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Battle in Bossey

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Despite the hopes of most of Sri Lanka’s people, almost every indicator suggests that this week’s talks between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government in Geneva will be acrimonious. Even the release of prisoners by both sides has been largely ignored by those anxious about the prospects of peace. To begin with, the mutual respect that is sine qua non of successful negotiations is completely lacking. What ought to be an exercise in joint problem solving is instead being approached by Colombo as ‘a continuation of war by other means,’ to paraphrase Clauswitz.

The opening salvo was fired last week by President Mahinda Rajapakse himself, in an interview with Reuters. Speaking ten days before the first direct talks between the protagonists in three years, President Rajapakse did not use the opportunity to send a conciliatory message of cooperation to the Tigers and the Tamils. Instead, digressing unnecessarily on sensitive matters unrelated to the agenda of the forthcoming talks, he railed against the notions of a Tamil nation and homeland and even threatened the LTTE. His comments have predictably raised hackles across the Tamil community. The LTTE response two days later was acidic and its own warning, though more subtle than Rajapakse’s, was equally unmistakable.

Nothing has sent a clearer message as to the Norwegian brokers’ expectations of these talks than the media blackout that has been hurriedly imposed. According to the Swiss hosts, the press will have two opportunities - before the talks kick off and after they ‘adjourn.’ This, as is now well known in Colombo, is at the insistence of the Sri Lankan government. But, as President Rajapaske ought to know full well, this is unlikely to thwart Sri Lanka’s resourceful media hounds. But it has certainly dampened expectations.

Ever since the Norwegians’ shock announcement mid-January about the imminent talks, there has been a peculiar degree of anxiety in Colombo which has not been alleviated even by the professional advice of US-based negotiation experts. This, in turn, seems to have fuelled an unhelpful hostility in the south, with even the American advisors suffering the Sinhala regime’s ire (particularly, it seems, for making the unspeakable suggestion that the government try to build bridges with the LTTE so as to pave the way for future agreement). The entire saga has been a pitifully ludicrous sight.

And despite the Norwegians’ best efforts, a crucial, even pivotal problem - contradictory stances on the agenda - has not been resolved, with Colombo reverting at the last minute to its earlier stance - already rejected by the LTTE - that changes to the February 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA) be discussed. The LTTE delegation has stated repeatedly that it has been mandated by the Tiger leadership to only discuss the implementation of the truce and not changes to the text. The reason, the LTTE argues, is that it is Sri Lanka’s failure to implement crucial aspects of the CFA that has led inexorably to the dangerous instability that has rocked the island’s Northeastern areas for the past few months. The problem is therefore, the LTTE argues, one of will, not practicality. The talks, for the Tigers, are thus about testing Colombo’s commitment to de-escalation.

And the signs are not good. Instead of engaging with the issue of Army-backed paramilitaries according to the spirit and intention of the CFA, Sri Lanka is splitting hairs on technicalities and attempting to escape its obligations. There seems to be no recollection of the maelstrom of violence that has gripped the Northeast since December and abated only in the past few weeks. And everyone knows that the present lull is not necessarily going to last. It hardly inspires confidence that President Rajapaske is more concerned with organizing a political circus around a fiction of a peace process than in taking resolute steps to help take down the sword dangling over the actual one.

But President Rajapaske cannot be described as a man of the moment. Indeed, he has a history of being a man of the wrong moment - we have not forgotten, for example, how, barely three days after the tsunami wiped out tens of thousands of Sri Lankans, his first public comment was to assert that the LTTE should not receive any of the international aid being raised. Arguably, he thus contributed more than anyone else to destroying the communal amity the indiscriminate waves spurred. Now he has contributed more than anyone else to poisoning the mood before this week’s crucial talks. Moreover, instead of dealing boldly with the demonstrable threat to peace posed by the Army’s paramilitary forces, President Rajapakse is instead sending his delegation with a deal-breaking brief - to re-write the CFA. The irony is, where others see ineptitude, he sees guile.

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