Defence
Not obtaining approval for MoU —

By Namini Wijedasa
If anything was lacking these past seven days, it certainly wasn’t drama.

Parliament was a riot; Anuruddha Ratwatte was hauled to courts rather theatrically; the LTTE clashed with the navy for the first time since December and then went ahead to put its stamp on a permanent cease-fire agreement with the government (though it does somewhat beat comprehension how anything of this nature could be declared "permanent" at the very outset). In the meantime, five members of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam were killed in Vavuniya on Thursday night. It has been blamed on a PLOTE member, who is alleged to be mentally unsound.

The ceasefire deal topped the list in terms of national importance. The media had speculated about it for a while and political parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna were livid that they didn’t know what the agreement was about. Apparently, a copy of it had been leaked to the press but there was no confirmation that this was the final draft.

Minister G.L. Peiris added to the confusion by painstakingly maintaining till the last that there was no deal to speak of. "There is no agreement as of now on which we can comment," he said in Parliament.

That was Tuesday. Embarrassingly, some of his Cabinet colleagues didn’t even know about the deal even later in the week. Leader of the House, W.J.M. Lokubandara declared in his characteristic toplofty manner: "I say with great responsibility that there is no final text of the truce agreement." And, hey, that was on Thursday morning. A few hours later, Peiris announced at the Cabinet press briefing that the arrangement was going through. Are some of us clueless or what? Or just crafty.

Anyway, when it was divulged on Thursday that the government and LTTE would in fact be endorsing the agreement somewhere within the region of 48 hours, it caused a minor buzz. What was conspicuously missing, however, were those vehement protests from nationalist lobbies seen as recently as last year: no hunger fasts, no Buddhist monks on the street, no declarations of doom... no nuthin’.

So, is that good or bad? That’s the issue most sections of the population have been grappling with ever since the United National Front came to power and injected life into the peace process.

Foremost among their queries is can Prabhakaran be trusted? The answer seems to be... do we have a choice?

Wickremesinghe was posed the same query on Thursday night at a meeting with editors. His reply was that there was no alternative but to place one’s confidence in Prabhakaran. It was necessary for certain steps to be taken in order that peace could be given a chance. Negotiations require confidence building measures, some of them quite wide-ranging.

Granted. But how does one react to reports that the LTTE is on an extortion/abduction/intimidation spree in the east while talking peace with the government? The situation report issued daily by the government has enough incidents in it to discredit the LTTE unashamedly. And what of the LTTE-navy clash on Thursday morning? According to security sources, a flotilla of ten LTTE boats had been nearing the Mulaitivu coast with a load of weapons on board. When navy patrol boats asked them to reveal their identity, they did so — with gunfire. The clash left three naval troops and one LTTE cadre dead.

The incident was downplayed by the government, apparently in the interest of peace. And Defence Minister Tilak Marapone triggered laughter in parliament when he said that the skirmish couldn’t be taken into account as the cease-fire hadn’t extended to the seas. The man was serious. It just sounded funny.

In the meantime, there are also reports that the LTTE is recruiting youth to swell its ranks while sending in cadres on reconnaissance missions. These accounts come from none other than the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence and only add to the public’s growing apprehension. It appears that the government is doing plenty to build confidence and that the LTTE... well... isn’t.

But this brings us back to the issue of the alternative. What options does one have? We don’t send their sons to fight the war. So if ours aren’t going, whose sons will go?

One of the reasons that political parties (apart from the JVP), unions, clergy, public, etcetera, are not creating a rumpus appears to be that they don’t want to be labelled anti-peace. Heck, who wants to be accused of scuttling the peace process. It seems, therefore, that everyone has adopted the let’s-see-shall-we stance.

One person was rather bugged about the manner in which the government conducted the permanent cease-fire business and that was President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Issuing a statement after the deal was finalised on Thursday, Kumaratunga’ office said that she was, "concerned and surprised that she was being informed, for the first time, of the contents of the agreement after it was signed by Mr. V. Prabhakaran and just a few hours before the Prime Minister proposed to put his signature to it."

Not obtaining Presidential approval or informing Cabinet was both "improper" and "undemocratic" she said. She also expressed concerns about "certain specific clauses and aspects of the MOU" and said that a detailed response to the same would be released in a few days. This, however, did not mean that she was against the peace process.

In other news, Parliament passed amendments to the Local Authorities Act. The first bill for the year, the government pushed it through with a majority of over 60 votes. The act allows petitions in event of election malpractices and also provides for postponement of local government elections.

Anuruddha Ratwatte was finally arrested on Tuesday night, causing fireworks (literally) in Madawala where ten Muslim youths had been massacred on election day. He looked alternately chirpy and dejected as he was escorted by helicopter to the courtroom and remanded. Sometimes had a smile for the camera, sometimes didn’t. Of course, he promptly fell ill, poor guy. What with the stress. He was admitted to the National Hospital. Guess all remandees could do with that privilege. His sons, meanwhile, are still missing.

Ratwatte’s arrest added fuel to the campaign launched by the opposition People’s Alliance to highlight alleged post-election victimisation of its members. The party claims that the arrest is somehow connected with government attempts to destabilise the PA before local government elections.

There’s been no response to this charge from the government. Peace is a jolly serious topic and they seem to have time for little else these days.


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