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Back to Basics

Norway’s confirmation this week that negotiations between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lanka government will indeed take place in Geneva on February 22-23 has ended concerns that the abduction last week of several aid workers of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) would derail the latest attempt to resume the peace process. Seven TRO workers are still missing after being abducted by Army-backed paramilitaries. The LTTE had, quite rightly, declared it would reconsider its participation in talks with President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government. But the government’s response to the kidnappings reveals the depth of acrimony between the two protagonists and, also, the chasm between the island’s communities. Colombo immediately and flatly denied its military was involved and then accused the LTTE of stage managing the incidents to legitimize an avoidance of talks (even though the accounts of the TRO workers who were left behind and the three who have been released provide incontrovertible evidence that Army-backed paramilitaries are responsible). Outlining their rational for going to Geneva anyway, LTTE officials this week pointed out that the bedrock of any peace process is a credible cessation of hostilities. Indeed, the issues being raised by the LTTE as its prime concern – the normalization aspects of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA), for example, – are the immediate concern of the Tamil community at large.



Hectic preparations are underway for the talks. The government’s delegation is this week in discussions with American negotiation experts to map put out its strategy for the forthcoming talks. Interestingly, political aspects – including federalism – are reportedly being explored. But both protagonists and the facilitators have publicly been asserting that the forthcoming talks would focus on implementation of the CFA. Perhaps, as during the previous round of talks, Sri Lanka hopes to depart from discussing the day-to-day difficulties of the Tamil people and to engage in a drawn out discussion on ‘core issues.’ No doubt some of Sri Lanka’s allies will prefer that too. But it should not be forgotten that the collapse of all previous peace processes are linked in one way or another to the unstable and difficult circumstances in which most Tamils find themselves and the peace process does not change. The LTTE has always argued that negotiations should proceed on a stage-by-stage basis, with the day-to-day difficulties of the Tamils – particularly the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced – being resolved first. Only then, the LTTE quite rightly argues, can a long term political solutions be arrived at - a point that escapes advocates of civil society participation in Sri Lanka’s peace process.



Contrary to some views, also, agreement on a long-term political solution is not the answer to the immediate difficulties bedeviling the Northeast. What is required first is the normalization of civilian life, not a hurried rush to core issues. The LTTE’s insistence that talks must focus on the implementation of the CFA is not, therefore, some dogmatic aversion to discussing core issues - as its opponents suggest it is - but an acknowledgement of today’s dangerous reality. Furthermore, the peace process has regressed significantly from the optimistic circumstances of 2002. The seeds for the decline were sowed even then, as the rush – without full implementation of the CFA as insisted on by the LTTE - to talks and then to talks on federalism resulted in an edifice built on loose sand – the distinct lack of normalcy and no drivers to produce it, save the distant target of a constitutional framework.



Meanwhile, the notion that the LTTE would inherently seek to avoid peace talks stems from the same prejudice that, irrespective of the major governmental transformations the LTTE has undergone in the past decade, continues to view the organization as an incorrigible and menacing threat to peace. This is the Sinhala nationalist position. It is also, to the detriment of the peace process, the view of sections of the international state and non-state community. By opting to frame the LTTE as a malevolent hegemon in Tamil politics instead of a vehicle for frustrated Tamil political aspirations, these observers have not only failed to contribute to a meaningful solution, but have, over the years, helped exacerbate the ethnic problem. Until this attitude changes there can be no peace as it will continue to assist and embolden the Sinhala-dominated state and undermine efforts at peacemaking. The Tamil community has for decades now been lobbying and pleading with international actors for support against Sri Lanka’s chauvinism. The question for the Tamils is whether they should continue to engage with actors whose prejudice against our liberation struggle is so deep seated as to be unassailable. They will not help, but only hinder. We may go further by concentrating our efforts elsewhere.