Feature Article

Peace talks are going well, say Chief Negotiators

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 07 January 2003, 18:19 GMT]
(News Feature) The Sri Lankan government conceded this week that the resettlement of Tamil refugees and internally displaced people in areas occupied by its military forces could not be made conditional on the disarming of the Liberation Tigers, as demanded by the Army. Following two days of discussion, hailed by both sides as “constructive,” the government also said it would begin to reallocate its troops based amongst civilians in the Jaffna peninsula.

The Sri Lanka military’s controversial occupation of large tracts of residential areas from which people had fled as well as large numbers of homes and private properties in populated areas of the Jaffna peninsula was taken up this week at the fourth round of Norwegian facilitated direct talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government which began Monday at the Rose Garden hotel, 32km west of Bangkok.

The sudden agreement reached by both sides Tuesday eased fears raised last week that the Norwegian peace process in Sri Lanka had run into serious difficulties over the issue of the military’s High Security Zones (HSZs).

The LTTE and Sri Lankan delegations to this weeks’ talks are led by Chief Negotiators, Mr. Balasingham and Prof. G. L Peiris respectively. Following the agreement, both struck an upbeat tone while speaking separately to reporters.

“The peace talks are going very well. There is no crisis,” Mr. Balasingham said. “Both parties are still engaged in dialogue. There is no suspicion or mistrust [between the two sides].”

Prof. Peiris dismissed claims that “irreconcilable differences” would cause the talks to breakdown. “Nothing of the sort happened," he said.

The Sri Lanka Army’s (SLA) demand that the LTTE disarms its cadres and decommissions its heavy weapons as a precondition for hundreds of thousands of Tamils to be permitted to resettle in their homes provoked acrimony and a strong rejection from the LTTE ahead of the talks.

But the problem was discussed at length by the LTTE and the Sri Lanka government Tuesday and a resolution agreed, both Chief Negotiators said.

“The government accepted that the Army cannot link the disarming of the LTTE to resettlement of refugees and displaced people,” Mr. Balasingham said. The LTTE had argued that “the Army’s preconditions for allowing resettlement is unfair, unrealistic and unacceptable,” he said.

“The decommissioning of the LTTE weapons cannot be taken up until a permanent political solution has been reached,” Mr. Balasingham said further.

The SLA has “an overwhelming presence” amongst the population of Jaffna Mr. Balasingham said, adding that growing public frustration was raising tensions. “This [blocking of refugee resettlement] is the major issue [of the day],” he said.

“The Army [had thus] transformed a major humanitarian issue into a military problem,” Mr. Balasingham said Tuesday.

The SLA demand for the LTTE to disarm was outlined in a document sent to the Tigers by the Jaffna Army commander, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Fonseka’s hostile and belligerent letter, which addressed the LTTE as ‘terrorists,’ promptly provoked a strong reaction from the Tigers, who also rejected the demand outright.

Fonseka’s “hardline” stance was being supported by the SLA commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle and Sri Lanka’s executive President, Candrika Kumaratunga, he said further. The latter is a harsh critic of the Norwegian peace process and efforts to reallocate troops.

The United National Front (UNF) government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe “saw the issue differently,” Mr. Balasingham said, adding “We have had cordial and constructive discussions with the government on this.”

The government was prepared to expedite the process of resettlement, he said. As a first step, the return of refugees and displaced people to homes occupied by the SLA in areas outside the HSZs would take place first, it was agreed.

“It [the extent of the SLA presence] is daunting in its proportions ... the sensible thing is to deal with the problems outside the high security zone,” Prof. Peiris told PTI.

He said the pragmatic approach of both sides was refreshing. "You have a large problem. One segment of it can be dealt with immediately and in doing so, you can provide relief to thousands of people and you can do it immediately without any difficulties.”

The government has meanwhile sought the help of international military experts to see how the HSZ can be restructured without impacting the SLA’s defensive security, Prof. Peiris said: “We are awaiting a report from an independent expert who will give us valuable advice.”

A PTI report Tuesday meanwhile quoted official sources as saying retired Indian army general Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar was conducting the study. He had been commissioned last month by Colombo to assess security implications in the Jaffna peninsula, the PTI said.

Lt. Gen. Nambiar’s report is expected to focus on re-locating and re-organising the military presence in the Jaffna peninsula, the PTI said.

However, despite the agreement reached between the two sides Tuesday, it remained to be seen whether the Sri Lanka military would honour the government’s pledge, Mr. Balasingham said, pointing out that “there are two [rival] centres of power in Sri Lanka.”

“The Tamils have a bitter experience of broken promises [by Sri Lankan governments],” he said further. “Whether the President and the Jaffna commander would implement the [UNF’s] agreement [with the LTTE] is questionable.”

“As long as Fonseka remains the Jaffna commander, nothing will happen,” he cautioned, criticizing the General’s “rigid and paranoid” position over the resettlement of refugees.

Mr. Balasingham’s negotiating team comprises, Mr. S.P. Tamilselvan, head of the LTTE’s political section, Colonel Karuna, Batticaloa-Ampara Special Commander and Mrs. Adele Balasingham, Secretary to the delegation.

Amongst the LTTE’s resource people attending the talks are legal expert Mr. Visuwanathan Rudrakumaran, Dr. Jay Maheswaran, a development expert and Mr. Pulidevan, head of the LTTE’s Peace Secretariat.

Prof. Peiris’s team comprises Ministers Milinda Moragoda and Rauf Hakeem and Director of Sri Lanka’s Peace Secretariat, Bernard Gunatillake.

The Norwegian facilitators are led by Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr. Vidar Helegesen and included Erik Solheim, special advisor to Norway’s Foreign Ministry, and Oslo’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mr. Jon Westborg.


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