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Fresh Promise

The welcome decision last week by the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government to hold direct talks on the implementation of the February 2002 ceasefire has given a desperately needed boost to the Norwegian peace process. The talks are to centre on the implementation of the truce. There is much to address. The increasingly widespread killings that have produced a climate of acute insecurity in many parts of the island, particularly in the east, would undoubtedly be high on the agenda. The talks will bring welcome scrutiny on the details of the ceasefire, both breaches and failures of implementation.

No doubt the negotiations will be acrimonious and fraught with risk of impasse. But that they are taking place at all will calm rising anxieties for peace that have become overwhelming in the wake of the assassination of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. His killing Friday before last came as a shock to most, irrespective of their sentiments towards Sri Lanka’s most controversial political personality. The Liberation Tigers have been blamed for the assassination, and although the LTTE has denied it, the Sri Lankan government has refused to countenance otherwise. Given the distinctive role Mr. Kadirgamar has played in undermining the LTTE and the Tamil struggle, scepticism of the LTTE’s denial is not unexpected. But the LTTE’s allusion to disgruntled hardline elements within the Sri Lankan establishment does provide an answer, albeit an unpalatable one, to the question why now? The ceasefire was being held together by a thread when Mr. Kadirgamar’s assassins took aim. The LTTE argues the extremists had hoped to destroy the truce once and for all by triggering a tidal wave of outrage and political turmoil. The international community’s emphatic calls, led by the United States, for the ceasefire to be maintained and strengthened have thankfully prevented such an eventuality. But only just. The rapid announcement last week of new talks between both sides has further stabilised matters.

The world has condemned the killing of Mr. Kadirgamar. The anger and dismay expressed by several governments, including the members of the United Nations Security Council are understandable. But the vehement reaction in southern Sri Lanka and the silence in the NorthEast underlines Mr. Kadirgamar’s distinctive role in Sri Lanka’s ethnic politics and conflict. He is, of course, credited with the successful demonisation abroad of the LTTE and the Tamil struggle. But amongst the Tamil people, Mr. Kadirgamar is remembered for other reasons also. Despite his espousal of liberal values, including human rights, he rose time and again to the defence of the Sri Lankan state in the wake of atrocities blamed by international actors on its armed forces. When UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali expressed concern for the plight of the half a million people who fled Jaffna in 1995, Mr. Kadirgamar admonished him. On numerous occasions Mr. Kadirgamar rebuked and threatened the ICRC, MSF and the UN agencies working in Sri Lanka for either exposing or protesting against mass killings and abuses carried out by Sri Lanka’s armed forces. Mr. Kadirgamar was undoubtedly a highly educated and cultured man. His forceful personality, bordering on arrogance, ought to have provided the Tamils with a voice in Colombo. Instead his legacy amongst Tamils is of that of one of us who chose to side with our oppressors and who, moreover, dedicated himself to this task.

This is not to say, however, that his assassination was justified. It has come as a severe blow to the peace process and our efforts to secure international sympathy for our cause. Yet amid the condemnations that such a high profile political assassination inevitably invokes, we cannot forget the recent and painful past. Mr. Kadirgamar was a close confidante and an advisor to President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Yet, he was not a restraint on her militarism. Like her, he was also an opponent of the peace process on which we have pinned so much hope. His criticism of the Norwegians, their initiative and the efforts of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government have all contributed to the undermining of the peace process. Mr. Kadirgamar was overly sensitive to perceived infringements of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty – even by those meaning well. He looked for weaknesses rather than strengths in the Norwegian initiative. And the people of the Northeast, almost a million of whom are internally displaced, continue to pay the price. After the degenerative violence of the past year, the forthcoming talks promise a much needed fresh start, albeit a tentative one. It is incumbent on all those concerned for Sri Lanka’s peace to rally behind it.

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