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Premature Euphoria

The optimism fostered by reports this week that Sri Lanka's hardline government had agreed to unconditional talks with the Liberation Tigers is decidedly premature. The intense international pressure that has been brought to bear on the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has compelled its climbdown. But it very much remains to be seen if that momentum can be maintained to the table and, even more questionably, if anything will come of the talks. We have been here before, not least in February 2006. And, as we have argued before, there is an inordinate focus on the mechanisms of talks than on overarching trends in the peace process and conflict.
 
And even as this edition goes to print there are several developments which cast serious doubt on the resilience of future talks. To begin with, it has taken extraordinarily intense international pressure to even get Colombo to agree to negotiate (and already there are contradictions on the venue and the dates). The point is; there is no will in Colombo to talk. Convinced that the LTTE is weak, the Rajapakse government is actively considering a military solution to what, along with other Sinhala rightwingers, it sees as essentially a problem of terrorism, rather than political grievance. On cue, the day that an agreement on talks is announced, the JVP and its rightwing allies have organised a major rally against the peace process, lambasting the Norwegian facilitators. The JVP has repeatedly been dismissed as a spent force. But the forces which enabled Rajapakse's convincing win in the Sinhala heartland last November are even stronger today. Emboldened by a war euphoria, carefully stoked by state media and sympathetic private media, Sinhala nationalism is rampant in the south. And it remains to be seen what the much-vaunted talks between the ruling SLFP and main opposition UNP will precipitate in this climate.
 
But it is the concrete developments in the embattled Northeast that suggests optimism over the forthcoming talks is premature. The violence is continuing. Death squads comprising Army-backed paramilitaries and military intelligence operatives are murdering several Tamil civilians a day in Jaffna and elsewhere. Abductions and killings are ongoing in the capital also. Sri Lanka's military is eager for a war. No clearer sign is needed than the airstrikes timed to coincide with Norwegian Special Envoy Hanson-Bauer's meeting Tuesday with LTTE leaders. Each week the continuous bombardment of LTTE-controlled areas which has been underway for months destroys more villages and adds to the growing numbers of displaced. Meanwhile, a government embargo is preventing relief supplies going into the LTTE-controlled areas, where the bulk of the recently displaced people (and for that matter the long-term displaced) are.
 
The ongoing Sri Lankan bombardments have been described as an effort to inflict as many casualties on the LTTE (i.e. Tamils, given the indiscriminate nature of the attacks) as possible. Hardly the logic to underpin talks, let alone a 'peace process.' This lack of goodwill is not just in the ranks of government. Confidence in a military solution is producing a compaction of Sinhala public sentiment and, thus, the Sinhala polity, behind a new war. Even the UNP, the darling of the international community, is silent on the ongoing humanitarian crisis. There is no clearer indicator of how the Sinhalese think of the Tamils than the contempt with which the Tamil MPs seated on the floor of parliament, protesting the deprivations being inflicted on the Tamils are being ignored.
 
The Tamil MPs' protest - and the Sinhala reaction - is helping fuel the compaction underway amongst the Tamils in the face of collective Sinhala hostility. The Tamils are bracing themselves - again - for the state's impending war. There is little faith that the international community will intervene to prevent it (indeed, all major actors, save Norway, have each contributed to President Rajapakse's war: some have provided the firepower, others the funding and others yet, the legitimacy, not least by branding the LTTE as terrorists even as the state geared up for a war).
 
As with the rest of the Tamil community, this newspaper hopes its misgivings are proven wrong. But, for the reasons above, we are convinced that the optimism amongst 'peace-lovers' is woefully misplaced; and that powerful drivers to war are very much underway. These drivers, moreover, are a combination of longstanding attitudes underpinning ethnic relations in Sri Lanka and international confusion, ambivalence and hesitancy over the correct approach to supporting a solution. As it has always done throughout the conflict, Colombo has skilfully exploited international inconsistencies to position itself for another attempt at a final military solution - which is now imminent.