The main feature in the Norwegian-drafted Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran in March is the indefinite ceasefire agreement. It calls for a two-week notice being given by either party prior to termination of the ceasefire. This clause is likely to assuage apprehensions regarding the possibility of a surprise attack by either side. In the past, it has always been the LTTE that ended ceasefires with surprise attacks. On this occasion, with the Norwegians and, indeed, the entire diplomatic community in Sri Lanka keenly watching the peace process, the chances of such repeat performances are considerably reduced.
On the other hand, there are a couple of serious problems with the ceasefire agreement. The first deals with the government’s ability to interdict LTTE re-supplies, which could lead to a possible unraveling of the peace process. The government’s position is that the MOU permits the Sri Lankan armed forces to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, though without engaging in offensive military operations against the LTTE. Apprehending unauthorised vessels entering Sri Lankan territorial waters, by this reasoning, would be self-defence. But the Tigers’ reasoning can be expected to be different.
Just a few days before the signing of the agreement, there was a major clash at sea between the Navy and the Sea Tigers. The LTTE’s version was that the navy fired on the Sea Tigers while training, whereas Colombo claimed that the rebel flotilla had fired first while the navy was approaching it to check for gun-running. The MOU fails to address this type of problem, thus presenting a potential flashpoint which could unravel the ceasefire. It is noteworthy, however, that both the government and the insurgent leadership chose not to press this naval encounter to propaganda advantage. This indicates that both sides are determined to pursue the peace option, even though no doubt each has a fallback option firmly in place.
There is no doubt that the emplacement of a new government in December is what has precipitated this dramatic political evolution in Sri Lanka. It is obvious that the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe rejects any overt strategy of politically or militarily marginalising the LTTE. Indeed, it appears prepared to work with and through the LTTE. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the ministers who have been deployed in the peace process have stated publicly that an end to the war is a precondition for resolving the country’s economic and other problems.
There is some apprehension that if the present MOU is an outcome of the government’s one-sided need, then it puts the LTTE in the driver’s seat and the insurgents may be merely biding time to strike when the opportunity presents itself. Those skeptical of the LTTE’s motives attribute its willingness to go with the peace process to international pressures unleashed after 11 September and the United States’ war against terrorism. On the other hand, we need to remember that the insurgents had indicated their desire to engage with an administration led by Mr Wickremesinghe long before the events of 11 Septembei. For at least two years prior to that fateful day — including during the presidential elections of 1999 and the general elections of 2000 — the LTTE had showed clear preference to work with Mr. Wickremesinghe as prime minister.
It must be said that the overall track record of the previous Chandrika Kumaratunga government was not strong on seeking constructive engagement with the LTTE. On the contrary, its objective was to marginalise the LTTE through a twopronged politico-military strategy. The unwillingness of President Kumaratunga to work with the government in the run-up to the present ceasefire, too, indicates her continuing reservations about working with the LTTE for peace.
The second problematic area in the mou, therefore, is the government’s inability to obtain bipartisan support for it. The prime minister had invited President Kumaratunga to co-sign the MOU with him, but she refused to do so on the plea that she had was unaware of the contents of the agreement until after the LTTE leader had already signed it. Given the nature of the insurgency in Sri Lanka — one which touches the people’s deep-rooted psyche itself — and the high stakes, a bipartisan policy towards the peace process remains essential. There must not be division between the two major political parties on the matter of a ceasefire meant to lead to peace. Civil society organisations that gave their whole-hearted support to the former government in its own peace initiatives, and the international community as well, need to do all they can to persuade the President and her party to cooperate in the peace process that has just been re-started.
President Kumaratunga’s refusal to cosign is a negative signal if there was one. On the one hand, her instincts as a combative politician are to not wish the new government to succeed where she so clearly failed — to Mr. Wickremesinghe would go then the mantle of peacemaker. On the other hand, the president is also acutely aware that the people at large support a genuine peace process. Mrs. Kumaratunga perhaps understands that it is too early to conclusively reject the peace process as one that will not lead to a permanent peace.
The spoiler in the peace process already out on the field is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has been opposing the Norwegian-facilitated peace process since the very beginning. Quite unconcerned that the MOU consolidates the ceasefire, the JVP has been engaging in a massive poster campaign against it, charging that is paves the way for a handover of the Northeast, together with its Sinhalese and Muslim inhabitants, to the LTTE. However, lacking a mass base, the JVP has not been able to mobilise the crowds. Any alliance with the Mrs. Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance in opposition to the MOU during the local government elections scheduled for 20 March would therefore be a great opportunity to the JVP. All eyes are therefore on the PA.
There is a third problematic aspect that the MOU must contend with, and that concerns the Muslim community in the east. Using the opportunities provided by the ceasefire to enter into government-controlled territory over the last couple of months, the LITE has been extorting millions of rupees from the Muslims, even kidnapping them for the purpose. The LTTE has thus succeeded in creating a rift between itself and a community that constitutes at least a third of the population of the east. This is likely to complicate future political negotiations regarding the unit up for devolution. It would be understable if the Muslims balk at being put under the rule of those who so mistreated them.
The MOU does state in general terms that abduction, extortion and harassment of the civilian population is not permitted. It further states in its preamble that the Muslim population is one of the groups that are not directly a party to the conflict but who are suffering its consequences. It goes onto say that the provisions of the MOU regarding the security of civilians and their property apply to all inhabitants. Apart from the MOU, however, the matter of Muslim disenchantment with a possible formula is something the civic organisations and international interlocutors must pay particular attention to.
More than two decades ago, sections of the Tamil community took to arms in the pursuit of their right to self-determination after facing oppression from the majority Sinhalese. Today, the Tamil people and those who seek to represent them must recognise that in turn oppress minorities living in areas that they numerically and militarily dominate. It is not improbable that in the interests of preserving good relations with the LTTE, both the government and Norwegian facilitators will soft pedal the LTTE abuses. National and international groups must take this matter up with both the government and LTTE to ensure that all people benefit from the signing of the MOU.