Fraying Fabric of Sri Lankan Peace

Kumaratunga is successfully delaying direct talks

[Tamil Guardian Editorial; 1 May 2002]

Amid the protests last week by the Sinhala far right against the Norwegian peace initiative in Sri Lanka, we cautioned that Oslo’s efforts faced a key challenge in the form of a concerted campaign to block the de-proscription of the Liberation Tigers.

We reiterated that the influence President Chandrika Kumaratunga wields over the military could also prove problematic in implementing the terms and conditions of the permanent ceasefire. Regrettably the events of the past week have proved this to be case - much earlier than many had anticipated.

As the officials of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) will no doubt concur, a plethora of problems emerged in rapid sequence in the past few days. Some were serious. The standoff between the Sea Tigers and the Sri Lanka Navy last Wednesday could easily have resulted in heavy loss of life and irreparable damage to the ceasefire and the Norwegian initiative. The planned interception by the Navy of an LTTE convoy whose path and timing had been prearranged with the SLMM was undoubtedly intended to raise tensions - as it duly did. The sudden and arbitrary declaration by the Navy of the islands off Jaffna’s west coast as a ‘military zone’, which the LTTE’s political cadres could not enter, is as absurd (the islands are home to tens of thousands of Tamil people) as it is provocative. As this edition goes to print, the SLMM’s ruling on the matter is outstanding. There are numerous other incidents against the letter and spirit of the ceasefire initiated by the Sri Lankan military across the north and east.

The Sri Lankan military’s demonstrable aggression in the past week has placed other problems with the implementation of the ceasefire agreement in a new context. The LTTE informed the Norwegian government on April 17 that it was not happy with the sluggish pace of the military’s implementation of several key aspects of the agreement. Sri Lankan troops should have vacated the temples and places of worship within 30 days of the truce coming into effect on February 23, but most still remain occupied. There has been no move to remove armed forces personnel from occupied schools and hospitals. Tamil paramilitaries have not been disarmed by the military, the rhetoric and the showcasing of some weapons surrenders notwithstanding. The persecution of the large Tamil fishing community is continuing unabated.

There is no doubt that President Kumaratunga, the commander in chief of Sri Lanka’s armed forces, is - whilst publicly extolling the virtues of peace - rolling out her strategy to torpedo the Norwegian initiative. The reckless actions of the military in the past week along with the slipping of most deadlines stipulated in the truce agreement are successfully thwarting the establishment of conditions of normalcy. The cumulative effect of the military’s actions is therefore to push back the convening of direct talks between the United National Front (UNF) government and the LTTE. Meanwhile the SLMM is clearly feeling the strain, with additional monitors being sought from suitable European countries.

In a second line of assault on the Norwegian peace initiative, the Sinhala far right is mobilising itself for further protests against actions the government needs to take to pave the way for talks. The extremists are insisting on the maintenance of the ban on the LTTE. They are demanding that the interim administration proposal - designed to provide a ‘cooling off’ period before negotiations of core issues - be discarded and the military campaign against the LTTE resumed. The scare mongering that the country is about to be split has panicked Sri Lanka’s fanatical - and influential - Buddhist clergy. The Sri Lanka Army this week also put a dent in confidence in the peace process when it suddenly announced it was going to recruit thousands of new soldiers and train its units harder than ever before.

Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe has been scrambling to contain the fallout, soothing the prelates ruffled feathers and assuring them of his Sinhala credentials - and thereby raising Tamil suspicions in the process. Although his government is belatedly preparing its ground to challenge the President’s powers, with key legislation scheduled for debate in Parliament later this month, Mr. Wickremsinghe is clearly under rising pressure. But to stabilise matters he needs to rein in the military immediately. The question of requisite authority is irrelevant. The Premier enjoys considerable international and domestic support for his policies - support he needs to actively invoke. The indefinite ceasefire is the first agreement between the new Sinhala government and the Tamil leadership. Its status now deserves the scrutiny of all concerned with establishing lasting peace in Sri Lanka if it is not to be eventually consigned to the scrap heap of earlier deals subsequently destroyed by the implacable Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists.

Courtesy: Tamil Guardian Editorial [1 May 2002]