Political Column
By our Political Correspondent
20th January 2002
The Sunday Times on the Web















What form will Lanka be in?

There is euphoria right now in the north and east after the government and the LTTE agreed in principle to link the LTTE held areas with the government controlled South. There was an air of freedom in Wanni as hitherto-restricted consumer items moved freely to the LTTE-controlled Wanni.

People in the North were paying ten or more times more than Colombo prices for certain essential items. For instance, they pay Rs. 600 per a litre of petrol, when the price in the south is Rs. 50. The northern people had to undergo much hardship since Eelam war three began following the collapse of peace talks between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the LTTE.

Now we are back to square one with the Ranil Wickremesinghe government trying to revive the peace process. It's peace euphoria everywhere.

The situation is not dissimilar to what prevailed in 1994 when Ms. Kumaratunga won the elections on a peace platform. The Jaffna people hailed her as peace queen. Traders even named toy planes and bangles after her.

But all of a sudden, hopes were dashed when Eelam war three began with the LTTE attacking Navy vessels. 

After seven years we are re-starting the process with the hope of bringing in a permanent solution to the ethnic conflict. 

The path ahead, as Prime Minister Wickremesinghe sees it, is a difficult one, a delicate one and probably dangerous too.

In this context, it is important that the government while pursuing the peace initiative, should take all political forces in the south into confidence. Acrimonious politics will not take us anywhere closer to achieving the desired goal. In view of this, the government should boldly put an end to the post-poll violence which is still continuing. Roping in the PA for peace talks will be crucial since the government needs a two thirds majority in parliament to enact devolution proposals.

The PA government's peace initiative did not proceed partly because of opposition from extremist elements and partly for lack of proper direction. Minister G.L. Peiris who is holding a key portfolio in the present government was the chief man involved in the PA peace process. His role was to devise a constitutional environment conducive for a devolution of power. The reforms devised by Minister Peiris in concurrence with moderate Tamils not with the LTTE failed to get the parliamentary nod due to lack of consensus with opposition parties. The process also saw the co-author of the constitutional reforms package, Dr. Neelam Tiruchelvam of the TULF, being assassinated. 

The UNP's position at that stage was that there should be unconditional talks with the LTTE to strike a deal. But the LTTE maintained that there should be consensus in the South on any issue before the proposals were discussed with it. After the process collapsed in August 2000, the Kumaratunga government realised the importance of dealing directly with the LTTE. This realisation allowed Norwegians to enter the process as facilitators. 

The revived peace process also suffered a blow when the government sidelined chief Norwegian negotiator Erik Solheim on the grounds that he was favouring the LTTE. The peace process then remained frozen till the issue was taken up by the UNF and Tamil parties as an issue at the December 5 elections.

The moderate TULF and several other parties formed an alliance, the Tamil National Alliance, ostensibly with the LTTE blessings. The TNA demanded that the economic embargo on the north should be lifted and the ban on the LTTE should be removed. These are the very demands the LTTE has been putting forward for peace talks. 

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe acted aptly in dealing with this situation in the past weeks and also during the election campaign. He hinted that the ban would be lifted, but he did not say when. The statement was ambiguous and was a well thought-out political statement. Peace activists agree the ban imposed on the LTTE by the government should be lifted. But is the time appropriate, is the question. 

The LTTE is now unable to operate in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and several other countries because of the ban. Things became more difficult for the LTTE in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States with Washington launching its global war against terrorism. The LTTE's funds were frozen and its fund-raising capacity was crippled. 

Some say Sri Lanka should reap the maximum benefits out of this situation to exert pressure on the LTTE to come back to the negotiating table. 

The LTTE also wants to talk to the government from a position of strength while any government in power wants to talk to the LTTE when it is weak.

But the immediate question is over the lifting of the ban in a bid to lure the LTTE to the negotiating table. Analysts feel there should be a better bargain if the government is to lift the ban. They think that lifting the ban just to get the LTTE to the negotiating table is not worth the move. The thinking is that it should be linked with de-weaponising the LTTE or de-militarising the major zones in the North-East areas.

LTTE spokesmen S. P. Tamil Selvam yesterday reiterated the LTTE's position with regard to the ban when he addressed a Wanni news conference arranged for journalists flown in from Colombo.

Minister Peiris side-stepped Mr. Tamil Selvam's demand stating that the government's main concern was to address the humanitarian problem by providing essential goods to uncleared areas and easing travel barriers. Prof. Peiris demonstrated his political skills when he said that the government had not received any formal requests from the LTTE about the de-proscription. "We have not arrived at this point. When we do so, we can discuss the matter."

If the government is unable get any concession in the form of de-weaponising the LTTE or de-militarising the north, the issue of deproscription should be taken up at a time when negotiations reach a position from where the LTTE cannot retract. 

Journalists who visited Wanni felt the people there wanted peace. They saw an eagerness among the people to live peacefully without being threatened either by the LTTE or security forces. 

If the ban is lifted now, what is the guarantee that the LTTE will continue the ceasefire and finally agree to a peaceful settlement? The Norwegian brokers should be mindful of the agonising past in negotiating on those lines. The government has quite correctly addressed the humanitarian problems of the North. But there are so many outstanding issues to be sorted out by the government on its journey towards achieving peace.

The government is apparently interested at this juncture in extending the ceasefire to a longer period after its expiry on January 24. The Norwegian negotiators have already taken up the extension issue with the LTTE when they met LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in London on Tuesday.

The talks centred on the formation of a structure and stable ceasefire. The immediate objective was to converge the cessation of hostilities, being observed separately by both sides, into a single stable framework. The government peace unit coordinated by veteran diplomat Bernard Gunatilleke is preparing a memorandum of understanding for this. Several other diplomats who have gained considerable experience in the field of conflict resolution have also been drawn into this unit. But indications are that the ceasefire is likely to be extended with or without an MOU.

The government is very cautious to see that nothing goes wrong in areas in the North-East and also in the South. 

In this regard, the government is also compelled to review areas of conflict in devolution proposals. The nature of the state is one such area. Some hardliners are adamant that the unitary character of the country should be maintained with substantial devolution of power. The People's Alliance government previously proposed a union of regions as a compromise. But if we are to solve this problem, we may have to consider something like a federal state, though it may contradict the earlier position of a unitary state.

Under the 13th Amendment, President J. R. Jayewardene tried to preserve the unitary nature of the state by devolving power to the provinces.

But it was later rejected by the LTTE and many people in the North. The PA's formula was a further departure from the 13th Amendment. It had federal features, though it was not said in so many words. It was K.N. Choksy, the present finance minister, who helped the PA government to offer this version of the nature of the state devolving power within a federal set up but without specifically mentioning the nature of the state. The LTTE's position is somewhat different. It wanted a confederation of two separate states one for the Sinhalese and the other for the Tamil.

There is a difficulty in recognizing two different and this is a very primitive and outdated in theory. The present world is towards integration while recognising the rights of all people. Sri Lanka should be one nation where the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and other minorities enjoy equal rights. Sri Lanka should take an example from other countries which have resolved such problems by reconciliatory arrangements. South Africa and Northern Ireland offer several lessons for us.

Relevant documents pertaining to talks with the LTTE prior to the 1987 Indo-Lanka agreements or the Premadasa era peace talks were either missing or not preserved properly for the new team to study them. It is important that the negotiators have a good knowledge of the conflict and those who are involved in the peace process.

The peace process needs the attention of a full time minister who should be relieved of other responsibilities. In Britain, there is a Northern Ireland secretary a minister in charge of not only the troubled province but also the peace process.

It is full time work because it is going to be the chief priority for the government and the ethnic question holds a key to the new government's survival in the future. A solution to the ethnic question means a boom for the economy, trade and investments and a better life for the people. Therefore, it is important that each and every citizen should consider it as priority no. 1. At the same time, the government should take confidence-building measures such as exchanging prisoners, addressing humanitarian issues, free movement of people, creating zones of peace and trying to remove mutual distrust. For these, the government needs to create a strong peace constituency comprising all sections of the people with different views.

It is also needed at the same time to-start the reconstruction process in the North and the East as a measure to build up confidence. Attempts should be made to normalise the lives and to change the attitudes towards peaceful solution and to give psychological contentment to the people on both sides. It is important that the language barriers should not keep the two communities at bay.

It is equally important to create a strong media base to have goodwill between the two communities and to bring them together. The role of the media is immense in this connection and the government should take necessary action towards building a free and vibrant media.

It is encouraging that the SLFP has decided to support the new government's peace efforts. The SLFP central committee which discussed the peace initiative at length has decided that it should not stand in the way to obstruct the government's peace negotiations. 

In the past obstructions by political parties with various political objectives had caused many problems to the incumbent government to reach a positive solution. President Kumaratunga also tried her best to solve the problem. Although the UNP decided to support her, it went half way through and backtracked. Will the SLFP do the same? 

To avoid a PA about turn, the government may have totake the initiative to stop acrimony in politics, especially moves to impeach the President or bring down the Chief Justice. 

The President also emphasized and reiterated on several occasions that she would not obstruct the peace moves of the new government. These should be noted seriously by the new government.

In the meantime, amid calls by civic organisations to put an end to the war and go for permanent peace the New Left Front leader Wickremabahu Karunaratne has urged the government to set up an interim administration for the North and east as pledged by the UNP in its manifesto. Dr. Karunaratne advocates the formation of a federal constitution in place of a unitary one. 

He believes that there could not be a permanent solution for the country's ethnic problem within a unitary constitution. Hence, it is important for the government to think and re-think and seize the opportunity for the benefit of the people. If we fail on this occasion, we would be back to square one and we can see the resumption of Eelam war four.

Situation Report
Return to Editorial/Opinion Contents
Political Column Archives


Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to
The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.