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Monday, Dec 06, 2021
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Sri Lanka Peace Talks

Proving The Prez Right

Does the recent suspension by the LTTE of its participation in the peace-talks vindicate the President Chandrika Kumaratunge?

Proving The Prez Right
Proving The Prez Right
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

President Chandrika Kumaratunge of Sri Lanka, who had been repeatedly expressing her unhappiness and concern over the way the Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe had been negotiating with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and blindly trusting its promises of good behaviour, must be feeling vindicated by the LTTE's suspension of its participation in the negotiations on April 21, 2003.

A letter on this subject written by Anton Balasingham, the head of the LTTE delegation to the peace talks, to the Prime Minister, says: "The LTTE leadership has decided to suspend its participation in the negotiations for the time being. We will not be attending the donor conference in Japan in June." Interestingly, it is silent on the next round of peace talks scheduled to take place in Thailand from April 29 to May 2. This has given rise to some speculation as to whether the LTTE's decision to suspend its participation  relates to the entire negotiations process or only to the negotiations with international donors on reconstruction aid.

While backing the negotiations process itself, President Chandrika Kumaratunge had been vocally critical of the negotiating strategy of her Prime Minister, which, in her view,  was enabling the LTTE to exploit the process for consolidating its hold over the Tamil-inhabited areas and setting up a de facto Tamil State even while proclaiming its willingness to consider a negotiated federal set-up as a solution to the problems of the Tamils.

She felt that by his exhibited over-eagerness to keep the process going, however intransigent the LTTE might be on critical issues, and by  making one concession after another to the demands of the LTTE without any quid pro quo on its part, her Prime Minister was giving an impression of negotiating from a position of weakness, which could prove counter-productive.

She also made no secret of her unhappiness over the way the  Sri Lankan monitoring mission (SLMM) set up under the leadership of Norway, the so-called facilitator of the peace process, was bending backwards to humour the LTTE and coax it to continue to participate in the process and closing its eyes to repeated infringements by the LTTE of the provisions of the cease-fire agreement reached by it and the Government  before the talks began.

The disquieting attitude of Norway became apparent in the  manner in which the SLMM sought to give the benefit of doubt to the LTTE by exonerating it of any responsibility or playing down its responsibility for  serious incidents at sea involving ships of the so-called LTTE Navy.

In the first incident, the LTTE was thwarted by the Sri Lankan Navy while trying to smuggle an anti-aircraft weapon and other arms and ammunition. The LTTE's sea cadres chose to scuttle the ship and go down with it to avoid being captured with their consignment---similar to what Kittu, a prominent leader of the LTTE, did in 1993 when he was intercepted by the Indian Coast Guard while trying to smuggle a consignment of arms and ammunition procured in Pakistan.

In the second incident, 15 Chinese and two Sinhalese were feared killed on March 20, when a Chinese trawler "Fu Yuan Ya 225" was attacked by a suspected LTTE naval unit off the Mullaitivu coast of Eastern Sri Lanka.In the third incident reported on March 31,two Sri Lankan military personnel were injured when a Sri Lankan troop transporter was fired upon with small arms.

No Tamil organisation of Sri Lanka, other than the LTTE, is known to have a sea-fighting capability. There have been no reports of any rogue elements in the LTTE's so-called navy operating on their own without the knowledge of the LTTE leadership. The seas around Sri Lanka have never had a history of  armed pirates operating there.

In spite of this, the SLMM chose to accept at face value the LTTE's denial of any responsibility for the last two incidents and sought to give the impression that hitherto-unidentified third parties might have been responsible for them. What was more shocking was the suggestion reportedly made by the SLMM for preventing a recurrence of similar incidents. In a paper prepared for consideration by the Government and the LTTE, the SLMM has reportedly suggested that the LTTE's Sea Tigers be treated as a "de facto naval unit" while reiterating the "undebatable obligation of the Sri Lankan Navy's legitimate task of safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity."

"Sovereignty and territorial integrity" of what? The whole of Sri Lanka or only of those areas falling outside the control of the LTTE? These vague formulations, even if not so designed, would have the ultimate effect of conferring legitimacy on the existence and operations of the Sea Tigers and their ships used for the smuggling of arms and ammunition and categorising certain portions of the territorial waters of Sri Lanka as falling within the jurisdiction of the de facto LTTE administrative set-up, the legitimacy of which has not been recognised by the international community. Naturally, there has been strong criticism of these formulations in Sri Lanka.

While these incidents at sea had contributed to malaise and the consequent shadows over the peace talks, the LTTE's decision to suspend its participation in the talks had been sought to be justified on three grounds, unrelated to these incidents, by Balasingam. These grounds are:
 

  • The failure of the Sri Lankan Govt. and Norway to enable the participation of the LTTE on an equal footing at an international donors' conference held at Washington DC on April 14,2003. The letter says: "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. Your government, as well as our facilitator Norway, are fully aware of the fact that the United States has legal constraints to invite representatives of a proscribed organisation to their country. In these circumstances an appropriate venue could have been selected to facilitate the LTTE to participate in this important preparatory aid conference. But the failure on the part of your government to do so gives cause for suspicion that this omission was deliberate. The exclusion of the LTTE from this conference has severely eroded the confidence of our people in the peace process."

  • The failure of the Government to withdraw its troops from Jaffna and other areas as part of the normalisation process agreed to under the cease-fire agreement. The letter says in this regard: "Though there is peace due to the silencing of the guns, normalcy has not returned to Tamil areas. Tens of thousands of government troops continue to occupy our towns, cities and residential areas suffocating the freedom of mobility of our people. Such a massive military occupation of Tamil lands, particularly in Jaffna - a densely populated district - during peace times denying the right of our displaced people to return to their homes, is unfair and unjust."
     
  • The Poverty Reduction Strategy worked out by the Government as a basic document for seeking international assistance has failed to highlight the acute economic hardships and the collapse of the infrastructure in the Tamil areas due to the military operations of the Security Forces. The letter says:" The conditions prevailing in the south (My comment: the Sinhalese areas) are distinctly different from the northeast (My comment: the Tamil areas) where the scale and magnitude of the infra-structural destruction is monumental and the poverty is acute. Ignoring this distinctive reality, your government posits poverty as a common phenomenon across the country and attempts to seek a solution with a common approach. This approach grossly under states the severity of the problems faced by the people in the northeast."
The letter has, however, reiterated the LTTE's commitment to seek a negotiated political solution to the Tamil problem once its conditions are met. A careful analysis of the negotiating strategy of the LTTE during the six rounds of talks held so far would indicate certain constants to which it has been fiercely adhering without making any concession:
 
  • Its determination to project itself as an equal party with the same status as the Government of Sri Lanka in all interactions with international donors whose assistance is sought for the reconstruction of Sri Lanka.

  • Its resolve to secure the withdrawal of the Sri Lankan forces from Jaffna, which the LTTE regards as the capital of Tamil Eelam, even before embarking on substantive discussions on the future political set-up of the country. It projects such withdrawal as an essential component of the normalisation process which has to precede substantive political negotiations. Its repeated emphasis on this demand is reflective of its perception that its de facto set-up in the Tamil areas would be incomplete without Jaffna as the capital.

  • Its perception of the talks not as between the State of Sri Lanka and an organisation which had taken up arms against it to achieve certain political objectives, but as between the de jure State of Sri Lanka and a de facto State of Tamil Eelam on the modalities for retaining and adjusting the de facto setup,  with its own administrative, police, judiciary and military components, as part of an overall solution based on a federal facade for the two State entities---Sinhalese and Tamil.
The difficulties encountered by Prime Minister Wickremasinghe in furthering the peace process, despite his sincerity, are due to his unwise confrontational attitude to the President, who belongs to a different political formation, and his avoidance of consulting and associating her with the process; his failure to reach a national consensus on the negotiating strategy; his wrong belief that international support and pressure on the LTTE alone would keep the peace process going and moderate the stance of the LTTE even in the absence of total domestic support for his strategy, and his hesitation to make it clear to the LTTE what points are negotiable and what are not.

The withdrawal or redployment of the security forces in Jaffna and other areas even before a political solution on the future set-up of Sri Lanka is reached is fraught with serious difficulties. Firstly, Sinhalese public opinion is unlikely to accept it. Secondly, even if it does, the Army might demur. Thirdly, even if he persuades the Army Commanders to accept it, it has to be accepted by the President who is the supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Fourthly, any confrontation between the President and him on this issue might end up in the politicisation of the Armed Forces, which is not desirable in the interest of democracy in Sri Lanka.

Moreover, there are other important aspects of the peace process such as its impact on the Muslims in the Eastern Province, which have not been given the attention they deserve by the Prime Minister. There are already clear indications of a growing radicalisation of sections of the Muslim youth, under the influence of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) of Pakistan, which is a member of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF), due to their unhappiness over the neglect of the feelings and concerns of the Muslims and over the failure of the Government to put down what they look upon as the high-handed activities of the LTTE cadres in their areas.

The lack of transparency surrounding the peace talks and the reluctance of the Prime Minister to clearly articulate the Government position and seek the President's concurrence for it remain major roadblocks to a successful outcome.


The writer Is Additional Secretary (Retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Advisory Committee, Observer Research Forum, Chennai Chapter.

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