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Now it's all about how honourable the compromise is for Tamils More Coverage

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It isn't any longer considered a pariah, and it has won encomiums worldwide for coming to the negotiating table. But the real test for the LTTE begins only now: can it convince Tamilians about its decision to accept a federal form of governance, instead of its avowed goal of a separate homeland, a dream for which 17,000 Tamilians sacrificed their lives, another 43,000 were killed and the country's economy was completely shattered?

Some would call it verbal jugglery, others would describe it as political pragmatism. But it was amply clear at the end of the third round of peace talks between the Lankan government and the LTTE that the Tigers had relinquished their cherished dream of Tamil Eelam (homeland), never mind the sophistry evident in the use of phrases such as "internal self-determination". The statement the Norwegian government issued in Oslo, where the latest round of peace talks concluded early this month, bears this out. It said the "parties have decided to explore a political solution founded on internal self-determination based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka".

The LTTE is quite aware of the challenges in selling what its chief negotiator Anton Balasingham describes as the "unprecedented agreement". He further told government negotiators in Oslo that LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran had entrusted this onerous task to him. Balasingham plans to return to the rebel-controlled Wanni to undertake the assignment in early January.

But that his isn't going to be an easy task was best illustrated through what he told chief negotiator for the Sri Lankan government, G.L. Pieris. "It is not easy to now tell the Tamil people of whom 17,000 have sacrificed their lives that we have given up that goal and are now prepared to live with the Sinhalese in one country. In order to convince our people to accept such a position, we have to give them a viable alternative and that cannot be done overnight. It is a time-consuming process and I need your patience," Balasingham reportedly said.

In a way, Prabhakaran and Balasingham have already undertaken the spadework to persuade the Tamilians of the need to compromise on the idea of a separate state. In a speech in Wanni to mark Hero's Day on November 26, Prabhakaran had publicly favoured substantial regional autonomy within Sri Lanka as a viable alternative to a separate state. Echoing him in London, Balasingham candidly explained the about-turn: "After September 11 last year, there is a change.... Freedom struggles are named as terrorist attacks. We have to be careful since the world has failed to realise the truth. World countries are joining hands to wipe out terrorism. The Tigers are also listed in their list of terrorist organisations. Therefore, we have to take every move diplomatically."

Balasingham's explanation provides a fair idea of what the LTTE strategy will be to convince its constituency: it did a volte face because it couldn't have possibly taken on the might of the entire world. His success will depend on the measure of regional autonomy and the kind of federal structure the LTTE and the Lankan government ultimately agree upon (the two sides are currently studying different constitutions) and whether this could justify the loss of so many lives.

The initial response from the Tamil community to the federal idea is quite positive. Says Gajendra Ponnambalam, an MP from Jaffna district, "The federal proposal is a positive development and the idea is fully welcomed by the Tamil people. If regional autonomy accepting the principle of internal self-determination is granted, no one will grumble."

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of think-tank Centre For Policy Alternatives, says the LTTE's will be a tightrope walk."It will have to explain to its constituency that federalism combines the elements of 'self rule' and 'shared rule' and that whilst there will be ample space for internal self-determination, there are positive benefits to accrue from being part of a united country."

This is all for the future, as is also the kind of resistance President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her People's Alliance mount against the peace process. Equally troublesome would be how the LTTE's armed cadres and its version of judicial system are incorporated in, or tackled by, the federal structure.
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