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'Equality' issue stalls SL peace process

This one of main factors holding up the start of talks on Ceasefire Agreement execution, reports PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Jan 10, 2006 23:14 IST

One of the main factors holding up the start of talks on the implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Sri Lanka is the issue of "equality" of the two parties, namely, the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE, according to an informed Tamil source.

The source said that the LTTE was not agreeing to GOSL's proposal to hold the talks in an Asian country or South Africa, because it felt that the government could not lay down conditions of this sort unilaterally.

The question of the venue should be discussed bilaterally on the basis of equality, the LTTE feels.

The Tamil rebel group has been claiming equality, if not sovereign equality, with the GOSL for a long time. But the latter cannot grant it because it is the internationally recognized sovereign in the island of Sri Lanka.

However, while that has been the de-jure position, de facto, the LTTE has in the past secured equal treatment in some matters.

Sources said that during the Oslo donors' conference in December 2002, the LTTE had insisted on equality of treatment and secured it, albeit in a symbolic way.

The Norwegian government had given the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the chief LTTE delegate Anton Balasingham, the same level of security. On the opening day, they even made their entry into the conference hall simultaneously! In the formal talks, the LTTE's Tiger flag as well as the government's Lion flag were on the table.

Why LTTE insists on Oslo

The LTTE insists that the two parties should meet in Oslo, at least for the preliminaries, because Norway is the officially accredited facilitator. Oslo is therefore an eminently neutral place. A decision on subsequent venues could be discussed bilaterally.

The LTTE thinks that the GOSL is insisting on a non-Western venue for two other reasons:

(1) To de-link or alienate the rebel outfit from the West
(2) To minimise the influence of the West on the peace process.

Why GOSL does not want Oslo

The GOSL, on the other hand, does not want Oslo, basically because it has no trust in Norway or indeed the rest of the West. It is putting up with Norway as the facilitator only because it has no alternative now.

The GOSL fears that the US, Europe, Norway and Japan (the co-chairs of the 2003 Tokyo donors' conference) have the ability to impose a solution on it.

The South Sri Lankan polity, on which the government of Sri Lanka rests primarily, has grave doubts about the West's commitment to the preservation of the unity and integrity of the country.

The South Sri Lankan polity has greater faith in India in this regard because it believes that India is afraid of the emergence of a separate and militant Tamil state in the island at its southern doorstep. This is the reason why there is a clamour for a greater and more direct Indian involvement in the peace process.

Insistence on establishment of normalcy

Insistence on the restoration of "normalcy" may be another way in which the LTTE may be planning to stall the beginning of the talks on the ceasefire agreement.

According to the Tamil daily Sudar Oli the LTTE feels that there can be no talks when the ground situation in the Tamil-speaking North East is tense, with murders, assassinations, and clashes between the Sri Lankan armed forces and locals occurring on a daily basis.

For any talks to begin, there should be a conducive atmosphere, but such an atmosphere does not exist now, the LTTE feels, according to Sudar Oli.

The LTTE says that the first thing that the GOSL should do is to implement clause 1.8 of the CFA and disband or transfer the Tamil paramilitary groups, which have been targeting unarmed LTTE cadres and supporters. But the government insists that there are no Tamil paramilitary groups and the Karuna group is but a breakaway faction of the LTTE.

Solheim's visit critical

In this context, the visit of the Norwegian Special Envoy Erik Solheim, beginning on January 23, is of critical importance.

"Whether we will have war or peace will be decided after January 23," said a Jaffna resident.

Solheim has asked for a meeting with the LTTE Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran in Kilinochchi to thrash out crucial matters in view of the delicate condition of the CFA and the peace process.

The Norwegians have said that there can be no real progress in the peace process without them having contact with the LTTE at the highest level.

But till date it is not clear if the elusive Prabhakaran will meet Solheim.

It is well known that Prabhakaran will not talk to any foreign dignitary without his political advisor cum interpreter Anton Balasingham by his side.

But Balasingham lives in London, and due to indifferent health, he avoids travel. Besides, the GOSL may itself come under fire from Sinhala nationalists for providing any special privileges to Balasingham like a chopper to go the LTTE headquarters.

Rajapaksa consults parties

Meanwhile, in an effort to build a South Sri Lankan consensus, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has begun a series of consultations with various political parties.

On January 19, there is going to be a conference in which all political parties represented in parliament, civil society and religious groups are going to participate.

At the meeting, the President hopes to test the waters in regard to various proposals to strengthen the CFA and take the peace process forward. The exercise will help him have meaningful talks with Solheim.

First Published: Jan 10, 2006 22:51 IST