Should we let go of peace for narrow political gains?

by S. J. Anthony Fernando
The peace process seems to be on course despite the salvos fired by certain concerned quarters over what they foresee as dangers in placing too much trust on the LTTE.

The initial stage of the peace efforts — making the unofficial cease-fire declared unilaterally by the LTTE and reciprocated by the Government, a firm and durable one - is almost nearing finalisation with Norway’s facilitation. With the imminent formalization of the cease-fire agreement, the tempo of the protests by those who try to anticipate what they see as loopholes in agreements even before they are formalized and also based on suspicion of LTTE’s motives, are bound to increase. Such fears may seem justified, going by the past record of the LTTE in reneging on earlier cease-fires and peace efforts. However attempts made by certain sections to whip up national feelings on this sensitive issue based on past happenings and anticipating events is, to say the least, premature. This is particularly so considering the vastly changed current ground situation and developments both nationally and internationally as regards the North-East conflict compared to previous efforts at a negotiated settlement.

After all as everyone agrees the present situation on all fronts is the best possible opportunity and perhaps the last chance for peace. Should we let go of this opportunity by raising contentious issues based on what has happened in the past and anticipating issues even before they surface? Much goodwill and respect has already been earned by the new government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the manner he has set about the task after assuming office.

The new prime minister no doubt has played his cards correct so far by first preparing the ground for the peace effort by going even to the extent of avoiding confrontational politics, much to the displeasure of some of his own partymen. This is quite a departure from the attitude of previous regimes and rightfully so because of the need to get the widest possible consensus in the solution of not only this vexed problem but in tackling other pressing national issues as well.

In a timely change of electoral fortunes which had brought about a situation of cohabitation between the two major parties, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge and her Peoples Alliance which is the main Opposition party have pledged their fullest support to the peace efforts of the new government of the United National Front of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

After reciprocating the unilateral cease-fire declared by the LTTE the Prime Minister quickly got the state machinery moving in attending to the human problems faced by the people of North and East particularly in the uncleared areas occupied by the LTTE by sending food stuffs and certain other banned consumer items as well as relaxing unnecessary controls and opening up access routes to the areas. The relief brought to the people is a way forward in winning the hearts and minds of the Tamil people which is a prerequisite for the success of a negotiated settlement.

However certain sections who always see the darker side of things were quick to brand these measures as giving into LTTE demands, overlooking the fact that sending goods to the citizens of the country to whichever community they belong to and looking after their welfare is a duty of the government in power. Raising battle cries demanding a halt to the so far encouraging peace process, based on sending goods to the uncleared areas, as well as information on sporadic acts of LTTE cadres engaging in forceful proscription of children as well as adults, extortions and abductions will only go to place more obstacles in the path to peace.

Little do they realise that the agreement on a cease-fire and the resultant peace talks in the full glare of the international community through Norwegian facilitation are intended to clear matters of this nature. At present under the unilateral cease-fires, there are no binding requirements to prevent such undesirable acts taking place. What is necessary is to set down the guidelines in this regard through an agreement. Though the LTTE is quick to deny allegations of forceful proscription, or abductions by its cadres, yet such denials would not convince the South. Allegations are also made that all the food that go to uncleared areas do not reach the people as the LTTE cadres get them first. It is to keep a check on such transgressions that both parties are striving hard to come to a common agreement on the conditions of the cease-fire. Raising issues on such sporadic incidents before that happens, branding them as a sell out to the LTTE, as the JVP and other extremist groups are engaged in at present, smacks of political expediency. Should we let go of this last chance for peace to gain narrow political gains?

There is no gainsaying the fact that LTTE has been stamped with the label of a terrorist organisation because of the wave of brutally violent acts carried out by the organization in the guise of liberating the Tamil people. Several western countries too have branded them as such and banned the organisation in their countries. One must not forget that it is the nature of the conflict and the failure of either side to achieve their objectives—the LTTE the creation of a separate state by resorting to violence and the Government due to its failure to eliminate the LTTE through military means—that both parties have been compelled to come to the negotiating table. Whether we like it or not a negotiated peace had to be pursued with the LTTE (though it is branded as a terrorist organisation) in a bid to end the violence and destruction like in the case of IRA and PLO who also had to resort to violent acts as a means of securing liberation for their people. After all the IRA and PLO too were branded as terrorist organisations before agreeing to talk peace.

Everyone agrees that there is no better time to work towards peace than now. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe put the issue in the correct perspective in his policy statement when he said that the North East conflict is not confined to the North and East but has now reached the realm of the international arena. With the banning of the LTTE in most western countries the compulsion on the LTTE to arrive at a peaceful settlement is greater.

Though western countries like USA, Britain and Canada have banned the LTTE, these countries have stressed the need for the Sri Lankan government to work out a peaceful solution with the LTTE as the conflict affects Sri Lanka directly and that lifting the ban locally does not affect the ban imposed in those countries.

The success of the peace efforts no doubt depends largely on the honesty, integrity and the genuineness of both parties in their approach to the peace effort. Through the Norwegian facilitation the honesty and genuineness of the LTTE would be put to a severe test under the glare of the international community in conforming to the accepted norms of the cease-fire and also on any peace deal. Similarly Sri Lanka would be called upon to show its honesty of purpose by forwarding an amicable package to meet the aspirations of the Tamil speaking people. If the LTTE’s intentions are not genuine and uses the current peace efforts as a ploy to recoup and build up its cadres for another war then they would find themselves further cornered by the international community. On the other hand if Sri Lanka too is found wanting in its honest commitment, we stand to lose face globally.

As the prime minister rightly declared on assuming office after his party’s electoral victory the road to peace is an arduous and difficult task knowing well the past happenings and the pent up emotions that have swelled over loss of lives and property. He is also alive to the reality of how hard it would be to convince the minds of the Sinhala community of the genuineness of the LTTE in negotiating peace based on their past record and in view of the large number of innocents killed by LTTE in various ways such as suicide bombings and attacks on border villages. Yet negotiating with the LTTE is a compelling necessity whether we like it or not and makes a fresh start now to end the conflict which had bled the country white in the past 20 years.

As such Ranil Wickremesinghe though confident of peace prospects did not want to be over optimistic knowing well the past experiences at peace efforts which failed. But he stressed the need to give peace another try particularly with the changed global environment where the attention today is focused on tackling terrorism in whatever forms it operates in any country which leave no other option to the LTTE than to talk peace. There may be many pitfalls and obstacles on the way and they must try to avoid them and go forward.

It is in view of this background that the prime minister first thought of preparing the ground for peace effort by meeting the Mahanayake Theras and other religious leaders and appraising them of the need to negotiate peace and the compulsion brought about internationally as well as due to the country’s parlous economic situation. He had declared that any agreement reached would not be behind the backs of the people and all political parties and religious leaders would be consulted.

He is also on record assuring that any peace deal would ensure the unity and territorial integrity of the country. And Mr. Wickremesinghe was forthright in stating that his government would not subscribe to the policy of a Tamil homeland as the entire Sri Lanka is the homeland of citizens of the country be they members of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher communities. Encouraging signals have also emanated from the LTTE camp when its leader Velupiltai Prbhakaran announced that it had given up its demand for Eelam or the concept of the Tamil homeland.

In such a scenario everyone would agree that there is no better time for peace than now. Despite the danger of pitfalls and doubts about the sincerity of the LTTE it is worth giving peace a try once again. As history shows intensive military offensives may temporarily halt terrorism, but terror stalks at every moment in the country with the people fearing where the next bomb will go off. Are we to live with it forever or attempt to solve it making use of the golden opportunity the current developments offer.

The experience that peace can bring and transform the lives of the people was much in evidence with the unilateral cease-fires declared by both sides being operative. People traveling around Colombo and anywhere in the South are haunted by the fear of where a bomb would go off. Even the people in border villages who had been living in constant fear may be breathing a sigh of relief. Security personnel would no doubt have been relieved of their burden. This is not to say that we should be lulled into a false sense of euphoria and relax vigilance. Required security arrangements should be in place. Let us hope this peace will hold. But there is a long way to go to achieve that durable peace all long for and the peace process could do well without sniping by certain sections based on prejudices of past events. Though the fears expressed by them are justified based on LTTE’s past record, yet if they lead to the scuttling of the peace process then we would be sending the wrong signals to the international community. Let us all give peace another chance.

There is no doubt that both sides will have to make sacrifices in a spirit of give and take and put behind them the deep animosities developed over the years. The Sri Lankan government no doubt had displayed its genuineness by straightaway lifting the embargoes enforced such as sending goods to the uncleared areas and opening of access routes to Northern and Eastern Provinces easing the burdens faced by the people of those areas.

However it behoves on the LTTE to reciprocate and be honest in its dealings if it is to instil a sense of confidence and trust in the Sinhala and Muslim communities as well as among its own Tamil community who has silently suffered under pressure brought on them. It should ensure that once the burden on the scarcity of goods in the area is lifted the people of the area are not burdened again through extortion or forceful conscription as had been the complaint made by people in the cleared areas where the LTTE cadres are free to travel about. The liberation they talk of for their own people would have no meaning if they are pressurised to give their children to bolster their army or extort money from them.

If the LTTE’s honesty and genuineness is found to be wanting and if they use the peace time to recoup their forces they would no doubt be further cornered by the international community and stand to lose face. On the other hand if through agitation by certain extremist forces Sri Lanka were to falter in its honesty and genuineness then it would be disastrous. Concerted efforts need to be made by all sides to dispel the mistrust and suspicion two decades of the conflict has brought about and build bridges of trust and confidence.

The role of the main Opposition party, the Peoples Alliance in the peace process is significant and vital. The pledge by President Chandrika Kumaratunge and the PA’s new, leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapakse that they will give their fullest support to the government’s peace effort is encouraging and will go a long way in securing peace. Whether the PA will be able to sustain this stance as the political debate hots up in the arena of local politics and resist the temptation of gaining narrow political ends on this sensitive issue, only time can tell.