If the sudden decision, announced on April 21, 2003, by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)to
pull out of the peace process caught most observers by surprise, it was because they had failed to heed the
direct and indirect warning signals. The direct warning signals came from the LTTE, which had expressed its
unhappiness at being left out of the international donor conference in Washington on April 14. But ironically,
the indirect warning signals came from the satisfaction of the Sri Lanka government that it had achieved
success at the same Washington aid conference from which the LTTE had been barred. Up to the time of the
Washington meeting, the Government and the LTTE had made joint appeals to the international community.
By stating that it was suspending the peace talks and would not be attending the donor aid conference in Tokyo scheduled in June, the LTTE has sought to apply a measure of pressure on the Government. It is aware that the Government is banking a great deal on the Tokyo conference, to revive the economy and offer a substantial peace dividend to the people. The consensual approach between the government and LTTE had been the key factor in the mobilisation of international aid to reconstruct the country. Any conflict between them could lead to a weakening of this international support.
The LTTE has, however, also been careful in the statement it issued regarding its decision to suspend its participation in the peace negotiations, which was qualified by announcement that it would continue with the peace process and honour the ceasefire agreement. It is clear, consequently, that there is no danger of the ceasefire collapsing and war breaking out. Unfortunately, there is a considerable apprehension among the people that the peace process is indeed breaking down, and that this will be exploited by opponents of the peace process. Thus, President Chandrika Kumaratunga's decision to put the troops on high alert may have been a legitimate use of her constitutional powers as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, but it was also given wide publicity by the media, and added to the agitation of the people.
In the last couple of weeks the media had been giving mixed messages regarding the peace process. On the one hand, there is a focus on disruptions to the process, of which there were many. Some of the most threatening incidents included the sinking of an LTTE cargo vessel, suspected of carrying arms, by the Sri Lanka navy, which resulted in the loss of over a dozen LTTE lives on March 10. This was followed by the brutal hacking to death of nearly 20 Chinese civilian sailors on board a shipping vessel flying the Sri Lankan flag, on March 20. More recently, between April 16 and 21, there have been clashes in the multi ethnic eastern region of the country, where there has been widespread violence between Tamils and Muslims, with several hundred Muslims fleeing their homes.
On the other hand, the media has also given prominence to the remarkable success of the government in raising international donor funding. The World Bank and IMF have together pledged over USD 800 million in aid for the next three years, granting Sri Lanka 100 percent of what it was able to receive. Government spokespersons also spoke confidently of obtaining a total of USD 1 billion for three consecutive years from donor countries and multilateral agencies, exceeding all previous fund raising efforts. But a perceptive observer would have noted the absence of the LTTE from these claims of success and anticipatory rejoicing.
Being invited to Washington for the donor meeting at a time when the United States was focussed on the Iraq situation was an undoubted triumph for the Sri Lankan Government. But in seeking to project itself as having secured a great success in order to pander to its voter base, the government has evidently alienated the LTTE. In the government's highly publicised achievement in Washington, the LTTE may have seen its future exclusion from other important events and decisions; its belief in an equal partnership with the Government has been sundered. The LTTE's action of pulling out from the peace talks needs to be seen in this light.
In announcing its withdrawal from the peace negotiations, the LTTE is making it clear that its cooperation is essential if the government is to attain its aid target. In fact, by threatening to boycott the Tokyo donor conference, the LTTE is also making the larger point that everything the country has achieved in the course of the last 16 months of peace is contingent on its cooperation. And indeed, the government and the LTTE have been partners in making Sri Lanka a unique and textbook case of a successful peace process, at least, till this point. If this success is to continue, so must that partnership.
In its letter of April 21 to the Government, the LTTE said, "During the early negotiating sessions it was agreed that the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE should work together and approach the international community in partnership." There are, of course, difficult questions to be asked and answered about the nature of this partnership. There are partnerships that are equal and others that are not. There could be equality in some aspects and inequality in other aspects of a relationship. Where the ceasefire agreement is concerned, the government and the LTTE are equals. They were the two parties at war and without their joint collaboration and commitment the war would not have ended.
On the other hand, when the LTTE agreed to a federal solution, they recognised there would be only one central government in Sri Lanka. Foreign governments and multilateral donor agencies give their funds to the central government because they can seek repayment from it. There is accountability when dealing with a national government. Such accountability is not possible with a militant organisation that has not yet contested an election or formed an internationally recognised government. The LTTE has to accept the reality that it will not be treated as equal to the Sri Lankan government when it comes to accessing international donor funding.
However, the LTTE's sense of being marginalised in the peace process, especially during the Washington donor conference, needs to be appreciated. The LTTE said,
"We view the exclusion of the LTTE, the principal partner to peace and the authentic representatives of the Tamil people, from discussions on critical matters affecting the economic and social welfare of the Tamil nation, as a grave breach of good faith."
The LTTE is justified in feeling that it contributed in equal part to the success of the peace process and
it is unfairly being left out at the end, when the rewards are being handed out. The government should assure
the LTTE that this would not happen again, and that the LTTE will be an equal partner in the rehabilitation
and reconstruction of the north and east. During the course of the war, the LTTE built up various institutions
of an administrative and military nature. There is no denying the existence today of LTTE courts, police,
administrators, and army and navy. They are a de facto reality. However, this is not the rule of law,
and it is important that the political negotiations should be speeded up so that a final settlement is
reached, at which time democratic regional institutions can be put in place.
For its part, the LTTE needs to recognise the difficulties it puts the government into by some of its actions. It is not acceptable behaviour by a partner to a peace process to engage in a build up of it military strength by arms smuggling over the seas, and by forcibly recruiting even children into its armed ranks. The LTTE's human rights record continues to be poor, and the organisation played a key role in the Tamil-Muslim clashes that have forced hundreds of Muslims from their homes. There is an ongoing campaign of political assassinations of members of Tamil political parties opposed to the LTTE. There are also credible reports of LTTE prisons and torture camps to which no one, not even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has access.
In its statement explaining its reasons for withdrawing from the peace talks, the LTTE has claimed that its exclusion from the aid conference in the United States, the continued suffering of the displaced Tamil people, the problems of the heavy Army presence in civilian areas of the north and east, and the lack of special attention to the economic devastation of the north and east, are reasons that have undermined its confidence in the negotiations. But the restoration of normal life in the north and east that the LTTE avowedly seeks, must apply to non-Tamils and to non-LTTE parties as well. For Sri Lanka's peace process to succeed, and for the country to be an example to the world, there is only one appropriate basis for a successful and long term working partnership. This is a commitment to transparency, human rights and democracy. Both the government and the LTTE have a long way to go in their journey to such a partnership
Jehan Perera is Media Director, National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. This article appears here courtesy the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.