ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 34
Columns - Thoughts from London

European peaceniks in vow of silence as another dialogue ends

By Neville de Silva

The international community, especially nations in Europe, which pressures and pushes Sri Lanka to safeguard the ceasefire and keep the peace process boiling, shies away from similar public pronouncements when peace talks are collapsing in its own backyard and ceasefires are blown up with bombs.

Unfortunately Spain is not particularly on Sri Lankan radar screens and those NGOs that benefit from European funding take a cue from their donors and observe an undignified silence.

For those in Sri Lanka and elsewhere who have been sceptical about the genuineness of the LTTE’s start- and- stop gestures of peace and have urged the country’s leaders to exercise greater caution, the Spanish situation would surely revive feelings of déjà vu.

Last week the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero publicly admitted that he had made a “clear mistake” when he placed too much faith in peace talks with the Basque separatist group, ETA, that was declared a terrorist organisation in Europe and the United States even after it announced an unilateral ceasefire nine months ago.

At the time there was no Norway parading in the periphery of the European Union to advice it not to outlaw the terrorist group as it would jeopardise the peace process.

Senor Zapatero’s change of heart and thinking was announced just days after the ETA claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on December 30 at Madrid’s showpiece international airport that signalled the unravelling of the ceasefire that the ETA itself had declared last March.

Students of conflict resolution and terrorism might see some parallels as well as differences between the Spanish and Sri Lankan situations.

One important difference is that while the ETA claims responsibility for its attacks and even telephones authorities ahead to tell about their planted bombs, the LTTE rarely, if ever, claims responsibility for what most people believe, is their handiwork. In fact it is difficult to recall an instance when the LTTE did claim any responsibility except when it made a tangential reference to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi as a tragic mistake.

At the same time it is interesting to note that both the ETA and the LTTE unilaterally declared ceasefires and used them as launching pads for peace negotiations. Both abandoned their respective ceasefires in the course of time by committing acts of violence or terrorism while paying lip service to upholding the ceasefire.

It would seem strange, and indeed ironical, that some members of the European Union should try to give Sri Lanka lessons in the politics of dialogue when one of their partners in the organisation is having serious doubts about the legitimacy and the fruitfulness of continuing to talk peace when bombs are shattering the very foundation on which the negotiating process is constructed.

Why is Norway, the world’s travelling salesman on peace-making not urging Prime Minister Zapatero’s government to continue the process that was started and so concretise the ceasefire as it vigorously advocates Sri Lanka to do and urges other nations to apply pressure on us?

Admittedly Norway is not a member of the European Union nor was it involved in the Spanish peace process. But as a European nation which proudly claims its commitment to negotiated political settlements, would it not be useful to have a word with the Spanish prime minister?

The difference is that a small country like Sri Lanka could, hopefully, be bullied into falling in line with the pre-planned agendas of foreign powers. The Spanish, who have for long years cultivated the art of sticking a sword into raging bulls, might not be particularly enamoured of such bullish behaviour of continental neighbours more tolerant of terrorist groups outside their borders and even acting at times as backroom supporters.

What has embittered Prime Minister Zapatero, who himself was helped into power by a series of Madrid railway bombings by Islamist terrorists three days before the 2004 elections, is that his guarded optimism about peace with the ETA expressed at an year-end news conference was shattered the very next day with the airport bombing.

Speaking about the peace initiative he had launched Mr Zapatero asked: “Are we better off now with a permanent ceasefire or when we had bombs, car bombs and explosions? This time next year we will be better off than we are today.”

Well the prime minister got his answer the very next day. After nine months of what was called a “permanent ceasefire”, the ETA, like the LTTE, was back to doing what it knows best- violence that targeted civilians.

This is not to say that most Spaniards were against Mr Zapatero’s attempts at evolving peace through dialogue. It is simply that they were getting tired of seeing the path to peace strewn with broken problems and dismembered bodies. They were losing faith not so much in a dialogue for peace but with negotiating with a group that could not be trusted to work towards that peace.

Very much like the LTTE, the ETA also has a political mouthpiece. The difference is that the ETA’s mouthpiece Batasuna, unlike our own Tamil National Alliance, is an illegal political group.

So Batasuna is not in parliament unlike the TNA which often is seated on the floor of the chamber instead of the seats provided for the purpose and engaged in a striptease from which it appears to derive some vicarious satisfaction and cause others much amusement. It is important to recall that some nine years ago the Basque separatists had announced an indefinite and unilateral ceasefire that paved the way for talks with the then conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar who, in 2004 lost the election after theMadrid train bombings.

Again, reminiscent of negotiations with the LTTE, those talks got nowhere. Now there is this latest bombing which was preceded by outbreaks of violence in the Basque region during the ceasefire months.

It led Mr Zapatero to make a confession that is all too rare among political leaders.“All Spaniards heard me say on 29 December that I had the conviction that things were better for us than five years ago and that in a year’s time things would be better for us,” he told parliament.

“Although it is not frequent among public leaders, I want to admit to all Spanish citizens the clear mistake I made…… ETA wasted the opportunity to contribute…. to a better future for everyone, and by this decision ETA strives to prolong criminal activity which has already lasted more than four decades.”

He said that ETA had broken the peace initiative launched last March and that there could be no dialogue while the group was engaged in violence.

For the last four decades the ETA has been fighting for an independent state in the north of Spain and south-west of France.
But the deaths resulting from ETA violence are in no way comparable to the havoc caused by the LTTE which has brought death to tens of thousands including those of the Tamil and Muslim communities on whose behalf they insist on speaking.

In the 40 years of the separatist movement the number of deaths resulting from ETA violence is believed to be less than 1000.
As though an echo of the Sri Lankan political landscape, the terrorist bombing and the reaction of Prime Minister Zapatero to the peace dialogue he initiated, have provoked mixed reactions with some politicians attacking Zapatero and people taking to the streets in a massive display of anti-terrorist emotions.

If Zapatero’s remarks and the public reaction to the bombing are any indication, the peace negotiations are dead in the water.
But does the sanctimonious European lobby that lectures Sri Lanka ad nauseum, actually care. Or is it too cowardly to try and tell Spain what to do?

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.