Vol. 5 Num 558 Wed. December 21, 2005  

Matters Around Us
Lankan peace process hits snags

The prospects of resumption of the peace dialogue between the government and the Tamil rebels in the island state of Sri Lanka following the election of a new president in the country seems somewhat bleak even though efforts are continuing to bring the two sides on negotiating table on the vexed civil war issue. Fresh talks on the matter has been on the cards since Mahinda Rajapakse has become the new president last month, but the process is proving difficult because of the differences in choosing the venue for the dialogue. Earlier several rounds of talks between two sides took place in foreign land and this time the rebels want it in Oslo, capital of Norway, which is brokering the negotiation, but the government wants it in an Asian country. The stalemate continues.

Mahinda Rajapakse won the presidency of the south Asian island state in a closely fought election battle against former premier Ranil Wickramsinghe last month and the development has increased anxiety and concern about the shape of things in the country in the future, particularly

about the conflict with the Tamil militants. He is known as a hard liner on the civil war issue compared to relatively much lenient Wickramsinghe, during whose premiership the government-rebels reconciliatory efforts had gained momentum and the chances of a negotiated settlement of the complex problem also brightened. Rajapakse maintains that he is not against dialogue, but made it clear before the polls that he would maintain the unitary character of Sri Lanka as a country and is against a federal character, which means he is not favourably disposed to granting autonomy or sharing much of power with the rebels. However, as president he says peace process needs to be pursued.

The peace talks are stalemated for long and took a beating following exit from power of former prime minister Ranil Wickramsinghe, whose government had initiated the dialogue with the rebels but was dismissed by President Chandrika evidently for being “soft” to the Tamil militants. The elections that followed brought Chandrika's supporters in power under new Prime Minister Rajapakse and chances of a settlement of more than two decades old civil war through discussions have since been hanging in the balance. The immediate past president Chandrika is relatively tough on the peace process, but of late supported it, saying it is for the larger interest of the nation. But Mahinda Rajapakse is known hawkish on the issue and had developed differences with Chandrika on the approach to the rebels during the last days of her presidency. Now he is the president and, as expected, sounding tough.

Six rounds of talks between the Colombo government and the Tamil Tigers during Ranil's time raised hopes for a negotiated settlement of the contentious civil war in the country which was virtually bleeding to white because of the long drawn conflict centering minority Tamil's armed struggle for a separate homeland in the north. There was no decisive outcome of the civil war as the success in the battlefield swung from one side to the other and occasional ceasefire produced no tangible results and hostilities resumed in quick time. However, situation marked a qualitative change when the government of prime minister Ranil Wickramsinghe took an active pro-peace policy with the rebels over three years ago, which facilitated a dialogue that went for several rounds in different venues abroad making some progress in the vexed problem.

While it will be a height of folly to expect easy resolution of the Sri Lankan civil war given the complexities involved in the issue, the dialogue gave hopes since both sides made significant concessions. The government conceded to some demands of Tigers while the later abandoned their main position an independent state for the Tamils and agreed for autonomy. The road to peace through negotiations is undoubtedly bumpy but what was remarkably encouraging was the marked willingness to find common ground towards a permanent settlement of the problem. Notwithstanding differences on some key areas, both sides demonstrated commendable attitude in carrying forward the parleys. Admittedly, talks occasionally went into rough weather and even at one stage been suspended indefinitely but both sides never spoke of chances of resuming hostilities. The deal on “Tsunami” relief operations brought them little closer despite differences. But that understanding later fizzled out.

Before the election, prime minister Rajapakse took a pro-Sinhalese line to placate the majority Sinhalese in disputes with the Tamil rebels and depended on the Sinhala community many of whom favour hard line against the Tamils. On the other hand, Wickramsinghe relied on the pragmatic Sinhalese, who want an end to bloodshed, and on the Tamils for his pro-peace policies. But the Tamil militants enforced a boycott of the voting that clearly heavily contributed to Ranil's defeat. The difference of the votes polled was just two percent, the winner bagging 50 per cent and the main rival 48 per cent. Wickramsinghe lost as he did not secure the anticipated Tamil votes because of the boycott. Tamils constitute 16 per cent of the total population. But despite his hard line policies, new president seemingly does not want to give an impression that he is anti-peace. He appointed Ratnisiri Wickramnayake, known for his hawkish approach to the Tamil rebels, as new prime minister and this further eroded the government-rebel understanding.

Rebel Supremo Villupai Prabhakran sometime ago set December 31 as a deadline for the government to give an acceptable guideline for the settlement of the civil war or risk resumption of the hostilities. Expectedly, the government rejected the deadline but insisted that talks can take place. In the meantime, signs of deteriorating conditions are evident as stray incidents of violence took lives of 18 soldiers along with the lives of some rebel supporters. These are clearly disturbing, raising fears of resumption of the bloodshed. However, peace efforts have not been abandoned, but choice of venue for the dialogue has become a major problem. The rebels are for Oslo as planned before but government wants it in any Asian country, preferably in Tokyo as offered by Japanese peace envoy Y Akashi. The rebels remain stuck to their earlier position on venue and consequently there is no headway and both sides brace for further worsening situation although none so far said so.

Sri Lanka needs prudent policies under the circumstance, and obviously the onus largely lies with the government while the militants are expected to demonstrate flexibility and rational attitude should both want the peace process to continue with the ultimate objective of settlement through talks. Resumption of the bloodshed will entail heavy cost for both sides and will take this otherwise very prospective country to further slide.

Zaglul Ahmed Chowdhury is Foreign Editor of BSS.