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First Deal, First Hurdle

The first session of direct negotiations between the Liberation Tigers and the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse in Geneva last month were every bit as acrimonious as had been feared. That there wasn’t a complete breakdown of the talks, as well as the tenuous ceasefire - the topic under discussion, was undoubtedly due to the indefatigable efforts of the Norwegian brokers. Successful negotiations usually allow for all participants to claim a measure of success. But the acrimony that dogged the Geneva talks erupted anew when the Sri Lankan government delegation, on its return to Colombo, made patently false claims, both as to what was discussed and the supposed outcome. In short, Sri Lanka claimed to have amended the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The LTTE has, not unexpectedly, reacted furiously, delivering a blunt warning through the Norwegians that Colombo’s distortions are fraying confidence in the peace process.

To begin with, Sri Lanka’s false claim is being put forward to mask an unpalatable truth - that despite President Mahinda Rajapakse’s pompous assertion he would alter the CFA, his delegation pointedly failed to do so. As was manifestly clear, it is public perception ahead of the local government elections on March 30, not the future of the peace process per se, which was uppermost in President Rajapakse and, hence, his delegation’s minds. Amidst all the Sinhala nationalist tub-thumping, a basic fact had been forgotten – that an agreement, by definition, cannot be unilaterally amended. It can only be unilaterally abrogated. Amid their vehement denunciations, the Sinhala nationalists had forgotten that the CFA is an internationally recognised agreement (which, incidentally, underwrites the involvement of the citizens of six European countries in supervising the truce) and, unlike domestic laws, is not subject to their vagaries.

This is the central point: the CFA is, above all, a standing agreement which, irrespective of whatever flaws or weaknesses it may or may not have, can only be changed by the mutual consent of the parties who entered into it. Colombo’s – ultimately futile - efforts to impose amendments in Geneva are indicative of the mindsets of successive Sri Lankan governments. A question that follows in the wake of the past few weeks, and must not be forgotten if this peace process is succeed, is this: if even an internationally monitored agreement like the CFA is vulnerable to Sinhala nationalist sentiment, what is to stop any future Sri Lankan government tearing up any future political solution with the Tamils? The multitude of conflict resolution actors involved in Sri Lanka’s quagmire ought to consider it, for their sanguine visions of Sri Lanka are not going to materialise before it is answered.

The furore triggered by Sri Lanka’s claim to have successfully amended the agreement has, unfortunately, also drawn attention away from the objective reality that the island faces: the government must now – belatedly - implement crucial aspects of the CFA if the peace process is to advance. To begin with, Sri Lanka must now disarm the Tamil paramilitary groups being backed by its armed forces. This should, of course, have been done by April 2002. It was not. Hundreds of deaths later, Sri Lanka has again agreed to do so – though it could barely bring itself to say so in public (and that alone casts doubt on Colombo’s sincerity and commitment).

Very few Tamils believe Sri Lanka will follow through with its pledge on disarming the paramilitaries. If anything, paramilitary activities are being stepped up - the Karuna Group, for example, has opened a new camp in Batticaloa town and the killings and abductions of LTTE cadres and supporters have already resumed. The LTTE can also barely disguise its scepticism – though it is formally giving President Rajapakse the benefit of the doubt. In that regard, Sri Lanka’s practical commitment to the pledges in Geneva will have far reaching implications: it will dictate the viability of the peace process itself. In short, President Rajapakse’s bona fides are linked inextricably to the Geneva pledges.

And so far, not so good. Underlining his singular lack of vision, President Rajapske is more preoccupied with his party’s fortunes in the forthcoming local government elections than with the burning issues related to the national question. But then, perhaps he has no faith that the Norwegian peace process will deliver his vision of Sri Lanka – a Sinhala dominated unitary state. If so, he is quite right; it won’t. Only a successful war against the Tamil Tigers can hope to make that thinly disguised dream come true. And in that light, the paramilitaries are, for him, not a frustrating block to peace but an essential tool of war. As we have always argued, the Norwegian peace process will turn on the implementation of Clause 1.8. And as the LTTE made clear at the table in Geneva, they have a plan B.

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