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Action, Not Words

The Liberation Tigers’ decision to withdraw their political cadres from Sri Lanka government-controlled parts of the eastern province has, at least in the short term, reduced violence there by denying the Army-backed Tamil paramilitaries their easy targets. But the withdrawal is itself a serious setback for the ceasefire and the peace process. As the head of the international monitors in Sri Lanka, Hagrup Haukland, aptly put it: “the cornerstone in the ceasefire agreement is the ability of the LTTE to conduct their political work in the north and east. And if they can't do that then, for sure, the ceasefire is void.”



This abysmal situation has not developed overnight. Indeed this problem has been simmering since the ceasefire was signed in February 2002 (and only escalated in the past year). Colombo not only ignored its obligations under the truce to disband the paramilitaries but bolstered these forces and resumed targeted killings. And for far too long, this issue has been ignored by all concerned. Indeed, the dangerous low-intensity conflict has been caricatured as the LTTE attacking ‘political rivals.’ Sri Lankan military intelligence’s determination to press home a murderous campaign against LTTE members and supporters (and the wider insistence of Colombo’s armed forces – particularly the Navy - on testing the LTTE’s tolerance) has thus seriously weakened the truce.



The unequivocal demand last week by the Co-Chairs of the Peace Process that Sri Lanka disarms its paramilitary outfits and ensure the safety of unarmed LTTE cadres in its controlled areas is thus both timely and welcome. But the nub of the problem was revealed almost immediately; President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s predictable response to the joint statement by the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway was to vehemently deny her military’s central role in fostering the paramilitaries and to harangue the LTTE instead. Moreover, her next impulse was to seek the redrafting – i.e. dismantling - of the February 2002 truce. Quite properly, the LTTE has bluntly rejected the notion. As the movement’s Chief Negotiator and Political Strategist, Mr. Anton Balasingham, told this newspaper this week, “there is nothing wrong with the truce agreement. The current escalation of violence could only be attributed to the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its obligation under it.”



But in seeking to redraft the ceasefire agreement, President Kumaratunga is merely continuing Sinhala leaders’ tradition of tearing up deals they sign with the Tamils. In sixty years, not a single agreement signed by a Tamil leadership with a Sinhala one has survived - the fiasco of the Post Tsunami Operations Management Structure (P-TOMS) is but the latest. All have either failed to be implemented or simply been abrogated - and the ethnic conflict has continued, escalating on the way. Let us be clear. The Tamils do not trust Sri Lanka’s Sinhala leaders. Even the conditional goodwill extended to (then) Premier Ranil Wickremsinghe in 2002 is based on his lack of a violent history with us. The limited benefits accruing to some sections of our community from the peace process stem from Colombo’s failure and inability to destroy the LTTE. In other words, there is no reason for us to assume a continuation of the present peace is a natural order of things. On the contrary, we believe it is only a matter of time before Colombo resumes its efforts to crush our liberation struggle. Kumaratunga’s determined continuation of the paramilitary campaign against the LTTE is the surest indicator of this. The Co-Chairs have expressed their concern and displeasure, but it very much remains to be seen what Sri Lanka does. As ever, the ceasefire and peace process depend not on Colombo’s assurances – indeed, words have rarely been cheaper – but on concrete facts on the ground.