Between war and peace

Between war and peace
For Sri Lanka it’s a long trek
by H.K.Dua, who was recently in Colombo

There is neither war nor peace in Sri Lanka. It is a peculiar situation which leaves somewhat an uncomfortable feeling. Tired of 21 years of conflict and ethnic killings, this island nation is caught in agonising uncertainty, with Sri Lankans hoping that there will be peace in their lifetime and the LTTE’s men in the north continuing to work for a separate Eelam.

There is a sort of ceasefire between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE, but much remains to be done before a ceasefire can become peace and the nation can breathe easily.

I was recently in Colombo to attend a meeting of the Jury of the South Asian Prize for Tolerance – a value that has eluded much of South Asia and certainly Sri Lanka. The Jury’s meeting gave me an opportunity to meet a wide spectrum of people – their new Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, Opposition leaders, the General Secretary of the Left-wing JVP (now a coalition partner) and others who are chipping in with their effort to peace-making in Sri Lanka. President Chandrika Kumaratunga was away to Britain, presumably to meet her children.

Mrs Kumaratunga, whose family has ruled Sri Lanka for several years since the country became free over five decades ago, perhaps thinks that she alone among the present lot of leaders in Sri Lanka can establish peace, ensuring at the same time that the Island Republic would remain one country.

Mrs Kumaratunga has already ruled Sri Lanka for 10 years and has got just two years left of her second term to accomplish what she believes is her mission. Under the Sri Lankan constitution a President cannot have a third term. Mrs Kumaratunga, 62, is not one of those who may be inclined to calling it a day. There is open talk in Colombo’s political circles ā€” and they are good at both analysis and sifting logic from facts and gossip ā€” that she will get the constitution amended to get another term of six years, or go in for a new constituent assembly to have a parliamentary form of government which can give her a chance to rule Sri Lanka as Prime Minister, if not as its executive President.

There can be problems on the way if she follows this track to remain in power longer than warranted under the present constitution. Mrs Kumaratunga’s alliance does not have a two-thirds majority in Parliament to permit a constitutional amendment or to set up a convenient constituent assembly.

Given the arithmetic thrown up by recent parliamentary elections, Mrs Kumaratunga cannot get the constitution amended or a new constituent assembly set up without the cooperation of opposition leader Ranil Wickremsinghe. They have had continuously acrimonious relations until the elections and it is inconceivable at present that they can easily overcome bitterness and join hands to work together to build a new Sri Lanka.

And why should Mr Wickremsinghe, who is much younger to Mrs Kumaratunga, sacrifice his own ambitions to help his main adversary rule Sri Lanka again – and at his own cost? In Colombo, like in most capitals of the world, no one rules out new permutations and combinations of political forces, however. Where cohabitation did not work in the last Parliament, realignment of the SLFP and the UNP men might become necessary one day. Today’s foes can become tomorrow’s friends one day.

Time is not the only hurdle in Mrs Kumaratunga’s search for peace – although she was totally opposed to Mr Ranil Wickremsinghe’s softness towards the LTTE’s demands. Mrs Kumaratunga’s party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in fact, fought last April’s parliamentary elections on the platform that Mr Wickremsinghe as Prime Minister was giving too many concessions to the LTTE and this in the long run could lead to the creation of a separate State – a Tamil Eelam.

Having defeated Mr Wickremsinghe’s UNP at the parliamentary polls -with the help of the extreme left-wing party JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) – Mrs Kumaratunga is perhaps keen to make it known to the world, particularly the West, that she is no less ardent a peace-seeker than was Mr Ranil Wickremsinghe.

While the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE has several ups and downs, the peace process, which had been initiated by the Norwegians, remains stalled. The current effort is to get the peace process started again before it gets too late.

The Norwegians, who have established enough credentials with both the Colombo establishment as well as with the LTTE in the north, are back in the game, although one of their ministers who visited Colombo recently described the situation, although a little despondently, as “a frozen war”. A senior UNP functionary said the current phase was not peace, but “a proxy war.”

A formidable block before the resumption of peace negotiations is the LTTE’s demand that there must be an Interim Self-Government Authority (ISGA) through which the Tamils can run their own administration in the northern and eastern provinces without any interference by the Sri Lanka government.

For the opposition UNP, it is not a serious hurdle. In the government and the ruling alliance headed by Mrs Kumaratunga, opinions vary. While Mrs Kumaratunga and advisers may be thinking that definitional concerns about what the ISGA would ultimately not stand in the way of a dialogue getting started, her partner in the alliance, the JVP, which represents hardline Sinhala opinion widely prevalent in the South, is opposed to the ISGA, which, it is sure, would be a first step towards the creation of an Eelam.

The JVP, which has won an amazing 39 seats out of 220 in Parliament and 80 out of 83 seats in local elections has emerged as a powerful group in the ruling UPFA and cannot be easily ignored by Mrs Kumaratunga.

While there are indications that it would like to avoid the fall of the UPFA government led by Mrs Kumaratunga’s nominee, Mr Mohindra Rajpakse, as of now there is no sign that the JVP would give up its opposition to the LTTE’s demand for the ISGA. Interestingly, the UNP has, for effect or otherwise, made it known that the opposition UNP would support the government if the JVP tries to scuttle the resumption of talks with the LTTE over the ISGA.

The distrust between the government and the LTTE is another hurdle yet to be crossed. What has deepened it is the recent defection of Karuna, one of Prabhakaran’s senior commanders, who broke ranks with the LTTE leader. Karuna’s revolt, although crushed by Parabhakaran’s men, has seriously dented the LTTE supremo’s image and the claim that he alone is the representative of the Tamils.

Notwithstanding impediments, there are indications that peace-makers are engaged in back channel diplomacy to place the derailed peace dialogue back on the track, even if the actual resolution of the Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis remains a distant proposition.

Efforts seem to be on to see that Colombo’s as well as the LTTE’s representatives meet in Oslo under the Norwegians’ auspices, say in October or November. Crucial will, however, be a meeting of the Tamil diaspora in Geneva next month after which the LTTE’s position will be known.

Interestingly, all parties in Sri Lanka want India to play a role in the peace process. Essentially, both the ruling UPFA and the UNP want India to put pressure on the LTTE to ensure that it comes to the negotiating table in a more reasonable frame of mind.

India is opposed to again getting sucked into the Sri Lankan mess, having already burnt its fingers in 1987, when on Jayawardene’s plea it rushed the IPKF to the North. It was a decision India was to regret later.

Also, for India, the LTTE remains a banned terrorist organisation and its demand for Prabhakaran’s extradition still remains a serious concern for South Block. And rightly so, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

India would like to see peace in the strife-torn nation restored and aspirations of Tamils and other communities met, but New Delhi is unlikely to be sanguine about the setting up of the ISGA demanded by the LTTE. New Delhi cannot relish the creation of an entity which has the makings of an Eelam next to its coastline.

New Delhi’s primary concern is to see that Sri Lanka remains a united country.

(To be concluded)