For a while, in a disconcerting five month period from April to last month, it seemed that the Sri Lankan peace miracle might be in danger of breaking down. In April 2003, the LTTE suspended peace talks with the Sri Lankan government. They also boycotted the important donor conference that took place in Tokyo that month. For the first time, the LTTE also strongly criticised the government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for trying to deny the Tamil people their just rights.
However, more recently the LTTE appears to be reconsidering its strategy. There appears to be a serious effort being made on the part of the LTTE to reach an understanding with the government. The core of the LTTE’s continuing partnership with the government is its preference for dealing with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe rather than with the opposition political parties that are led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The fortnight that has followed the Paris meeting, at which the LTTE’s constitutional committee finalised its deliberations, has hardly generated any negative news worthy of attention. The main news items pertain to the LTTE’s flouting of rulings by the international monitors regarding the setting up of its camp (or camps) in government-controlled territory in Trincomalee. The LTTE claims that these camps are in territory they have controlled in the past. The photographs of a camp carried in the news media do not indicate any militarily significant construction.
The area in the Trincomalee district where the highlighted LTTE camp has been set up is in contested multi-ethnic territory. The three communities of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese are equally represented in terms of numbers in the district. Recent months have seen an increase in tension between the Muslims and Tamils in particular, with violence against the Muslims by the LTTE. It is possible that the LTTE’s determination is to stake a Tamil claim to that part of the east, as part of the Tamil-Muslim rivalry for land, rather than being an LTTE-government military rivalry.
On the other hand, the continuing refusal of the LTTE to vacate its position in Trincomalee is being exploited by the opposition political parties to the maximum. The opposition parties cannot be faulted for making the LTTE’s defiance of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission an issue. The LTTE’s refusal to heed repeated rulings of the international monitors causes anxiety amongst the general population and erodes the possibility of the LTTE gaining the international legitimacy that it seeks.
Despite the outstanding issue of the Trincomalee camp, the sense of crisis in the relationship between the government and LTTE that seemed so acute in April, just prior to the Tokyo donor conference, and in the weeks that followed, appears to have receded. With the conclusion of the Paris meeting, the peace process has reached a new stage of consolidation. There appears to be a regaining of the government-LTTE partnership in the peace process. But on this occasion it is with a difference.
In the five-month period between September 2002 and February 2003, before the LTTE suspended peace talks with the government, the notion of a government-LTTE partnership was boldly presented at consecutive rounds of peace talks held under the glare of international publicity. Professor GL Peiris and Dr Anton Balasingham, leading the two negotiating teams, were flamboyant in demonstrating their mutual understanding and meeting of minds. But now the partnership has taken a more covert turn. It is carried out rationally and in a more confidential manner by the real powers behind the scenes, meaning the very top government and LTTE leaderships.
The core of the renewed partnership between the government and LTTE is the latter’s preference for dealing with a government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinge. The alternative of a government that would bring the opposition political parties back to power is anathema to virtually the whole of the Tamil polity, including the LTTE. When questioned as to why the opposition is so out of favour with them, the vast majority of Tamil people would say that the period of the PA government was the worst in terms of the savagery of war.
Both the Tamil people and LTTE have bitter memories of the so-called “war for peace” launched by the PA government when the peace talks of 1995 collapsed. It was the LTTE which broke those peace talks. But the severity of the government’s military response led to the destruction of much of the north and east, where the Tamils live as an overall majority. Public opinion surveys carried out in Jaffna reveal that the people have little or no confidence in the opposition political parties. The LTTE is undoubtedly cognisant of this fact
The failure of the JVP’s pro-war “long march” and its inability to form an alliance with the PA is likely to take the opposition-generated political pressure off the government. As a result, the current peace process is also likely to be more secure. But President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s constitutionally mandated power to either sack the government or dissolve Parliament at her discretion remains a tremendous threat both to the government and to the peace process as it is currently taking place. The LTTE know this as much as anyone else.
The LTTE today has sufficient political acumen to be aware that in dealing with the government they have to be careful not to push it too hard, and thereby fatally weaken it. They cannot risk the government falling and being replaced by the opposition. The PA’s position is that the ceasefire agreement is unduly favourable to the LTTE and they will renegotiate it if they come back to power. The JVP’s position is even more extreme. It is that the ceasefire agreement should be entirely abrogated and the Norwegian facilitators should be sent home. Such a course of action as called for by the JVP would certainly deal a death blow to the peace process. The fact that the PA has refused to agree to these JVP conditions for forming an electoral alliance is the latest positive news for the peace process.
It is significant that the meeting of the LTTE’s constitutional affairs committee in Paris last month was not used by the organisation to attack or discredit the government. There is no doubt that the LTTE’s experts who met in Paris would have come up with a maximum demand for the envisaged interim administration. The document has now been taken to the Wanni to be approved by the LTTE’s top leadership. It may even be further strengthened and maximised there.
But the important question is not the quantum of powers demanded in the LTTE document that finally emerges. The important question is whether the LTTE will insist that the government should accept its document right now as a precondition for restarting the peace talks. If keeping the government in power is an objective of the LTTE, it will not make such a demand. It will not seek to force the government to deliver a maximal interim administrative structure to them at this time. What is more likely is that the LTTE will publicise its position, and seek to rally longer term support among the Tamil people and international community for it.
It can be believed that the LTTE knows what any other astute student of politics knows. This is that the government has neither the two-thirds majority in Parliament nor the Presidential powers to grant an interim administration with real federal powers. It will be counter productive for the LTTE to seek to put the government into an impossible situation which will only help the opposition parties and opponents of the peace process. It was this realisation that stopped the LTTE’s negotiating team, with Dr Balasingham at the helm, from demanding an interim administration at the very first round of peace talks in September 2002. This same realisation is likely to stop the LTTE again.
Peace process requires that the LTTE should be a willing partner in the peace process. There can be no peace in Sri Lanka without a willing and wholly participative LTTE. It was the former government that demonstrated conclusively to the people of Sri Lanka and to the international community that there was no possibility of making peace in Sri Lanka without the LTTE’s participation. This is the most important lesson that the government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is upholding. This is also why the government and LTTE can continue to be partners in the peace process, albeit without flaunting it.
The spirit of the man who was not present at the Paris meeting needs to be recalled by the LTTE. The absence of the LTTE’s most renowned theoretician in Paris may have been due to his ill health. But it could also be due to some of the actions and stances he took during the period of peace talks in Thailand. At a time when it looks as if he will no longer dominate the political scene on behalf of the LTTE, due credit needs to be paid to Dr Anton Balasingham, who virtually single handedly broke the deadlock that separated the government and LTTE’s positions earlier.
After the consolidation of the demand for total separation in the militant movements in the early 1980s, the biggest problem in arriving at a negotiated settlement was to find a meeting point between the concepts of Tamil Eelam and Sri Lanka. The inability of the two sides to bridge the gap prevented a framework for negotiations being developed. Whatever was put forward by Tamil parties, including the famous Thimpu principles, was seen as another form of the Tamil Eelam demand. By the end of the 1990s, however, witnessing the unceasing cycles of violence in Sri Lanka, key members of the international community, including the United States, India and the European Union had stated that the solution to the Sri Lankan conflict had to be within a united Sri Lanka. What was missing, however, was the LTTE’s own readiness to publicly accept the concept of a united Sri Lanka. Indeed, such a renunciation seemed impossible with the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, having told his cadre to shoot him if he ever gave up on Tamil Eelam.
In this context, Dr Balasingham’s public statements regarding the parameters of a political solution made at the peace talks in Thailand broke the main barrier to a negotiated settlement. At those talks he said that the LTTE’s demand for Tamil Eelam did not belong to the conventional category of a separate state. Next he went on to commit the LTTE to seek a federal solution. With the government’s acceptance of this position, the most fundamental issue of Sri Lanka’s post-independence history was resolved. If the great Tamil democratic leader SJV Chelvanayakam is remembered as the father of the federal concept in Sri Lanka, LTTE theoretician, Dr Anton Balasingham will be remembered as paving the way for a negotiated settlement based on the federal concept. If not for Dr Balasingham’s concession, the opponents of the peace process would have been better able to generate fear within the Sinhalese people that the LTTE was really striving for a separate state through the peace process.
Today’s inability of the opposition parties to agitate the Sinhalese masses by rousing in them the fear of Tamil separatism is at least partly due to Dr Balasingham’s forthright acceptance of federalism. The resolution of conflicts in a sustainable manner requires that each side thinks about the other’s difficulties and aspirations, and not only one’s own. The Paris meeting can be described as ‘successful’ or ‘positive’ only and only when, it inspires the Colombo government and other political parties to take further steps towards realising the real aspirations of all people in Sri Lanka – the yearning for peace and an end to violence.