Talks in Themselves Are Not the Point


While the Liberation Tigers' leadership this week continued to assemble their counterproposals to the Sri Lankan government's suggestions for an interim administration for the Northeast, anticipation of a resumption of the Norwegian peace talks has already started to grow. Even Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe abandoned his customary caution this week to predict emphatically that negotiations would not only resume, but would last 'for a long time.' Whilst we are not bold enough to be so categorical, particularly on something as volatile as Sri Lanka's peace process, we wonder as to the basis for Mr. Wickremesinghe's sudden optimism. Not that we doubt both sides wish to pursue a negotiated settlement, but there are a number of thorny issues to be resolved first.

First and foremost, it should not be forgotten that the LTTE suspended its participation in the talks protesting the government's failure (some would argue refusal) to implement agreements already reached, particularly on the plight of up to a million Tamil refugees and internally displaced people. These agreements remain unimplemented, the government silent. Secondly, the short history of discussions on an interim administration for the Northeast has revealed the stark contradictions between the two sides. Whilst we do not wish to speculate as to the contents of the LTTE's proposals, the very fact that the government's much-vaunted offer has been, quite rightly, rejected as 'not meeting the aspirations of the Tamil people' suggests the gap between the two sides is not trivial. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, trust between the two protagonists has degraded considerably during the hiatus. Whilst the ceasefire is largely holding, relatively recent bloodshed, notably the Sri Lanka Navy's provocative sinking of two LTTE merchant vessels, has stirred animosity anew.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's upbeat statements in Malaysia were undoubtedly meant to reassure international investors that Sri Lanka was a safe bet - while his declaration of his intent to 'bargain hard' was aimed at his detractors in the Sinhala polity. Close observers are aware that the economic difficulties the United National Front (UNF) continues to face are fast becoming the single point of catastrophic failure as far as public confidence is concerned. The Central Bank continues to insist Sri Lanka's recovery is assured - given a resumed peace process that is - but the island's residents are justifiably sceptical. As are the international donors, who have explicitly linked their funds to progress in the stalled peace process. Mr. Wickremsinghe's optimism is, furthermore, painfully at odds with political events in Sri Lanka. His archrival, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, is undeterred by the failure of alliance talks between her main opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the third force in Sinhala politics, the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP). Kumaratunga has called for 'national unity' - an invitation to potential defectors from the UNF and its parliamentary allies. And as the JVP pointed out this week, whilst it may not have been able to reach agreement with the SLFP on power-sharing (between the two parties, that is) or a strategy for the Tamil question, both parties are united in their determination to thwart the UNF's peace efforts.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's comments to the press this week suggest that talks, in themselves, are his government's primary objective. Given that the near euphoric optimism that accompanied the last phase of negotiations finally dissipated amid the rancour stemming from unimplemented agreements, this raises fresh doubts as to the efficacy of Oslo's initiative. It is true that discussions to end the island's protracted ethnic conflict are a major success in themselves, but only if they are delivering genuine progress. A series of negotiations might - at least for a while - convince some donors and possibly some of Sri Lanka's residents, but assuming that talks do begin, unless agreements are reached and, more importantly, implemented, another stall is inevitable.

Tamil Guardian editorial, September 11, 2003

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Posted September 21, 2003