False Alarm Over the Ceasefire that Backfired

‘Kettikkaariyin poyyum purattum , Ettu naaliley purinthu pogum; Ammammaaival oru poippiravi; Appappappaa Ival oru puthuppiravi.’
(The clever woman’s lies and twists will be understood in eight days: Oh Mother, this woman is a false being: Oh Father, this woman is a new being.)

- Chorus of an old Tamil film song from
 the MGR movie Kannan En Kaathalan

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj

Her Excellency, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, executive president of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is at her alarmist activities again. The first lady has been firing salvo after salvo against Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Norway at meetings for ushering in peace for domestic consumption.

Realisation dawns when the international community seeks explanations from the former angel of peace about these pro-war, anti-peace sentiments. Then come the denials, retractions, clarifications etc. through Balapatabendi and Harim Peiris.

In a sense there is nothing new in this approach. This is what Kumaratunga was indulging in for several years until Wickremesinghe became the legal occupant of Temple Trees. Her so-called war for peace was a classic example of this exercise in duplicity. War on an unprecedented, massive scale was unleashed on the Tamil people while the international donor community was lulled into complacency and complicity through assertions of a peaceful settlement.

Failing miserably

This double game of cooing like a peace dove internationally and screeching as a battle hawk nationally got exposed badly after Norway entered the picture as facilitator.

Initially, Kumaratunga and former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar may have entertained hopes of depicting and isolating the Tigers as being opposed to a peaceful settlement. The independence and integrity of the Norwegians particularly the former special envoy for peace Erik Solheim prevented the manipulation Colombo desired. Kumaratunga also failed to comprehend the new approach of the LTTE towards negotiations. Whatever the ultimate conclusion there was no doubt that for reasons of its own the LTTE was firmly committed to the peace process.

Thus, Kumaratunga failed miserably on all three counts. She could not defeat the LTTE militarily and appease the Sinhala hardliners. Instead, it was her armed forces who were on the brink of defeat and rescued indirectly through international intervention. Politically she could not push her diluted constitutional package through. At the same time the LTTE was from being isolated politically had become an accepted as the representative of the Tamils. The ‘Pongu Thamil Eluchchi’ (Tamil Upsurge) demonstrations along with the four-party Tamil alliance mandate demonstrated clearly that due to a variety of reasons the LTTE was now accepted as the premier politico-military force of the Tamils.

Diplomatically her double standards towards a negotiated settlement and willful obstruction became transparent. The United National Front (UNF) government pulled off a ceasefire in two months, whereas the People’s Alliance (PA) could not succeed for more than two years.

What is now happening is that Kumaratunga instead of learning new lessons from her mistakes is repeating the failed past again. The false alarms raised in public and party meetings about the ceasefire and ceasefire agreement are calculated to encourage domestic instability and undermine the peace process.

Blowing hot and cold

The press releases are aimed at the international community that is firmly backing this peace process. She is most probably smirking in a smug, self-congratulatory mode about how smart she is. Sadly, this smug self-satisfaction is unwarranted as Sri Lanka in particular and the world in general are becoming ‘wiser and wiser’ about the fallen peace angel. Each time she opens her mouth to ‘blow hot and cold’ her credibility diminishes. She herself is setting the stage for her anticipated exit from Presidential office through her ill-advised pronouncements.

Kumaratunga however overplayed her hand when she came out with an open letter to Wickremesinghe about her ‘concerns’ over the ceasefire agreement. The woman was now firmly bound by a document in writing. Her intended audience for the letter made public was of course the majority community. The idea was to raise doubts in the country through unfounded allegations and inaccurate assertions about the ceasefire. But the double-edged sabre has drawn blood of her own. The eleven-page letter stands as firm proof of Kumaratunga’s animosity and rancour towards peace in the island.

Her overseas cheering squad is aghast and repelled. Too late she tries to salvage the situation by getting her secretariat to issue a statement that she is supportive of peace while being dismissively concerned about the nuts and bolts of the ceasefire agreement. Again she seems incapable of realising that it is one thing to wriggle out of predicaments by outright denials and entirely another matter to disown a written epistle.

Much of what Kumaratunga alleged in her letter have been knocked down by Wickremesinghe in Parliament, G. L. Peiris in a newspaper interview and Anton Balasingham in a press statement. All three persons intimately involved in the run up of events leading to the ceasefire have clarified the issues raised and placed the matter in perspective.

Once again it is obvious that Kumaratunga had tried to hoodwink the nation by raising a deliberate false alarm. Furthermore, it does not require particular expertise to discover Kumaratunga’s deceptive manoeuvre. Anyone with reasonable linguistic comprehension, familiarity with recent political developments, large amounts of common sense and above all possession of an unbiased mind can examine the documents concerned and arrive at the truth themselves.

Although the signature in the letter there is little room to doubt that authorship was Kadirgamar’s. Apart from the pompous and hypocritic elements there are also the tell tale signs of ‘personal trumpeting.’ It is openly acknowledged that the letter was preceded by a special study undertaken by a team of 20 experts under Kadirgamar who analysed the ceasefire agreement. There is however no mention about the missive being a direct consequence of that study or report. There are also no details of whether the letter has relied on this study or whether the letter was a solo effort by Kadirgamar. This is indeed intriguing because many of those involved in the analytical exercise are people hitherto possessing impeccable credentials as intellectuals and proponents of peace. It seems unlikely that people of such calibre could have ever subscribed to some of the observations expressed in Kumaratunga’s letter.

Sabre rattling

It is also noteworthy that despite her sabre rattling neither Kumaratunga nor the PA have sought legal remedy against what she says is a flawed agreement violating the constitution. Sinhala hardline parties like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Sihala Urumaya are rushing into areas where the former peace angel fears to tread. Also despite pugilistic pronouncements about the ceasefire’s illegality Kumaratunga has not dared to order her defence chiefs to flout it. The reasons are not hard to seek. Kumaratunga knows that in the present juncture she will only invite the wrath of the international community against her on this count.

Impeachment would become a necessity. The remnants of her pro-peace reputation would be shredded. More importantly she also realises that in spite of her rhetoric to the contrary there is every chance that the courts would not fault the events leading to the ceasefire agreement.

So for now, her strategy would be to crouch before pouncing. She will through intermittent statements undermine the peace process on the one hand and assuage the international community on the other. Kumaratunga and her minions will in the days to come exploit every negative aspect of the ceasefire. Any lapse or fault would be highlighted, exaggerated and possibly distorted. Gradually, a climate of mistrust against the ceasefire would be created through propaganda. Finally, the magic date of December 5, 2002 would dawn. Kumaratunga would be constitutionally empowered to strike. Pronto! Dissolution of Parliament on grounds of ceasefire endangering national security. She came out publicly last week that she will not dissolve Parliament after a year although she is entitled to simply because the UNF government will collapse on its own in two years.

Knowing Kumaratunga’s brand of doublespeak it is crystal clear therefore that she will definitely dissolve Parliament this year unless she is impeached beforehand. Of course she is always capable of acting prematurely on a rash impulse and spoil her carefully laid out strategy.

Fait accompli

A piece of jocular advice given to young and eager legal eaglets on the threshold of a promising career at the bar is about the way they should argue their cases. ‘If you are sure of the law argue the law, if you are sure of the facts argue the facts and if you are unsure of both then raise your voice and bang the table’. The bellicose tone and remonstrative tenor of Kumaratunga’s letter reminds one of this quip.

Kumaratunga’s primary grouse is about her being sidelined in the process leading to the ceasefire agreement. She accuses Wickremesinghe of having presented a fait accompli to her. The essence of her complaint in this regard is that correct procedure was not being followed in the process leading to the ceasefire. The constitutionality or unconstitutionality of the ceasefire agreement will be determined in another forum in the days to come. What is important now is to see whether the facts substantiate her charges.

Wickremesinghe and G. L. Peiris have made it clear that had Kumaratunga attended the regular cabinet meeting on Wednesday, February 20, she would have come to know of the proposed ceasefire. It was therefore Kumaratunga’s lack of interest in the activity of ‘her third government’ that led to her being unintentionally kept in the dark. Moreover, Wickremesinghe has been unusually frank in admitting that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakharan had pleasantly surprised him by signing the ceasefire agreement on his own and presenting it as an accomplished fact to Norwegian envoy in Colombo Jon Westborg when the latter helicoptered on the 21st to Kilinochchi.

Pre-emptive strike

As Wickremesinghe said openly the alacrity with which Prabakharan signed the document left him no choice but to follow suit accordingly. As such he was compelled to present a document that had already been signed by the Tiger supremo to Kumaratunga on 21st evening.

It does seem therefore that Prabakharan had engaged in a pre-emptive strike when he signed the ceasefire as quickly as was possible. This however is consistent with the LTTE stance from the time it launched a peace offensive. Be it under Kumaratunga or Wickremesinghe it was the LTTE that declared a unilateral ceasefire first to force the pace of peace. Prabakharan was only being consistent in this respect when he took the lead again in signing the document. Another factor however that may have influenced his decision could have been Kumaratunga herself.

It is no secret to the LTTE that Kumaratunga was and is against a negotiated peace with the Tigers notwithstanding her protests to the contrary. The Tigers are only too aware of the manner in which she undermined the earlier peace process while paying lip service to it. Besides, Kumaratunga’s recent conduct also did not give much hope that her attitude had altered on this issue. What was worse her credibility was highly suspect of what had happened in early February. The draft ceasefire agreement taken to Colombo by the Vikings had been leaked to the media. The ‘inspired’ leaks of controversial provisions were calculated to whip up oppositional frenzy amid the Sinhala hardliners against the exercise. The conclusion derived from this was that the leaks came from Kumaratunga’s side.

It was in this context that Kumaratunga was not briefed thereafter of any other developments on this issue until some success had been achieved. The final draft of the ceasefire was approved and accepted by the LTTE only on Tuesday (19). It was only after that Wickremesinghe briefed cabinet on Wednesday (20). Kumaratunga being absent from the cabinet meeting was not expected. So, had she attended the meeting the chances are that Kumaratunga would have come to know of the ceasefire being finalised.

Now Wickremesinghe may be labouring under illusions about cohabitation and bipartisan cooperation with Kumaratunga but the Tigers have a different assessment of her. They were of the view at one stage last year that no progress of the peace process was possible with the Kumaratunga-Kadirgamar duo and acted accordingly. It is very likely then that the Tigers could have suspected Kumaratunga of sabotaging the ceasefire even at that penultimate level and gone ahead with the ‘unilateral’ move to prevent her from disrupting it again.

Exposure disrupted

When Kumaratunga complains about the executive president who is head of ‘state, government and armed forces’ not being informed about the final stages of the ceasefire it would appear that she has a genuine grievance and that constitutional norms have been flouted. But that is only the appearance. The reality however is that in an unprecedented development the participants in the peace process felt that the president should know about the ceasefire only when it was imminent. Premature exposure would have disrupted it.

The primary reason for this approach was the track record of Kumaratunga and the utter mistrust in which she was held. With the wisdom of hindsight it may be said that the ceasefire agreement saw the light of day only because Kumaratunga was kept in the dark. If she had not been presented a fait accompli the chances are that she would have wrecked it. What is truly of concern therefore is not the fact that the president was not informed beforehand but that she was mistrusted so much. It is sad indeed that a nation doubts the sincerity of the head of state in promoting peace and is compelled to seek subterfuges to prevent such person from destroying peace prospects.

Wickremesinghe therefore is not to be faulted in being reluctant to brief Kumaratunga of each phase of the process until the very last. The omission was not deliberate but there was certainly no excess of enthusiasm to do so either. Kumaratunga’s response to this particularly the admonishing proffered give rise to much amusement because of the analogies invoked by her.

Cease ‘firing’

Kumaratunga writes of the agreement format and procedures involved. She refers glowingly to the agreement she signed with Prabakharan on January 8, 1995. What is lost sight of here is that in 1995 there was no third party. Therefore, both sides signed and initialed the same document. Moreover, the signing was separate with Kumaratunga doing it in Colombo and Prabakharan in Jaffna.

In 1987, the accord was signed not between the disputants. It was India that signed on behalf of the Tamils with of course the exception of the LTTE. In the present situation Norway was the mutually accepted and accredited facilitator. Thus both sides preferred to sign the ceasefire separately and as separate documents. The identical letters providing an undertaking to the Norwegian prime minister are also separate. All documents are now deposited with Oslo apart from copies. Another factor in this regard that the LTTE’s chief negotiator Anton Balasingham was not in Sri Lanka or Norway but in London. All this necessitated extra reliance on modern technology and extraordinary procedures being adopted. So Kumaratunga’s caustic comments about procedure are not valid except perhaps as a debatable point.

Kumaratunga also laments that had Wickremesinghe consulted her earlier both of them could have indulged in a discussion and arrived at a bipartisan consensus which she says is essential for any final settlement. There is no doubt that an agreement between both major parties is crucial for any settlement arrived at to become law. But in this case the agreement is not a final political settlement but only an arrangement to cease ‘firing.’ What has been left unsaid by Kumaratunga is that it was she who failed to honour the bipartisan accord reached years ago through the efforts of former British Deputy Foreign Minister Liam Fox. So much for bipartisan cooperation.

In the present instance there was absolutely no possibility of her agreeing unitedly with Wickremesinghe to the ceasefire agreement as it is now. Any constructive dialogue with her on this would have resulted in her insisting on clauses that would have prevented fruitful results. It would have been a repetition of the previous exercise where the calculated inflexibility of the Kumaratunga-Kadirgamar duo deadlocked and then destroyed the peace process.

Another constraint for Wickremesinghe was that the Tigers were extremely hostile to Kumaratunga and Kadirgamar. Involving them too much would have been counterproductive. Wickremesinghe therefore understandably adopted a pragmatic approach and was flexible on a number of matters. It was that which helped bring about a ceasefire. Any premature discussion would have only helped abort the project. Kumaratunga may not realise it but there are very few takers of her assertion that she is for a peaceful settlement now.

Too risky

Interestingly, it became common knowledge to the peace process participants that Kumaratunga was not going to be a signatory to the proposed ceasefire agreement. She would have restricted her options and limited her destructive capacity had she done so. If Kumaratunga had signed the ceasefire agreement she was obligated to help implement it. She would have been precluded from casting aspersions on it as she is doing now.

The government, LTTE and Oslo are not politically naive to have not realised the advantages they had in getting Kumaratunga to endorse the ceasefire. But they were also astute about two things. One was that the gamble of involving her in the process with the expectation that she would endorse it was too risky. Secondly, and more clinchingly they seemed absolutely sure that Kumaratunga would not sign it because she wanted to play negative politics. Hence, the nomenclatural transformation of the document from the original Memorandum of Understanding to plain ceasefire agreement and also clause 4 (1) stipulating who the representative signatories were to be.

Apart from complaints about procedural defects Kumaratunga takes umbrage over a number of substantive clauses too. At the same time she takes pride in the fact that some provisions are replicated from peace process exercises carried on by her in the past. Kumaratunga seeks to exorcise various spectres by projecting some clauses as being detrimental to the sovereignty and security of the country. Suspicions are evoked about the sinister designs of Norway, which as she herself proclaims was invited first by her. A clumsy attempt is also made to involve India by drawing parallels with non-existent examples. A further examination of these points would follow in this column next week.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader [10 March 2002]