Talks: It’s what not where
"We do not negotiate with terrorists, we put them out of business," said the White House spokesman this week reacting to an Al-Qaeda offer for a truce.
Sri Lankan leaders, unfortunately, do not have the luxury or the muscle of F-16s, stealth bombers and so-called smart-bombs to talk tough like that.
Of course, this is the same America that has some other message for the rest of the world dealing with terrorism -- they advise national governments to negotiate with such terrorists groups and do business with them.

President Mahinda Rajapakse was doing his own version of tough-talking when he told national newspaper editors this week that he would not go to Oslo for talks with the LTTE and that he did not want to talk to Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Minister who has 'byforced' his way (to use a Sri Lankan colloquialism) into the peace process despite clear objections by the Sri Lanka government to his role in it.

But the tough-talk seems to end there.
The President has had to backtrack on certain statements he made during his presidential campaign. His first state visit as President to neighbouring India was made with high expectations, but it seems to have rebounded on him with India neatly side-stepping any direct role in the tortuous peace process and instead urging him to use the Norwegian peace facilitators, whom this government and its coalition allies were so keen to see the back of.

Now with the question of whether Oslo should be the venue for jumpstarting the peace talks coming under fire from both his allies, the JVP and the JHU, the President has cited the 'mandate' he got from the people. But his mandate was not really for whether he should go to Oslo or not. He is taking up cudgels on the wrong issue.

In taking this tough stance, the Government of Sri Lanka should not give the wrong signals to the LTTE, or for that matter, to anyone else. Most people are aware that the LTTE is trying to make a mockery of the European Union travel restriction. Even though Norway is not a member of the European Union, it is certainly in Europe.

So when we agree to Geneva, it is almost the same thing. Norway may be embarrassed about the Oslo venue themselves and the LTTE’s preference for Oslo may precisely be for these twin reasons.

The question is whether the government needs to press this issue to score a point over the LTTE (at the expense of being accused of prevarication on starting the peace process) or whether they should instead, look at the much larger, much more vital issues that need to be tackled when the peace process gets under way again.

The crucial points they should be focusing on include: Norway's role in any future negotiations; the government's own proposals -- about a final solution/Tamil homeland theory/pluralism/ democracy/devolution/security/justice etc.; and also who will make up their team to successfully articulate these at any table. The government's strategists and think-tanks, if any, lack co-ordination.

Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar's forcible removal from the scene has left the new government bereft of astute thinkers, strategists and advisors - 'wise-men' -- who can guide them on how to tread the quicksand of the peace negotiations. Perhaps, it is time for them to cast political differences aside and be magnanimous enough to seek the help of the UNP leadership that has at least done some serious study on this complicated process even if it does not agree with its tactics. Which brings us to the problem of military co-ordination; the left hand of the government must know what the right hand of the government is doing and this does not seem to be the case with a virtual laissez-faire approach to overall strategy.

If the Government can act with restraint and not retaliate in the face of the killing of 90 soldiers in two months --surely it can compromise on the venue and prevent the LTTE from gaining the advantage of saying "see, they are haggling over the venue".

The haggling should be over the more substantive issues at hand. In the meantime there's no harm in preparing the military for any eventuality of the peace process going awry. Having already caved in to the Norwegians being the facilitators after realising the pressure of the international community and their own inadequacies in terms of military and diplomatic capability, it would be best not to make idle demands which eventually cannot be met.
The focus, instead, should be on their all-important strategy at the talks; something the LTTE is clearly wary of.

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