Between the Lines
By Kuldip Nayar
IT was an inspiring sight in the midst of festivities at Colombo a few days ago. All were there the Prime Minister, leaders from the opposition parties, academicians, artists and others, resolving how to change the one-year-old ceasefire between the government and the LTTE into a peace settlement. I found the same sentiment all over, with prayers on many lips.
A country, which has been beleaguered by hostilities for more than a decade, has begun to enjoy an atmosphere where people can hear the chiming of bells from the temples and the churches. There has not been a single victim of violence in the last 12 months while the toll had run into thousands earlier. Both the security forces and the militant LTTE have fought for supremacy against each other for years.
Earlier, fear stalked the land. I remember how my car was stopped and searched two years ago at every half-a-kilometre from the airport to the hotel. This time not even a single soldier was on the road even at midnight. Barricades, iron gates, check posts have all disappeared to the relief of the people.
Yet I have returned with a feeling that all is not well. The future is still uncertain. Peace is not the absence of hostilities alone. It is an environment of trust and faith; it is an understanding that all those engaged in conflict have embarked on the path of conciliation. The Sinhalese, who rules Sri Lanka, feel it is too good to last. They suspect that the LTTE has something up its sleeve, which may not allow the peace process to become a settlement. There is a credibility gap.
The Ranil Wickremesinghe government, however, dismisses such fears. As Chief Peace Negotiator and Minister G L Pieris says: "It takes time for a militant organisation to change itself into a political party. This should be viewed as a process. Nowhere in the world has this been smooth."
The government believes that the LTTE is tired and wants peace for economic development, as it cannot sustain war. But this can be interpreted differently: it has accepted a ceasefire to use the respite to consolidate itself. The earlier ceasefires seem to confirm this. At a meeting at Oslo, the LTTE spokesman said that they would accept a status within Sri Lanka. But there is nothing on the ground to suggest that the process is moving even by inches. True, it takes time to create an administrative structure that will give confidence to the LTTE to swap its dream of Eelam, a sovereign state, for an autonomous status within Sri Lanka. But even a preliminary discussion on a federal concept has not yet begun, leave alone disarmament of the LTTE.
Peiris concedes that some movement towards demilitarisation will indicate the progress towards a settlement. He is conscious of the fact that the Sinhalese are getting restive. What worries him and his government is the attitude of President Chandrika Kumaratunge and her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). She says she is all for a peace process. But she is waiting for any wrong move to pounce upon the Prime Minister and his United National Party that won the elections on the peace plank.
None has yet spelt out the federal structure, neither the LTTE nor the government. But Peiris believes that the model will have to take into account "the cultures and traditions of the country." What concrete shape it will take is difficult to say. I think that the very acceptance by the Sinhalese of the federal model is a long step forward. A few years ago they were so hostile to the federal system that they saw in it the seeds of their countrys disintegration.
The LTTE has done very little to allay the fears of the Sinhalese. It could have made some gesture. An opportunity arose in Jaffna where the government had rebuilt the library building it had destroyed in the early eighties. Colombo could not open the library even though Jaffna is under its control. The LTTE came in the way, probably to underline its supremacy in the north. Even the unanimous resignation by the local municipal council in protest has made no difference to the LTTE.
The LTTE has not stopped the recruitment of children to its military wing, though human rights organisations and some western newspapers have bemoaned it. The brainwashing of the youth by the LTTE and the extortion of money from the Tamils in the north have continued even after the ceasefire. Still Colombo has not allowed the LTTE to occupy more land. The government guards the sea and the beach at the Trincomale port. The LTTE controls the forests skirting its territory. It tried to occupy part of the beach but the Sinhalese army rebuffed the LTTEs advance. Following the same principle, Colombo has intercepted a ship carrying illicit arms to the LTTE territory.
The plus point in this is that unlike in the past, the LTTE has made no fuss and accepted what the Sinhalese army is doing to enforce the ceasefire. The LTTE territory is still beyond the control of Colombo. But the government is in no hurry. According to Peiris, matters like division of power, of the police, alienation of state land and distribution of foreign aid "need a lot of deliberation."
The governments strategy is to help the LTTE economically. Its territory, by all accounts, is poorer than the areas in eastern UP and interior Orissa and Bihar. Colombo believes that if people in the LTTE territory begin to improve their living conditions during the ceasefire, they will not allow the return of violence to disturb the rhythm of their life.
Colombo expects New Delhi to join the efforts to improve the conditions of Tamils in the LTTE territory. The Sinhalese government is said to have requested India to attend the meeting of donors at Tokyo later this month. Japan, to New Delhis dislike, has agreed to give most of the aid.
New Delhis annoyance with the LTTE is not only over its plan to amass arms but also over the venom which its papers pour against India. The LTTE abuses New Delhi but not the Tamils. It has a soft spot for former chief minister Karunanidhi whom it wants to play the role of a peacemaker. But he washed his hand off the matter when the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi.
Still the role of India is important, not because of the LTTE but because of Sri Lanka, a key neighbour. Peiris says: "We understand New Delhis compulsions after Rajiv Gandhis assassination but we want it to play its role." New Delhi says that it is in touch with Norway which is brokering peace. Its non-participation is understandable because it burnt its fingers when it sent its forces to help the Sri Lankan government some 15 years ago to oust the LTTE.
Whatever New Delhis justification to stay distant, it is of no relevance to the situation prevailing in Sri Lanka. Already an international forum, including the US, has come into being. It is meeting regularly. Both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE participate in it. In fact the LTTE, to which New Delhi objects, has already earned legitimacy. India has given Norway the green light to go ahead. But now when the process is on, it is not politics to stay away.
|NEWS | OPINION | BUSINESS | EDITORIAL | CARTOON | SPORTS | MIDWEEK|