Going to Oslo is better than going to war

Sri Lanka has suddenly entered a period of escalating violence after the general elections that saw Mahinda Rajapakse, the candidate of hardline Sinhalese parties, being elected president on 17 November. Ironically, it was the LTTE's enforced boycott of the polls by Tamil voters in the north and east that clinched victory for Rajapakse, by the slimmest of margins. Most of the Tamil vote would have gone to opposition candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had projected himself as the peace candidate.

Following an election campaign meant to energise his Sinhalese base and an inaugural speech reaffirming his poll promises on 29 November, in recent days, President Rajapakse has been speaking of peace, compromise and restraint. It is the Tamil Tigers, on the other hand, who are behind most of the large scale attacks that have seen the death of more than 50 security personnel in the five weeks following the presidential election. Most of the casualties have been due to landmine blasts.

The reversal of policy of the new government headed by President Rajapakse and his nationalist allies is quite remarkable, given their election time rhetoric. In a situation in which the government is not reacting aggressively to the LTTE's provocations, it is the rebels who are looking increasingly the belligerent party. This does not bode well either for the LTTE or for the peace process. Due to their ongoing campaign of violence, the LTTE is slipping ever nearer a total ban at the hands of the European Union. So far, the travel ban imposed on them in September 2005 has been largely a symbolic one and has served as a warning of what is to come. It prevents LTTE delegations from being received by the EU countries. If a total ban is placed on the LTTE, the group will not be able to operate at all out of Europe.

Despite the violent turn taken by the LTTE, however, the Rajapakse government too is required to undo its own contributions to despoiling the peace process. During the election run-up, Rajapakse led a propaganda campaign to lampoon what he called opposition candidate Wickremesinghe's appeasement of the LTTE. Rajapakse promised instead to roll back the clock on concessions made to the LTTE, including a revision of the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, on terms that would be more favourable to the Colombo government. He also promised to abrogate an agreement with the LTTE to set up the 'joint mechanism' on tsunami reconstruction and to put aside an agreement made by the government and LTTE in Oslo in 2002 to explore a federal solution. What Rajapakse promised during the election campaign was a unitary or centralised state, tsunami reconstruction carried out by Colombo, and a new facilitator to replace Norway, which his hardline Sinhalese allies accused of partiality towards the LTTE.

In fact, none of these election pledges had corresponded with the realities on the ground. The LTTE physically controls large parts of the northeast, and the government can neither administer those areas nor provide them with development assistance without the concurrence of the Tigers. As for Oslo, the international community has presented a united front regarding their role as peace facilitator, and no other country has come forward to play the role. Rajapakse and his hardline allies were hoping that India might take on the burden, but have not had a positive response to their pleas. In fact, New Delhi has backed the Norwegian facilitation. Swallowing a bitter pill, therefore, the government has asked Oslo to recommence its facilitatation.

In the meantime, the LTTE is proceeding with their gameplan, taunting the government with a war it cannot afford, but which the rebels themselves are not averse to. The four-year period of the ceasefire has enabled the Tigers to infiltrate all of the Northeast and even Colombo, placing the government in a vulnerable situation in the event of a total breakdown of the ceasefire. Meanwhile, by targeting the Sri Lankan security forces in the Northeast, the LTTE is slowly but surely restricting their ground movement and increasing its unofficial hold over government-controlled towns of the region.

The only way for Rajapakse to avoid being forced into war is to engage politically with the rebels, and fortunately this course of action is still available to him. The LTTE has agreed to have talks on the Ceasefire Agreement with the government, and the latter too has expressed a similar desire. The problem now seems to be the venue for such talks.  The government has changed its earlier stance that talks should be within Sri Lanka, but now insists it would have to be within an Asian country. However, the LTTE insists the venue be Oslo.

Both sides have reasons for seeking to stick to their guns as far as the venue is concerned. The government is politically hostage to the Sinhalese nationalist allies, who see peace talks in Oslo as an unacceptable reversal of yet another position taken during the election campaign. The LTTE is keen on Oslo as this would undermine the European Union travel ban.

Dispute over the venue must not delay the resumption of talks on strengthening the Ceasefire Agreement. Only political engagement can help gain the cooperation of the LTTE. The rebels' strong desire for international recognition is a factor that needs to be built into any governmental strategy to bring them back into the peace process. What the LTTE want most at this hour is international legitimacy ad material support. LTTE sympathisers have explained their opposition to Ranil Wickremesinghe thus: he did not obtain for them the 'symmetry' they sought with the government in dealing with the international community. Some might even say that the LTTE preferred Rajapakse because he had no plans and was therefore more likely to get the national society mired in a confusion which the rebels could have exploited.

Till today, the Tamil Tigers have refused to change their behaviour under either political or military pressure. This confidence comes from their strength on the ground and from the mistakes made by the government, as well as the latter's intransigence and occasional acts of bad faith. But it is also an oft- proven fact that a policy of isolation is likely to generate more violence on the part of the Tigers. The experience of two decades is that only political engagement will help address the problems of ceasefire violations, extremism and intolerance. The prospects of ending the current spate of violence will begin to improve the sooner the government and LTTE meet together at the negotiating table. For this reason, it is not enough for President Rajapakse to publicly say that he is committed to peace and not to war.  He must act decisively on his good intentions. The resumption of talks should not be delayed by the disagreement over the venue, and Oslo should be perfectly adequate.

~ Jehan Perera is a contributing editor to this magazine.

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