|The governments gamble for peace
The refusal by the security forces to permit armed and uniform-clad LTTE cadre with cyanide capsules around their necks to enter government-controlled areas to visit their relatives is a pointer of problems to come.
Another is the demand by Tamil political parties and most recently by a Jaffna University students association to disarm Tamil para-military groups that have been fighting alongside government troops and providing them with information. In the meantime, apart from its initiative to declare a unilateral ceasefire, the LTTE has not been forthcoming about recommencing peace talks with the government.
The government has requested the Norwegian government to resume its facilitation role in preparation for peace talks. It is likely that the LTTEs delay in responding to this government move is that it has its pre-conditions for such peace talks to resume. One would almost certainly be the lifting of the governments ban on the LTTE as a terrorist organisation.
The other could be a demand that government troops be confined to barracks in view of the ceasefire. So far there is no indication that the government has made any counter requests of the LTTE. Instead it has been generous with its unilateral gestures. These gestures have been a boon to the civilian population in particular, though also to the LTTE.
Most important would be sending unrestricted humanitarian supplies to the LTTE-controlled areas. The Sri Lankan government continues to be unique in supplying areas not under its control and, indeed, to an area in which a massive civilian militia has been conscripted by the LTTE and trained for war.
A more controversial action of the government has been its decision to remove military checkpoints in virtually all parts of Colombo, and in the north-east. While this has made traffic much easier to the relief of civilians and commercial interests, it has also paved the way for LTTE infiltration and possible future attacks in the event of a breakdown of the present ceasefire. Particularly vulnerable is the position of former government leaders who are now deprived of the bulk of their armed guards. Like all citizens they have their right to personal security, and even more so as those who served the state.
So far there is no indication that the LTTE has made any promise not to assassinate its enemies, exploiting the conditions of ceasefire and the newly opened roads of the country. Perhaps in recognition of this grim reality, some members of the former government have been permitted to stay on in their high security official residences after they refused to leave them.
The new governments strategy is a complete shift from that of the previous governments, which was to confront the LTTE at every level. So far the government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been non-confrontational in its approach to its opponents, whether they be those in the former government or LTTE.
Instead the Prime Minister and his closest colleagues appear to be completely focused on taking the country to a different place, far removed from the present reality of an economy and society devastated by 18 years of warfare.
The vision spelled out in India by the Prime Minister of a land bridge that would link Sri Lanka to India exemplifies the new approach. It seeks to transcend the grimness of the present reality with the opportunities of the future.
The governments strategy appears to be based on an assessment of the former governments failure to succeed through confrontation. After the collapse of the peace talks with the LTTE at the very beginning of its term of office in April 1995, the former government declared a full scale war for peace. The two-pronged military and political strategy aimed to weaken and sideline the LTTE.
But both types of confrontation failed. Initially, the retaking of Jaffna by the Sri Lanka Army through Operation Riviresa in November 1995 seemed to indicate that the military strategy of full scale confrontation would succeed. But thereafter poorly executed military campaigns, such as the two-and-a-half year Operation Jayasikuru to retake the A9 main road to Jaffna failed at very high cost. Instead of being militarily weakened, the LTTE emerged militarily strengthened from these major confrontations.
The former governments political prong against the LTTE in the form of the devolution package, which offered much hope in its initial manifestation of August 1995, could also not be sustained. The government fiercely confronted all political opponents of its devolution package, even incurring the curses of religious prelates upon it. But ultimately the governments bid to transmute the devolution package into constitutional law proved unsuccessful.
In a replay of partisan politics that have dogged all political efforts down the decades to end the ethnic conflict through negotiations, the opposition led by Ranil Wickremesinghe simply refused to cooperate.
It seems that the new government under Prime Minister Wickre-mesinghe has absorbed two important lessons from the former governments failure.
The first is that head-on confrontation will not bring a solution to the ethnic conflict. Accordingly, political and structural reforms might have to be de facto rather than de jure, to be acquiesced in by the general population with whom as little information as possible is shared.
The alternative of explaining everything in detail to the people in order to get them to vote in favour of the settlement is likely to get into too much controversy.
There is deep rooted resistance in the Sinhalese community to fundamental constitutional reform that would lead to powersharing across the ethnic and regional lines.
Further, the LTTE too thrives on confrontation, by its astuteness in ensuring that the costs of any confrontational situation are piled onto the Tamil civilian population, creating in them an alienation towards the government which is made to appear the source of the problem.
The second lesson evidently learnt by the new government is that all outstanding problems cannot be resolved in one go, but require a stage by stage approach.
The two-pronged approach of the former government aimed at knock-out victories, such as by the Jaffna victory and the devolution package.
But even when the task was accomplished, as in the retaking and successful holding of Jaffna, the resilience of the LTTE ensured that the victory was incomplete. It is likely that even if the devolution package had been passed with the bipartisan support of the opposition, its implementation would have been impossible due to resistance by the LTTE. Having witnessed, and contributed to, the failure of the former governments confrontational strategy, the new government appears to have opted for a non-confrontational strategy for the time being at least.
However, no strategy that aims to end the bitterly contested and costly 18 year war can be problem or risk-free. Already the Marxist nationalist JVP has embarked upon a massive poster campaign denouncing the present ceasefire as a spurious one and calling upon the people to oppose any de-banning of the LTTE.
On the other side of the divide, LTTE proxies are making their own demands on the government. The fragility of todays peace in the context of strong opposing forces highlights the high risk nature of the gamble being taken by the government for peace.
After 18 years of war the government and LTTE have little reason to trust each other. With five decades of experience of broken post-independence promises between successive governments and Tamil parties as background, the problem of trust becomes more deep-rooted.
This is the context in which the new government needs to affirm and reaffirm its commitment to peace, justice and fairplay to the Tamil people. In a situation of mistrust, confidence-building measures are undoubtedly important.
The sending in of humanitarian supplies without any restriction would be one example.
Release of prisoners of war would be another. It is however important that these initial measures must not undermine one sides security.
It is only when the security of the conflicting parties is ensured that they become free to truly trust, take risks and be generous in the great cause of peace with justice. In removing virtually all barriers to physical movement of the LTTE at this time, even before peace has been consolidated by publicly acknowledged guarantees, the new government has taken a big risk. Any interaction with those with whom trust has broken down involves risks that need to be minimised.
The concerns of those who are likely to be the first victims of a breakdown of the ceasefire also need to be heeded. There have to be guarantees before anyones or any societys security is compromised.
The present ceasefire, as stated by both sides, is temporary only, for one month though it is likely to be extended. At this time, perhaps only the new Prime Minister and his closest colleagues would be knowing whether this guarantee has in fact been obtained from the LTTE or some other party. The political courage, vision and analysis of past failures of confrontation that underlie the new governments gamble for peace need to be appreciated.
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