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Lankan peace talks yes, but on what and where?

Chances of talks taking place in near future are dim as there is no agreement on what to talk and where to talk, writes PK Balachandran.
By PK Balachandran | None, Colombo
PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2006 01:48 PM IST

If the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, the 15 political parties of South Sri Lanka, and the LTTE agree on one thing — it is that peace talks are an urgent need.

But chances of talks actually taking place in the near future are dim because there is no agreement on what to talk and where to talk.

At the 15-party meeting convened by Rajapaksa in Colombo on Thursday, there was consensus on the need to start talks without delay, but on the question of the venue, there was discord.

Two of the President's key allies, the radical Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) said that the government should not accept the LTTE's demand that talks should be held only in Oslo, the capital of the facilitating country, Norway.

The radical Sinhala opinion is that the talks should be held in Colombo. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is President Rajapaksa's party, has proposed an Asian country as an alternative.

But being in the government, the SLFP may eventually accept Oslo if there is tremendous pressure from the international community. But such pressure does not seem to be forthcoming.

As for the LTTE, it has categorically stated that it will not agree to any venue other than Oslo.

The President himself was non-committal at Thursday's meeting. All that he said in his statement was that he would take all practical steps to get the talks started at the earliest and that he would keep the parties informed at every stage of the peace process.

LTTE's concerns

The LTTE is adamantly sticking to its demand for Oslo because it feels that the bid to have the talks outside Oslo and Europe, is a ploy to deny it access to Europe.

The government of Sri Lanka has for long tried to drive a wedge between the LTTE and Europe.

Colombo has been very keen that the European Union (EU) should ban the LTTE, especially after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005.

The LTTE is also of the view that there can be no talks till the ground situation in the North and East has not been normalised.

The LTTE blames the government forces and the "Tamil paramilitaries" for all the killings, claymore mine blasts, and grenade attacks there. But the government blames the LTTE for carrying out most of the attacks or indulging in grave provocations.

The LTTE says that the ban on deep sea fishing in much of the North and the enforcement of the 2 km limit for fishing have thrown out of work thousands fishermen's families.

Reprisal attacks by the Sri Lankan Navy following mine blasts or grenade attacks have created fear and have resulted in some fishermen fleeing to India by boat.

The expectation of war has led to over 4,000 families (or more than 15,000 persons) fleeing from Jaffna to the LTTE-controlled areas in Kilinochchi district further south.

The pro-LTTE students union in Jaffna University has been enforcing a boycott in protest against the presence of the Sri Lankan armed forces, the attacks on civilians and the various restrictions on the common man.

Sources in Jaffna said that there was an unofficial curfew after 6 pm and that no one would venture out in the dark. Hoarding of essential commodities has begun.

Chances of restoration of "normalcy" dim

Given the complete dissonance between the LTTE's perception and that of the government in every matter, there is little or no likelihood of the government restoring "normalcy" as the LTTE defines it. The LTTE then, may well say that there cannot talks unless the atmosphere is conducive for them.

High hopes about Solheim's visit

The people of the North East feel that the issue of peace or war will be decided on January 25, when the Norwegian peace envoy, Erik Solheim, meets the LTTE Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran in Kilinochchi.

The meeting which was in doubt earlier, will now definitely take place because Prabhakaran's political advisor and translator Anton Balasingham is coming down from his base in London.

But what is still not clear is what new proposals or modified proposals Solheim will be carrying after his talks with the Sri Lankan government in Colombo, and how far Prabhakaran will go to strike a compromise.

The fear is that the government and the LTTE may restate their known positions while indulging in platitudes about the need for peace, talks and the maintenance of the Ceasefire Agreement of December 2002.

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