US muddies the waters

Asia Times, Hong Kong
April 17, 2003

By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The Sri Lankan peace process seems to have hit choppy waters. While the threat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to pull out of a crucial donor meet scheduled for June in Tokyo has set alarm bells ringing, it is the international community's declining interest in the peace process that is perhaps reason for greater concern.

The Tigers are miffed that they were kept out of a preparatory aid conference convened by the US early this week in Washington. The Tigers were not invited to the Washington conference as the LTTE is listed as a foreign terrorist organization in the US.

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who hosted the talks, said that the US would consider withdrawing the designation of the LTTE as terrorist if the organization would "unequivocally renounce terrorism in word and in deed". "The way the current negotiations are going, the United States can see a future for the LTTE as a legitimate political organization, but it is still up to the LTTE to change this situation," he added.

Responding angrily to the "deliberate exclusion", the LTTE leadership in an official statement issued from Kilinochchi threatened to "review its decision" to participate in the forthcoming Tokyo talks. It has charged the Sri Lankan government of trying to marginalize the LTTE at the Washington conference and accused the government and the Norwegian facilitators of failing to ensure the LTTE's participation in the conference by selecting "an appropriate venue". It has accused the government of "gross violation of pledges". It has pointed out that both sides had agreed to "work together and approach the international community [for funds] in partnership".

This is not the first time that the LTTE has threatened to pull out of the talks since direct negotiations between the government and the Tigers began in September last year. The participation of the Tigers in the last round seemed doubtful as the talks were preceded by a marked cooling in relations between the two sides. At that time too, the LTTE had threatened to boycott the talks. That the talks did take place eventually was seen by some as an achievement in itself and a sign of the new maturity of both sides in dealing with each other.

What makes the LTTE threat seem more worrying this time is that it has come at a time when the process does not seem to be making progress and against a backdrop of mounting Tiger impatience with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's government. Hitherto, the Tigers had reserved their criticism for President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the armed forces. They had avoided disparaging Wickremesinghe’s administration. Now the Tigers have turned on Wickremesinghe as well.

Accusing the Wickremesinghe administration of 'impotence', the LTTE has questioned the efficacy of the negotiation process as "decisions and agreements reached at the peace talks are not being implemented".

Even as the Tigers were venting out their anger at the Lankan government, the Norwegian facilitators and the US, Kumaratunga was in India discussing the peace process with Indian leaders. Kumaratunga is a bitter critic of Wickremesinghe’s peace initiative. She has been accusing his government of giving in too much to LTTE demands.

India has been expressing support for a negotiated settlement of the Sri Lankan conflict. However, its own bitter experience with the Tigers in the late 1980s and the fact that the LTTE is a proscribed organization in India, with its leader Velupillai Prabakaran wanted for the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, has made Delhi wary, limiting its involvement in the ongoing negotiations. While Sri Lanka's experience with Indian involvement in the conflict has been far from pleasant, it recognizes that the peace process cannot succeed without India's blessings. Both Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe have made several trips to brief New Delhi on the peace process

During her visit to India last week, Kumaratunga expressed her serious misgivings about the way the process was going. She told The Hindu that the LTTE is running a de facto state and that it is using the ceasefire to build its arsenal, and recruit and train new cadres. She blamed Wickremesinghe for letting the LTTE do whatever it wants.

Since the start of the talks, analysts have been pointing to two threats to the peace process – the LTTE and Kumaratunga. Given the LTTE's history of walking out of talks, its militarist nature and its commitment to an independent state and armed struggle to achieve it, few have faith that the Tigers will accept a political settlement to the conflict. Skeptics maintain that the LTTE is taking what it can from the negotiations and will go back to the battlefield at an opportune time.

The other threat is the one posed by the president. The president has the power to dissolve parliament. This is possible given her hostile equation with the prime minister. Should she do this, Wickremesinghe's peace initiative will be in tatters.

Both threats to the peace process are real. In her interview to The Hindu, Kumaratunga, while saying that she would not scuttle the peace process, did warn that she would take "action" to stop any move that would threaten Sri Lanka's integrity and sovereignty.

However, the immediate threat to the peace process appears to be that from the international community's declining interest in the Lankan peace process. It was the solid support that process got from the international community so far that made a negotiated settlement to the decades-long conflict in Sri Lanka within the realm of possibility.

Now with international attention diverted by the Iraq crisis, it does seem that the Sri Lankan process has been put on the backburner. Sri Lanka, it seems, will have to compete with Iraq for funds from donors. The US, UK and Japan are among the key prospective donors to the rehabilitation of the war-torn Sri Lankan northeast. But these countries are already making plans for the reconstruction of Iraq.

This is triggering anxiety and insecurity among the Lankan leaders. Minister of Economic Reforms and a member of the Lankan government's negotiating team at the talks, Milinda Moragoda, pointed out, "The key players at the Tokyo donor conference happen to be the same as those in the coalition to rebuild Iraq. So we have to fight for attention to ensure our share." His fears were echoed by Japan's special peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, who admitted that the war in Iraq might have a negative impact on the Tokyo donor conference.

If the international donors' contribution towards the rebuilding of the strife-scarred Tamil areas is affected adversely, the resettlement of the internally displaced and other rehabilitation programs would be further delayed. That would erode popular support for the peace process in the Tamil areas. It would enable the LTTE to stoke the resulting Tamil disenchantment with the negotiations and mobilize the Tamils on the issue.

Above all, it would give an LTTE yet another stick with which to beat up the government for failing to live up to its pledges.

©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd.

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