Rajiv Gandhi’s ghosts haunts Sri Lanka’s peace process

By Our Defence Correspondent
LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran gave indications at his press conference this week that the biggest stumbling block to Sri Lanka’s peace process is India’s price on his head over the Tigers’ assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi more than a decade ago.

Speaking at Wednesday’s press conference in Kilinochchi, Prabhakaran showed clearly that he is worried over the fact that India will not compromise over its ban on the Tigers. Without accepting responsibility for the killing of Gandhi by a female suicide bomber during an election rally at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu in 1991, Prabhakaran called on the Indian government to forgive and forget what he called mistakes of the past, and to lift a long-standing ban on the LTTE. Prabhakaran even asked India to get involved in the peace process and said that India is the fatherland of the Tamils.

However, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee did not mince his words with an immediate public response the very next day, saying that India would play no part in the peace process, although it welcomed the negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

India’s main opposition Congress party, long led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, did not let up either, issuing a statement on Thursday accusing Prabhakaran of trying to legitimize his political status and sharply criticizing Vajpayee’s government for not being successful in capturing Prabhakaran or having him extradited from Sri Lanka.

The Indian government formally made a request to Sri Lanka to extradite Prabhakaran, after an Indian court issued a warrant for his arrest over Gandhi’s assassination. The Indian High Commission even placed advertisements in Sri Lankan newspapers proclaiming that Prabhakaran is a wanted man. However, neither India nor Sri Lanka has come close to capturing Prabhakaran ever since.

India was the first country in the world to officially ban the LTTE in 1992, many years before Sri Lanka moved to do the same. The Indian ban is reviewed annually, but has never been lifted.

However, Prabhakaran gave the United National Front government no option but to deproscribe it, as a precondition for next month’s peace talks in Thailand. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is expected to announce the lifting of the ban within the next few weeks, to pave the way for the first direct talks between the two sides in seven years.

Prabhakaran also clearly showed that he is still strongly pursuing his goal of a separate state of Eelam. When asked by a journalist whether Prabhakaran considered Ranil Wickremesinghe to be his Prime Minister, Prabhakaran laughed sarcastically and said that Wickremesinghe is the Prime Minister of those who elected him. LTTE Theoretician Anton Balasingham, who served as the master of ceremonies and translator at the press conference, added emphatically that " Here in Tamil Eelam, our President and Prime Minister is Mr. Prabhakaran."

The press conference also showed the LTTE leader’s utter contempt for the armed forces. When asked which Sri Lankan general he considered the most serious threat, Prabhakaran and Balasingham discussed the question between themselves with much amusement before saying that he couldn’t remember any general who was a serious threat. Balasingham was heard whispering the name of Ratwatte, to which both subsided into giggles.

The Tiger leader even went to the extent of saying that the present times of the ceasefire were disadvantageous to the LTTE due to the fact that they could not raid army camps and make off with huge hauls of arms, specifically mentioning the capture of Elephant Pass.

However, significantly, the LTTE chief dodged a question on whether the LTTE was bringing in weapons during the ceasefire. It is public knowledge that several shiploads of weapons and ammunition have been brought into the northeast during the ceasefire, which began last Christmas, with the navy even intercepting two convoys and failing to prevent them from getting through.

Prabhakaran showed that the United States government’s war on terrorism had played a large part in Sri Lanka’s peace process, going to great lengths to condemn the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, and saying that the LTTE is not a terrorist group but a liberation movement. When asked if he feared US intervention in Sri Lanka’s war, Prabhakaran was careful to say that this war is not a terrorist war.

In fact, Prabhakaran has acted very decisively to ensure that the US is given no excuse to intervene in Sri Lanka. Within days of the September 11 attacks, he halted all attacks on Sri Lankan forces, and three months later started a unilateral ceasefire. The LTTE also released several prisoners of war, and embarked on a number of image building exercises, including this week’s press conference, allowing hundreds of journalists to visit LTTE held areas in the northeast.

Over the past two weeks, Prabhakaran has gone to great lengths to prevent any violations of the ceasefire, rebuking cadres who were involved in minor incidents in the east, and saying at the press conference that minor incidents would happen from time to time that were not significant.

The LTTE’s public apology for the persecution of Muslims, especially the ethnic cleansing of the north in which hundreds of thousands of Muslims were systematically driven from their homes in Jaffna, Mannar, Trincomalee and Mullaitivu, showed the extent to which the LTTE is trying to downplay their violent past.

Yet, Prabhakaran’s PR campaign should not be confused with reality, which is a very real danger in this era of mass communication, when he can sit at a press conference in the Wanni and sound very sincere. The reality in the eastern province is that hundreds of LTTE cadres have used the ceasefire to move into new areas where they did not dare go earlier, setting up large camps within a few miles of army camps, and going on massive recruitment campaigns. The LTTE is also extorting funds at an alarming rate from civilians, especially traders, openly summoning businessmen for meetings and encouraging them to "contribute."

In fact, the LTTE has withdrawn almost all its cadres who were manning defence lines in the north and east, and sent most of them on recruitment drives, while the army languishes in its camps. Apart from recruitment, it is clear that the Tigers are also gathering vast amounts of intelligence on prospective targets.

What has become more and more apparent is that while US President George Bush is on the prowl hunting terrorists around the world, the LTTE will stay on the path of peace, using it to their best advantage. But the armed forces should not believe that this will last forever. After all, US presidents come and go very quickly, and George Bush’s first term ends in 2004.