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Towards peace, with caution

Print edition : Apr 28, 2001 T+T-

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam chief V. Prabakaran's peace offensive is part of a desperate attempt to win back international favour and, as the Indian experience shows, Colombo can negotiate with the Tigers without lifting the ban on them.

THE efforts of the Norwegian peace emissary, Eric Solheim, to bring the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to the negotiating table have elicited a favourable response from the international community. The Sri Lankan government is conscious of the track record of the LTTE - its leader V. Prabakaran's slippery stance of blowing hot and cold and his emphasis on "return to normalcy" and "talks about talks" without showing any inclination to discuss the framework of a constitutional-political settlement. Even then President Chandrika Kumaratunga considers the present moment as the "best window of opportunity that has been offered to any government since the war began". Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in a recent interview to N. Ram, Editor, Frontline, echoed her guarded optimism. He maintained that the peace process was moving forward and that before long the government would be in a position to "announce definitively" the venue of the actual negotiation and when it would commence.

The Norwegian initiative is more than two years old. Encouraged by the initial response from the Tigers, Solheim held detailed discussions with LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham in London and Oslo, representatives of the Tigers in the Wanni jungles and the Sri Lankan government in Colombo. The initiative resulted in the declaration of a "unilateral ceasefire" by the Tigers, which has been extended three times. Colombo responded by lifting the embargo on the supply of essential items to areas under the LTTE's control. In early April, the Sri Lankan government went further and declared a five-day ceasefire to synchronise with Sinhalese/Tamil New Year celebrations.

There is a difference in the perceptions of the warring parties about Norway's role. Colombo maintains that Norway is not a mediator, but a facilitator. This implies the limited role of facilitating communication between the government and the Tigers. From all available accounts, the Tigers would prefer a bigger role for the international community in matters such as monitoring the ceasefire as and when the two sides agree to it. In an interview with Tamil Guardian last year, Anton Balasingham maintained that "an effective ceasefire with the help of an international monitoring committee will certainly contain any possible violation of ceasefire."

Sri Lanka watchers in India are a little more cautious about the prospects of peace than the peaceniks in Sri Lanka. The Westborg-Tamil Chelvam negotiations are a case in point. In a recent statement, Tamil Chelvam announced that the LTTE would reciprocate the "positive steps" taken by Colombo, and it released four persons, including a soldier, who had been held captive since 1993. Simultaneously, the LTTE stepped up its demands. It wanted the restriction on the movement of fuel and cement to be removed and the ban on the LTTE lifted. Tamil Chelvam declared that the Tigers would not "under any circumstances participate in the peace negotiations as an outlawed outfit".

A parallel situation should be highlighted, which throws light on the short- and long-term strategy of the LTTE. Following her emphatic victory in the 1994 parliamentary elections, Chandrika Kumaratunga pledged to bring about "ethnic reconciliation" in the island. She expressed her readiness to enter into negotiations with the LTTE without "any pre-conditions" and held out the promise of 'peace with honour' for the Tamils. As a first step in this direction, the government lifted the embargo on certain items as a gesture of goodwill. How did Prabakaran respond? In his book Politics of Duplicity - Revisiting the Jaffna Talks, Anton Balasingham writes: "From the outset, Mr. Pirabakaran, the leader of the LTTE, was sceptical of Chandrika's gesture. He felt it was a political gimmick to win the support of the Tamils and Sinhalese for the forthcoming presidential elections. I advised him to respond to her positively. She is a new leader emerging on the Sri Lankan political horizon articulating progressive politics. It would be politically prudent on our part to initiate a dialogue with her government to find out whether or not she is genuine in resolving the problems of the Tamils." Prabakaran concurred with Balasingham's views. And as a "positive" response to the government's "conciliatory gesture", the Tigers also released 10 policemen who were in their custody as "prisoners of war". Simultaneously, Prabakaran demanded the "lifting of economic embargo totally" which would pave the way for the restoration of normalcy in Tamil areas.

As the exchange of letters and the talks between the two groups revealed, there was a basic difference between the approaches of the two parties. The peace process, according to the LTTE, should proceed in two stages. The early stages of the negotiations should address the issue of restoration of normalcy and creation of a peaceful environment. After normalcy was restored, talks could commence, to find a peaceful solution. Colombo, on the other hand, maintained that there should be simultaneous talks relating to the day-to-day problems of the people and to find a political solution. Finally, the LTTE accused the government of "bad faith" and started the Third Eelam War in April 1995. In her interview to N. Ram (Frontline, March 16), Chandrika Kumaratunga explained the behaviour of the LTTE as follows: "The LTTE will always do what it always has done, that is, drag on and on and on until they build themselves again militarily and start attacking again." Is history repeating itself? Is the LTTE laying a peace trap?

WHY has Prabakaran launched a peace offensive? Why did the Tigers extend the unilateral ceasefire three times, despite Colombo's rejection of the ceasefire and the Sri Lankan Army's continuing military offensive? In order to put the issue in perspective, it is necessary to focus on certain political realities.

First and foremost, the military stalemate on the ground. The Sri Lanka Army is better equipped today than ever before. The fear that the Tigers would capture Jaffna after the fall of the Elephant Pass camp last year has become bad memory. With the help of sophisticated aircraft acquired from Israel, multi-barrel rocket launchers from Pakistan and MiG-27 planes from the Ukraine, the Tigers' onward march has been thwarted. In his Heroes' Day speech last year, Prabakaran admitted that he had to give up the "advance to Jaffna" as a consequence of massive international assistance to Colombo. To quote Prabakaran: "The entire world rushed to help Sri Lanka with emergency military assistance when Chandrika raised the alarm of an impending military disaster claiming that the lives of 30,000 troops were in danger." Despite his tall claim that the Tigers "are determined to liberate Jaffna", the fortunes of the war as far as the Jaffna theatre is concerned have definitely turned against the Tigers. Explaining Colombo's assessment of the situation, Chandrika Kumaratunga told N. Ram: "We have spent a lot of money and purchased military hardware, which have caused a lot of damage to the LTTE. They have lost more than half the number of active fighting cadres in the last six months of last year. According to their own declared information... 2,700-odd cadres they have lost - and they do not have more than five to six thousand in the entire Northern Province."

At the same time, it would be a tall claim to make, as many Sinhalese chauvinists do, that the Tigers can be defeated in the battlefield. The Sri Lanka Army is not in a position to score a decisive victory over the Tigers. Nor can the Tigers accomplish an independent state of Tamil Eelam through military means. Prabakaran's peace offensive has to be viewed in the backdrop of the continuing military stalemate. Obviously, Prabakaran requires an "interval of peace" to regroup his cadres and improve his fighting strength in order to meet the challenges of the new situation.

Equally relevant is the LTTE's keen desire to come out of growing international isolation. India, the United States and the United Kingdom have banned the LTTE. And thanks to the persuasive diplomacy of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Lakshman Kadirgamar, other countries - South Africa, Canada, Thailand and Myanmar - are becoming more sensitive to the dangers of the LTTE misusing their hospitality. Significantly, in the Heroes' Day speech in 1998, Prabakaran explained his unhappiness over the lukewarm international response to the "monumental human tragedy" faced by the Tamils. He added that he was "saddened by the fact" that the untold sufferings of the Tamil people "have not yet touched the conscience of the world community". Misguided by the sophisticated "misinformation campaign", the world has "uncritically assimilated the preposterous theories advanced by the Sri Lankan state". The Tigers' inability to win friends and influence people was explained by Balasingham as follows: "Before the LTTE could argue its case, the world had already passed judgment on the Tigers. Alienated and isolated from the world by lack of communication and media access, the Tigers could not present their side of the story. The Sri Lankan regime succeeded in winning the world on to its side by an effective global disinformation campaign."

THE LTTE's recent gestures are part of a desperate attempt to win back international favour. Prabakaran is showing the velvet glove to project a "soft image" of the Tigers - a liberation organisation that is an "aggrieved party", a "victim of oppression", a "peace-loving group" pitted against "war mongers". It is against this backdrop that the recent demand that the Government of Sri Lanka lift the ban on the LTTE has to be viewed. If the ban is lifted, Colombo, at one stroke, would lose all the gains it has accomplished after years of persuasive diplomacy. Most Sri Lanka watchers in India are of the view that the issue of lifting the ban should be considered only when a negotiated settlement is reached and after the Tigers have given up the path of violence.

If Indian experience is of any value, it should be highlighted that negotiations have taken place and continue to take place with militant organisations that are banned. G. Parthasarathy, as an emissary of the Indian government, negotiated a peaceful settlement of the Mizo problem with Laldenga of the Mizo National Front, which continued to be a banned organisation during the period of negotiations. Similar is the case of Nagaland. The high functionaries of the Home Ministry have held negotiations with the representatives of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, an organisation that is banned, in Amsterdam and Bangkok. These negotiations have resulted in a ceasefire in Nagaland. Although the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka has its own unique features, it would be prudent on the part of Colombo to learn from the experience of other countries that have faced threats to their national unity.

Prof. V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

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