Press conference chess

Those who meticulously followed Velupillai Prabhakaran’s press conference at Kilinochchi, a "dusty jungle town" as one news agency had it, could not have missed the running thread through the two hours and more that the Tiger leader held the floor, ably assisted by Anton Balasingham, his chief negotiator/spokesman and "ideologue" as many sections of the media have long described him. Thamil Eelam was presented as some kind of accomplished fact. Consider what Balasingham had to say to a question of whether the LTTE accepted Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe as their prime minister. "Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the prime minister elected by the people of Sri Lanka. Here in Thamil Eelam, Mr. Prabhakaran is both the president and prime minister."

There was no ambiguity or nuances lending themselves to different interpretations in those words that were crystal clear. There are two countries within this island of ours which is the homeland, in the view the vast majority of its people, of all its inhabitants — Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and the others. One of those countries, according to Balasingham’s definition is Sri Lanka and the other is Thamil Eelam. Wickremesinghe, he said is the prime minister of the people of Sri Lanka who elected him and in Thamil Eelam, Prabhakaran is both president and prime minister. Of course there was no nicety of election in the case of the Supremo as some of his acolytes like to talk of him. His power, like the Maoist dictum, flows from the barrel of a gun.

Unfortunately, some of our contemporary leaders were not elected prime minister or president by all the people of the country voting at free and fair elections as their predecessors were due to the machinations of insurgent groups, be they the LTTE or the JVP, who decreed "Thou shalt not vote" at some of our elections and enforced that dictum through the use of force. That is how we’ve had some MPs elected by polling a couple of hundred votes in the Jaffna district not so long ago. The JVP indulged in the same tactic during their second adventure when President Premadasa, running their bloody gauntlet, insisted on addressing election meetings even if there were only a couple of dozen brave souls to hear what he said. No doubt in an election in Thamil Eelam, if such an entity should ever come to pass, there will be the dictum "Thou shalt vote for Prabhakaran" and that little problem of non-election, overlooked by Balasingham at Kilinochchi, would be overcome so that the Deshiya Thalaivar would have been duly anointed as president and prime minister.

What the LTTE said at Prabhakaran’s press conference, variously described as the first in ten and in twelve years, was nothing new. Optimists who had hoped that the Tigers would renounce their separate state demand and give new impetus to the peace process were doomed to inevitable disappointment. The LTTE reiterated its original position, presented at Thimpu when Tamil demands were metamorphosed to Tamil aspirations. It was the old story of Tamil homeland, Tamil nationality and Tamil rights. The prime minister, in some early impromptu comments to a television show on Thursday morning, saw a glimmer of hope in the Tigers, for the first time, defining their concept of self-determination. Internal self-determination, he said, was presented as an alternative to a separate state.

There is no doubt that the Wickremesinghe government has embarked on its course of suing for peace with its eyes open, wide we hope, because there is no alternative for this country if it is to stop its slide down the Gadarene slope. Prabhakaran made the point that the interim administration for the north and east, that is likely to be high on the agenda when the two sides begin face-to-face negotiations in Thailand in May, would be an advantage for both the Tamils and the Sinhalese because "Mr. Wickremesinghe will have the space to build up southern Sri Lanka economically." Certainly, Tiger terrorism halted since the unilateral truce last Christmas eve, now based on a memorandum of understanding, has infused a "feel good" factor into the national psyche, somewhat evaporated now as the stock market indices suggest, but still a vast improvement of what used to be.

Last week’s Kilinochchi rhetoric must of course be the starting point when some impossible positions are presented to be hopefully diluted later during a hard bargaining process. This is somewhat akin to what happens on the pavements when the hawker names a hundred rupee price and then settles for fifty. The stakes in Thailand, of course, will be far removed from those on the pavements. From what Wickremesinghe told the government parliamentary group on Thursday, it appears that present thinking within the administration is that the LTTE is aiming for "internal self-determination," a concept short of a separate state to give it the best possible interpretation. The forthcoming talks will be tortuous and prolonged. It will pay the LTTE to bide its time until the sharpness of the western view on terrorism post-September 11 is somewhat blunted and that is a game it will play.

From Sri Lanka’s point of view, the most useful result of the Kilinochchi show was that it offered some insights into the LTTE strategy for the future. Attempts to soothe Indian opinion, it is clear, cut little ice. Hours after the Tigers’ press conference, the Congress Party demanded that the New Delhi government "initiate steps to extradite Prabhakaran" pointing out that the LTTE is a designated terrorist organisation banned in India and its leader a proclaimed offender responsible for the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. India, clearly, will not stand in the way of the peace process now afoot as Prime Minister Vajpayee has said. But Velupillai Prabhakaran’s profession at Sudumalai that "we love India" when he was made to affirm allegiance to the Indo-Lanka Agreement of 1987 has few takers across the Palk Strait.

The pessimists among us must also discern the flickers of light in the seeming darkness. Despite all the inherent dangers, there is no option to the peace path the country has chosen.

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