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What chance peace?

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The agreement by the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to discuss the implementation of the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Geneva this month, is a laudable step forward towards peace which has been widely welcomed by the international community. However, upon being congratulated on broking last week’s agreement deal, Erik Solheim, Norwegian International Development Minister, is said to have retorted that the real challenges are still to come. He is quite right.

Mr. Solheim’s extensive experience Special Envoy to Sri Lanka has equipped him well to recognize the obstacles that lie ahead. His successful facilitation to date has ensured the hard-line coalition government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has come to the negotiating table, despite its popular mandate from the South to adopt an uncompromising position on the ethnic issue and on dealing with the LTTE.

The coalition comprising President Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Sinhala-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist hardline party, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), had promised, amongst other hardline positions on the thnic question to renegotiate the ‘flawed’ CFA, to ensure that future peace talks took place in Sri Lanka and oust the Royal Norwegian Government from its role as facilitator to the peace process.

By agreeing to discuss the implementation of the CFA in Geneva under Norwegian facilitation, President Rajapakse now reneged on all three election pledges. But this substantial deviation away from the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government’s electoral mandate will in all likelihood add to the complications of delivering on any future agreements, notwithstanding that all concerned actors are presently focused upon more urgent necessity of de-escalating the spiralling violence in the Northeast.

The JHU, the smallest of the main Sinhala hard-line parties, has thus far been the only one to protest the Geneva talks. But despite the JHU’s vociferous protests, the UPFA government has inched ahead with engaging the LTTE.

Conversely, the JVP has observed a studied silence on the Geneva talks but since the formation of the new UPFA cabinet, the Marxist party has voiced its dissatisfaction with the government reneging on its election pledges. In its bid to maintain a distance from the government, the JVP has desisted from accepting ministerial portfolios. The JVP has always been careful to avoid being sullied by any compromises and surrenders that the government of the day makes. In June 2005, for example, the JVP withdrew from the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga in protest over her signing the tsunami aid sharing deal (P-TOMS) with the LTTE. It is on the back of such principled positions that the JVP’s political standing has grown exponentially over the past decade.

Furthermore, whilst in power, it has– despite the best efforts of its detractors - ensured that it is not associated with the various corruption scandals that have riddled Sri Lankan politics. This and its track record of acting against moves by various administrations in Colombo that make any substantial concessions to the ‘terrorism’ (the most recent example being the agreement of the P-TOMS), have also reinforced its creditability within the Southern electorate as a party which is sincere in pursuing its stated objectives.

Unlike the JHU, the JVP has serious and real ambitions to form a functioning, one-party government in the coming years. Its grass roots campaigning have resulted in a rate of growth which suggests its objectives are realistic. The party’s silence over the Geneva peace talks are a sign of its grasp of the responsibilities of governance.

Upon forming the new UPFA government, the JVP egged President Rajapakse on to dump the Norwegian facilitators. With New Delhi rejecting the JVP’s plans to eject the Norwegians and provide the necessary military backing, the organisation toned down its right-wing rhetoric and reassessed its options. The government has undoubtedly been advised by the new military commanders it has appointed that the armed forces are not yet ready for a new war. Unlike, the JHU, the JVP had the clout to prevent the Geneva negotiations, but to do so may have prematurely invited a conflict upon an unprepared military. Such a blunder would have dented the party’s substantial credibility as potential governors, particularly if the war goes badly. Instead the JVP is keeping a clear distance from the proceedings, ensuring the President Rajapakse takes all the blame for the humiliating policy reversals the UPFA government is making.

The JVP’s short-term objectives are to ensure it is not tarred by any agreements Rajapakse makes with the Tigers. It has, ironically, also successfully regained some credibility amongst the international community, who were doubtless bracing themselves for its fiery protests.

But in the medium term the JVP and its ilk have a variety of options to prevent any deals which are contrary to its state principles. The most obvious is its ability to bring down the minority government should it give too much away to the Tigers and thereby ensure fresh elections where the JVP may, as unsullied champions of Sinhala interests, expand its position.

Another obvious avenue is to challenge the constitutional validity of any agreements entered by the government with the LTTE through the Supreme Court - as exemplified by the successful torpedoing of the P-TOMS last year.

The final layer of defence is the of course JVP’s ability to mobilise popular support for its hardline policies amongst southern voters into a rejection of any deal with the Tigers at a referendum – which no Sinhala government can survive without holding.

However, the most significant threat in the short term to the JVP’s strategy is the strengthening of the UPFA by the crossing over of rebels from the main opposition United National Party (UNP). With two MPs having defected and up to a dozen others in negotiations with President Rajapakse, his reliance on the JVP may diminish. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the JVP is opposing the crossing over of UNP MPs, citing concerns over the UPFA government mutating into a party reminiscent of the capitalist UNP.

The peace process has therefore come under another spoiling campaign: the UNP has threatened to withdraw its support (meaning it will agitate against) the peace process unless President Rajapakse stops encouraging defections. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has irresponsibly cited Rajapakse’s poaching of UNP MPs as an acceptable reason for opposing the peace process, even as simmering violence threatens to escalate into a new war. The unashamed threat to future peace efforts from the UNP - a party which claims to be the architect of the present peace process – ought to give pause for thought to the International Community which has in recent years unquestioningly characterised the UNP as liberal and progressive on the national question.

In the Northeast the situation continues to deteriorate. The attacks on civilians and members of the LTTE are continuing although there has been some reduction in the rate of attacks since the agreement to recommence talks. President Rajapakse has promised to ‘look into’ claiming that elements of the military are out of his control.

Particularly disturbing is the strategy adopted by the armed forces to counter the rising attacks on them by Tamil militia. The military has began to deliberately target families and supporters of LTTE members. Scores of civilians have been killed or ‘disappeared’ by the security forces or paramilitary groups working with them. The killings are reminiscent of earlier ‘terror’ tactics used by the Sri Lankan military - and by other foreign armies in countering militias operating in urban areas amongst a sympathetic civilian population. The Sri Lankan crackdown on the JVP in the late eighties followed a similar strategy, albeit on a much larger scale.

President Rajapakse’s rotation into senior military posts of noted hard line commanders like General Sarath Fonseka has directly led to this strategy. The posting of hard line intelligence chief Brigadier Rizvy Zacky to Jaffna is another sign of the policies the army intends to pursue in the coming period. Several thousand families have already fled from the peninsula with others increasingly fearful. Attacks on respected and well known figures within the civil population, such as lecturers, doctors, journalists and aid workers magnify the effect of terror. Sexual attacks, torture and disappearances are amongst the tools that the Sri Lankan Army has already applied. The failure of the international community to unequivocally condemn these terror tactics against civilians is fuelling their effect.

President Rajapakse’s move to swiftly install hard line military commanders may prove to be the biggest hurdle to reaching a long term peace. The UNF government struggled to remove Fonseka as Jaffna commander, despite his defiant refusal to implement the CFA, which was causing serious – and ultimately debilitating - frictions between the two protagonists. His position as commander of the Jaffna forces was cited time and again by the then UNF government as a reason for not delivering on key aspects of the CFA.

The various Army-backed paramilitary organisations also have strong incentives to prevent the stabilisation and implementation CFA, a key part of which requires their disarming. Apart from the termination of their well paid jobs, the system of extortion and illegal trading which they have profited from would become unsustainable without weapons and the space to prey on the Northeastern populace. As the recent violence and abductions in the east attests, they are likely to resist the peace process too.

It is not clear whether Rajapakse’s decision to engage the LTTE in talks was the result of a genuine commitment to peace which he suspended for the sake of electoral success (as some of his horrified supporters claim), or merely a means to secure the armed forces more time to ready themselves for a new war against the Tigers.

But should the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE reach an agreement in Geneva, many of the obstacles that President Rajapakse will face in implementing it are entirely self inflicted. He chose his political bedfellows, despite the concerns of other members of the SLFP. He also chose military commanders who have a known history of antagonism to the CFA and the peace process, from the outset. Furthermore, the hawks in the southern political spectrum appear to have the most options - from legal challenges and electoral power to a sympathetic military leadership - to impose their agenda and resist progress in Geneva.

Despite its support for a peace process and a negotiated solution, the international community’s position has also bolstered the position of the right-wing lobby. Despite Colombo’s failure in the past four years to implement any agreements which will alleviate the living condition of the long-suffering residents of the Northeast, the international community has, by and large, not taken the governments to task or put any real pressure to deliver. The lesson that can justifiably be drawn from this is as long as Sri Lankan state is not directly responsible for the resumption of the conflict by offensive violence, it can continue with actions inimical to peace.

The LTTE’s perspective on the state of affairs was unequivocally set out during the annual Heroes’ Day speech by its leader, who issued a clear timeframe within which hr expects the problems facing the population to be resolved. Tamil parliamentarians have conveyed to the government and the world at large that the Tamil community’s confidence in future improvements – and hence, tolerance of the status quo - is fast ebbing away. The displaced’s ability to return to their homes and continue their lives has been hampered by the failure to implement the CFA and a number of subsequent other agreements.

But all this is coming to a head now. Whether President Rajapakse is genuine in his peace efforts or whether this is merely a cynical ploy to buy time to bolster the military is thus largely academic to the Tamils. The matter will be decided in the coming period: if there are no talks, then the violence will escalate and war is inevitable. If there are talks, but the agreements reached are not implemented, the same will happen.

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