Political Column
By Our Political Correspondent

Goods toll heavy on A-9 route
Will the ceasefire between the govern ment of Sri Lanka and the LTTE hold?
This is the question raised by peace-loving people and sceptics alike in the face of recent developments, especially the Balasingham's seaplane incident and Wednesday's clash between the Navy and the LTTE in Vakarai.

The debate that dominated political circles early this week was the flight of the seaplane carrying LTTE Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham across Trinco seas while the Navy and Sea Tigers were locked in a standoff. Questions were raised as to whether Balasingham wanted the pilot of the Maldivian sea-plane to fly over Trincomalee to have a glimpse of what was going on or was it a decision taken by the Canadian pilot who wanted to change the course of the flight.

However, the people on board, including a Norwegian diplomat, were not aware of the impending danger when they were flying over the Trincomalee military base.
The plane could have been shot down, triggering a major international controversy. Who should take the blame for deviating from the approved air path without proper authority?

The Government had apparently directed aircraft flying from Jaffna to Colombo to keep off the path of the Balasingham seaplane during a certain time period. The Colombo-Jaffna flights normally take the Western coast route and had to keep off to avoid the particular "time corridor" to facilitate Mr. Balasingham's flight to the Maldives.

However, when the Sri Lankan Air Force and the Navy spotted the flight over Trincomalee they immediately contacted Colombo for clarification, it was only then they were told that Mr. Balasingham was flying out of Sri Lanka.

Many people are puzzled as to why Mr. Balasingham was reluctant to take the normal air passage via Colombo airport. But this reluctance could be justified in terms of security risk. But there appears to be hardly any justification for flying over Trincomalee.

The Norwegians seem to think that it was done not at the instance of the LTTE, but was an additional security measure taken by the pilot. Whatever it is, the drama has certainly made a dent in the UNF government's peace process. It will be interesting to note how the Scandinavian ceasefire monitors, who are the final authority on truce disputes, will respond to the Trinco incident. Under the terms of reference, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission could only say that a party had violated the agreement and the matter stops at that.

But critics say the monitors and the international community should apply pressure on the LTTE to abide by the agreement in the event of truce violations. It appears that the LTTE is stretching provisions in the agreement to the breaking point to its advantage. Such a scenario has provoked heavy criticism on the Norwegians and virtually compelled the government to request for more monitors from the Norwegian government.

The perception among many people is that the Norwegians are soft peddling LTTE violations. An example cited by President Kumaratunga and others is the release of three gun-laden LTTE boats by Norwegian monitors. Expressing concern over the incident, President Kumaratunga told the National Security Council meeting last week that she would lodge an official protest with the Norwegian Prime Minister over the manner in which the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission conducted itself in dealing with the issue.

The President was of the view that the Navy could have acted under the normal law of the country though the Prevention of Terrorism Act was inapplicable under MoU signed between the government and the LTTE.

She called for a full report of the incident. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could not attend the meeting since it was hurriedly convened even without consulting the premier - a usual practice under the unwritten cohabitation rules. But Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, Defence Secretary Austin Fernando and all service chiefs were present.

The Trinco standoff near the military base has triggered another controversy over reports that LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman was in one of the boats.
The government promptly denied the report, and military intelligence reports,maintained that there was no independent confirmation as to whether Pottu Amman was there.

However, there is a theory that the government denial came as a discreet move against any diplomatic repercussions involving India which is seeking the extradition of Pottu Amman along with Prabhakaran for the murder of Rajiv Gandhi. Had it acknowledged that Pottu Amman may have been on board, this could prompt India to intensify surveillance in the mid seas looking for this prime suspect.

The government is playing safe and it obviously has to do so when talking peace with a terrorist outfit. It has also to be mindful of India's concern. Already there is an official request for the extradition of Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman. But on the positive side, India has expressed fullest support to the peace process. Extradition is a judicial process. It has little to do with politics. New Delhi knows well that capturing Prabhakaran or Pottu Amman is a near impossible task though Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha insists on the extradition of Prabhakaran.

In practical terms it would be difficult for New Delhi to facilitate talks in India as the LTTE is a banned organisation there. Minister G.L. Peiris was in India during the same time the President was there to deliver the first Madav Rao Scindia memorial lecture. Minister Peiris' mission was to brief the Indian leaders on the progress the Sri Lankan government made on the road to peace. He undertook a similar mission in 1994 on behalf of the PA government but his mission remains the same. Both President Kumaratunga and Minister Peiris stayed in the same hotel but were miles apart in their political thinking.

Coming back to the ceasefire issue, the Monitoring Mission holds the view that it should not be held responsible for the implementation of the law and order in the government controlled areas in the North and East. Accordingly strict orders have been issued to the law enforcement authorities to implement the law as far as possible. The government's view point is that since the LTTE had not fully adhered to the truce provisions, it should step up law enforcement measures to force the LTTE realise the limits to which it could stretch the ceasefire agreement.. According to reports, the government is gradually taking into control areas where there was no proper law and order situation.

Despite all these problems, the government is also reviewing the LTTE condition that the ban on it should be lifted before talks scheduled to be held in Thailand begin.
"Time is running out" according to the government thinking and its main objective is to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table before the government loses the support of the international community. The government has to show its sincerity by words and deeds and has to move forward as fast as possible, a senior minister told this column.

How best could the government lift the ban imposed on the LTTE without creating a major political crisis in the south? The issue is being addressed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Ministers G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda and others involved in the peace process.

Minister Peiris was in Washington along with Minister Ravi Karunanayake to meet State Department Officials. However, Secretary to the state Colin Powell was not available to meet the Sri Lankan ministers. Instead they met with Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage who backed the Sri Lankan government's stand on the matter.
The position taken up by the US officials was that the US ban on the LTTE has been imposed for different reasons and it has nothing to do with the Sri Lankan position.
They categorically stated that if Sri Lanka was yearning for political settlement there should not be a ban on the LTTE.

The US State Department issued an official statement outlining its stand while the two ministers were in Washington. The re-union of these two ministers was ironical since they were not only opposing each other during the past regime, but also when both of them were in the same fold.

For the Sri Lankan government the US statement was encouraging and back in Colombo the ministers were dissecting it to find the actual meaning and objective behind the US statement. The government now expects the other Western powers such as the United Kingdom and Canada to follow the US example.

If one concludes that the September 11 incidents have influenced the whole world to take a tough stance against terrorism, there is some truth in it. The LTTE's main objective is to achieve recognition internationally not as a terrorist outfit but as an organisation fighting for political emancipation of Tamils. With the lifting of the ban in Sri Lanka the LTTE lobbies in the west would hope to work towards lifting the ban imposed by the US, UK, Canada, Australia and other countries without which the LTTE is unable to raise funds or transfer them. Such a revocation of the ban in other counties would not now, necessarily fallow. The LTTE's inability to do so had compelled it to levy heavy taxes from the ordinary people living in the LTTE-controlled areas. Users of the A-9 Jaffna-Kandy route beyond Omanthai have been called upon to pay a heavy toll if they are transporting goods.

For instance, a shirt with packing if transported beyond Omanthai will cost Rs. 50 more than the original price. The people are now complaining that the taxes are unbearable. The LTTE has also set up an entry office at its line of control and is charging an entry fee from new entrants. All this shows that the ban imposed by the west has yielded some results.

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