Political Column
By our Political Correspondent
17th March 2002
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Hakeem faces peace dilemma

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's historic visit to the war-ravaged Jaffna peninsula has given a major fillip to the current peace initiative. It has brought the two protagonists closer to a negotiated political settlement which will ensure all communities in this blessed country could live in harmony within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

The visit was planned some time back, but kept under wraps due to obvious reasons. One of the ministers who was associated with the plan, was T. Maheswaran. He was instrumental in preparing the groundwork for the Prime Minister 's visit, which is seen as an important step in Mr. Wickremesinghe's political career. It was aimed at allowing the prime minister to obtain first hand information regarding the situation of the northern people.

The visit, which was hailed by the local and international media, has generated unprecedented interest in the UNF government's peace efforts. The international response to the visit was so overwhelming that it has forced the LTTE to take positive measures towards establishing peace.

It is now becoming increasingly evident that the LTTE is desisting from committing provocative acts that could torpedo the peace efforts. But reports from the east say LTTE cadres there continue to terrorise the people, especially the Muslims. Though the incidence of such acts has been on the decline during the past couple of weeks, they are certainly causing concern.

It is in this backdrop that the US embassy in Colombo last week issued a tough statement, calling on the LTTE to fall in line or face the consequences. The LTTE was shocked and thoroughly distubed over the statement.

The statement assumed added significance because it was issued a few days before the visit of a US Assistant Secretary Christina Rocca and a top ranking marine commnader to Sri Lanka.

The LTTE resorted to diplomatic strategy in responding to the statement. First, its chief negotiator Anton Balasingham issued a modest statement from London, defending the rebel group's position. Then it apparently manoeuvred the Tamil National Alliance to come out harshly against the US statement.

Tamil political parties described the statement as an unwarranted outburst.

The LTTE did not stop there. It launched a probe to find out what prompted US ambassador Ashley Mr. Wills to issue the statement. It now believes that SLMC leader and Minister Rauff Hakeem was instrumental in influencing the US envoy to issue the statement.

Mr. Hakeem had met US envoy Mr. Wills in several occasions and sounded his concern over LTTE excesses in the east. He made his concern known in an interview with an Indian newspaper.

Mr. Hakeem lamented that there were insufficient safeguards in the ceasefire agreement to protect the interest of the Muslims. 

With the ceasefire coming into force, the SLMC was placed in a delicate position. On the one hand, it has to take action to stop LTTE harassment to the Muslims in the east, from where the party draws its strength. On the other, the SLMC, as a key constituent party in the UNF administration, is committed to the peace process though the agreement had not taken into account the fears of the Muslims.

The situation in the East is fluid, because unlike in northern districts, there are no clear-cut 'lines of control' separating the security forces and the LTTE. The situation is so volatile that areas, which are under security forces control during the day time, come under the control of rebels in the night. Besides, the demographic composition of the east is delicately balanced with Muslims and the Sinhalese accounting for nearly two thirds of the population.

Thus Mr. Hakeem's grievance is not entirely without foundation. He is duty bound to ensure the safety of Muslims who helped his party return more than ten members to parliament. He cannot remain silent when the LTTE keeps on abducting Muslims and extorting money. 

But the question that arises is why did Mr. Hakeem wait for so long to air his grievances. It appears that he had kept his views to himself ó suppressed ó since he read the contents of the ceasefire agreement.

It appears Minister Hakeem had restrained himself in the larger interest of peace. That probably explains why he did not want to tell his side of the story even to a local newspaper. Though he had discussed the matter in private circles, he didn't want to make it public because he wanted to see the peace moves progress at a rapid pace.

Another reason for his silence is that he did not want to be accused of torpedoing the peace process, because he is part and parcel of the peace process and the UNF government. Thus he is fully committed to the peace initiative. Moreover, he does not want to be seen as a problem similar to the way he was treated by the Kumaratunga administration. 

Mr. Hakeem was at loggerheads with the Kumaratunga government over the Mawanella incident and other issues. But the issue at stake today is more serious than the Mawanella problem. It affects the entire Muslim population in the east. So he has to do something without upsetting the peace efforts. Whether he had any role to play in the statement issued by the US embassy is not known. But it was the first occasion where the Muslim grievance was addressed since the ceasefire agreement was signed on February 23. 

The US statement inferred the international crackdown against terrorism would be extended to the LTTE if it failed to honour the ceasefire agreement.

'There were 'credible reports' that the LTTE was taking advantage of the truce by rearming itself as well as stepping up the recruitment of child soldiers and extorting money from civilians, especially members of the minority Muslim community,' the US embassy said in a toughly worded statement.

It said the LTTE's reported moves could undermine the trust needed to move from a cessation of hostilities to a lasting peace. It added that in the current international context, in which terrorism was being condemned in more and more countries, the LTTE should be especially vigilant about observing the terms of the ceasefire accord.

The US statement, however noted that incidents of LTTE recruitment, kidnapping and extortion had apparently decreased in recent days and said it hoped the trend would continue.

The embassy said if the LTTE chose the path of peace, ended its reliance on terrorism, accepted that an independent 'Eelam' was both unattainable and unnecessary and honoured democratic and human rights norms, the US would respond positively.

The TNA reacted equally strongly and a spokesman said the US had no authority to issue a statement evaluating the success of the implementation of the ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

It said if ever there was a violation of the ceasefire, it was up to Norway, which functioned as the facilitator to comment on the matter.

The TNA said the statement was detrimental to the peace process and called on the US to refrain from exerting undue pressure in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.

The US embassy statement and the visits of Ms. Rocca and Marine Brigadier General Timothy Ghormley to Sri Lanka, especially to Jaffna, would seem to indicate a growing US role in the Sri Lankan peace initiative.

Tosether with the United States, the government would wish to keep India in the picture.

India's interest in Sri Lankan politics is understandable and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is correct in his approach if he gets close to the regional power.

In the late seventies and even in the eighties we saw how India made things difficult for us. India, trained, armed and funded the LTTE. Thereafter in 1987, it virtually coaxed us to sign the Indo-Lanka accord amidst widespread opposition. Soon it paid the price for feeding the Tigers. First, it got embroiled in a prolonged battle with the LTTE, losing hundreds of its soldiers. Then Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister responsible for sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka, was brutally assassinated by a Tiger suicide bomber. 

The Vajpayee government, which when in opposition backed the Tamil cause, declined a request to hold the proposed peace talks in an Indian destination.

Some observers believe that India is concerned about growing US role in Sri Lankan affairs.

One of India's concerns could be that more and more Sri Lankan military top brass are trained in Hawaii, whereas in the past they were trained at the National Defence College attached to the Alahabad University.

Thus it won't be a surprise, if India gradually increases its involvement in Sri Lankan affairs.

If the government realizes the importance of the Indian factor, it would not be difficult to deal with political resistance from the People's Alliance, the JVP or any group that opposes the peace initiative.

The LTTE may in given circumstance consider giving up its claims for a separate state and settle for something less, may be a federal solution with enhanced powers for Tamils in the north and east to determine their own destiny within a united Sri Lanka.

To give effect to such a solution, the constitution should be amended and people's approval has to be sought at a referendum.

The LTTE may at present look favourably on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe but the question that is flashing across its mind right now is how much he could offer for a just solution.

Despite such misgivings, the LTTE is getting ready for a negotiated settlement and talks between the government and the LTTE are likely to begin somewhere in May.

For this, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakharan needs close liaison with his theoretician Anton Balasingham who will be in Sri Lanka shortly.

Mr. Balasingham's visit was kept a closely guarded secret till Tamil newspapers flashed it during the week.

The government's thinking was that giving publicity to the arrival of Mr. Balasingham would be counterproductive with the local elections round the corner.

On the economic front, Minister Ravi Karunanayake's visit to Brussels has yielded some results, when he was able to persuade world renowned businessman George Soros to reinvest in the Sri Lankan share market.

Mr. Soros, who is a lover of Sri Lanka, was, however, linked to the 1997 South Asian financial crisis and the Russian rouble crisis a couple of years later.

But financial sources say, his re-entry to the local share market will give a major boost to the ailing economy in general and the stock market in particular.

Meanwhile, Industries Minister Rohitha Bogollagama visited the war ravaged Jaffna peninsula with a delegation of Sri Lankan investors to rebuild the shattered economy of the northern peninsula.

The investors were impressed by the business opportunities available in the North if normalcy returns to the country.

State banks and major business houses pledged to embark on various development projects in the peninsula which would benefit the Jaffna citizens. 

Be that as it may, the UNF government, it appears, is keen to take on President Chandrika Kumaratunga in a direct confrontation.

On Wednesday, Minister G. L. Peiris accused President Kumaratunga of deliberately violating the provisions of the constitution by delaying the nomination of her appointee to the constitution council.

Last week in Parliament Minister Peiris said the government was unable to set up the Police Commission and the Election Commission without putting the constitutional council in place.

The opposition is accusing the government of police inaction and election malpractice but the President is delaying the appointment of the constitutional council which in turn could appoint the much needed Election Commission and the police commission aimed at de-politicising the system.

While in opposition the UNP campaigned for the setting up of those commissions and it is commendable that it is continuing with the good work to democratise the system while in office. It's a rare phenomenon in the Sri Lanka's political set up. Often what happens in Sri Lanka is, parties who agitate for democratisation of state institutions forget those lofty ideals when in power.

But now the UNF government in power is keen to have those commissions, the President should expedite the process without delaying it anymore.

What is worrying is that Minister Peiris' remarks could lead to a political confrontation, which could prove unhelpful for the government in the long run.

The present situation in the government is similar to the French political set up where the President and the legislature are from two different parties.

Cohabitation principles work well in France, but here it is most confrontation and conflict. 

At the Commonwealth summit, Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando played a prominent role for Sri Lanka in the absence of the President and the Prime Minister.

Minister Fernando along with Indian counterpart Jaswant Singh averted a possible split in the Commonwealth over Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's issue.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was adamant that Zimbabwe should be suspended from the Commonwealth while the African Heads of State vehemently opposed the move.

If not for the efforts of Jaswant Singh and Tyronne Fernando, which helped prevent a split right in the middle, would have sharply divided the Commonwealth.

Minister Fernando also made the moves for a meeting between Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the British Premier. The meeting will take place during Mr. Wickremesinghe's visit to Washington, it is learnt. 

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