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
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
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
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
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.