Is the government prepared for negotiations?

Since the UNF government accepted the cease-fire of the LTTE and Norwegian facilitation for peace negotiations and the lifting of the travel ban to and from the jungle the hideout of the terrorists, various tales from the Wanni are being regaled by diplomats as well as journalists local and foreign.

We have pointed out in our earlier editorials that the picture that emerges from these fly-by-night visits - lasting at the most a day or two - courtesy the LTTE, tends to be pro terrorist because living conditions in any place, be it in jungles or towns have to be observed on a daily basis for a considerable period of time. It is only then that the real picture emerges. Interviews given by usually inaccessible personalities too tend to get distorted for reasons well known to journalists.

For example, we have had the Norwegian Prime Minister himself Mr. Kjell Magne Bondevik - who would have got his information through his diplomats who journeyed into the jungles to talk with the terrorists - telling the BBC that he was optimistic of bringing the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to the negotiating table and that the Tamil Tigers appear to be willing to give up their call for a separate state.

Then there was a report also of the BBC quoting LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham painting another picture. He says that the agreement on the planned cease-fire had not been finalised and there were still differences between them. This indicated that there is still a long way to go - from agreeing to a cease-fire to giving up the cry for a separate state.

A reporter of the Globe and Mail Canada, Paul Knox, who journeyed to the Wanni and had met LTTE spokesman Tamil Chelvam quotes him saying that the LTTE hopes for a Quebec style referendum on secession from Sri Lanka and would respect the result, even if they lost.

Yesterday, a Sri Lankan daily reported Tamil Chelvam virtually rejected the opinion expressed by the Norwegian Prime Minister that the LTTE was ready to drop the demand for a separate state. The LTTE had reservations and would wait for the right time, he was quoted saying.

Meanwhile independent sources, whom the LTTE has placed great trust earlier such as the UNICEF and Amnesty International, have strongly criticised the forcible recruitment of children as soldiers for the LTTE. Even the London Times had given wide publicity to this child conscription.

The conclusion that can be drawn from these various statements is that the LTTE is playing a guessing game and peace is not close at hand as some of the peace activists would like us to believe.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has said in Singapore during the weekend that initial negotiations would start in March or April.

There is little doubt that the wily terrorists would now have worked out their negotiating strategies and military options in case the negotiations succeed or fail. Prabakaran has already set in motion moves to build up his military cadres and reinforce his political strategies. His depleted military cadres are being beefed up through forcible child conscription. He has the TULF and other Tamil parties with great reluctance - a gun at their back - mouthing that the LTTE are the sole representatives of the Tamils.

In the face of all this what are the government’s strategies? While Prabakaran has, at gun point, brought all Tamil parties to acclaim that he is their leader, the Sri Lanka government is deeply divided: President Kumaratunga Vs the UNF government of Ranil Wickremasinghe. Are they working out a joint strategy or awaiting the moment when the time is ripe to pull the carpet under the rival’s feet? President Kumaratunga can dissolve parliament by December using UNFs proposals on the settlement of the North-East conflict or before that the UNF may attempt to impeach her. Thus, unless the basic strategies of negotiations are worked out between the PA and the UNF, the so-called peace talks can flounder as a result of internecine squabbling within the Sri Lanka government itself.

If President Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremasinghe begin squabbling - quite a possibility considering contemporary history - while negotiations are on, Sri Lanka will be the laughing stock of the world.

Both sides have over the years formulated their proposals, which are not very different to one another. It is time they presented their proposals to the public. A point to remember is that whatever that may be agreed on will have to be presented to the public and approved at referenda, according to our constitutional provisions.

The thinking now seems to be that talks should proceed till negotiators are able to reach an agreement. But whatever agreement reached has to be approved by the public.

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