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13th September 1998

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Jaffna killings distrupt peace initiatives

By Our Special Correspondent

The killing of the Jaffna Mayor, Ponnudurai Sivapalan, along with top officers of the Army and the Police, by the LTTE on Friday, has killed all the ongoing attempts to find a negotiated settlement with the LTTE.

Hopes of talks with the LTTE with third party mediation or facilitation were aroused when the British and Minister G.L. Peiris collaborated in organising a seminar on the Irish model, with top rungers of the UNP among the participants.

The keynote speaker was the Constitutional Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, and the seminar was led by Prof. Thomas G. Fraser of the University of Ulster. The Ireland expert had also been allowed to visit Jaffna prior to the seminar. The British and Norwegian envoys, interested in mediation, were present right through the seminar and participated actively. Clearly, the government had intended the exercise to be more than mere tittle tattle or dry academia.

The seminar has taken place in the context of certain moves towards talks by the UNP, the British and the LTTE too. UNP's chief, Ranil Wickremesinghe, had publicly called for "unconditional talks" with the LTTE. He had told the Jaffna weekly Sanjeevi that he was prepared to talk to the LTTE even as an opposition leader to end the debilitating war. He planned to informally meet representatives of the pro-LTTE New York Tamil Sangham while on a sojourn in the US later this month. Coupled with UNP MP Dr.Jayalath Jayawardene's "pilgrimage" to the Madhu church in LTTE controlled Wanni, this fuelled speculation about unilateral UNP moves to strike a deal with the Tigers.

The LTTE too seemed to be interested in talks at this juncture. In a significant interview to a Sunday newspaper, top LTTE theoretician, Thamilchelvam had not only reiterated the LTTE's oft repeated stand that it wanted a political and not a military solution, but described Sri Lanka, presumably the entire island, as the "motherland" of both the Sinhalese and the Tamils. "We are children of the same mother. This is our country. This is our motherland. We can develop this country if we get together," he said.

Thamilchelvam said that the LTTE wanted a third party to mediate but this party should have had no stakes in the war, presumably, not a supplier of military equipment or intelligence to the Sri Lankan government.

It was not clear if Thamilchelvam thought that the UK would fill the bill. The UK had only recently enacted a stringent law to curb the activities of foreign militant groups in the UK. The British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, David Tatham, had also caused some worry when he appealed to the people of Jaffna to ask the Tamils abroad to fund the development of their devastated homeland, rather than contribute to the war chest. In fact, in view of the recent developments, the LTTE was said to be thinking of shifting out of UK to South Africa, ruled by a friendly ex-militant, Nelson Mandela. In South Africa, the LTTE has a ready made support base among the 600,000 people of South Indian/Tamil origin. Significantly, K.Thurairajasingham, a TULF MP, said in Parliament on Friday that Nelson Mandela, was best suited to mediate.

But despite South Africa's attractions, the LTTE would loathe to quit the UK. It could not ignore the power and influence of the UK. Host to thousands of Tamil expatriates and refugees, the UK is a major fund collection centre and is close to other countries in Europe bristling with Tamil refugees. The UK has also not helped the Sri Lankan war effort, thereby fulfilling one of the conditions for being a mediator. The LTTE, could, therefore, make conciliatory gestures if the British were serious about being a mediator or facilitator.

On its part, the Sri Lankan government had not totally shut its doors to the UK. There was the Liam Fox initiated pact between the president and the Leader of the Opposition in April 1997. Both the PA and the UNP swear by it even today, though they accuse each other of ignoring it. Britain endeared itself to Colombo by tightening the squeeze on the Tigers on home ground and saying that the Tamils abroad should stop funding the war. Apparently to soften India, which is wary of third party intervention in its neighbourhood and is apprehensive about the likely impact such inerventions might have on Kashmir, Prof. Peiris had recently asked for "moral support" to solve the ethnic problem.

But while appreciating what had been done in regard to Northern Ireland, Prof. Peiris wondered if Ulster could be replicated in Sri Lanka. His main thesis has been that there can be no meaningful discussions with the LTTE unless the government and the main opposition have an agreed constitutional offer to make, as a bargaining chip at any talks. This was the substance of the Fox pact, which, he said, the UNP rejected. The UNP wanted a discussion on the constitutional package a priori, while the government said that it should not ignore the efforts on at the PSC to thrash out a new constitution.

Mr. Tyronne Fernando, MP, who represented the UNP chief at the seminar, said that the package was a "pie in the sky". It had been fashioned without the party which was disturbing the peace being involved. He cited the Moro agreement in the Philippines and the Chakma agreement in Bangladesh and said that in these cases, the rebels were involved in fashioning a constitutional settlement.

He went on to clarify that unconditional talks did not mean unconditional surrender. "We want the talks to start and that it is why we say it should be unconditional," Mr. Fernando said. The PLO was not made to say that it recognised Israel, prior to Camp David, he pointed out. Government wanted a ruse to avoid implementing the Fox pact and that was why it said that the UNP must go by its package. It was significant that barely a month after the Fox pact, Operation Jaya Sikurui was started, he said.

The UNP was for British "facilitation", Mr. Fernando said as he felt that a facilitator, unlike a mediator, did not get involved in the talks. He recalled that in December 96, the LTTE had welcomed British facilitation.

Mr. Fernando felt that extremitsts like the LTTE and the Sinhala Commission has to be taken into account and these would scale down their demands if there was a prospect of solid peace. "The Sinhala hard-liners who had opposed the 13th amendment, today see it as a basis for settlement. So nothing can be ruled out," the UNP MP said.

At a time when there should be bipartisan consensus, there is increasing bipartisan acrimony, over who should go down in history as the peace maker. The government could not be seen as following the UNP, and having talks with the LTTE. Hence the President's accusation that the UNP and the LTTE were colluding to topple her government. The plea for unconditional talks was flayed as a means to barter away the integrity of the country.

Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, too put a spoke in the wheel when he told Parliament that the UNP's move for talks was dangerous as the weakened LTTE might be wanting time to recoup.

The prospect of talks, conditional or unconditional, began to look gloomy enough. But the final blow was delivered by the LTTE on Friday. With the assassination of the Jaffna Mayor Sivapalan, and Town commander, Brig, Susantha Mendis, went any remaining hopes of peace.

Lawyers protest against what they see as serious blow to democracy and justice in this country

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