In the line of peace

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe visits India with an agenda for stronger ties.

SRI LANKAN Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was in New Delhi on June 10 and 11 to try and strengthen political and economic cooperation. Actually, the main purpose of his four-day visit to India was to apprise New Delhi of the current status of the peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and assure it that its political and strategic interests in the region will not be compromised.

His second visit to the Indian capital within a span of six months, came close on the heels of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's "private" visit to New Delhi in April. The two leaders are known to differ on several issues relating to the proposed talks with the LTTE.

The People's Alliance (P.A.), led by Chandrika Kumaratunga, along with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, has in recent months organised protests against what they describe as "concessions" granted to the Tigers. During a special debate in the Sri Lankan Parliament in June, P.A. and JVP members protested against the token withdrawal by the Sri Lanka Army from a few places in the Tamil-dominated north-east.

Wickremasinghe had said during a recent visit to western Europe that one of the "core issues" that would come up for discussion with the LTTE was the setting up of an interim administration for the north-east. This is one of the concessions demanded by the Tigers. The P.A. and the JVP are not in favour of granting the Tigers such a favour at this juncture. According to Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, the troops had only withdrawn from some schools and places of worship. He said that the withdrawal constituted only a part of the implementation of the ceasefire agreement facilitated by the Norwegian mediators. The agreements also provided for the lifting of restrictions on the free flow of goods and movement of people between the north and the south.

There is also the question of lifting the ban on the LTTE, so that ceasefire talks can start soon. This is a controversial subject, as India has sought the extradition of LTTE leader V. Prabakaran in connection with the May 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The LTTE, on its part, has reservations about the recent steps taken by the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham has voiced his disapproval over the slow progress in the implementation of the terms of the ceasefire agreement.

The Sri Lankan government has not lifted the ban on the LTTE although de-proscription was a key precondition put forward by the Tigers for joining peace talks. Before Wickremasinghe's visit, the expectation was that serious talks with the Tigers would begin by the end of June or by early July. Now Sri Lankan officials say that there could be a further delay in the talks scheduled to be held in Thailand. As a consequence, a formal lifting of the ban on the rebel group would be delayed too.

DESPITE some initial reservations, the Indian government has been quite supportive of the Norway-facilitated peace initiative. The peace process has the full backing of the United States. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the U.S. has forged strong military links with Sri Lanka. U.S. officials have denied recent reports that it was keen to establish military bases on the island. However, the U.S. Army has already been given access facilities in the island.

Countries like the U.S., Britain, Canada and Australia, while encouraging the Sri Lankan government to talk with the Tigers, have at the same time made it clear that the proposed lifting of the ban on the LTTE by the Sri Lankan government would not automatically lead to the removal by the international community of the terrorist tag on the LTTE. When the Sri Lankan Prime Minister was in New Delhi, the Indian government spokesperson maintained that New Delhi's demand for the extradition of Prabakaran remained "operational" and that there was "no change" in New Delhi's policy on the subject.

But it is now clear that India has put the demand for Prabakaran's extradition on the backburner, for the time being. The spokesperson of the Ministry of External Ministry reiterated that India stood for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the island-nation and that a peace settlement should accommodate the aspirations of all the groups. A joint statement issued during Wickremasinghe's visit to New Delhi said that "terrorist acts cannot be justified on political, ethnic, religious, social, economic or other grounds. Terrorism is an absolute evil, it is a global scourge to be collectively countered".

Wickremasinghe met President K.R. Narayanan and Leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi, both of whom, according to Indian officials, advised him to be wary of the promises made by the Tiger leadership, in view of their dubious track record.

ON the economic front, senior Sri Lankan government officials had indicated that there was a proposal to let the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) to take on lease a facility at the Trincomalee port for the storage of oil. There has been some speculation in Sri Lanka about the security aspect involved in this proposal. It is acknowledged that the Trincomalee harbour is not only strategically located but is one of the deepest natural harbours. During the Second World War, Britain launched most of its naval operations against the Japanese from here. Trincomalee was even subjected to aerial bombing raids by the Japanese during the War. The port has been virtually lying idle for the last five decades owing to a variety of reasons. The U.S. showed interest in using the port at one stage.

Wickremasinghe has, however, said that were no plans to develop Trincomalee as a military base and that the proposed lease to the IOC is under the Indo-Sri Lanka free trade agreement. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the two countries during Wickremasinghe's visit not only allows the IOC to access the Sri Lankan market but also gives the company the right to manage and operate oil facilities at the Trincomalee port on the basis of a long lease. There are more than a hundred huge silos in the port, built by the British, which could be used to store oil. The IOC will be allotted 100 retail outlets in Sri Lanka. Wickremasinghe had maintained earlier that the deal was an economic one with the sole purpose of developing Trincomalee as an economic and commercial centre and that he saw no reason why the Tigers or other groups should object to the agreement.

India has agreed to soften the terms of the $100 million credit it had extended to Sri Lanka. The two sides also agreed to launch a feasibility study on a proposed land bridge (Adam's bridge) to connect southern Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka. Indications are that both sides are now keen to expedite this project.

Prior to his India visit, Wickremasinghe described the current impasse between India and Pakistan as a "bilateral" issue, but in a recent interview he had said that his government was mindful of the fact that the consequences of a conflict between India and Pakistan "will not be restricted to the northern plains of the subcontinent". Wickremasinghe said that he would like to see the tensions between the two countries ease, emphasising that Colombo has close ties with both countries.

There were reports in sections of the media that Chandrika Kumaratunga had suggested third-party mediation to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Her office was quick to issue a denial, saying that she had been misquoted.

WICKREMASINGHE also visited Bangalore and Chennai. During his stop-over in Chennai, he met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, "so as to keep her informed about the latest developments in the ongoing efforts to bring peace to the troubled island-nation". Jayalalithaa is known to be an uncompromising foe of the LTTE and has reiterated on many occasions that she wants the ban on the LTTE to continue. The leadership in Colombo attaches a lot of significance to public opinion in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. To some extent, Wickremasinghe's visit to the State was an attempt to gauge the mood of the leadership and the public to the fast-changing events on the island.

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