Peace in Sri Lanka?

Founded in the 1970s and commencing their armed struggle for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka in 1983, against the Sri Lankan government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have wrought havoc upon this small island off the coast of India, for the last two decades. A brutal terrorist organisation, the Tamil Tigers have conducted a campaign of suicide bombings, assassinations and bombings, with a support and fundraising structure overseas. The Tamils make up 3.2 million out of a total population of 19 million (mostly Sinhalese and Buddhist). Now, in September 2002, there are hopes for a permanent end to the conflict, thanks to promising developments at peace talks under way in Thailand.

The first rounds of talks ran from 16-18 September, brokered by Norwegian mediators, after seven months of a joint ceasefire and seven years after their last face-to-face talks. The good news to come out of the talks was that reportedly the Tamil Tigers had dropped their demand for an independent homeland. As reported in the London Times , the Tigers’ chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, said: “Our demand for a homeland is not a demand for a separate state. If our demand for regional autonomy or self government is rejected, our people would have no other option and separation would be the last resort.” For their part, the Sri Lanka government, through G. L. Peiris, their chief negotiator, said: “Their aspirations can be fulfilled within one country if we set about it in the proper way. That is the spirit in which we propose to handle these discussions.”

According to the New York Times the meeting “produced an agreement to work together on swapping prisoners of war and resettling some of the 1.6 million people who have been displaced in one of Asia’s longest-running conflicts. A joint communique urged international donors to provide immediate funds for relief work, particularly mine-clearing, as the most urgent and important next step toward peace.”

So far so good. The two parties agreed to meet again later in the year to continue discussions. But with an estimated 65,000 casualties having arisen from the decades long conflict, how easy will it be for all concerned to just get along?

According to the Colombo Page the Sri Lankan Opposition leader “Mahinda Rajapakse has focused on the need for the peace talks to be aimed mainly at finding a lasting solution that would ensure the rights of all communities. He said that honourable and permanent peace could only be achieved by launching a broad dialogue on the final proposals. It would not be of use now to express an opinion on the first round of talks that has concluded in Thailand, he said. However, Mr. Rajapakse said that the PA would study in detail the agreements reached at the talks.”

The Sri Lankan opinion editors, of course, haven’t been so reluctant to make their points. The Daily News in their piece “Stepping-stones to normalcy” highlighted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s address to the UN General Assembly on 18 September. In it he said that his people couldn’t wait for peace in the future, they needed it today. The war of the past two decades had had a devastating effect on the economy and Sri Lanka’s agrarian sector needed rebuilding without delay. They went on:

“Sections of the country’s ruling elite and those living off the fat of the country in somnolent, leisurely fashion could afford to wastefully split hairs over constitutional niceties and “core issues”, but not the ordinary citizens of the land, most of whom wouldn’t know where their next meal would come from. For the majority of the latter, normalcy and stability are of the foremost importance and these conditions need to be established right now. This is the reason why we need to jump-start the country’s economy and increase almost overnight the people’s opportunities to better their material conditions. This task cannot await a “final solution” to the ethnic problem which would be pursued systematically at the negotiating table but without the distracting drama some sections expect it to display. But for the majority of the people, whose livelihoods and occupations have been tragically disrupted by the war, peace means, primarily, the freedom to pursue one’s way of life profitably, with the least interruptions.”

The Island in “Climbing the Peace Bandwagon” focused on the announcement by the Tigers that they would not be seeking an independent state and were cautious:

“LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham’s statement at the joint press conference in Bangkok on Wednesday that his organisation will not be pressing for a separate state and vague statements that the call for self determination will not be tantamount to a call for separation, it is apparent, has sent people of various assortments heading towards cloud nine. The joy derived from the hopes of peace and attendant benefits can be appreciated but it is essential that the nation has to be alert and not be dreamy eyed about peace- a peace which all admit is still very far away. Some will be genuinely carried away by this peace euphoria while others from political hangers on to international wheeler- dealers will all try to mount this Peace Process Bandwagon.”

Getting carried away in the quest for peace is dangerous because “there is the possibility of being blackmailed into compromising on issues even involving national interests. That has to be avoided in this slow step- by- step approach to peace that has been proposed.”

The Sunday Times in “Ominous silence from the Wanni” were more blunt:

“Everything looked taped out – the package parcelled, and now only to be ribboned. The peace talks in Thailand looked anything but between a sovereign Government and one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organisations. Now de-banned, and made respectable, the LTTE negotiators seemed to have better cut suits as well.
There is natural euphoria in this country – pumped up no doubt by sections of the mass media – that Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s chief negotiator has announced that the LTTE has abandoned its demand for a separate state.
Plainly, that is not the case – and one does not have to feel too disappointed about it, because one would not expect the LTTE to do so, as early as on day one, or round one of the talks.
Eelam is the LTTE’s bargaining lever. Has been and will be. What a discerning reader might well do is to read how the pro-LTTE media has announced Balasingham’s pronouncement. To quote;
“If our demands for regional autonomy and self-government is rejected and if conditions of oppression continue, as a last resort, our people have no option other than to fight for political independence and statehood.” (Tamilnet)
So clearly, let there be no illusions, the LTTE has not given up their demand for a separate state, only shelved it for the time being. Read to this must be the fact which the Colombo Government has already conceded, the LTTE will remain armed. LTTE Recruitments, Training and Re-arming is still in progress.
Straight away, though the LTTE has won respectability from the western world with offers of financial assistance pouring in to develop and reconstruct the war ravaged north and east.
Their pariah status now white-washed, the LTTE will embark on a programme of re-building their shattered ‘homeland’- and yet keeping the option of independence and statehood very much intact.”

The Daily Mirror in “Expedite the peace process” was more positive. While they were scathing of critics of the peace talks and their motives, their own biggest concern was the time factor:

“What is unfathomable in this situation, however, is the oft-repeated requirement for a long duration of time to reach an agreement on a practical solution to the problem. Premier Ranil Wickmremesinghe has said it might take not months, but several years to reach a final solution. It is, of course, understandable that the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the war-ravaged areas have to be given priority and that the accomplishment of the task requires both time and funds.
But what we wish to stress here is that any undue delay in finalising a solution may further complicate matters, as it did during the decades of intransigence and confrontation. A concerted effort should, therefore, be made to expedite the process.”

The Tamil Guardian in “Breaking Ground” saw the talks as historic and drew some positive conclusions for Tamils:

“Firstly, former Sri Lankan governments’ portrayal of the island’s ethnic conflict as merely a narrow phenomenon of terrorism devoid of genuine political basis is no longer tenable. The strong and multifaceted international involvement in the Sri Lankan peace process – along with the chorus of approval this week from several governments across the globe – underlines the elevation of the Tamil question to new standing in international affairs. Secondly, the talks underline the recognition – foremost by the present Sri Lankan government – of the Liberation Tigers as the sole and authentic representatives of the Tamil people.”

As well, “[a]nother key success of the talks this week is the emergence of a new rhetoric and approach by both sides: ‘partnership in peace’. The establishment of a Joint Committee, to oversee ceasefire related issues, and the Joint Task Force, for humanitarian and reconstruction activities, are a step forward from the tentative collaborative aspects inherent in the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. Whilst the tactical objective of these joint structures is to de-escalate the conflict and accelerate the restoration of normalcy, the willingness of both sides to engage in such bi-partisan efforts reflects the growing trust between them. Most importantly – and particularly in the wake of the Sri Lanka’s recent de-proscription of the LTTE – these associations also reflect the deepening recognition of the Liberation Tigers as a credible and important political formation. As such, the opponents of peace in the Sinhala south can be expected to continue to decry the Norwegian peace process and vociferously condemn these collaborative efforts.”

The Sunday Leader in “Thailand talks and the Tamil Eelam demand” were scathing of the view that the Tigers had given up the goal of independence:

“Chief among the sunshine stories from Sattahip [Thailand] is the one about the Tigers giving up the Tamil Eelam demand. Different organs have outlined that aspect differently using terms like ‘scaled down,’ ‘toned down,’ etc. The point however, is unmistakably clear. The LTTE apparently is not keen on a separate state – Tamil Eelam – for which dream thousands of youths laid down their lives and paid countless sacrifices. It seems highly unlikely that a movement like the LTTE after waging a relentless struggle for decades and establishing a position of strength in the politico – military sphere is now prepared to jettison its secessionist demand at this premature stage.
If the Tigers have really stated explicitly and unambiguously that they are dropping their Tamil Eelam demand at this juncture, then it goes against the grain of all what they have stood and fought for in the past. Only the ignorant, naive and incompetent will believe, let alone project the viewpoint that the LTTE has entered talks after abandoning the Tamil Eelam demand particularly because of the powerful politico-military position they are in right now. Thus, if the Tigers have indeed stated that the Tamil Eelam demand has been dropped, any serious student of politics can only arrive at the inescapable conclusion that the LTTE is insincere in claiming so.
In fairness to the LTTE, the simple truth is that the Tigers have never stated that they have given up the Tamil Eelam demand. In that context, it is indeed remarkable that much publicity is being given to a non-existent stance of the Tigers. Various people have commented publicly on this so-called “positional shift” by the LTTE and the imaginary move is currently churning up a heated controversy. The reality however, is that the Tigers have never declared that the Tamil Eelam demand has been dropped. Moreover, it is not necessary for them to drop the demand as a pre-condition or prerequisite for entering talks. It is perfectly normal and even logical for an organisation to enter talks of such a nature without dropping the relevant demand.”

What they saw as the solution for the Tamils was “a settlement within a united but not necessarily unitary Sri Lanka. If the essence of Tamil grievances can be redressed and aspirations accommodated within a re-structured state, then the Tamil Eelam demand may not be stressed upon. The state should be re-invented. In the words of the late Professor Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson, “a settlement ensuring, ‘separation without secession’ could be achieved.” Such a solution is highly imaginative and bold. What is envisaged here is an ‘associative structure’ between the two ‘solitudes.’ Hoping for such a solution within the next few years seems unrealistic. But temporary arrangements could be made while negotiations go on.”

It’s going to be a long ride.


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Tamil Tigers site

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