When Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe signed an ‘indefinite’ ceasefire agreement (popularly known as the CFA) with the Liberation Tigers in February 2002, it was welcomed enthusiastically by Sri Lankans – except the Sinhala ultra-nationalists and his arch rival, President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
In so far as the guns remain silent, the truce has held – mostly. Despite numerous minor and some serious breaches, including the Sri Lanka Navy sinking two LTTE merchant vessels, killing dozens of cadres, there have been no major clashes between the two sides.
That has been enough to sustain the Norwegian initiative through serious difficulties, including impasses at the negotiating table, frustrations over non-implementation of agreements already reached and the toppling of the pro-peace United National Front (UNF) government by a rightwing coalition hostile to the peace process.
But now the CFA is itself under serious threat; both from the ground, as anti-LTTE paramilitaries backed by the Sri Lanka Army continue a campaign of violence, and from the top, as President Kumaratunga seeks to unstitch the agreement by demanding a “review” of the document.
The developments have alarmed international backers of Norway’s efforts to bring stability to Sri Lanka. Last month, the US, European Union, Japan and Norway, the Co-Chairs of Sri Lanka’s donor community – now pointedly describing themselves as Co-Chairs of the Peace Process, were uncharacteristically blunt.
“We call on the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE each to take immediate action to prevent killings. The LTTE must stop all killings by their forces. The Sri Lankan government, in accordance with the Ceasefire Agreement, must ensure that all paramilitary groups are disarmed and prevented from any activity that might lead to acts of violence. The government must also guarantee the security of unarmed LTTE cadres in government controlled areas,” a joint statement said.
'In our view, there is a need for both sides to take a hard look at not amending the ceasefire' - Helgesen
President Kumaratunga has denied her military is backing the Tamil paramilitaries in the murderous campaign against LTTE members and supporters and insisting Clause 1.8 of the CFA, which obligates Sri Lanka to disarm these groups has been implemented, has characterised the violence as ‘internecine’ clashes between the LTTE and loyalists of a renegade LTTE commander, Karuna.
But the Co-Chairs’ pointed dismissal of her protestations of innocence marks both the emergence of a tougher stance and increasing concern abroad that the smouldering shadow war has become a serious enough to destroy the peace process itself.
This week Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen flew into Sri Lanka to meet both sides. Whilst his discussions with Sri Lankan and LTTE officials were inevitably wide-ranging, the focus was clearly on reinforcing the CFA.
"In our view, there is a need for both sides to take a hard look at not amending the ceasefire agreement," Norwegian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Vidar Helgesen told reporters after meeting LTTE officials in Kilinochchi Friday.
Both sides should instead "look at how the ceasefire agreement is being implemented and look at ways of improving the implementation," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Mr. Helgesen’s position, if positively framed, is a stark contradiction to that of President Kumaratunga, whom he met in Colombo before travelling to north to Vanni.
"The President expressed [to Helgesen] the government's readiness to a review of the ceasefire agreement ... in order that ancillary arrangements can be put in place to remedy the current gaps," a statement by Kumaratunga’s office said.
A ‘review’ was distinct from a ‘renegotiation,’ the statement said, in response to the LTTE’s summary dismissal last week of Kumaratunga’s earlier call for the CFA to be renegotiated.
The President’s statement further called for “ancillary arrangements” to remedy what it called current gaps in the ceasefire and build confidence.
But the head of the LTTE’s Political Wing, Mr. S. P. Tamilselvan, speaking to reporters after meeting Mr. Helegesen Friday, dismissed a discussion of the CFA’s text, reiterating the movement’s position that it was Colombo’s lack of implementation, not the agreement itself that was the problem.
"The ceasefire agreement was accepted by both parties [when it was signed]," Mr. Tamilselvan pointed out. "All accepted articles of the ceasefire agreement should be implemented immediately."
Last week, the LTTE’s Political Strategist and Chief Negotiator, Mr. Anton Balasingham also said that whilst “technically, there is nothing wrong with the [truce agreement], the current escalation of violence could only be attributed to the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its obligation under [it]."
"The failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to comply with the conditions and obligations of the truce agreement is the causative factor for the outbreak of violence and [ensuing] instability in the eastern districts," he said, responding to Kumaratunga’s initial call to redraft the ceasefire.
"The only way to strengthen the ceasefire, the very foundation of the peace process, is to implement the agreed clauses of the agreement," Mr. Balasingham told the paper.
'We don't want to be sitting ducks' - Puleedevan
The Tigers, who have repeatedly warned that the ceasefire is in danger of collapse due to violence and provocations by Sri Lankan military intelligence and its paramilitary units, say the government could help defuse tensions if it guaranteed the safety of its cadres in Army-controlled areas.
"There's no point in continuing this ceasefire agreement while our members are being assassinated and killed without any difficulty and without punishment of the perpetrators," S. Puleedevan, head of the LTTE Peace Secretariat, told Reuters last week.
Last month, after a gun and grenade attack killed senior political officials in Trincomalee, the LTTE withdrew its political cadres out of Army-controlled areas of the east. The pull back has helped calm tensions in recent weeks, because LTTE cadres are no longer exposed to attacks, but gun and grenade attacks on offices elsewhere continue to occur.
"We don't want to be like sitting ducks," Mr. Puleedevan added. "If political members are not allowed to function in the military controlled areas, it's really undermining the whole ceasefire agreement."
The view has been echoed by the head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Hagrup Haukland: "The cornerstone in the ceasefire agreement is the ability of the LTTE to conduct their political work in the north and east. And if they can't do that then, for sure, the ceasefire is void."
LTTE: ‘no need to renegotiate ceasefire’ [July 26, 2005]
(Editorial) Action, Not Words [July 27, 2005]