Negotiations: The anatomy of an impending disaster

By Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby

The Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) of February 2002 had brought a formal end to the fierce armed combat that was then going on, the past three months have seen a ‘virtual’ war, waged between the same old protagonists at both the military and political fronts, which appears to be almost as deadly as the ‘real’ one.

One cannot deny that the political procrastination that characterised the final years of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency led to a situation where the army was very active in the east, especially after dissention within the LTTE surfaced. With the regional breakaway group on the one hand, and the already existing Athaullah-led militant Muslim opinion in the Amparai District on the other, it was possible to create a feeling of political dislocation in the Batticaloa and Amparai districts. The Polonnaruwa-Welikanda area that provides access to Battiocaloa from the west became an important buffer zone to sort out, if not fight out, the pressing problems of Batticaloa.

The third unit of the east, the Trincomalee-Katalai-Muttur area, was equally restive with JVP-led political activity going on in and around Kantalai and steadily worsening Tamil-Muslim relations in the Muttur area.

The only source of military information however, voiced by no less a person than a brigadier in the army, continued to give the picture that goings-on in Batticaloa were an internal Tamil problem. As usual, this was the version that was passed on to Sinhala readers and viewers, giving an overall impression to the south that the east was no more a safe haven for the LTTE.

The intervening presidential elections created a situation in which an unexpected decision to boycott the polls in the north was taken by Tamil nationalist groups. There had been a debate going on in the Tamil press on the question of the usefulness of the presidential elections to the average Tamil voter – especially from the northeast. The untimely comments by UNP parliamentarians Milinda Moragoda and Naveen Dissanayake linking the UNP to the mutiny within the Tiger ranks, nailed the lid on the entire operation, and from a Tamil point of view, the boycott was unavoidable.

Meanwhile, there was suspicion that moves were afoot to disrupt the political activities of LTTE cadres working in the government-controlled areas of the north. The considered opinion of some of the residents in certain sensitive parts of Vadamaradtchi and Jaffna was that they were facing a type of hostility from the military, which they had seldom experienced even during the darker days of the ’80s. For instance, soldiers wearing black face covers which masked their identities were a source of terror to the public. These factors, all combined, created a sense of precarious uncertainty in the north.

Mahinda Rajapakse, once he assumed the office of president, continued to champion a group of anti-UNP, anti-Chandrika political forces that had backed him at the elections and expressed determination to rewrite the CFA. It is true UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was their main political target, but it was equally true they wished to curb the LTTE too because they believed the provisions in the CFA put the Tigers in a strong position.

It was against such a background that the first meeting between the government and the LTTE was held in Geneva. The manner in which the new president handled the preliminaries to the talks and the way he tried to ‘manage’ them, reveal a new approach hitherto unseen in any of the previous rounds of negotiations.

The primary problem lay in the government wanting to redraw the CFA whereas the LTTE was supporting a strict adherence to what had already been agreed upon and written into the ceasefire – especially in relation two matters: (a) disarming the paramilitary forces and (b) permitting resettlement in the high security zone.

No sooner than the government delegation returned from Geneva-I, the fissures within the ranks of those who supported the government began to show up. The JVP and JHU criticised the final statement issued in Geneva. And these ultranationalist parties began targeting the Sri Lanka government and Norway alleging that a sell out of national interests had taken place in Geneva.

Prospects of the intervening local polls only exacerbated the situation. The JVP gaining confidence in its ability to perform creditably at the elections decided to go it alone and staked a claim to emerge as the largest political party representing the south.

This created a new situation. On the one hand, it was becoming increasingly clear that the process of the marginalisation of the hitherto major Sinhala parties – the UNP and SLFP – could be beginning. On the other, at a personal level Rajapakse knew he had to stand on his own feet. Not only was he unsure of JVP support, but his personality clashes with Kumaratunga did not bring him her active support either, while his efforts to win over UNP dissidents has also created problems for him with the UNP. This dilemma perhaps explains the rationale for highlighting Madinda chaithanaya as a distinct political line.

Meanwhile, the fallout of Geneva-I has led to new developments in the northeast. Since the Geneva joint statement demanded that no armed militant groups operate within government-held areas other than the Sri Lanka military, two new issues emerged: (1) opening of formal political offices for the dissident groups and (2) attack on the Tigers.

These are provocations no doubt, but they are not unduly alarming or entirely unexpected. The real threat emerges in the shape of the proposed Muslim regiment for the protection of the Muslims of the east now being raised in the Amparai District. There was earlier a move to have an exclusively Muslim police force for the southeast, which never quite materialised.

The act of forming an ethnic-based army regiment goes beyond all limits of political and military imagination. Even a cursory glance at the organisation of the military in Sri Lanka reveals that until now it was a case Sinha, Gemunu, Vijayabahu etc. regiments. There was not a single regiment named outside the Sinhala military tradition. It is now said that the Muslim regiment will be named the Akbar regiment. They should at least understand that the great Mogul king, Akbar with his religious philosophy of Dinilahi, is eminently unsuitable and at least a more suitable name should be found.

While the name matters, the underlying question is why a Muslim regiment now. There are suspicions that it is to legalise the Jihad and overcome problems arising from Geneva-I. But the truth could be even deeper than that: it could be part of the move to dismember the east out of northeast and thus satisfy the demands of militant Muslim opinion like A. L. M. Athaullah’s and Sinhala opinion such as the JVP’s. More crucially, this is an assured way of creating a permanent gulf between the Tamils and the Muslims.

The inescapable question emerges: who is the mastermind behind all these moves? Or to be exact, who is advising the execution of these moves. All one can say is that close examination of what is happening makes a point clear: it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that the president is helpless bystander.

Of late, Rajapakse has initiated moves which are very provocative. One was the appointment of a chairman for the Jaffna District Development Committee and the other, the appointment to the post of the vice chancellor of the University of Jaffna. In the case of the latter, it is said the name recommended by the UGC was overruled by the president. His appointment has created grave concern even among people only indirectly connected with the affairs of the university. Not only is the vice chancellor’s political suitability in question, there is also the larger question of him representing Tamil academic opinion, both in the country and the world at large.

On the international front, the meanings behinds Rajapakse’s official visits to Pakistan and China should not be left unread. But what should also be taken into account is that while Rajapakse visits Pakistan, Wickremesinghe gets invited to India.

With such moves made in Colombo there appears to be thinking that whatever might be the contradictions that are dividing the south, international opinion backs southern political forces, while the LTTE is isolated in the world community. The logic runs that therefore, however provocative the south might be, the Tigers dare not return to war. There is a Tamil saying which goes, “Foolish is the man who stoops lower and lower because knocks are raining on his head; equally foolish is the one who keeps giving knocks on another’s head just because he is stooping lower and lower.” [Source: NorthEastern]

Also by Professor K. Sivathamby: Getting to know the Sri LankanTamils

[TamilWeek, Apr 2, 2006] 

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