5th March 2000
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Thoughts from LondonWhy should the LTTE talk?

Last month the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Ulster's LTTE, pulled out of the talks that many had hoped would stabilise the ceasefire and bring a lasting peace to a troubled territory.

But to those accustomed to ethnic and religious strife, the unravelling of the much-touted peace seemed like traversing familiar ground. 

The more thoughtful of our countrymen and women did not always share the exuberance of the average Briton and sections of the media here that peace had been won in Northern Ireland and all that remained was to seal it with a kiss. As it is, the IRA seems to have provided a kiss of death rather than the generally anticipated kiss of life. How many times have Sri Lankans of every political and ethnic hue waited anxiously and hopefully for what they thought was the beginning of peace and the return to civil order as contending parties to our conflict sat down to talk? And how many times have they lamented the turn of events which dashed their hopes of the country returning to the days when people travelled from south to the north and vice versa without having to seek official or quasi-official sanction? At least three times, I would think, from the days of Thimpu. 

And where are we today? At least in Northern Ireland the ceasefire that began a couple of years ago still holds, generally speaking. Are the people of Northern Ireland then better off than we are?

The answer must surely be yes. In our own conflict the guns have not been silenced, the killing has not stopped. If war or armed conflict can ever be described as civilised, then the IRA and its off-shoots such as the "Real IRA" and "Continuity IRA", have shown a streak of civilised behaviour by informing the authorities ahead of time when a bomb is due to go off and where.

The most recent example was the bomb planted in the Northern Ireland hotel which did go off without causing any casualties, simply because there was time to evacuate the area. But such consideration has not been forthcoming from the LTTE who have a dual interest- to cause maximum havoc and damage irrespective of who suffer and to gain psychological advantages by driving fear and uncertainty into the minds of the people.

By doing so, they also undermine the credibility of the government and its agencies in public eyes. It makes people wonder at the ability of their leaders to provide the security and the right to life that every citizen is entitled to expect from his government.

By all standards then, the LTTE is a more formidable and certainly a more ruthless adversary, than the IRA. Even then, those with more than cursory acquaintance with ethnic and religious strife were advocating caution when others who thought they were better equipped to judge, were expressing optimism over developments in the Northern Ireland peace process.

However much some might insist that there is a fundamental difference between the Sri Lankan conflict and Northern Ireland- that the first involves only a single sovereign state- it seems to me it is this kind of casuistry that will stop any possibility of negotiations in its tracks. Even more, it shows the lack of knowledge on the part of a government that is insistent it is even more determined today to open a dialogue with the LTTE.

It was true that until power was devolved to the Ulster assembly, the Northern Ireland issue concerned two governments-Britain and the Irish Republic. But with the devolution of power, the Irish Republic's constitution was amended, dropping any claims it had made to the territory of Northern Ireland and recognising British sovereignty. .

Today, therefore, legally and constitutionally, it is a matter than concerns Britain alone, though, of course, the Irish Republic does have an interest because of common borders and common interests arising from this. Can we deny that India has no interests in the Sri Lankan conflict merely because it is considered an internal matter of Sri Lanka? Surely one reason for our interest in building bridges with India after the souring of relations under President Premadasa, is because of this external dimension to the conflict at home?

It seems that we are still insisting on drawing distinctions between mediation and facilitation. If the most important problem right now is to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table, then the sooner the government worked toward that objective without advancing specious distinctions, the sooner that aim is likely to be achieved. Moreover inviting somebody to help and then constraining his ability to perform, sounds like the work of diplomatic dilettantism.

Does anybody seriously believe that the LTTE would ever come to the conference table for a direct dialogue with the government unless a third party was very much involved as a mediator?

The opinion of those close to the LTTE here seems to suggest that to engage in direct talks without a third party is a pipe dream that the LTTE will not subscribe to. Remember the Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, entered the negotiations because of the tremendous pressure brought to bear on it by external forces including the Clinton administration.

There is no such real pressure on the LTTE. And without any external pressure, the mere words of Colombo are not going to move them into tears. Even at this late stage, LTTE sympathisers say, Colombo should remember that from the LTTE's standpoint it has already been deceived by the words of the Kumaratunga administration. So why should it be pushed into negotiations when it has not been militarily overpowered and when the other protagonist is already circumscribing the role of a third party without which the LTTE will not talk.

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