GL asks critics: What’s the alternative?

By Prabath Sahabandu
Minister of Enterprise Development, Industrial Policy, Investment Promotion and Constitutional Affairs and Chief government peace negotiator Prof. G. L. Peiris says that the government has very good reason to celebrate the first anniversary of the ceasefire agreement. "There have been no deaths and the fear that stalked us for two decades is a thing of the past," he says.

There are pros and cons and ups and down in the process of talking peace, but they must not cause the two parties to depart from the negotiations, he says challenging his detractors to come up with an alternative if they don’t want the government to try to resolve the conflict through negotiations. "Do they want the government to go back to war?" he asks.

The following are excerpts of an interview The Sunday Island had with Prof. Peiris on Friday:

One year has lapsed since the signing of the ceasefire agreement. What has the government achieved from the peace process?

The cardinal achievement is that there has been a year of peace. There have been no deaths. The fear that stalked us for two decades is a thing of the past. And we have been able to lay a firm foundation for economic recovery.

Yet, the government, politically speaking, appears to be in a very difficult situation. If everything is hunky dory as the government makes it out to be why is this political instability?

There is no political instability. We are very happy about the demonstration of confidence in the government by Parliament the other day. We defeated the motion of no confidence against Minister Marapana by a majority of 42 votes. That sends out a very salutary signal as we are preparing for the Tokyo conference. The real yardstick of political stability is the control that a government has over Parliament. The talk of dissolution of Parliament is to create a mood of uncertainty. That is aimed at diminishing the prospects of success in Japan. Whoever is behind it does not have the national interest at heart.

Hasn’t the government got into too long a process? One main criticism against the peace process is that the longer it gets, the better would be the prospects of the LTTE reaching its goal?

We don’t agree with that point of view at all! The war has lasted over twenty years and it cannot be sorted out overnight. Let’s look at the experience of other countries. In South Africa negotiations started in 1990 and they went on till the end of 1994. In 1992 the process almost broke down. It was then that President Clarke decided to hold a referendum to infuse new vigour and energy into the process. In Northern Ireland it took longer. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. After four and half years it has been suspended. About a week ago Prime Minister Blair visited Belfast to see whether he could reactivate the process but he didn’t succeed.

The critics of the peace process are of the view that the government has conceded too much in trying to keep the LTTE at the negotiating table. What would you say to this?

What is the sincerity on the part of critics who use this argument? It was the President who said in a published interview with The Time that she had she was prepared to give the north-east to Prabhakaran for ten years. This government has not gone as far as that. The truth is that those who are now criticising the process were at that time prepared to bend over backwards to give anything to start the process of negotiations. There were no limitations imposed in terms of time frame or subject matter. Their credibility was so low that the LTTE was not prepared to even begin discussions.

But isn’t it true that thanks to peace talks being held in different parts of the world the LTTE has been given a platform to derive legitimacy?

We don’t agree with that criticism at all! We see that as an opportunity for the international community to exert pressure on the LTTE. So both the government and the international community doing it together is the best possible source of pressure on the LTTE.

But still the LTTE is smuggling in arms and forcibly conscripting children into its fighting units. What impact has the pressure you are talking of had on the LTTE?

Much is being made of matters like smuggling of arms and the LTTE court system. These were not started after the ceasefire agreement was entered into. These had existed long before the ceasefire agreement. Those days there were no rules. Today there are some principles established by the ceasefire agreement. The process of enforcement is not perfect. But that is the case anywhere else.

What about child soldiers?

In Thailand we made available to them [the LTTE] a copy of the article that had been published in the New York Times. The point we made was that mere assurances will not be sufficient and that there has to be a monitoring mechanism in order to ensure credibility. The LTTE was agreeable to a monitoring mechanism under the aegis of the UNICEF. The Head of the UNICEF Carol Bellamy came here and the LTTE was prepared to give them a role with regard to monitoring.

In Berlin we had the advantage of the participation of Ian Martin, the former Secretary General of Amnesty International. He was asked by both parties to draw up a programme with regard to human rights. He is preparing it and it will be discussed in detail in Japan.

Today the LTTE has made bold to even ‘tax’ the state as evident from the LTTE obtaining protection money from the CWE outlet in Jaffna. Isn’t this an example of the government conceding too much to the LTTE?

We took up the question of the CWE branch in Jaffna. We told the LTTE that if they insisted on these levies we would have no option but to close down the CWE branch. They agree to sort out that problem.

It appears that seemingly unimportant matters have taken precedence over political issues that have to be sorted out if a solution is to be found. Your comments?

It is not that they have been swept under the carpet. We believe that this process has to be systematically structured. Sequence is as important as substance. As far as this government is concerned confidence-building measures were put in place first. The first steps were lifting of the embargo, roads being opened up, the army vacating public buildings, etc.

The parties have agreed to begin discussions on the fiscal aspects of devolution of power on the next occasion.

Those who criticise the process must come up with an alternative. What else would they like us to do? Is it that they are asking us to go back to war? If that is so, who are the people who are gong to fight the war? The people who are emerging as the most vocal critics are the very people who send their sons to foreign universities.

There is an outcry from various Sinhala organisations that the interests of the Sinhalese are not adequately represented at the talks...?

We don’t agree with that at all! When it comes to substantive issues like power sharing, the rights of all communities are safeguarded. Whatever is agreed upon as the final constitutional structure will fully take into account the interests of the majority community.

Federalism is said to have been agreed to as the basis for devolution of power. The 13 the Amendment thrust on Sri Lanka by India demonstrates the extent of devolution India is prepared to allow in Sri Lanka without its interests being threatened. What do you think India’s reaction would be if an attempt was made to go beyond the 13 th Amendment?

India has not imposed a cast iron limit on us. The theory that India is unfriendly to the process is absolutely false. It has no more validity than the assertion that Akashi was appointed as an advisor to the Sri Lankan government on international affairs. The government of India wishes this process well. The militarisation of Sri Lanka is not acceptable to India. India will give us every encouragement to resolve this conflict at the political level. India made available to us twice the sum of money that we raised in Oslo. That’s we have friendship and goodwill of India. That is the corner stone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Of course India has a problem arising from the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. That is a both legal and political problem. That’s why India does not want to get directly involved in the process.

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi brings to one’s mind the conviction of Prabhakaran here. What impact, do you think, it will have on the peace process in the end?

If you look at the history of other peace processes in different parts of the world, that has not been an insurmountable problem. When parties are at war, acts of violence take place and there have been convictions based upon acts of violence that took place during the times of belligerence. You have to move forward it you are working towards a political solution.