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Action, not words

Norway’s announcement last Wednesday that the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government have agreed that Switzerland would be a suitable venue for talks to stabilize the strained February 2002 ceasefire was understandably, though prematurely, greeted with international acclaim and relief by Sri Lankans of all communities. Indeed the events of the subsequent week, the most serious being the abduction of ten aid workers of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), have raised serious doubts about the prospects of the forthcoming talks and, in the longer term, a peaceful accommodation between the Tamils and the Sinhala-nationalist state.



To begin with, talks in themselves are not going to end the cycle of violence in Sri Lanka’s Northeast – which is why last week’s optimism was overstated. What is required is the willingness and ability of both sides to exert their authorities over their respective armed forces and end offensive actions. For its part, the LTTE has, whilst retaining its right to self-defense, given its undertaking to bring an end to attacks on the Sri Lankan military – a credible assurance, given its reputation for iron discipline and its influence over the Tamil community. The question is can, and if so, will, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government be able to deliver the same? Within a day of Norwegian Special Envoy Erik Solheim’s announcement of talks last week, there was a deep penetration raid on the LTTE in Batticaloa. Notably, the ambush party which killed a senior LTTE cadre retreated under the cover of Sri Lanka Army (SLA) artillery to government controlled territory. This week, two groups of TRO workers were abducted in government-controlled Batticaloa by gunmen who demonstrably enjoyed the support of the Sri Lankan security forces. Moreover, the Sri Lankan military has not stopped its intimidation of the Tamil populace: cordon and search operations are ongoing with heavily armed troops marching through schools and hospital grounds, harassment of civilians at checkpoints continues, fishermen have gone missing and screams have been heard from army camps.



Amid shock and outrage amongst the Tamils in the wake of this week’s abductions, the LTTE has quite rightly declared it is reconsidering the Geneva talks and demanded the government ensure the safe return of the aid workers. The movement is unequivocal: it has not pulled out of the talks, but negotiations can only proceed once this matter is satisfactorily resolved and the wider de-escalation takes place. The LTTE’s position is justifiable on two grounds. Firstly, there has to be tangible de-escalation – including the abandoning of aggressive postures – before any talks can be meaningful. Without a will to peace, nothing can be achieved at the table. Secondly, and more importantly, there is no point in holding talks if agreements reached simply cannot be implemented. President Rajapakse - who is also Sri Lanka’s commander-in-chief - has been suggesting (according to reputable press reports) that sections of his military are operating on their own against the Tigers. This is an unacceptable excuse (the same logic was presented by Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe – though he blamed the hardline militarism of then President Chandrika Kumaratunga for Sri Lankan military attacks against the Tigers, including the sinking of LTTE ships). This is not to say it is a credible excuse either – many Tamils believe Rajapakse, like his predecessors, is duplicitous, determinedly waging a covert war against the Tigers whilst mouthing platitudes about peace.



In short, nothing will be served – and even worse, a false optimism will be unfairly raised amongst the long-suffering people of the Northeast – by talks between the LTTE and a Sri Lankan President who simply cannot back up his undertakings. The LTTE is therefore quite right to hold its position and await Colombo’s response. If President Rajapakse and the Sri Lankan government will exercise their authority and demonstrably rein in the Army’s paramilitary forces and their military intelligence commanders, then the Geneva talks can lead to meaningful steps towards de-escalation and stability. Unfortunately, President Rajapakse has only demonstrated leadership when rousing the Sinhala nationalist rabble. At this critical juncture, he is maintaining an irresponsible silence – and, even worse, his spokesmen are simply denying the aid workers’ abductions ever took place. This incident has thus demonstrated exactly what the future of negotiations with President Rajapakse and his government is likely to be. Last week’s optimism was premature and, as many Tamils now feel, sorely misplaced.