Enemies within

Sri Lanka’s government faces a battle for peace

Tamil Guardian Editorial [26 December 2001]

The guns fell silent on Monday as the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan military began their respective unilateral ceasefires, heralding what should be a month devoid of conflict. The halt in the skirmishing and clashes along the frontlines is only part of the de-escalation, however. The newly elected United National Front (UNF) government has begun dismantling many of the military checkpoints and barricades in Colombo, a development gladly welcomed by most of the city’s residents but which has been bitterly criticised by the Sinhala far-right, which is predictably dismayed that efforts to militarily destroy the LTTE are not being pursued anew.

Regrettably, the freedom of movement being extended to Colombo’s residents is not being shared by the Tamil population centres in the north and east. Sri Lankan troops continue to restrict residents’ movements in Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Jaffna. Furthermore, aggressive cordon and search operations by the Army are continuing, along with the inherent potential for confrontation.

The UNF, which swept the former ruling People’s Alliance (PA) from power is exploiting the ‘peace mandate’ it received from the Sinhala voters, to pave the way for the economic rejuvenation which forms the central plank of its strategy. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to India this week, along with Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando and Economic Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda, has resulted in a busy three days in Delhi and several advantageous economic agreements. With regards peace efforts, in the wake of what appeared to be determined unilateral efforts by Sri Lanka to deepen India’s involvement, Delhi has rightly backed the most practical way forward by tacitly endorsing the resumption of Norway’s stalled peace initiative. Whilst Mr. Wickremesinghe may feel that in the season of change, square one is the best starting point for all projects, Delhi is cognisant of the Norwegian initiative’s latent merits, not least the trust of both sides which has been painfully established over several years of intense shuttle diplomacy. Norway, while appreciating India’s support, will no doubt be somewhat disappointed by Sri Lanka’s public display of a lack of confidence in her abilities.

Speaking to reporters after concluding his discussions in Delhi, Mr. Wickremesinghe struck a noticeably cautious note. Whilst expressing optimism that the ceasefires – which expire in four weeks – would be extended, he was however less confident on the matters which need to be attended to for that to occur. Unsurprisingly.

The next steps of de-escalation entail the removal of the draconian economic embargo on Tamil areas and the ending of restrictions on large sections of the Tamil community which have severely limited their ability to farm and fish for themselves. But these restrictions come under the purview of Wickremesinghe’s bitter political opponent, President Chandrika Kumaratunga. If the mutual dislike the two Sri Lankan leaders have for each other is not an obstacle to the cooperation required to take the peace effort forward, Kumaratunga’s pathological opposition to easing the Tamil people’s suffering most certainly will be. The President will no doubt strive to keep the embargo in place and to covertly ensure its continuation, even if she publicly agrees to its removal. In any case, the notion of an embargo being in place is, as far as she is concerned, “nonsense.” That the President has uninterestedly left the country in nascent stages of Sri Lanka’s most critical peace effort is indicative of her contempt for Wickremesinghe’s aspirations.

President Kumaratunga, as the commander in chief of Sri Lanka’s armed forces, retains the ability to comprehensively hamper, if not scuttle, efforts to de-escalate the conflict. But Mr. Wickremesinghe also faces several other opponents in Colombo. The military, under the command of a Kumaratunga-loyalist, Major General Lionel Balagalle, is likely to actively resist his efforts to alleviate the difficulties of the Tamil people. From another flank, the Sinhala right wing is already protesting the very first step towards peace. The Sinhala hawks’ remarkably short memories obscure the punishing defeats suffered by the Sri Lanka Army in the past few years and underlies their shrill protests against a ceasefire with the Tigers. The vehemence of their opposition to compromise with the Tamils will manifest itself when the lifting of the proscription of the LTTE comes to the fore.

No doubt Mr. Wickremesinghe can see the lengthy gauntlet he must run to take the peace process forward. Yet he seems somewhat hesitant, despite the compelling pressure of his electoral victory and the island’s economic difficulties. With a reputation for skilful political manoeuvring, the Sri Lankan Premier may indeed have a strategy to neutralise the President and her fellow warmongers. But the next crucial step in the quest for peace is just as much hers as his. And the clock began ticking on Christmas Eve.

Courtesy: Tamil Guardian [26 December 2001]