It would be short-sighted to dismiss out of hand, the current offer of the LTTE of a 'cease-fire'. Apart from anything else, it will create the impression that we were hell bent on the war regardless of its pathetic consequences to human life and rights – an impression that would further erode our standing internationally. On the other hand accepting the offer would infuriate the proponents of 'fight to a finish', who appear to be the mainstay of a government in crisis.
This dilemma calls for an ingenious response that neither rejects nor accepts the offer.
To 'cease' is to 'stop' but to 'hold' is to 'pause'. Pausing the on-going battles for a brief period of a month cannot harm the campaign tangibly. On the other hand it would give a much needed respite to the battle-fatigued soldiers. At the same time, the interval would not grant an opportunity to the LTTE to reinforce and replenish as in the case of a 'cease-fire'. In the meantime aid-agencies and the public service in the Wanni can stretch themselves out to grant relief to those reported to be displaced there.
The pre-condition of downing arms before the cease-fire is logically sound and popularly appealing but practically Utopian. It is a process that calls for complex negotiation and preconditions. What if the talks fail after the surrender of arms? In such a contingency surrendering arms would effectively mean surrendering the talks as well.
The interruption of a hold-fire is bound to be disappointing to those who believe that the forces are on the verge of victory, in opposition to the counter-predictions of international experts on ethnic strife. Even if the experts are proved wrong in our particular case, how many more thousands of our siblings are we going to sacrifice on the Altar of Area before we see an end to this conflict?
In any case the contribution of the armed forces appears to have served its declared purpose of compelling a negotiated settlement. Exterminating the LTTE would not spell the end of the problem at all. There is no avoiding the ethnic conflict until genuine steps are taken to grant the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils.
The one month hold-fire should be subject to strict conditions applicable to both sides under the watchful eyes of the world community. The minimum conditions ought to be;
1. Negotiations at the highest level, (not between post-masters!) on a framework for settlement, including core content, negotiators, venue, facilitators, if any, arms disposal and time-frames.
2. If there is no consensus between parties at the end of the month, the hold-fire will be unilaterally terminated, unless both parties agree to an extension.
The two weeks' respite offered by the LTTE is clearly inadequate to sort out all these preliminaries. If their offer is genuinely a positive step and not a gimmick to impress the international community, they should agree to use the interval to a fruitful purpose by giving enough time to lay the foundation for a final settlement. Hence the suggestion for a Government response proposing a workable arrangement.
The negotiations will necessitate an informal third party who can act as a facilitator. The person selected should command respect on both sides on account of his views and experience. The name of Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein vintage, who was recently here, comes to my mind in this connection.
The facilitator should be given unimpeded access to leaders on both sides without intervention of go-betweens. His final report will serve as a permanent credential to the sincerity and commitment to peace, on each side. Only let us not go to sleep after agreeing to the 'hold-fire' as we did in the case of the 'cease-fire'. Let us give Peace a sporting chance!