Rajpal's Column

27th February 2000

Peace talks a mundane issue

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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Ah, that thing, oooh - the yen to talk The Rajpal Abeynayake column{tc "The Rajpal Abeynayake column"}

The World Bank is focusing more attention on the Sri Lankan conflict. The incoming World Bank President said so in a recent speech.

The Norwegians are saying they want a piece of the pie too. Why did President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga choose the Norwegians as the mediators/facilitators? Columnists who have dissected this question have gone for the hardsell. The Norwegians have been described as do-gooders whom the President trusts.

Perhaps the President got the recommendation from Kumar Rupesinghe, an ex- relative. Rupesinghe does a full time job as a conflict resolver and has been in love with Norway for quite some time now.

It is not as if the President had much of a choice anyway. The government has been more apathetic towards negotiations than those who oppose talks. Those who don't want talks-such as S. L. Gunasekera, the original negotiator by virtue of being in the Thimpu team-have to their credit voiced their opposition to the talks.

Whatever they may be accused of, they cannot be accused of being apathetic.

On the other hand the talk option for the government is more by necessity than by choice. A war cannot be fought in any modern theatre of conflict for more than two years without stopping the action temporarily for negotiations. That's the done thing, and a nation that is beholden to the World Bank and international donor countries would find it difficult not to do the internationally "done thing'' under these circumstances.

Negotiations are looking more like a chore however, because the LTTE and the government are irreconciliable. There has never been more mutual distrust between Prabhakaran's LTTE and a Sri Lankan government. In the first round of talks in 1994, the government charged at anybody who was anti-talk. This time around the government is apathetic towards those who see talks as a sellout.

It's anybody's guess whether the government's policy makers are genuinely befuddled and puzzled, or whether they are only pretending to be confused.

Talks, constitutional tinkering and fighting are all being dealt with by state policy makers as if it's all in a day's work.

Sowing this confusion in the South is probably one of the LTTE's coups. The government on the other hand seems to have turned this disadvantage to their advantage. All this confusion, though it looks amateurish at times, has helped the government tremendously in terms of playing for time. Gen. Ratwatte's notion that the war can ultimately be won has not been entirely abandoned even though Gen. Ratwatte himself has been reduced to pawn status, almost, by the President.

One recent feature of the war has been that the Sinhala polity has been successful in the last five years in getting by without taking a real stand on the conflict.

No real stand has been taken for peace or for a constitutional solution, and neither has the government said bye-bye to negotiations and that war is the only option.

But, getting by without taking a stand for five years is a record of sorts. Repeating the feat for another six years will be stupendous even for these experts.

So it seems that things will eventually have to get decisive in the near future. The war will necessarily have to be interrupted by a bout of negotiations or a bout of constitutional engineering. Something will have to be done finally, really. Perhaps, in this context, the government probaby hopes that the best option is to talk a bit. And the Norwegians or whoever it may be will be just a detail in this whole excercise of taking the option to jaw a while.

Though journalists and columnists have been accused of being sceptical before, the state seems to be more sceptical about talks this time around and that's something that the governmet finds difficult to conceal anyway.

A speech or two has been made by Mangala Samaraweera etc., about some sort of a "new beginning'' but the fire has died. There is no concerted pitch for talks, the President is not keen obviously, and her demeanour says it - even though she or any responsible Minister of government will say so for obvious reasons.

In which case, one quite legitimate question will be why there is tremendous media excitement about the talks for instance. Well, all scholars, mediapersons, journalists, and all good men have to go through the paces.

Besides, there is some possibility that both sides are tired of the conflict and that there will be some genuine attempt to talk, and to talk sensibly. But the chances of that are around 1000:1 - that on a liberal estimate.

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