Feature Article

Eye of the storm?

[TamilNet, Saturday, 26 November 2005, 08:31 GMT]
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s first address to his Parliament had been keenly, albeit warily, anticipated by those concerned about the peace process. Elected on a hardline nationalist platform (and having easily drawn the majority of Sinhala votes), Rajapakse’s speech curiously received the press coverage of a pro-peace candidate: that he wanted to hold "direct" talks with the Liberation Tigers. But peace advocates paying close attention to his policy statement would have been thoroughly alarmed.

Mahinda Rajapakse
Not only does Rajapakse seem to have foreclosed negotiations with the LTTE by ruling out discussion on the immediate and ‘core’ issues in Sri Lanka’s peace process, he is proposing the dismantling of its foundations: the February 2002 ceasefire and Norwegian facilitation.

Within hours of the Sri Lanka’s election commission announcing Mr. Rajapakse’s vote tally had surpassed the requisite 50%, the new Norwegian government extended its congratulations and extended a clear offer to resume peace facilitation.

But President-elect Rajapakse did not respond. Indeed, he did not even acknowledge Oslo’s extended hand either at his swearing in speech or in the days afterwards.

Through the furore over the boycott and the horsetrading for cabinet posts which gripped Colombo last week, his deafening silence has been unsettling the optimists who had hoped the practicalities of power would prevail over rash campaign promises. Their growing anxieties were confirmed Friday.

Whilst the Lankan President has called for ‘direct’ talks – which, in the context of a marginalized Oslo, means something less promising than many of Friday’s press reports have assumed – he has rejected both the immediate and strategic agendas that the Tamils might have expected the LTTE to put on the table.

Parliament Opening
Sri Lankan President entering the chamber of Parliament Friday

With regards a permanent solution, Rajapakse bluntly rejected the concept of a Tamil homeland and the notion of self-determination. That has effectively put paid to the notions of power-sharing, federalism etc, given that these are underpinned by both the homeland concept and the ‘internal’ self-determination principle.

With regards immediate issues that talks might have focussed on, Rajapakse has, firstly, rejected the idea of sharing tsunami related aid pledged by international donors with the LTTE.

Dismissing the Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure (PTOMS), the internationally-backed joint mechanism signed by his predecessor, Rajapakse has said only the Jaya Lanka" (Victory to Lanka) reconstruction programme run by the government will handle tsunami funds.

Given that aid has been used by the international community as an inducement to both sides for talks – a sweetner or, more realistically, a cold conditionality – Rajapakse’s refusal to share aid with the Tigers severely reduces the draw of peace talks for them.

Parliament Opening
Rajapakse delivering policy speech
More important is his refusal to countenance an interim administration. Whilst the matter did not even merit comment – and given President Rajapakse’s well known hardline positions, no one really expected it to – it would undoubtedly have been a strong draw for the LTTE.

In effect, whilst there is, in principle, an offer for the LTTE to come for negotiations, both the short term and long term matters the LTTE might have been tabled have already been ruled out. What, the Tigers might ask, are we to talk about?

Given this, President Rajapakse pointedly did not put forward an alternative agenda. He repeated the abstract declaration of his election campaign – “the political solution to a lasting peace should be based on a consensus reached through discussions among all parties linked to the problem and it should receive the approval of majority of the people of this country.”

The latter simply means the Sinhala majority must endorse the solution, but it is not clear who are to come to the consensus. It is also not clear what – if self-determination and territory-linked power sharing are ruled out – what the consensus is to be reached on.

Amid these confusions are, of course, the sweeping structural changes to the peace process that President Rajapakse has proposed - and which he seems determined to unilaterally carry out.

To begin with, he seems to have ruled out a major role for the Norwegians. Without a single reference to Oslo, he cryptically declared to Parliament: “the facilitation and mediation extended by the United Nations and other such organisations that support peace in Sri Lanka, all friendly countries, the international community, India and other regional states will be properly organised and utilized to strengthen the peace process.”

What this means is open to interpretation, but clearly Norway is not welcome – a point made more explicit by the bitter tirade against Oslo unleashed by Rajapakse’s campaign partners, the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP).

Seasoned observers of Sri Lanka’s conflict are well aware of the difficulties of finding a mutually acceptable peace broker who would also be prepared to stake their reputation on resolving it. In the light of the past week, that might now include Norway also.

The LTTE has not made any comment this week and undoubtedly the Heroes Day address on Sunday by the movement’s leader, Vellupillai Pirapaharan, will shed considerable light on the movement's stance on the peace process.

But what is clear is that Sri Lanka’s new leadership is tossing out the remaining struts of the peace process one by one.

The most dangerous of these is Rajapakse’s declaration “the current ceasefire Agreement will be revised to … safeguard national security, prevent terrorist acts, … and introduce an open and transparent ceasefire monitoring machinery.”

Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse
Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse
What this means is unsettlingly unclear. The agreement, as might be expected by definition, was reached between the two protagonists by a process of negotiation. The February 2002 bilateral truce, moreover, replaced two parallel, but unilateral ceasefires being observed by the LTTE and the United National Front (UNF) government.

As a signatory, Sri Lanka is locked into the internationally monitored truce. Any revision requires the consent of the LTTE – and that includes any changes to the structure or makeup of the supervision – the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM).

The LTTE has refused to countenance a revision of the agreement or the monitoring mission, but has agreed to discuss implementation of the truce.

The question then is whether the Lankan President is going to take Sri Lanka out of the agreement. It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage what might happen.

Related Articles:
24.11.05   Don't seek Norwegian assistance, JVP tells Rajapakse
06.10.05   Doyen of FP, uncompromising on Tamil National question
06.04.05   JVP slams NGOs, western countries for meddling
02.03.05   Sinhala nationalists vow to oppose west, 'neo colonialism'
12.11.03   ‘Can’t achieve anything with the Constitution’ – Victor Ivan
09.08.03   ‘Tamil question is not a minority issue' – Prof. Uyangoda
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