Rajpal's Column

Date Month 2000

Cosmetic surgery in an ugly place

By Rajpal Abeynayake
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Erik Solhiem's peace efforts in the Wanni have very predictably ended up in a heap, except now it is clearer that the Norwegian peace bid will always be a non-starter. In May this year, Thomas Pickering representing the US said that Norway is carrying out a "highly developed'' peace effort in this country.

Since then, the peace effort has not developed much. But, it has put Sri Lanka back in the cross hairs of the world watchers, especially the world watchers of the West. But, Pickering, in his earlier statement on Norwegian mediation, made it clear that India is the first choice of the Americans in any process of third party mediation in Sri Lanka. But, the Indians are perceived also to be too hawkish towards the Tigers.

The Indian Secretary for External Affairs, Lalith Mansingh, in reply to a question by me said, "self-determination is not for nations.'' He qualified by saying that self-determination is a prerogative for those "under colonial domination'' and not for any particular ethnic or other entity, within a nation state. Mr. Mansingh also categorically stated that while Sri Lanka has left its door open for negotiations with the LTTE, India had banned the organization completely.

This says he, is an indication of India's total rejection of the LTTE's demands. How does the US reconcile any possible mediatory role of India, in this context with its attitude towards India as the preferred big brother in the Sri Lankan crisis? This is why Solheim's sojourn in the Wanni appears to be a sightseeing exercise. The Solheim mediation in this backdrop appears to be a surgical intervention carried out for cosmetic purposes.

Bindunuwewa and the aftermath has put Sri Lanka on the map. The riots have suddenly given a massive jolt to the collective Western liberal conscience. The whole Bindunuweva episode stinks to the heavens, but it is also clear that the Western liberal conscience is not similarly aroused by bomb blasts in Colombo which result in heavy civilian casualties.

The fact that these civilian casualties are incidental, somehow seems to justify these bombings to the Western liberal conscience. It is in this backdrop that Solhiem soldiers on, meeting Prabhakaran in the Wanni and the President and her Foreign Minister in Colombo.

In contrast to Solhiem, the Indians are clear about their parameters. But, this has put them totally out of the reckoning of the Tigers as having any role as a mediator.

The Indians would definitely not want a troop withdrawal from Jaffna, which Prabhakaran has asked for as a precondition for talks. And as Thomas Pickering made abundantly clear, nothing is going to happen in this crisis against India's wish. That's America's wish. It is not a difficult equation, but Solhiem acts as if he cannot fathom it. To that extent the man is wasting his time, but cosmetic surgery is the need of the hour after Bindunuweva and the resurrection of the ghosts of 1983.

Which is why even Bindunuweva has to be put in perspective. Bindunuweva is not an 83, but was being used to catalyze one. It didn't happen, partly because the government's handling of the situation was good, and partly because anything of the magnitude of 83 cannot be artificially engineered. But, Bindunuweva places Sri Lanka in perspective. The country is still far from absolved in the Western mind, even though Prabhakaran has been outlawed in the United States. In the scheme of larger things, this outlaw status is nothing but cosmetic.

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