Tamil Guardian Editorial
[The more things change...the more they stay the same! This editorial is from June, 2002. Most of it could have been written today.]
The Norwegian peace initiative is in the doldrums. The unnecessarily much hyped direct talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers are not going to occur in June. In fact, they are not expected anytime soon as all actors now acknowledge.
The reasons are starkly simple. Firstly, and most immediately, Sri Lanka has reneged on its written pledge to restore normalcy in the Tamil areas by de-militarising the region. Secondly, it abandoned the phased approach to resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts and alarmingly gone for broke: instead of seeking an interim solution the approach which had been accepted by all involved as the best, indeed the only viable one, the government about turned and said ‘core issues’ must be discussed at once. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s subsequent vague statements suggesting the interim administration was back on the cards have decidedly failed to allay the now intense suspicion among Tamils that Colombo is pursuing a duplicitous strategy through the Norwegian peace initiative.
But the immediate problem remains, as ever, the belligerence of the Sri Lankan military. From the outset of peace efforts this year, this newspaper and several other voices have repeatedly warned against the military’s disruptive capabilities. Regrettably we have been proved right. The scale of non-compliance is staggering. Sinhalese troops continue to occupy Tamil schools, places of worship and public buildings across the north and east in unabashed defiance of the government’s signed undertaking. More importantly, the military has now declared it is either not going to comply with the ceasefire in some locations or is going to take its time in others.
Unfortunately, instead of moving to expedite the ceasefire’s implementation, the government is engaged in a public relations exercise, on one hand insisting stoically that all that is required has been done and citing a myriad of reasons for non-implementation on the other.
The most favoured excuse for troops not withdrawing from public places is that there are no facilities to house them which also conveniently provides cover for the substantial fortification efforts being undertaken by the armed forces.
The argument that the troops cannot return to Colombo is fallacious. The four Army divisions crammed into the Jaffna peninsula, for example, were massed there for a major offensive operation in 1995. Unless the government is expecting to undertake another offensive in the peninsula soon, there is little reason to continue to maintain this massive garrison there.
The military’s contempt for the ceasefire agreement and continued harassment is fuelling the intense frustration in the Tamil community as demonstrated by the total shutdown protest last Wednesday.
But it is the acrimonious language of the present day that is fuelling anger in the Tamil community. Having failed to honour its first written commitment to the Tamils, the Sri Lankan government is now unashamedly blaming the LTTE for the impasse. Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando was last week advising the international community that the LTTE needs to be coerced to the negotiating table. If his choice of words did not raise hackles, then the demonstration of duplicity which Tamils now consider characteristic of Sinhala governments certainly would have.
The LTTE reiterated this week that as far as it was concerned the date for talks was dependent on Colombo’s compliance with the ceasefire agreement. Incredibly, this position is being condemned as an unreasonable ‘demand’. Apparently, the government can sign agreements and promptly ignore them but the LTTE has to meekly go along simply for the sake of preserving a positive atmosphere.
Even assuming and there are no grounds at present for this that the ceasefire will eventually be fully implemented, the matter of the agenda for talks remains as yet unresolved. The rapid progress of the Norwegian peace initiative earlier this year was based on a common understanding between the protagonists to the conflict that a permanent solution would require compromise and accommodation which would be difficult, if not impossible, at this stage of a peace process, and that an interim solution is therefore required to bridge the present with as such time as ‘core issues’ can be agreed upon and discussed.
But the government changed its mind and has been attempting to force immediate discussions about unspecified core issues. Although it is now deliberately avoiding clarity on the matter, the government’s rhetoric against the LTTE has meanwhile been stepped up.
Thus, from a Tamil perspective, Sri Lanka has hijacked the Norwegian peace initiative for an effort to railroad the LTTE into entering talks without any agreed agenda and irrespective of the objective conditions in the north and east. The rationale for this is clear: international assistance is predicated on advances in the peace process and direct talks are the only acceptable evidence of this.
The Norwegian facilitators therefore now have their work cut out. Restoring trust is always harder than creating it in the first place. But the optimism expressed last week by Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen is welcome, even though it is shared by few in the island.
Last week Sri Lanka Army Major General Sarath Fonseka pointed out darkly: “after all, this is only a ceasefire agreement. [The Tamils] must understand that this is not the end of the war.”
Courtesy: Tamil Guardian [19 June 2002]