Peace talks on pause

The reasons why the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suspended peace talks with the Sri Lankan government on 21 April were the focus of a late April meeting between LTTE political head SP Tamilchelvan and civil society representatives from the north and south of the country. The meeting, in the northern town of Kilinochchi, was arranged by the Association of War Affected Women, which has been lobbying for information concerning the fate of missing-in-action service personnel. The meeting transpired in the air-conditioned political headquarters of the LTTE around a long conference table no different from those found in ministerial offices in Colombo.

At the meeting, Tamilchelvan took pains to emphasise that the LTTE's decision to suspend the peace talks was neither a withdrawal from the peace process nor a hastily implemented action. According to him, the exclusion of the LTTE from a recent international donor meeting in Washington attended by the Sri Lankan government was only one among several reasons that had prompted the LTTE's move. The primary motivating factor, he said, was the absence of significant progress in alleviating the hardships of the people caused by the war.

This view is in contrast to the general belief that the LTTE's decision was motivated only by disappointment at being excluded from the Washington aid conference held 14-15 April. Indeed, the LTTE may have been hoping that by honouring the ceasefire agreement for 14 months it deserved a place at that conference. Colombo has been a successful fundraiser of late, securing USD 800 million in support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The LTTE's exclusion from the Washington meeting has demonstrated that the path to international legitimacy in a US-dominated world in which terrorism is anathema is going to be a difficult task.

With its refusal as yet to renounce violence, as the Irish Republican Army has in Northern Ireland, and its continuing practices of targeted assassinations of Tamil political opponents and child recruitment, the LTTE was destined to fail the US test. But the LTTE's position is not irredeemable, and there is much that it and the government can do together in partnership to ensure that the LTTE gains the legitimacy it seeks.

At present, however, the problem is that the LTTE's withdrawal is unlikely to be viewed favourably by the international community. Already the United States and France have urged the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. The Indian government has also expressed its wish that the peace process continue without delay. Despite its protestations that its decision to suspend participation resulted from deliberations over a long period of time, the LTTE's abrupt withdrawal has cost it international credibility. The imperative must therefore be for the LTTE to re-engage with the peace talks. If solving people's hardships is the goal, there is no alternative to the negotiating table.

Persisting pain
The visitors from the south could see for themselves the truth of Tamilchelvan's statement, however. Large parts of Jaffna remain in a state of devastation. The reconstructed Jaffna library stands alone in desolation amidst the ruins of other large buildings. Muslims who are trying to return to Jaffna took us to see their former homes. The walls of these houses remain for the most part, but the houses have been stripped of virtually everything of value, including their roofs. The leader of this once dynamic community, who has formed an organisation called the Displaced North Muslims Organisation, said that they were finding it difficult to return. For people to return they need a place to stay, something most returnees lack.

Night lamps could be seen flickering inside the wrecks of some dwellings. Those who inhabit such 'houses' are not categorised as living in refugee camps, though they live a bare and pathetic existence. There are also people living in refugee camps euphemistically known as welfare centres. These people number only about 10,000, but they live in very poor conditions. One camp we went to did not have toilet facilities for men, and only recently had women been provided with them.

The most visible sign of material change in Jaffna after 14 months of ceasefire is in the number of guesthouses and lodges that cater to visitors from outside. Some of these are reasonably well furnished, with air conditioners and other modern amenities. Small businessmen cater to the high-end tourist traffic in part because both of Jaffna's big hotels have been taken over by the Sri Lankan army.

It is therefore not surprising that Tamilchelvan should have cited the lack of visible progress in improving people's living conditions as the main reason for the LTTE's unhappiness with the current progress of the peace process. As an organisation seeking to play a political role, and one which will one day have to face elections to retain legitimacy, the LTTE has to ensure that it delivers material benefits to the people. To the extent that it fails to do so, its support base will shrink. This is no different from the government trying to provide a peace dividend to the people to ensure its own political stability.

Getting back to talks
In his meeting with civil society leaders, Tamilchelvan referred to three types of broken promises. The first concerned the resettlement of displaced persons and the constraints that the army's presence in inhabited areas posed to such resettlement. The second was the lack of financial support for resettlement and reconstruction. The third was the undermining of the partnership between the government and LTTE due to the one-sided participation at the Washington aid conference.

Tamilchelvan reminded his audience that Tamil militancy grew in strength following repeated non-implementation of promises to the elected leaders of the Tamil people by successive governments in Colombo. These include the abortive Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the District Development Council law of 1981, both of which held devolutionary potential. The LTTE emerged from a context in which falling victim to unfulfilled promises is a sign of failure. While politicians might be flexible about promises, guerrilla organisations are typically not.

Getting the LTTE back to the negotiating table soon would help maintain the sustainability of the peace process in the long term. It would also serve the national interest to have both the government and LTTE present at the Tokyo donor conference scheduled to begin 9 June, though the LTTE has stated that it will not be going to Japan. The government will need to pay special attention to the LTTE's concerns about the lack of progress in improving living conditions. This will require a more speedy disbursement of funds for resettlement and reconstruction. The government also needs to take action to reduce the overwhelming presence of the Sri Lankan army in the highly populated parts of Jaffna city and its environs.

At one of the earlier rounds of peace talks, the government promised to withdraw the army from one of the two hotels it currently occupies in Jaffna. There has been some movement on this matter, and now the army is making plans to shift from both hotels. But the area that the army has chosen to relocate to has given rise to further controversy. The demilitarisation of Jaffna, and indeed of the entire north and east, is a prerequisite for a return of normalcy to the country. It is a difficult challenge and requires a unity of purpose within the government and between Colombo and the LTTE. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, President Chandrika Kumaratunga's cooperation is essential to this aspect of the peace process.

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Himal Southasian