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Don't expect much

Like a re-run of an old movie we have watched many times before, we are now about to sit down and watch yet another round of peace talks between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam unfold in Geneva, Switzerland next week. This time though, how many of us will be waiting with bated breath for a significant breakthrough is debatable.

Peace talks were first held in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan in the mid-1980s, under the supervision of the Indian Government. Next week’s talks in Geneva are being held under the supervision of the Norwegian Government.

The chief executive officer of this process, Norway’s now Minister of International Development, Erik Solheim has told us not to expect too much from the Geneva talks. He should know, being in the driving-seat. It’s certainly a better approach than expecting too much and ending up with less than one hoped for. Better a realistic, pragmatic approach than one of wild enthusiasm and naïve hope.

When the announcement came that the LTTE had agreed to talk, there was great jubilation in quarters which once asked that the Norwegians be kicked out of the process together with Erik Solheim. That was because the LTTE had embarked on a blitzkrieg against government forces in Jaffna. That they had eventually used this to gain a bargaining lever in deciding the agenda for the Geneva talks was overlooked in the first flush of optimism.

We are now at the table in Geneva. And we would imagine that the Government brief has been well prepared and studied intensively. The careful advocacy of that brief is now what is required. From a situation of no information, there is this fear that a sudden surplus of information has been infused into our team of 4 cabinet ministers, the IGP and the Navy Commander no less.

But like in all hard fought cases - the opposite side will, no doubt, have a trick or two up its sleeve. And the LTTE may genuinely be thinking the same of the Government. President Mahinda Rajapaksa came into office - no doubt helped by the LTTE -on a platform of renegotiating the CFA (Ceasefire Agreement). His alliance found several flaws in the CFA, mainly that the truce needed to be tightened since it was evident that the LTTE was getting away with blue murder despite the existence of a CFA.

For the LTTE, they will only want a win-win situation from these talks. They will insist on the full implementation of the existing CFA and not a revised one which the Govt may propose in Geneva. Then since a new threat has surfaced with the emergence of the breakaway Karuna faction - they will simply want the Geneva talks to settle that issue -- and then if that is not done - they will use this to complain to the international community that the government is not serious in its efforts to gain peace. There are miles to go before any common ground can be found.

What is disturbing is that the whole gamut of outstanding issues that are in urgent need of attention such as child conscription; pluralism; democracy etc., in the north and east are going to be shelved for another day.

Nevertheless, there has to be a start somewhere. And we urge both parties not to be preoccupied with scoring debating points but to ensure that the larger goal - the peace that our war-weary people are longing for is achieved sooner than later.

Our senior staff have just returned from Jaffna after checking the pre-talks mood and asking the ordinary people there what their hopes are. Their feeling is akin to what we expressed soon after the LTTE agreed to come to the negotiating table. A sense of déjà vu; a sense of cautious optimism.

The people of Jaffna, no different from those in other parts of the island, want to get on with their lives; live in their own homes without fear of displacement; do their cultivation and fishing and trade in other parts of the country without the fear of violence and death stalking them at every turn.

However difficult the challenges at Geneva - the bottom-line is that the killings must stop. There is nothing else they can hope for at this stage of the peace process.