Slow Ebb: Prospects for peace are fading slowly

Tamil Guardian editorial, June 18, 2004

The stalemate in Norway's peace process deepened visibly this week. Oslo's Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mr. Hans Brattskar flew to Kilinochchi to meet with senior LTTE officials there whilst Special Envoy Erik Solheim is to meet with the LTTE's political strategist, Mr. Anton Balasingham on Thursday. Norway is striving to find a way past the impasse, but the reversal and subsequent hardening of positions in Colombo on the agenda for future talks does not leave much room for optimism. Having at one stage agreed to discuss the LTTE's proposals for an Interim Self Governing Administration (ISGA) for the Northeast with the movement, President Chandrika Kumaratunga is (now that the international aid conference has concluded) insisting the talks must be on a permanent solution also.

The glaring futility of a minority government seeking to take on the fifty year old imbroglio of the ethnic question instead of addressing short term and urgent measures to improve the quality of a million people's day-to-day lives is apparently lost on her. The ultranationalist Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) - part of Sri Lanka's ruling coalition - is meanwhile railing against the ISGA. The LTTE has every reason to believe that President Kumaratunga's strategy is merely to resume negotiations, dismiss the ISGA at the outset and then allow the talks to meander. This will allow her to concentrate on her own political ambitions: ruling Sri Lanka after her second - and, according to the present constitution, final - term in office, while keeping the LTTE pinned to the table.

Whilst the Norwegian initiative is stalled on the issue of the agenda for talks - a telling stumbling point - the impasse reveals the deeper problems underlying this conflict resolution exercise. Essentially, the Sri Lankan state, and President Kumaratunga in particular, have not abandoned the objective of Sinhala hegemony. Perhaps the past two and half years or so of cease-fire have dulled the horrors of war. Or perhaps there is belief that the LTTE's armed struggle has been extinguished in the international atmosphere which emerged in the past few years.

But the hawks are soaring in the south and there is a palpable sense of the prospects for peace slowly fading (Deputy Defence Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake's unfortunate fiasco with a peace dove that dropped dead has apparently further frayed some southern nerves).

Justifiably rising anxieties, moreover, are being fuelled by a slow deterioration in other aspects of the peace process. The harassment and intimidation of LTTE political cadres has resumed. Mannar shut down in protest at vicious attack by Sri Lankan troops on civilians protesting the interrogation of two LTTE activists by the Army. Long simmering tensions between the Sea Tigers and the Sri Lanka Navy flared again this week when the latter imposed new restrictions on the former's movements at sea. President Kumaratunga, notably, is conveniently out of the country. Sri Lanka state media is meanwhile running a determined disinformation campaign - in the Tamil language - about violent clashes in the east.

As we argued before, it is in the volatile Batticaloa-Ampara districts that agent provocateurs stand the greatest chance of reigniting the conflict. No doubt hardliners in the Sri Lanka military are gauging their chances of exploiting opportunities that might emerge in the wake of the LTTE's putting down of renegade commander Karuna's rebellion earlier this year. They would undoubtedly have President Kumaratunga's tacit approval.

The impasse is exacerbated by a growing realisation that there is little that can weaken President Kumaratunga's intransigence. The international community's hesitation in unlocking the development aid package pledged last year, and the blunt warning issued by the cochairs of the donors earlier this month, have made little impact on her resolve.

But Kumaratunga's immediate priorities are, of course, not alleviating poverty or ending the ethnic conflict. Her focus is on achieving a majority in Parliament with a longer term intention - no matter how unlikely - to change the constitution to her advantage. Her determination to rule cannot be in doubt. In the past she has prorogued Parliament, seized ministries, rigged elections, persecuted the press and unleashed violence against her political opposition. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the possibility of the President resuming the war against the Tamils to unite Sinhala public opinion behind her cannot be dismissed. We cannot, after all, forget 1995.

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Posted June 20, 2004