Essential building blocks

Last week’s news that Thailand has agreed to host talks between the Colombo government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and that these first face-to-face negotiations in seven years will begin in May, is an undoubted second tiny step in a long journey. The first was the February 22 ceasefire between the Tigers and the government that has held up to now with no serious violations bar one — a battle between the Sri Lanka navy and the Sea Tigers off the Mullaitivu coast.

While these are welcome developments, the country is being kept aware by the independent press and, even on occasions by the government’s own information agencies, of the dangers that are inherent. Even yesterday, the information department reported an incident at Valaichenai where LTTE cadres in civvies blocked the Valaichenai-Batticaloa main supply route west of Batticaloa by placing logs, stones and other obstructions to prevent the movement of buses. The Tigers had also arrogated to themselves the function of checking identity cards of passengers.

It is a good thing that the government, despite its desire to forge ahead with the peace process, is not hiding these disturbing ground realities from the people. That is the way it should be and that is why it is most welcome that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is probably better aware than most of what can go wrong, is not interfering in any way with publication of articles critical of the present strategy in the media and is in fact moving on a fast track towards strengthening the freedom of the press long abused by successive governments.

Given the LTTE’s sorry track record, there is more than good reason to suspect that its present conciliatory approach to peace is no more than a tactical ploy successfully used in the past. President Premadasa perhaps was the biggest "sucker," if we may be permitted to use that description, when he made common cause with Prabhakaran whom he armed and funded, to get the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) out of the country. An intimate who saw the president that day when it was clear that he had been well and truly tricked was to later remark that he had never seen Premadasa so deflated. "Okkoma saayama gihin," he said in pithy Sinhala.While the dangers, as much as the benefits, of the process that the country has now embarked on are self-evident, peace will never be won if the first steps are not taken despite the risks. That too is self evident. So slowly, slowly or hemin, hemin must be the name of the game. At the same time, it is essential that the southern constituency unites in its approach to the terms of a settlement and does not repeat the historical blunders of the past when the SLFP, that created the problem, and the UNP did not allow their rivals to settle it on terms that would have been small change in comparison to the price that must be paid today. Wickremesinghe understands that harsh reality, too, better than most others.

While his first national government overtures failed, all is not lost. There is a fresh urgency in the corridors of power on the need to get cracking with the new political culture that has seen a lot of lip service but no action. There is undoubtedly a deep understanding in the value of consensual politics and Wickremesinghe is quietly busy behind the scenes attempting to work out an arrangement with the opposition that will enable a united approach towards the solution of the ethnic problem without which there is no future for this country. The starting point is the old Executive Committee system in the State Council days when political parties either did not exist or were in their infancy. Certainly today’s confrontational politics was unknown at that time.

The genius of that system was that towering personalities of the day who were members of the legislature shared executive power and worked towards the common weal. It is clear that something on those lines, given the realities of today’s politics, must be attempted. It is no secret that the prime minister has chosen ministers of the calibre of Prof. G. L. Pieris and Milinda Moragoda to work unobtrusively and purposefully towards this objective and it is likely that constitutional changes that will make a consensual approach towards the resolutions of the country’s problems - and not only the ethnic disaster — will be ready around May when the talks with the LTTE will begin. This is as essential a building block as any in working towards a meaningful peace and hopefully we can see its fruition.

In this context it is necessary that Sri Lanka’s international friends wishing this country well in the process it has embarked on must take due note of the difficulties that the LTTE is throwing in the way of the Wickremesinghe government in fulfilling the gigantic task it has undertaken. There is an acute consciousness that much of what has happened in the few weeks that have passed since a new government was elected last December has been a process of much give and little take. Prabhakaran obviously has an accurate reading of the yearning for peace among the Tamil people and the gains that Colombo has made within the polity of the war zone by its normalization efforts. Some comments in the pro-LTTE press, such as Wickremesinghe’s Jaffna visit was pushing the pace too fast, suggests that the Tigers have their own thoughts on these developments.

Our defence correspondent’s comments today on the LTTE’s ambitions for Trincomalee, must surely give us new goose bumps. Nevertheless, the journey that has begun must proceed despite the dangers. International opinion and real not cosmetic backing if the chips are down will also be factors that are vital as Sri Lanka traverses a perilous but necessary road. Hopefully the gods will smile down on this once green and pleasant land.

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