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It's Sri Lanka week in New Delhi

Top Lankan Govt officials will be in New Delhi to brief Indian leaders about the peace process, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2006 19:49 IST

This week is going to be "Sri Lanka Week" in the Indian capital.

Over the next few days, beginning on Monday, top Sri Lankan government officials, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Norwegian peace facilitators will be in New Delhi to brief Indian leaders about the peace process in the island.

The Leader of the Opposition United National Party (UNP), Ranil Wickremesinghe, is already in New Delhi on a two-day official visit.

He will be followed by the Foreign Secretary HMGS Palihakkara and the Defence Secretary, Gothabaya Rajapaksa.

The Norwegian Peace broker and Minister of International Development, Erik Solheim, possibly accompanied by the newly appointed hands-on facilitator Jon Hanssen-Bauer, is expected to be in New Delhi towards the end of the week.

Informed sources in New Delhi told Hindustan Times that the frenetic activity was indicative of the behind-the-scenes role India was playing in the Sri Lankan peace process.

Opposition leader Wickremesinghe would be told about the importance of working with the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to bring about a "Southern consensus" on the ethnic question and the peace process.

New window of opportunity

According to Sri Lanka watchers in New Delhi, this is a "now or never" opportunity for the ruling United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the opposition United National Party (UNP) to work together on the peace process.

They see a new "window of opportunity" in the situation created by last week's local bodies elections in Sri Lanka, which the UPFA, led by Rajapaksa, had swept, and which had resulted in the sidelining of Sinhala extremist groups like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which were standing in the way of progress in the peace process.

According to the Sri Lankan watchers, the election results have shown three things:

1) the Rajapaksa government is politically stronger now than ever before.
2) Rajapaksa is no longer a political hostage of Sinhala extremist parties like the JVP and the JHU, the latter having revealed their small base by standing alone.
3) UNP leader Wickremesinghe has less reason now to avoid forging an UNP-UPFA understanding on the ethnic issue because the election results have effectively sidelined Chandrika Kumaratunga, the UPFA leader who he could never get along with. Rajapaksa is now the unquestioned leader of the UPFA. 

"Conditions now are ideal for a southern consensus," one source said.

Delhi fears drift

New Delhi is also concerned about the possibility of a "drift" in the peace process.

Inertia, fears about taking bold steps, and satisfaction with the "No War No Peace" situation, may combine to make the peace process drift.

But drift may have unforeseen consequences, the Sri Lanka watchers fear.

"If Sri Lanka is to stabilise and progress, it must solve the political problem underlying the ethnic conflict. Drifting won't do," one source said.

Officials in New Delhi are expected to take this line when they meet the Sri Lankan Foreign and Defence Secretaries later in the week.

As per prior arrangement, Indian and Sri Lankan foreign secretaries brief each other on matters of mutual interest including the peace process.

Sri Lankan newspapers are saying that the Sri Lankan officials are going to disabuse the Indian side of any apprehension that it may have about President Rajapaksa's just concluded visit to Islamabad.

Sources in New Delhi however say that India does not view the visit as a strategic set back to it.

The only interesting thing about the visit is the $10 million credit line, which Sri Lanka will be giving to Pakistan to enable Pakistani businessmen to buy Sri Lankan products.

Solheim's sojourn

The visit of the Norwegian Peace Facilitators to New Delhi is part of the on-going system of keeping the Indians informed about the peace process.

But this particular visit assumes special importance in view of the fact that the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE are scheduled to meet for the second time in Geneva on April 19.

There are unresolved and ticklish issues like the LTTE's demand for the disarming of the Tamil paramilitaries, and the government's concern about the smuggling of armaments by the LTTE.

These issues could delay, postpone or rock the Geneva Round II.

New Delhi, like the rest of the international community, desires that the talks be held, and that the issues be approached with a view to resolving them, in the interest of the political and economic stability of Sri Lanka.