The Tigers and Tokyo

Whether the news from Washington and Tokyo that the major donor conference to be hosted in mid-June by the Japanese government will be held regardless of LTTE participation will nudge the Tigers to abandon their hard line and attend the meeting remains to be seen. There is no doubt that the absence of the LTTE from this meeting, showcased to both Sri Lanka and the world as an event where the pledging of some serious money is assured, will rob the event of some of its glamour. But it is not going to scuttle it altogether as the LTTE, now playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship, seems to expect. This became unmistakably clear on Friday.

The Tigers understand international pressure very well. That, together with the war weariness of the people they claim to represent, is what encouraged them in the first place to sign the cease-fire agreement and sit at the negotiating table with Colombo’s representatives. Although Thamilselvan may now regard the six rounds of talks already held as a waste of time – he didn’t use those words which were put into his mouth by a reporter at last week’s press conference in Kilinochchi – but he agreed with the sentiment saying "those are your words, not mine." He was however quick to assure that his organization remained "highly committed to a negotiated settlement" regardless of the fact that the talks thus far has not yielded the desired results.

The U.S. State Department said on Friday that Deputy Secretary Armitage was attending the Tokyo meeting. In language that was clearly unambiguous, the State Department’s spokesman repeated the dates – June 9 and 10 – and the venue adding that Armitage looked forward to discussing reconstruction and rehabilitation assistance to Sri Lanka at the conference. The high ranking official was quoted saying that this event was important for the international community, enabling it to "demonstrate its solid support for the peace process and its full commitment to contribute to the reconstruction and development of all regions of the country, including the North and East, which have been devastated by nearly 20 years of conflict."

Washington intends to back up its statement with letters to some 60 countries about the importance of the Tokyo meeting and the need for their attendance and support. Obviously if the world community did not believe that there was a genuine possibility of working out a durable peace here, they would not be devoting their time, energy and money in backing the effort. That is why the LTTE, seeking to extract the last ounce of possible advantage for itself, has adopted its present strategy. Given the ease with which it extracted other concessions like having Colombo lift its proscription on the Tigers and the softening of their stance by some countries where the LTTE is outlawed, Prabhakaran and Balasingham may well have believed that there is more to get. The run-up to Tokyo was obviously the best time to grab what they can and that’s the way the game is now being played. The interim administration for the northeast dominated by themselves is clearly the immediate objective.

The people of Sri Lanka have already enjoyed some benefits of peace in the fifteen months since the gun went silent. But the economic dividends have been slow in coming. Colombo has built up massive expectations that this would change post-Tokyo and the signals from abroad tended to support that view. Apart from the U.S. position that the Tokyo meeting must be held as scheduled, "notwithstanding the LTTE’s stated position not to participate," the arrest in Thailand of some Tiger arms smugglers and the whip cracking by the Thai prime minister that followed must also send a message to the Tiger hierarchy that they are now sailing very close to the wind. Thailand, after all, had been comparatively soft on the Tigers even after 9/11 when the global stance on terrorism hardened massively. But the Thais, now realizing the dangers of de-stabilization of the ASEAN region if they allow their territory to be abused by gun-runners, are acting accordingly. And as recently as 48 hours ago, the Thai foreign minister visiting Indonesia expressed support for Jakarta’s current offensive against the separatist Free Aceh Movement following the breakdown of the Japanese-backed peace effort there.

It must in fairness be conceded that not enough has been done with regard to resettling refugees and getting started on the reconstruction and rehabilitation work in the war-devastated areas with presently available resources. The traditional laid-back approach to getting a job done for which this country is notorious is all too visible on this front. The LTTE hierarchy, used to seeing its orders followed with alacrity whether it be bumping off an enemy or building a bunker, must naturally be frustrated at the slowness of progress. While the Tigers have every right, nay the duty, to speed-up the process, it would be criminal folly to sabotage Tokyo on this account by making demands that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe cannot concede without perhaps grievously wounding his support base in the South.

Now that it’s clear that the Tokyo meeting will be held, with or without the LTTE, they must also remember that pledges can also get diverted for flood relief in the south if they are absent from that forum when how the funds pledged will be utilized. Undoubtedly, flood relief too is badly needed but rebuilding the infrastructure in the northeast will still command greater donor focus if the case is properly presented. If the Tigers really feel for their people, their duty lies in maximizing foreign assistance that can be raised for reconstructing and repairing the war devastation in both the North and the East. Losing out there by default will be criminal folly.

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