Situation Report
24th June 2001

Fresh peace moves amidst political war

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If political issues drew most of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's attention this week, their portended fallout on the country's security situation appeared worrisome.

The heightening LTTE campaign to destabilise the East, that too after a major arms build up with peace initiatives remaining stalemated, was a cause for serious concern in the security establishment. Adding greater uncertainty were the events that would unfold as a result of the Opposition vote of no confidence on the Government.

Acting Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody and his two colleagues, Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle and Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, have met regularly in the recent weeks with their respective senior officials including intelligence higher ups to assess the prevailing security situation.

The Sunday Times learnt that the picture that was unfolding was grim. Whilst the security forces have been ordered to refrain from any major offensive operations and air attacks on LTTE positions remain temporarily suspended, Tiger guerrillas were slowly but surely stepping up their offensive activity. Strong evidence of this was increasingly emerging.

They are to raise issue over the matter at an upcoming meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) next week. The service commanders gathered at the Presidential Secretariat last Thursday evening for a meeting of the NSC but President Kumaratunga was very busy. 

It was put off for Friday morning but was cancelled since she had been working late hours preparing herself for a crucial meeting. 

It was not over war but peace.

As Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe drove into Janadhipathi Mandiraya, the service commanders were leaving. They had been told that the NSC meeting would not take place. Instead, President Kumaratunga, entered into a two hour long meeting with Mr. Wickremesinghe. 

On hand were Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

The meeting underscored the priority the Government was now placing on the Norwegian facilitated peace initiatives. It was the first Government-Opposition high level summit and came just a month after the Government raised issue with Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn, over the role of Special Envoy Erik Solheim.

On June 7, when Mr. Jagland met President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, as an official statement later said, "it was decided that the Government of Norway will henceforth participate at a high level to advance the peace process involving the LTTE." It became clear that Mr. Jagland himself would give the lead as facilitator. 

Though his role is now down graded, Mr. Solheim would still remain a member of the negotiating team together with Norway's Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Jon Westborg.

Without the glare of publicity, Mr. Jagland had gone into action in the past five weeks. Most of the facilitatory diplomacy with the Government was via the telephone with Mr. Kadirgamar. 

With issues relating to modalities coming up for discussion, it became the turn of the Government to respond with some stated positions.

The issues were so crucial, a bi-partisan stance with the Opposition would be the ideal way to respond. Playing the role of a local facilitator in this regard was Prime Minister Wickremanayake. 

He was personally responsible for arranging the meeting. President Kumaratunga who had a late night discussion with Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, after he hosted a farewell dinner to outgoing Pakistani High Commissioner, Bassit Haqqani, was also asked to be on hand.

The Kumaratunga-Wickremesinghe summit focused on some key issues that have to be overcome before peace talks proper are held. They included the LTTE demand for a de-proscription, withdrawal of trade sanctions to guerrilla dominated areas and a cessation of hostilities. Views expressed were varied.

The Government still feels that a de-proscription, if essential, should come after the peace talks get under way. Mr. Wickremesinghe cautiously avoided spelling out his or his party's position on this vexed issue except to say the Government should sound out the views of foreign Governments, particularly those who have imposed a ban on the LTTE.

There was virtual consensus on the issue of relaxing trade restrictions. As for the cessation of hostilities, the nomenclature to be adopted and the modalities that should govern such a move are yet to be worked out.

A statement setting out the subjects of discussion between President Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremesinghe, is to be issued anytime next week. UNP sources say the Opposition Leader will issue his own statement if he feels that any clarification or elaboration would become necessary. As announced in a brief Presidential Secretariat statement on Friday, both "the Government and the UNP will engage in a constructive dialogue to carry the peace process forward."

Despite the main opposition's move for a vote of no confidence to oust the Government, the fact that PA leaders are desperately seeking their support for a common consensus on issues related to the peace talks underscores the seriousness of the situation. Since late 1999 when security forces faced major reversals in the Wanni, followed the next year by the loss of Elephant Pass and a threat of rebel take over of Jaffna, billions of rupees were poured into the war effort.

The amounts surpassed what was spent when peace talks with guerrillas, soon after the People's Alliance was voted to power in 1994, failed and the Government ordered a security forces crack down on the LTTE. 

Modernisation of the security forces was unprecedented. The Air Force acquired more sophisticated fixed wing bombers and attack helicopters. The Army tanks, artillery and Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers to its inventory. 

The Navy obtained an Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPV) from India and two Fast Missile Vessels (FMVs) from Israel in addition to other craft. The bigger vessels were intended to give the Navy a blue water capability.

And now, after six years and several billions of rupees, the Government feels a negotiated peace settlement, as early as possible, is the answer to the 18 year long separatist war.

President Kumaratunga was frank enough to confess her dilemma. Speaking during a dinner she hosted for Deputy Ministers and their spouses at the Presidential Secretariat on June 15, she explained that her Government had taken great pains to commit vast sums of money to modernise the security forces and for the war effort. 

This was at the expense of causing hardships to the public. Despite these efforts, the military had found it difficult to produce results. In such a situation, she asked, what could the Government do.

Her lament was by no means a suggestion that she was going to call a halt to all the fighting and let the military return to their barracks.

She was frankly airing the predicament of a Government which had pumped colossal amounts of money to a war effort where, leave alone gains, the security forces had been forced to suffer reversals. The turn of events in this regard came after the security forces launch of "Operation Agni Khiela" on April 24, where over 300 troops died and over 1900 were wounded.

In this context, President Kumaratunga is left with little choice but to urgently pursue the peace option. In doing so, she is equally mindful about military realities too, like making sure the LTTE does not make fresh gains at the expense of the ongoing temporary moratorium on offensive operations and air raids. 

Such gains, needless to say, will bolster the LTTE's bargaining position at any future peace talks.

But, more importantly, its impact on troop morale, when the forces have been further modernised, would be devastating. This places the Government in an unenviable position.

Exacerbating fears further is the move by 97 law makers, from the UNP and three Tamil political parties in Parliament, to move a vote of no confidence on the PA Government. 

Their motion was handed over on Friday to Secretary General of Parliament, Dhammika Kitulgoda. The signatures of 97 MPs is inadequate to seek the exit of the People's Alliance in a 225 seat Parliament.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, whose seven MPs quit the People's Alliance coalition last Wednesday, thus rendering it a minority in Parliament, is yet to make up its mind. So is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna which holds ten seats. The combined support of both these parties will be required if the no confidence vote is to succeed. Both PA leaders and UNP stalwarts insist they are sure of backing from the two.

Fears for the defence establishment from these developments arise over the ongoing State of Emergency. The Emergency Regulations are debated and passed by Parliament every month. It comes up for renewal in Parliament on July 6, for the first time since the People's Alliance became a minority in Parliament. It seems highly unlikely that the Government's move to renew the State of Emergency will be voted out. But given the mood of the opposition, would an effort be made to amend some provisions to confine the Emergency only to the North and East ?

A vast volume of operational activity by the Police and the security forces in their counter terrorism role is carried out under the Emergency Regulations. They include conferring of Police powers to armed forces personnel, requisition (and acquisition of property), requisitioning of vehicles, requisitioning of personal services, the co-ordination of essential services, prohibition of processions and meetings, declaration of curfew, control of publications, supervision, search, arrest and detention.

The latest peace initiatives come at a time when the war is on a different front, a political war between the Government and the Opposition. Whilst agreeing on peace measures with a common enemy, they will undoubtedly be wary of each other. The fallout will continue in the coming weeks.

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