Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe certainly suffered no illusion that negotiations with the LTTE and forging a durable peace will be a cake walk and he said as much from the word go. Although the cease-fire has held for over a year now, recent events like the blowing up of a gun-running Tiger vessel detected by the Sri Lanka Navy and the accompanying suicides by three LTTE cadres on board as well as the ho-ha about the re-opening of the Jaffna Public Library are flashing ominous signals. These certainly are the inevitable setbacks that the premier anticipated. But the Sri Lankan nation, and not just its government, cannot let the LTTE hold a "back-to-war" gun at its head and concede everything the Tigers want regardless of cost and implications.
A cartoon published by a newspaper yesterday captured Wickremesinghes dilemma by depicting him walking a tight-rope with a Tiger perched at one end of his balancing pole and Chandrika seated at the other. These are the problems the premier must contend with. The LTTE, up to now, has not shown the slightest interest in the difficulties the government faces and need for tailoring their stance to make the governments task of putting together a sellable package easier. Rather, theirs has been an all take and no give approach. While it can be argued that the no war and no terrorism scene has certainly paid a dividend that is now being taken for granted by far too many of our people, the LTTE as well as those they claim to represent in the northeast have similarly benefited by the security forces reciprocating the Christmas Eve cease-fire of 2001 formalized by last Februarys memorandum of understanding.
At a time like this when it is essential that a united front be presented to the LTTE not only at the negotiating table but over a broader canvas so that the best possible deal to preserve an undivided Sri Lanka with justice to all its people can be achieved, the political war between the president and the government as well as the PA and the UNF continues unabated. The people are not impressed by the profession of national interest by the various protagonists. They are very well aware that the name of the game is power and the gravy that office-holders ladle on to their own plates is what come into the reckoning. The national interest is a very poor also ran in that race. A cynical verdict, no doubt, but one our politicians have earned for themselves over a considerable period of time. Few will doubt that President Kumaratunga will use her constitutional prerogative to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections the moment she is convinced that the PA, possibly in alliance with the JVP, can defeat the UNF. The consequences for the peace effort will not be part of the calculation.
A yet unanswered question is whether what happened in Jaffna last week is a pointer to the Tamil parties, although knuckling under the LTTE as most of them with the notable exception of the EPDP have long done, have at last begun to show some sign of protest. The LTTE did not want the Jaffna Public Library, criminally destroyed at the height of the communal tension in the early eighties, re-built and re-stocked at great price re-opened right now. While sections of the press have reported that the Tigers dont want the library re-opened until all the necessary work is completed, there has been no official statement from the LTTE explaining itself as this is being written. The resignation of all members of the Jaffna Municipal Council three days before it will stand dissolved is no more than a cosmetic gesture. Cynics may well say that may have even had an LTTE nod. We all know too well the desire of politicians to display public works for which they take the credit at election time though foundation stones are more commonly displayed than nearly-completed libraries! But is there much more work to be done at the Jaffna Public Library? Is the LTTE taking a leaf out of the JVP book remember the 20-member PA cabinet during the famous "probationary government" after CBK lost her parliamentary majority? and trying to impose good behaviour on Tamil politicians? Do the Tigers who made the burning of the library a potent propaganda banner for many years want to be in the northeastern saddle when the library is eventually re-opened? All relevant questions but no real answers.
As Japans peace envoy, Yasushi Akashi, said yesterday the events of recent weeks have indicated a certain destabilization of the peace process. These are realistic assessments offered by our foreign friends who have demonstrated a willingness to economically underwrite the process. During his previous visits here, Akashi was at pains to stress that rehabilitation and development will not be restricted to the war zone but would also include under-developed areas of the south desperate for succour. He even visited Hambantota as an expression of intent. All this, of course, stems from the thinking once articulated by the late Lalith Athulathmudali that "you cant give to Jaffna what you dont give to Hambantota." That was to explain why Provincial Councils, for which there was no real demand from the south, were being established countrywide. The end result as we all know is that these white elephants exist everywhere else other than where they were really wanted and needed.
The LTTE must take note of what Akashi said. It will also be a good thing if Anton Balasingham desists from making the kind of belligerent speech he is reported to have made in Dusseldorf recently. Both the content and the tone can only make the formidable task confronting the peacemakers even more difficult.
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