Building Peace on Shifting Sands!

By V Gunaratnam

Try building peace on shifting sands. Thatís what the Tamils and the LTTE are being asked to do with the Sri Lanka government. Ranil Wicremesinghe laid the groundwork for the peace process, and things were taking shape for negotiations to start on the ISGA when Chandrika Kumaratunga took power and, predictably, brought the whole process to an abrupt halt.

How can the Tamils keep negotiating in good faith when the government keeps changing its position every time power changes hands, and a new party takes over the reins of government? If this trend continues, Tamils would be left in the perpetual state of suspense that has existed for the last twenty years.

These are undeniably worrying times for the Tamils, because there is a lot of double-talk going on from Kumaratunga and her coalition partner about the ISGA and the peace process as a whole, and precious time is being lost. But it does not end there. Behind the scenes, there are ominous moves being made to destabilize the east and the LTTE.

By a curious twist of fate, Karuna, a Tamil, is being used as a ploy to sow the seeds of discord and suspicion in the east. A spate of security-forces inspired killings and incidents are aimed at provoking the LTTE into a conflict, hoping blame will fall on the LTTE for restarting hostilities, giving Kumaratunga the excuse to abandon the peace process, and rallying international support behind her again (remember war for peace!).

But if Kumaratunga thinks that she can win by trickery and stealth what she and others could not do in open warfare for twenty years, she is making a grave mistake, because itís a truism that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.

Mothers of the Disappeared Tamil Youths (1995-2000)

Despite a massive genocidal war on the Tamils, deploying a hundred thousandsoldiers, with heavy weaponry, lethal firepower, tanks, MIG jet fighters, and gunboats, the Sri Lanka government was forced in the end into a ceasefire and negotiations with the LTTE. But more disturbing is the thought that it is a signal of the return to the past.

It betrays the Sri Lanka governmentís basic antipathy to the peace process, despite the fact the process continues to enjoy unequivocal international support. If this were not the case, why are they not doing the obvious, sitting at the negotiating table and thrashing out their fears about the ISGA with the LTTE? Their failure to engage in peace talks is a very troubling development, not only for the Tamils, but the whole country.

There simply are no valid reasons for the Sri Lanka government to be shying away from the talks, because itís an interactive two-way process. By its nature, nothing can happen before the two sides actually start talking. The true test of the ISGA and the core demands would be how well they stand up to international scrutiny, and go through a wrenching mediation process to yield an agreement.

But what might really be troubling the Sri Lanka government is that they know what is awaiting them at the end of the talks, and they donít like any of it, the alternatives for self-governing status. And because the alternatives are all expected to mirror successful working systems in thriving democracies, the government would not have any solid grounds on which to try and slip out of an agreement with the LTTE.

Realistically, there is no way out of the peace process for the Sri Lanka government, because the world is watching. They cannot abandon the peace path, and embark on some adventurous campaign with Karuna, start a war or interminably delay talks, without suffering international condemnation and sanctions.

At the same time, everything must also be seen against the political dynamic that is driving the political process in Sri Lanka: An unstable UPFA government with no parliamentary majority, and all that it entails. A governing coalition with the powerful JVP vehemently opposed to the peace talks. And international aid put at risk of drying up if the peace talks are abandoned.

Adapting to these exigencies is an extremely tricky balancing act for Kumaratunga and her UPFA coalition, and she is doing it in the only way she knows, falling back on the mantra that has worked so well for all the Sinhalese leaders up to now: Keep bashing the Tamils until something gives. And with her imense presidential powers, she had no difficulty launching into another of her sterile exercises in power politics that have brought nothing but misery to the country since she ascended to the presidency in 1994.

Tamils should be under no illusion that Kumaratunga is going to kiss and make up with them anytime soon. Instead, her campaign in the east, and now in Colombo, is gathering momentum with every passing day, to keep the governmentís sinister strategy going to destabilize the region and undermine the LTTE.

But the Tamils have to worry that Kumaratungaís plan is a prescription for disaster, as it would eventually draw the Tamil populace and the LTTE into another war, with all its terrible consequences.

Nothing on the horizon points to any constructive action to move away from hostilities, because Kumaratunga and her government cohorts are continuing to play with fire, ruling by fiat, sitting far away in their plush air conditioned offices in Colombo, insulated from the ravages of war, and oblivious to the fate of a stricken people.

The seeds of war are being sown, and dark clouds are gathering. Only decisive action by the international community can stop this, send the Sri Lanka government back to the negotiating table, and avert another human tragedy.

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Posted July 11, 2004