To Tokyo

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) participation in the Tokyo donor conference, scheduled for 9-10 June, remains in doubt as of the end of May. Unless it compromises, the LTTE has set a virtually impossible challenge for the government with its condition that Colombo should take concrete steps to establish an interim administration for the north-east prior to the Tokyo meet. Unless the LTTE recaptures the flexibility it showed at the outset of the peace process, when it accepted a federal solution and partnership with the government in newly established institutions, Colombo will be hard pressed to meet its terms.

The government cannot go beyond the limits set by the constitution. Either the LTTE accepts a government statement accepting in principle the concept of an interim administration, or it accepts an interim set-up within the framework of the constitution. As neither of these seems likely, the prospects for advancing the peace process in Tokyo seem slim.

But that the conference will be held appears not to be in doubt, given Washington DC's announcement that its deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, will be attending. The statement on Armitage's participation made the point that the Tokyo conference will be an important forum for the international community to demonstrate its support for the peace process. The US preponderance in the post-Iraq war period is too great for even an unorthodox organisation such as the LTTE to ignore when powerful countries such as Russia and France appear to have caved in.

For the past three years, since the commencement of Norwegian facilitation in the peace process, the US has been showing a strong interest in peace in Sri Lanka. The unprecedented amounts of World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans to Sri Lanka this year are a consequence of this interest. If Norway's facilitation has been indispensable in maintaining communication links between the government and the LTTE in the present time of crisis, US interest has provided Sri Lanka's peace process with a global dimension.

Sri Lankans may not be fully aware of where their country is being positioned in global affairs with this interest of the global power. But that this interest exists means that the space for either the government or the LTTE to do as it wants has shrunk. It is ironic that the LTTE's struggle for self-determination may have taken the country to a point where the global pressures on it to conform have become too powerful for viable long-term resistance.

The LTTE's continuing refusal to re-enter the peace process by not accepting the Japanese invitation to Tokyo may mean it will be seen as a potential peace process spoiler. As such, it would be natural to welcome the decision of the Japanese government to go ahead with the conference, and for the US to send a high-level delegation to it, whether or not the LTTE is there. It would also be natural to feel a sense of satisfaction at the prospect of the LTTE getting itself marginalised through its own stubbornness. However, at this juncture, it would be judicious to bear in mind a key lesson from the past that makes any rejoicing over the LTTE being left out both premature and unwise.

History shows the impossibility of solving the ethnic conflict without the LTTE's cooperation. Both the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 and the peace talks of 1994-95 failed when the LTTE pulled out of them. The LTTE's decision to end those peace processes came as great disappointments to most people. Neither the Tamil nor the Sinhala people wanted the fighting to resume. But when it did, the prevailing belief became that the LTTE could be marginalised by military and political means. There was also hope that a viable solution could be found without it.

But on both occasions it took years of war for it to become clear that the LTTE had to be a part of the solution, and not kept out of it. In particular, the period of the last government, led by Chandrika Kumaratunga – when the effort to subdue the LTTE militarily and marginalise it politically reached its zenith – proved that there could be no solution to the ethnic conflict without the cooperation of the LTTE. The failure of President Kumaratunga and the People's Alliance (PA) government must stand as a lesson to those who are directing the peace process today: they need to make a very strong effort to bring the LTTE back in the peace process.

If the LTTE persists in its refusal to take part in the Tokyo conference it might be tempting to see the June meeting as paving the way for its political marginalisation. There is no question that an LTTE refusal to participate in the Tokyo conference would be an affront to Japan and Norway, which have both tried hard to bring the LTTE in as a participant. Norway even sent its foreign minister to the Wanni to meet with the LTTE's leadership. In its latest effort the Japanese government has once again urged, or virtually appealed, to the LTTE to take part in the conference. But if the past is a guide, the (anticipated) political sidelining of the LTTE that could occur through international displeasure will not help the peace process.

Presidential role
In assessing the present situation it must be noted that the LTTE's demand for an interim administration is not unreasonable in and of itself. The concept of an interim administration was first floated by Kumaratunga, who once admitted that she offered the LTTE a 10-year term of interim administration on conditions that were never formally announced. The principle of an interim administration once again found expression in the draft constitution of 2000 put before parliament by the PA government that was headed by the president. Finally, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe himself upheld the cause of an interim administration headed by the LTTE during the election campaign of December 2001.

Given this, the problem with the LTTE's demand for an interim administration is not with the concept itself, but with its timing. Making this demand just three weeks prior to the Tokyo conference, and expecting the government to deliver in concrete terms, is unrealistic. Establishing an interim administration would require a constitutional amendment that the government is incapable of bringing forth at this time as it lacks the requisite two-thirds majority in parliament. In order to achieve such a majority, the government needs the support of the opposition.

The LTTE must share the blame for the government's unwillingness to bring the president and opposition into the peace process. It has continually described the president in critical, if not hostile, terms, as has she them. The LTTE has not invited the opposition to join the government in the peace talks, which perhaps it should do. It will take a significant change in this mindset for the government to bring the opposition on board.

But what is quite perplexing is the government's inability to give President Kumaratunga her due place as the elected head of state on occasions of great national importance. For instance, media reports indicate that the postponement of the Thai prime minister's visit to Sri Lanka for the commemoration of an historical Buddhist event had less to do with the inclement weather than with the absence of proper protocol involving the president. If this is true, it is a matter of great shame and disgrace that even religious and cultural matters are not spared the pettiness of politics.

At least for the sake of national unity, the government should reconcile with the president. President Kumaratunga deserves to jointly lead the government delegation to Tokyo. Such an action could set the stage for a presidential nominee, if not an opposition representative, to attend future peace talks with the LTTE. This would make it easier for the opposition to give parliamentary support to decisions taken at the peace talks. In the meantime, for the sake of sustaining the peace process and obtaining maximum economic benefits for the people, the LTTE should take its place alongside the government delegation as a joint partner at the Tokyo conference.

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Himal Southasian