Peace process... tread warily

The agreement signed between the government and the LTTE has been acclaimed as historic. Some are all gaga over the agreement and are hopeful that it will help usher in peace. The state media have gone overboard as manifest in the red headlines one government-controlled newspaper is carrying.

This euphoria notwithstanding, the Agreement is only the foundation for negotiations aimed at evolving a solution to the N-E problem. Only a viable solution acceptable to all parties will bring about a lasting peace.

We have seen foundations being laid for peace on several occasions. Take for example the peace talks with the LTTE under President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government, which went to the extent of granting almost everything that the LTTE asked for - arms, funds, cement and even protection from the IPKF. The talks, it was thought, had a firm foundation of goodwill.

Contrary to such wishful thinking, talks lasted only till the LTTE found itself in a position to strike. Having got rid of the IPKF, the LTTE torpedoed the peace process in 1990 by massacring 700 policemen who had surrendered to them on the orders of the government, which was trying desperately to keep the Tigers at the negotiating table.

The PA government laid another foundation. But it too was blown sky high by the LTTE after a few months of talking in 1995. The rest is history. It is against this backdrop that the Agreement under discussion has to be viewed. Of this Agreement, critics of the government may claim that the Norwegians are trying to reinvent the wheel.

Be that as it may, the attitude of the west having undergone so drastic a change towards terrorism with the world leaders on a crusade to root out this evil, proponents of negotiations may claim that this time talks stand a better chance of reaching fruition. The LTTE is under tremendous pressure from the west and therefore will have to be amenable to a negotiated settlement, it may be argued.

However, there are signs of the Agreement running into opposition. The JVP has launched a campaign against it. President Kumaratunga has expressed her ‘surprise and concern’ over the Agreement. She says she was informed of it only after Prabhakaran had signed it. It was made known to the public only after the Prime Minister had signed it. It was fait accompli.

There was, in fact, lack of transparency on the part of the government. It is hoped that at least in the future, the government will keep the peace process transparent as promised. Our experience with the Indo-Lanka peace accord signed surreptitiously in 1987 and the disastrous aftermath is too bitter for similar blunders to be repeated.

As for contents of the Agreement, there is ambiguity in some places. For example, section 2.1 says that the both parties must abstain from hostile acts against the civilian population, including such acts as torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion and harassment. This clause is salutary. But the question is whether it amply covers forcible conscription by the LTTE of children and others or whether it comes under the broad category of ‘abduction.’ The so-called tax scheme in force in the LTTE-controlled areas is nothing but sheer extortion in that the LTTE has no authority to ‘tax’ the public wherever they are. Is it that the LTTE taxes come under the category, ‘extortion?’

Section 2.6 says that an unimpeded flow of non-military goods to and from the LTTE-controlled areas shall be ensured and quantities shall be determined by market demand. Annex A says that the GA will register available vehicles in the LTTE-controlled areas and refers to the amount of fuel to be issued per vehicle.

This should not be done in an ad hoc manner. First of all, an official census has to be taken in those areas to ascertain how many people are living there and how many vehicles are used by civilians. A census is also sure to stand the government, the humanitarian aid workers and others in good stead, as they will then have reliable figures.

The Agreement says that both parties must abstain from "Offensive naval operation." This gives rise to confusion. It was only the other day that the Minister of Defence told Parliament that the truce did not apply to the sea. But hereinafter what will take effect is the Agreement and not the statements by the Minister. As our defence correspondent points out, the Prime Minister Wickreremasinghe has rightly said, after signing of the Agreement, that the army, navy and air force will have the right to intercept the illegal movement of arms into Sri Lanka. But, can’t such actions, say for example the navy opening fire on an LTTE craft carrying weapons be construed/misconstrued as being in breach of the Agreement? It would have been appropriate if the Agreement had contained a provision to prevent smuggling arms into the country. If this causative factor is removed, the peace process will be free of incidents such as the recent sea battle fraught with the danger of jeopardising it.

Much concern has also been expressed over the narrow strip of no man’s land between the troops and the LTTE within which FDLs will be frozen. The Agreement places it at 600 metres and allows movement of both parties keeping a distance of 400 metres from each other. The LTTE having scuttled all peace processes in the past after preparations for months undercover, the troops will be at a distinct disadvantage in the event of the LTTE doing so once again. This requires serious consideration of the government.

The Agreement provides for family members visiting detainees. This will surely bring much relief to these families and detainees. The human rights groups who rightly campaigned for investigating the alleged Chemmani graves must make use of this opportunity to find whether any of those police officers of whom 700 were massacred by the LTTE in 1990 after they surrendered, are still living. They must also pressure the government to probe this massacre.

Whatever its drawbacks may be, the Agreement marks a vital step in the peace process. And it is in the national interest for everyone to be supportive of the government whose intentions for peace are genuine.

Similarly, the government will be mistaken if it thinks everything is hunky-dory and will go exactly the way it wants. While treading the path to peace, the government must be mindful of the dangers involved. It should draw lessons from what we have learnt in the past in talking peace with the LTTE as well as from the experience of leaders like Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who had staked his presidency on solving Colombia’s problem only to be let down badly by the FARC after three years of talking.

It behoves the government to make the peace process transparent, avoid falling into traps and above all, be prepared for the worst.

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