Country above self
The Norwegian embassy statement published yesterday at the end of peace facilitator Vidar Helgesens two-day visit here expressed "cautious optimism" about the possibility of finding a political solution to Sri Lankas ethnic conflict which has over a period of nearly 20 years dragged this country down economically, socially and not least of all in humanitarian terms. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has made abundantly clear that he is very well aware that there is no quick fix or magic wand to resolve the problem that has long bedevilled Sri Lanka and the road towards peace will be rough and thorny.
We are indeed fortunate that Oslo has not allowed the previous ham-handed sidelining of Erik Solheim by the previous administration to diminish their commitment to helping the present effort. The Island yesterday published a front page picture of a smiling President Kumaratunga greeting the Norwegian delegation with former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar by her side. Solheim, who continued in the Norwegian team despite the best efforts of some of our leaders, also figured prominently in that photograph. If he remembered the snub that was delivered him last time he was here with his foreign minister, his smiling countenance did not show it.
Nobody can fault Helgesens assessment that there are opportunities to move further, step by step, towards negotiations. Kadirgamar was confident that peace talks would begin last April until the LTTE, that had previously indicated that that they would be unconditional, demanded that Colombo lifts the proscription imposed on them as a pre-condition. Their strategy was all too obvious. With a British ban imminent, any lifting of the prohibition belatedly imposed here after the attack on the Dalada Maligawa in 1998, would have provided sufficient grounds for London to re-think its position. The situation regarding the classification of the LTTE as a terrorist group has dramatically advanced in Sri Lankas favour since the September 11 terrorist attack in the US. All the more reason for the Tigers to press as hard as they can to get Sri Lankas proscription lifted.
Already the LTTE have been chipping away at the bans imposed on them by many foreign countries. A success of sorts was scored by them in arranging for the Norwegians to talk to Anton Balasingham in London early this month. Oslo, obviously, would have cleared the venue both with the British and with Colombo before that meeting. The foreign office in London is on record saying that Norway, "as a courtesy," had informed them of the dialogue. Explaining the contradiction of a banned organisation being permitted to conduct official business with a third country in their territory, an FO official had explained: "The aim of the Act is not to prevent legitimate dialogue between officials and a proscribed organisation." Obviously other arguments could have been adduced favouring the contrary case if the British were so inclined. But they were not because as they themselves put it, they welcomed any talks following the cease-fire announcement.
That was one up for Prabhakaran and the Tigers would wish there would be more to follow. No wonder then what many diplomats here regard as a Balasingham leak that the LTTE favoured Chennai (Madras) or Bangalore as the venue for the peace talks that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe hopes will get started by March. Clearly the Tigers are seeking legitimacy and what better way than to have India, the first country to ban the Tigers, to be the location of peace talks. Remember that India proscribed the LTTE many years before we did, blaming the Tigers for the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in the early nineties. They have also since gazetted Prabhakaran and his intelligence chief, Pottu Amman, as proclaimed offenders. Present indications are that New Delhi will not even nibble at the bait proffered even though the Indians, as much as the British, will warmly welcome a serious peace effort gathering momentum.
Given the LTTEs track record, including suckering President Premadasa to supply them with arms to fight the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that both Prabhakaran and Premadasa wanted out of Sri Lanka, it is very necessary that Colombo does not rush into unprofessional negotiations that can be suicidal. President Kumaratungas choice of peace negotiators in 1994 is a good example of what not to do. She chose friends and loyalists to undertake a demanding assignment that needs the finest diplomatic and negotiating skills. The prime minister obviously understands this very well and has been trying to get the best and the brightest from the political and professional firmament. It is a pity that Jayantha Dhanapala has not come on board for this undertaking but the fact that the government sought him out sends the right signal.
The LTTE which has over the long drawn war demonstrated not only its fanatical commitment to its cause but also its genius, military and otherwise, will undoubtedly attempt to extract the last ounce of advantage. When the two sides went to Thimpu, President Jayewardene included eminent persons like Mr. H. L. de Silva who were opposed to him politically in the Colombo delegation. Undoubtedly Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has the wisdom to follow such good precedent. Helgesen is on record saying he is "encouraged" by President Kumaratungas support for the new governments peace effort. Hopefully, nobody will try to score political points for themselves or their parties on this issue. This is a time when everybody across political and other divisions must place country above self.
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