Will the combined efforts of the good Samaritans of the Western world to bring the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), locked in a civil war for over 17 years, to the negotiating table, succeed? As November ended, that question remained tantalisingly poised, with informed analysts veering to the view that talks are likely, but uncertain of whether they would lead anywhere except, perhaps, some period of peace for the people condemned to live in the war zone that the LTTE claims as a Tamil homeland. The external pressure for the renewal of peace talks between the government and the Tigers has mounted to a considerable degree. There have been high-level visits from Britain and the US, and neither can Colombo ignore the upcoming Paris aid meeting.
The 1 November talks between LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solhiem was a well-kept secret until Solheim, facilitated by the Colombo government, entered the Wanni fastness from where the seldom-seen Prabhakaran runs a war machine widely considered to be among the world´s most deadly. The global publicity value of the meeting between the Norwegian peacemakers and the LTTE leader, who had remained invisible to the world outside his guerrilla army for five years, was understandably immense. Prabhakaran had done away with the moustache he sported when previously photographed and had shed his military fatigues for a safari suit for the occasion. A picture of Prabhakaran with the Norwegians was later released to the press.
Solheim returned to Colombo to announce that the LTTE was ready for unconditional talks with the Sri Lanka government. But hardly had the ink on his first statement dried, the Tiger propaganda machine, feeding the domestic and international media from its London headquarters, came out with a totally different story. Certainly they were willing to talk, but there were several conditions. These included an “immediate cessation of hostilities, removal of military aggression and occupation, and withdrawal of economic embargo”. While the government newspapers saw the first direct contact between Prabhakaran and the facilitator—as Norway is officially described— as indicating a “glimmer of hope”, other media seized on the ambiguity surroun-ding the question of conditionally.
The Western nations, mainly those hosting Tamil refugees, have thrown their weight behind a negotiated settlement. Britain sent Peter Hain, its Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, to Colombo. Hard on his heels came Karl Inderfurth, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs. Both expressed support for the Norwegian efforts and called for a negotiated solution respecting Sri Lanka´s unitary status as well as “Tamil aspirations”. It is clear that the Western perception remains that Tamils suffer a disadvantaged status vis-a-vis the majority Sinhalese; Inderfurth said as much when he quoted a recent parliamentary statement of none other than President Chandrika Kumaratunga: “The real cause of the ethnic crisis is that the minority communities have not had a fair and reasonable opportunity to share in the political, social and economic power structure of the country.” Many Sinhalese disagree with this view point. Some argue that the disadvantaged in the country are not only the minorities, but whoever is poor—for example, anyone who does not have a good English education. And that includes many Sinhalese. They point out that the brutal civil war that has been the direct result of “LITE terrorism” had allowed hundreds of thousand of Tamils to win refugee status in Western Europe and North America, where they have been able to achieve lifestyles that would never have been possible in their own country. This Tamil diaspora, estimated now to number nearly a million, is a major financier of the LITE, both in voluntary contributions as well as extorted funds. Though countries like the US and Canada have banned the LTTE, calling it a terrorist group, and keep its front organisations under surveillance, the Tigers maintain an International Secretariat in London with a sophisticated propaganda apparatus. Colombo has long been pushing Britain to close down this office, and a planned legislation next year may possibly be another lever the West could use to induce Prabhakaran to talk serious.
With President Kumaratunga fighting a deteriorating economic situation, the thrice-postponed aid consortium meeting in Paris in December, will be another source of external pressure on the government to work towards a negotiated settlement rather than pursue the military option, vigorously advocated by hardline Sinhalese, including Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, who has been recently given increased responsibilities over the security forces. As Prabhakaran is accused of having literally suckered previous governments, and Kumaratunga herself, to talk peace in order to win time to rearm and regroup for fresh assaults, the armed forces as well as Colombo´s influential sections will now not easily agree to lower the guard to enable peace talks. Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, the Army Commander, went on record recently saying that it is up to Prabhakaran to establish the necessary trust, although he did not spell out how this might be done. As far as the LTTE is concerned, assaulting civilian targets has continued even after the most recent offer of ´unconditional´ peace talks and the demand for normalisation of conditions in the war zone—the latest was the bombing of a bus killing seven and wounding nearly 30.
The big question now is whether Prabhakaran will be willing to settle for the extensive devolution that Colombo is willing to grant and stop short of his dream of a separate Eelam.
Some of his bankrollers want him to press on with the separatist war, but he is also under pressure both externally and internally from the people who live in the war zone, for a return to peace. International funding for repairing and rehabilitating the war-devastated areas is readily on offer if peace returns. Clearly, Colombo is willing to walk the extra mile towards peace and may even unwillingly concede the merger of the Tamil dominated northern province with the east. The whole country is war weary and looking for a respite.