Working together for peace

Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar’s parliamentary speech last week was a clear signal that there is room to hope that the two main political parties will not work at cross-purposes in their approach to the peace process. Prof. G. L. Peiris who followed him said as much with his customary lucidity. All hopes of pulling the country out of its present mess squarely rests on achieving a just and durable peace. There is no quarrel on that on the part of anybody other than the extreme fringe of opinion campaigning for a military solution. But voices of reason tell us that is something that can never be realized. All that would happen if a militaristic path is unrelentingly pursued is more bloodshed and misery for all.

The former foreign minister has been widely admired for the skill and persistence with which he pursued the diplomatic effort to get the world to see the LTTE for what they are — a brutal terrorist group. No wonder then that he was a prime target of the Tigers and, with the exception of President Kumaratunga and perhaps then Prime Minister Wickramanayake, was the country’s most tightly guarded politician. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has ensured that the former minister, though no longer holding office, continues to enjoy his previous level of protection. He occupies the government-owned house he used as minister for reasons of personal security. The prime minister’s approach to these matters has been correct and proper and deserving of national approval.

As Kadirgamar said in his speech, many daunting challenges remain ahead when many difficult but important decisions must be made. Peiris found room for "profound satisfaction" that his former colleague went public with the view that such difficult decisions can be taken more easily on the basis of consensus between the country’s two major political parties. As was pointed out during the debate by the TULF’s M. Sivasithamparam, returning to parliament after many years, whenever the party in office proposed a viable solution, it was invariably torpedoed by the party in opposition. The TULF’s elder statesman, like many others, saw the process that the new government has embarked on as the "last chance". But he also stressed that it was the "best chance". All Lankans, across barriers of race, religion and political loyalties must hope that this assessment is correct and both sides will make the necessary compromises to make a solution possible. We cannot have a situation of all "give" on the part of the government and all "take" by the LTTE.

The grim situation of the national economy was presented by the prime minister in his policy statement. It is obvious that the war chests are empty on both sides and the cash crunch will force both to pursue the more logical option of working towards a durable peace. As Peiris and Kadirgamar pointed out in their respective speeches, the process that is now gathering momentum has drawn upon what had been done by the previous administration. For example, in getting essential goods into the rebel-held areas of the Wanni, the Wickremesinghe government depended on the list prepared by its predecessor ensuring an element of continuity that was essential. Kadirgamar, of course, reserved the right to criticize where criticism was necessary and did not give the government a blank cheque. That is exactly as it should be.

It is clear that the necessary learning process that was mentioned in the parliamentary debate is constantly borne in mind. There is no need to reinvent the wheel and the peacemakers must benefit from the lessons of the past. It is necessary that those charged with the awesome responsibility of taking the process to the desired conclusion — and that is not only the government but the collective polity — must ask themselves why some of the previous efforts had not succeeded and what mistakes were made at the time. This needs to be done not in a spirit of recrimination or of imputing blame but in order to ensure that they are not repeated in the future. It is essential that the best brains available and all the expertise that exists be mustered for this effort outside the bounds of politics.

There is a great deal of international goodwill for the peace effort and if current readings are correct, funding from abroad too will be available not only for ending the war but for the rebuilding, repairs and rehabilitation that must follow in the battle-scarred areas. It must be admitted that the degree of trust that is necessary for the process to gather momentum has not yet been achieved. There are fears among the Sinhalese that the LTTE may well use the present interregnum to receive arms shipments. Given past experience and the Tigers’ track record, such fears are not surprising and cannot be said to be misplaced. Both sides will eye each other warily and Colombo certainly cannot let down its guard. The LTTE has more room for confidence given the current situation and the context of global opinion and it is to be hoped that at least some of the spirit of goodwill accompanying the present measures has rubbed off on the Tigers.

An agency report from Wanni quoted a priest there saying that both sides are no longer as adamant as they used to be and are more flexible. Let us all hope that this assessment is realistic and that there is room to make this last chance for peace not just the best chance, but a successful accomplishment.

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