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Dead End

As had widely been expected, the talks between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government in Geneva last weekend ended in fiasco. Not even the simplest of expectations – that the two sides would agree to meet again – was met. The irony is that even though most observers were certain nothing would come of these talks, there was intense focus on their outcome anyway. But as this newspaper argued ahead of Geneva 2, the manifest lack of goodwill on both sides and, more importantly, Colombo's unashamed pursuit of a military solution, should have been seen by the international community as problematic antecedents for peace negotiations. These significant obstructions to any peace process were both reinforced and illuminated by the developments in Geneva.

The LTTE and GoSL arrived with entirely different preoccupations. The LTTE, quite rightly, focussed on the matters of current urgency: the humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of Tamils, the spiralling violence and the fraying ceasefire. The government claimed it was interested in discussing the ‘core issues’ related to a political solution to the conflict. We say claimed, because when the LTTE unexpectedly agreed to discuss these core issues and asked for Colombo’s proposals, the government delegation admitted they had brought none. Indeed, just as in Geneva 1, the GoSL delegation imagined itself on some international stage and simply heaped vitriol on the LTTE for the duration of the talks – beginning with Chief Negotiator Siripala de Silva’s 80-minute address.

There is a grave humanitarian crisis in several parts of the Northeast, particularly in Jaffna. This crisis has been brought about, moreover, by the deliberate actions of the Sri Lankan government. The UN agencies, the rest of the humanitarian relief community and many of the foreign embassies in Colombo are acutely aware of this. Yet the Sri Lankan government denied there is a crisis and its negotiators publicly dismissed the LTTE’s demand the A9 highway be opened as ‘irrelevant.’ The talks collapsed last weekend primarily because Colombo was simply not prepared to budge on the A9, irrespective of the suffering endured by the people of Jaffna or the implications its callous indifference made to the prospects for peace. And the reason for the government’s intransigence is obvious to all: the Sri Lankan military is preparing a fresh offensive on Elephant Pass along the A9.

The international community is also partly to blame for both the humanitarian crisis and the failure of the talks. By reassuring and reinforcing the Sri Lankan state, even as it very publicly imposed embargoes on Tamil areas and prosecuted an undeclared war against the LTTE, the international community has devalued the Norwegian peace process and cheapened Tamil life. Barely days before the Geneva talks, senior US officials publicly praised the rightwing administration of President Mahinda Rajapakse and launched a vitriolic attack on the LTTE. When even the US publicly declares that it is backing Sri Lanka in its talks with the LTTE, why wouldn’t Colombo have adopted the intransigent and belligerent stand it did?

We argued (yet again) last week that the international community's fetishisation of the mere mechanisms of talks over the need for suitable objective conditions would lead to fiasco. If Norway’s aim in Geneva was primarily to secure agreement for the parties to meet again, then it was destined to fail. The government believes the international community wants talks mainly to give peace a chance before Colombo is given the go-ahead to militarily destroy the LTTE. Last chance for the Tigers, so to speak. A conviction amongst many observers in Colombo and elsewhere that the LTTE is militarily weak has no doubt contributed to this.

To begin with, seasoned observers may recall the numerous times the LTTE has been written off before. Whatever the true strength of the LTTE - and only the movement really knows that - recent events have lent new force to its argument that the Tamils are lost without its military strength. It is now clear that without the LTTE able to force concessions from the Sinhala-dominated state, the international community will simply pass the Tamils by whilst pursuing its own economic and strategic interests in the island. The events of the past year have done much to weaken the force of international norms, particularly those concerning human rights, good governance and the much exalted ones of democracy and pluralism.

The question is what happens next. If Sri Lanka does not open the road then there will be no more talks. True, the LTTE has folded on similar ultimatums before previous talks. But Sri Lanka is about to escalate its war against the Tigers - with international backing. The Tamils are once again at that familiar junction: war for peace.