Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Printer-Friendly Version

Peace Talks That Have Gone Nowhere

A brief comment on the GOSL-LTTE Talks in Geneva February 22-23, 2006

by Brian Senewiratne, MA (Cantab), MBBChir (Cantab), MBBS(Hons) (Lond)MD (Lond), FRCP(Lond) FRACP, Physician, Brisbane, Australia, February 28, 2006

Instead of this claptrap and time wasting, what was needed was to address the pressing needs of the civilian population in the war-ravaged, then tsunami-devastated, NorthEast.

(This article was originally written on 26.2.2006.  Since then, I have had access to some of what went on at the Conference.  This calls for an expansion of the article, which is what is presented here).

A detailed analysis of the papers presented by the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – such as have been made public – will be dealt with shortly. This paper is to briefly review the progress of the Talks (or the lack of thereof).

The closing statement by the Norwegian Minister of International Development on 23.2.2006 in Geneva at the end of the first round of talks on the implementation of the Ceasefire, is about the weakest statement I have read.

1.  “The GOSL and the LTTE are committed to respecting and upholding the Ceasefire Agreement”. 

To “respect” an agreement is to heed it, to “uphold” it is to maintain or confirm it.  Neither word indicates the need to implement the Agreement (which is what the Conference was all about).  If this was a serious attempt to address the problem, the wording should have been, “The GOSL and the LTTE are committed to implement the Ceasefire Agreement”.  The GOSL , in its opening statement, said that it wanted “to express our views in a frank and forthright manner, rather than make vague and ambiguous statements that would serve no useful purpose…”  Well, this is a vague and ambiguous statement, if ever there was one.

The GOSL has committed itself to respect and uphold the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). Yet, the Leader of the GOSL team, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva opened his statement by saying that “The Ceasefire Agreement…… contrary to our Constitution and law” i.e. the CFA is illegal and violates the Constitution.  So, the GOSL has agreed to respect and uphold an Agreement, which is illegal and unconstitutional! If the Conference was to continue, commonsense required that the statement made by the Minister should have been withdrawn publicly.  It was for the Chair to insist that this be withdrawn, but it was not done. There was the absurd situation of discussing the implementation of an Agreement which one Party had declared was unconstitutional and illegal.

2.  “The GOSL and the LTTE are committed…to ensure that there will be no intimidation, acts of violence, abductions or killings”.

Given that these problems have reached epidemic proportions all over the country, including the Sinhala South, especially Colombo, there will have to be an extensive monitoring group.  The existing Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) functioning only in the NorthEast, can hardly be described as an ‘extensive monitoring group’.  It has been little more than a “note-keeping mission”, if that.  It is not possibly for the SLMM to be more than that, given the area to be covered and the resources available.  So, the problem of ensuring that there will be no intimidation, acts of violence etc are just words with no meaning.  The words have been used without any appreciation of the realities on the ground.

3.  “The LTTE is committed to taking all necessary measures to ensure that there will be no acts of violence against the security forces and police”.

If there are alleged incidents, can we have an international investigative team whom both sides can trust, to establish that the LTTE was responsible?  The SLMM is no substitute for a proper investigating team – they simply do not have the expertise (or the resources).  

4.  “The GOSL is committed… to ensure that no armed group or persons other than the Government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations”.

Who are these nameless “armed groups”?  The LTTE in its opening statement listed five major paramilitary groups operating in the Northeast and Colombo as the “ the Karuna group, EPDP group, PLOTE group, EPRLF (Varaithar) group and a Muslim group called Jihad group.”

Has the GOSL committed itself to ensure that all these armed groups are disarmed, or is it going to be some or none (loopholes being left wide open to enable one or all of them to slip out and continue to carry arms, perhaps under a different name, or claim that they are outside the CFA?  Who will monitor this?  It cannot be the SLMM because they neither have the staff, facilities or ability to do so, being stretched to the limit as they are.  Moreover, the SLMM has no presence in Colombo where these groups are known to operate.

It is of interest (indeed amusing) that the Spiegel Magazine interviewed President  Rajapakse just a day before the Talks, on 21 February 2006, in Colombo, about these paramilitary groups and ‘Karuna’ (the renegade from the LTTE).  Rajapakse’s response was incredible: “I would like to make one thing clear.  My government knows nothing about such paramilitaries or even Karuna ……..Still, my government is committed to disarm such groups and we have already begun to do so”

So, here we have a President who claims to know nothing about the armed groups in his country, but is already disarming them! It has come to the point of absurdity – President Rajapakse playing a significant role in this.

The GOSL team to the Conference was sent by the President.  The team has committed the GOSL to disarm armed groups, which the President says his government knows nothing about!  What if the GOSL team returns in eight weeks and says that their President says he knows nothing about these armed groups and therefore they must be non-existent? 

5.   “The GOSL and the LTTE discussed all issues concerning the welfare of children in the North East….’

“Discussing”, they can do forever – but what are they committed to do by way of addressing the problem of nearly a quarter of a million homeless/orphan children in numerous refugee camps as a consequence of the war and the tsunami?  Or does the problem end with a “discussion”?

Where the Conference failed.

The Conference was all about the implementation of the CFA and returning the conflict zone to normalcy. In an earlier paper, “Talks, Talks and more Talks”, in the section titled, Improving the living conditions of the inhabitants in the area of conflict in the Tamil NorthEast,“ I spelt out what had to be done. Not one of these urgent measures was mentioned in the Closing Statement.  I do not know whether they were discussed.  If they were, then it should have made it to the Closing Statement.

If they were not discussed, one wonders what was, in the two days of talks.  There was a great deal of time spent by the GOSL team running a commercial for President Rajapakse, the Mahinda Chintanaya, what a fine democratic record Sri Lanka had, how “mindful” the Government was of “the respective rights of the ethnic and religious groupings” etc.  If all this (or even a fraction of it) were true, there would have been no conflict and no need for a CFA.

I have just had a report that at the end of the Conference when the Norwegian facilitators were drafting a joint statement, the Government delegation spent no less than three hours quibbling about one word, “Agreement”.  They objected to the opening paragraph which referred to the Ceasefire Agreement and wanted the word “Agreement” left out!  The President (and his two brothers) in Colombo at the end of the telephone from Geneva refused to approve the word which would imply that the CFA was valid. (I thought the Government delegation and the LTTE delegation had agreed to the validity of the CFA. If the GOSL had not accepted it, the LTTE would have walked out).  Here they were, once again going over the same ground.  After three hours of nonsensical delay, the GOSL backed down.  The Government hardline stance was to appease the Sinhala extremists in their camp back home, and their backdown was when they realized that this would spell the end of the Conference and the declaration of war.            

Instead of this claptrap and time wasting, what was needed was to address the pressing needs of the civilian population in the war-ravaged, then tsunami-devastated, NorthEast.

If a commercial on President Rajapkse had to be delivered – I can see no reason why this was necessary – and there was no time to address the key issues, then the Conference should have been extended.  One way or another, the Conference should have concluded with some definite commitment and a specified time frame to return civilian life to normalcy. Let me state the urgently needed actions yet again.

1. The immediate withdrawal of all restrictions on fishing.  Minister de Silva could have called his  President in Sri Lanka and got him to call the Navy Commander who was there in the team and tell him that the Navy must comply because, “I am the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces”.

2. There should have been a directive that, if the Sri Lanka Army could not be moved out of Jaffna for “Security” reasons (whose security is unclear), then the Army had to be moved out of the most productive lands which are now in the ‘High Security Zones’. There is plenty of waste land in the Peninsula (which I know well).  The Army can do whatever they are doing in this area, but to quit agricultural land, which is one of the main sources of income (indeed, of survival) of the civilian population, is mandatory and urgent.  This was not done. 

3. All schools and places of worship must be returned for civilian use with immediate effect – not at some distant unspecified time.

4. The harassment of the civilian population in the NorthEast must stop if the area is to return to normalcy.  This has to be monitored carefully and, if the SLMM has not got the numbers or the power, then it has to be doubled or trebled, and given that power.

5. The Tsunami relief arrangement, P-TOMS ( Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure – a GOSL-LTTE sharing of tsunami-telief in the NorthEast) must be implemented at once – whatever the JHU and the JVP think or do.  The GOSL team, in their opening statement, boasted, “… is the first time in the history of this conflict that such a consensus (among all Parties) has been reached”. Well, the JHU and the JVP are part of the Government and if Rajapakse with the sweeping powers that he has, really wanted to fix the problem, the JHU and the JVP are not in a position to defy him. If they obstruct him and bring the Government down, then Rajapakse is in a position to call another election, and put it to the Sinhala people that he tried to seek and "honorable peace," but his efforts were sabotaged by the JVP and the JHU.

Can the LTTE be blamed for this lapse?

Can the LTTE be blamed for not having these issues addressed?  Yes, they can be blamed because that is the reason why they went for a Conference to address the implementation of the CFA. Of paramount importance was to return the NorthEast to normalcy.

However, the ‘mitigating circumstances’ is that the LTTE had nailed the GOSL on some crucial issues (accepting the validity of the CFA and the disarming of the paramilitaries) and further ‘nailing’ would have made it impossible for the Government team to return home.  They would have been lynched.  Balasingham, a shrewd negotiator, perhaps felt that it could be better left for a later date.

Some nonsense claimed by the GOSL team.

The GOSL team did talk some arrant nonsense. I will cite just a  few.

The democracy of Sri lanka.

The opening statement of the GOSL team leader, Nimal Siripala de Silva, refers to Sri Lanka as being “one of Asia’s most long-standing democracies.  The people have enjoyed universal franchise since 1931”. 

He is referring to a country where in 1948, 1,000,000 – yes, one million – Plantation Tamils were disenfranchised and decitizenised in one of the worst acts of political savagery in the civilized (or even uncivilized) world.

This is the country where in 1972, the Constitution, which had a specific section (Section 29) which prohibited discrimination of any community, was scrapped and a new Constitution enacted which did not contain a similar clause. This essential safeguard for the protection of minorities was scrapped by the former leader of President Rajapakse’s own party – Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, who had the temerity to change the name of the country from Ceylon to the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka!

This is a country where in 1977, Prime Minister J.R.Jayawardene from the other side of the Sinhala political divide, installed an Executive Presidency and then promoted himself to the position, giving himself absolute and sweeping powers, reducing Parliament to a rubber stamp and the Prime Minister to a clerk.  Sri Lanka is only a little short of a Presidential dictatorship and President Rajapakse, who has these powers, should know that. So should his Ministers, including the one who spoke this nonsense.

This is the country where in 1983 some 3,000 Tamil civilians in the Sinhala South were butchered and their homes and businesses burnt by government-sponsored Sinhalese hoodlums, for no reason other than that they were Tamils.  Were they “democratically butchered”?

There is no purpose in going on with this abysmal history of a blatant abuse of democracy in Sri Lanka which I have dealt with extensively in a separate publication. For the GOSL delegation, attending a Conference to discuss the implementation of the CFA, to boast about democracy in Sri Lanka, is a bit rich.

The problem of Law and order

Minister Nimal de Silva rambled on about ‘ the Government of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s commitment to maintaining law and order ….in every part of the country” and his administration “initiating a program that extensively cracked down on organized criminals, underworld gangs, armed groups and narcotic dealers”.  This is loose talk and vagueness which he decried at the start of his presentation.  Whom is he referring to?  The most notorious underworld gangs and organized criminals are in the Presidential Security Division (PSD) that ‘looked after’ President Chandrika Kumaratunga and presumably now looks after President Rajapakse.  This has nothing to do with the CFA.  The murders by the PSD and their underworld associates who were responsible for the murder of the Tamil political leader Kumar Ponnambalam, among many others, has nothing to do with “undermining the ceasefire”.

The President certainly has a problem with gangsters and underworld characters in Colombo, but it is a problem of the making of Sinhala politicians who have institutionalized violence as a means of governance.  It dates back to President J.R.Jayawardene (1977) whose armed thugs terrorized the Sinhala South from 1977 to 1994.  President Kumaratunga’s PSD took over.  The GOSL team does not need to wail about this in an international arena.

A fresh approach

The Minister Nimal de Silva in his opening statement stressed, “Let me at this stage assure all, that it is the desire of H.E.President Rajapakse to look at issues from a fresh perspective……”   

There was no evidence at the Conference that it was a “fresh approach”.  In fact, it was the same old approach.  The GOSL arrived in the Chateau de Bossey with a large number of government-sponsored demonstrators and the jingoistic Sri Lankan media.  This is not “a fresh approach” but a well-worn one of trying to apply pressure on the participants using orchestrated demonstrations and the partisan media.

I am about to address some Parliamentarians in Europe on the serious problems facing Sri Lanka.  I have been promised a similar welcome by the well-organised Sinhala ‘patriots’ in Europe.

President Rajapakse’s real agenda

The assumption that President Rajapakse genuinely wanted to fix the problem may not necessarily be correct. If he did, he would not have gone into a coalition with ethno-religious Sinhala extremists in the JVP and JHU. He could, of course, have done that just to get into power, as S.W.R.D Bandaranaike did in 1956 when he solicited, and got, the support of the most extreme of the Sinhala extremists in Sri Lanka, sections of the Buddhist clergy (one of whom later assassinated him).

Rajapakse’s eye might not be on solving the ethnic problem but on the Local Government elections due on 30 March 2006. If he can claim in the Sinhala South that he has succeeded in bringing the Tamil Tigers to the Conference table which the UNP from the other side of the Sinhala political divide could not do (the CFA not withstanding), and prevent an almost certain war with economic ruin and the prospect of Sinhala youths returning in body-bags, he hopes he can eat into the voter base of the JVP whose policies would have most certainly resulted in war.

This game will be over on 30 March 2006. It might result in the GOSL adopting a more reasonable posture after this. Time will tell.

The next round

The next round of talks is scheduled for 19-21 April 2006, also in Geneva.  After the ‘difficulties’ the GOSL team had at the February Talks, President Rajapakse would be well advised to get some competent negotiators – approaching the UNP Opposition, if necessary, for help e.g. a loan of some of the negotiators they sent for the 2002 Peace Talks.  It would be better to do this than to send pathetically inexperienced people.  At least the cartoonists will not be able to have a field day. 

What happened in Geneva was presented with accuracy by a cartoon in the Daily Mirror of 25 February 2006 titled “President remote controls Geneva talks”. It shows Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva at the batting crease, bat in hand and mobile phone in the other.  Anton Balasingham is speeding in with the ball.  The Minister in a state of obvious panic, calls President Rajapakse, “He is trying to send another bouncer! What can I do sir?” That just about sums up the Conference.

It is important to look at Sri Lanka’s serious economic state and the impending disaster if the CFA is not implemented and war breaks out.

The Sri Lankan Economy

The downturn in the Sri Lankan economy has been catastrophic. The ranking of Sri Lanka by the World Economic Forum (WEF) has dropped from 63 (out of 101 countries) in 2004, to 73 (out of 104) in 2005 and now (2006) to 98 (out of 117 countries).  The economy has been described by the WEF as “very poor” and is currently on par with Albania and Rwanda.  A ranking of 98 out of 117 countries does not leave too many countries in a worse economic mess than Sri Lanka. The deterioration in the economic rating is due to poor macro-economic stability, the poor quality of its state sector and the deteriorating security situation.  Of these, the major factor since the middle of last year (2005) has been the possibility of the armed conflict restarting.  If the conflict restarts, Sri Lanka would almost certainly be looking at bankruptcy.

President Rajapakse could well be out of his depth in this area, but he is the one who is running the country and has an obligation to appreciate this critical situation.

Sending a disastrously inexperienced team of negotiators to a Conference that will determine whether there will be war or peace in Sri Lanka is utterly irresponsibility. At the conclusion of the Talks, in an interview given to the only Sri Lankan newspaper worth reading, the ‘Sunday Leader’, Anton Balasingham, the leader of the LTTE team, had this to say “I said, the moment you claim that the CFA is incorrect, then you are coming out of the CFA.  That means you are giving two weeks notice for the resumption of hostilities.  You better think very carefully, I said”.  He went on, “So they (GOSL team) kept quiet”  – which is perhaps the most intelligent thing the GOSL team did in the two days.  Had they continued to be ‘advised’ by the ‘legal expert’ they took with them, who had passed his ‘use-by-date’, the LTTE would have walked out of the Talks and there would have been war “in two weeks”.
  • Publication date: