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|May 7, 2002|
The Rediff Special/ Ravi R Prasad
I want to tell everyone that any political negotiation has its own problems. Despite the long-term cessation of hostilities, there will be clashes. The talks are likely to break down. The foundation of any peace initiative should be strong enough to sustain these," said Ranil Wickremesinghe, after taking over as the prime minister of Sri Lanka in December 2001.
Six months later, the Norwegian-brokered peace process is teetering on the brink.
With both the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam accusing each other of violating the ceasefire agreement signed in February, the fragile peace in the north is all but waiting to be shattered. A single bullet fired by either side would once again bring back the reign of terror to this island nation.
The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, a team of observers from the Nordic nations, is inundated with complaints from both signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding, signed four months ago to observe a long-term cessation of hostilities.
But, so far, the two sides have carefully avoided direct confrontation.
Recently, the government released LTTE boats caught transporting weapons and senior leaders of the outfit to the east in blatant violation of the ceasefire agreement. This followed an admission by the Monitoring Mission that it had been informed of the movement of senior LTTE leaders, but had not conveyed it to the government.
On May 1, the dreaded Sea Tigers, the naval wing of the LTTE, blew up a boat suspected to be carrying arms for the much-feared outfit when they were challenged by the Sri Lankan Navy on the east coast.
But both the government and the Tigers are trying to give the impression that, in spite of these minor hiccups, the engagement between them would continue. And to keep it going, the Norwegian deputy foreign minister, Vidar Helgesen, has been shuttling between Oslo, Colombo and Kilinochchi, the political base of reclusive Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
During his last visit to the island, Helgesen hustled to finalise the agenda for the talks. The response, he said, was encouraging but the mistrust between the two sides still existed. Meanwhile, a pro-LTTE publication from London, the Tamil Guardian, has indicated that the direct talks between the government and the guerrillas scheduled for this month in Thailand are likely to get delayed beyond June.
“We do not underestimate the hurdles," the Norwegian minister said. “The road will be bumpy. There will be critical junctures, breakdowns and pessimistic signals emerging at the talks.’’
Perhaps the process has reached it first critical juncture.
The violation of ceasefire and allegations of extortion by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas extending to government-controlled areas in the north and east have provided the hardliners of the majority Sinhala community with enough ammunition to protest against the peace initiative.
The People’s Alliance, led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, has allied itself with the leftist Janatha Vimukti Perumuna, to condemn the UNP government for what they describe is an effort to divide the nation.
These parties are against the setting up of an Interim Administration for the Tamil-dominated north and east of the country. They fear this could be the first step towards the realisation of Tamil Eelam, the homeland of the minority Tamil community.
“We want peace with honour," said Anura Bandaranaike, President Kumaratunga’s younger sibling and an opposition lawmaker. “Peace at the cost of dividing the nation is not acceptable to the people and the country."
Bandaranaike was the most vocal critic of his sister’s government until he returned to the People’s Alliance just before the December 5, 2001, elections that saw the PA voted out of power. Before that, he had remained with the UNP and vehemently condemned the earlier government’s move to amend the constitution; a move aimed at extending more autonomy to the north and east in a bid to resolve the conflict.
President Kumaratunga herself is critical of the peace initiative. Her close associates say she is peeved with the prime minister for not keeping her abreast with the peace moves. After all, she says, she started the peace process.
However, her public utterances have baffled the people, both within and outside the island. In a speech delivered in New Delhi, President Kumaratunga blamed the politicians of the past for not creating a pluralist society in Sri Lanka. But in her May Day speech, she was breathing fire and pledging to protect the rights of the Sinhala community.
“Ranil Wickremesinghe does not have the right to betray the country and pawn this country to a foreign country," Kumaratunga said. “We want peace. Our government initiated the peace process. The rights of the Tamils and the Muslims should be protected. Sinhala people should not be betrayed by dividing the country."
More than the mistrust between the Sinhala south and the LTTE, the animosity between the two parties that have alternatively ruled the nation since independence is a major hurdle to the peace process.
In the past, too, they have opposed each other when it came to negotiating peace with the minority Tamil community.
But Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has been cautious in his approach and refrained from criticizing President Kumaratunga.
“President Ranasinghe Premadasa and President Kumaratunga attempted to negotiate with the LTTE, but it failed. They cannot be blamed for it," Wickremesinghe told the gathering at the UNP’s May Day rally.
But peace activists fear the hostility between the People’s Alliance and the UNP could give a good reason to Velupillai Prabhakaran to call off the peace talks and return to the battlefield.
“I am certainly worried," said Professor Tissa Vitharana, a peace campaigner and head of a umbrella organisation National Alliance for Peace. “The two parties in the south will have to reach a consensus. Differences between them could jettison the whole process.”
But as the Norwegian minister warned before leaving the island, “There are pains in achieving peace. But there is no pain bigger than war.’’
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