some nations wanted to apportion exclusively for themselves "the enjoyment of the profits of modern science and technology generated through modern capitalism." She pointed out that there were other nations and people who were also "waiting on the sidelines to share the fruits of development, others who had hugely contributed to this development, in raw materials and natural resources and manpower."

The other important factor identified by the Sri Lankan President was the "refusal by hegemonistic states to recognise the justice of and legitimacy of the demand of some of the communities living within the states." At the same time, she was critical of separatist movements proposing "national self-determination for supposedly homogeneous ethnic-linguistic-cultural communities." According to Kumaratunga, the theory of the "right of self-determination" has been publicly abandoned by most "rational observers." The demand for self-determination continues to be on top of the LTTE agenda.

"The ethno-religio-political protest of the oppressed of the Third World, arising from the hunger for a social identity and a stable and just social order in a disintegrating world, gave rise to the struggle for separate states for every different ethno-religious community. However, these movements are no more likely to produce solutions for the disease for which they purport to be the cure, than fascism was able to produce for the crises of the inter World War periods," Kumaratunga reflected.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 01, 2002.)

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