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SRI LANKA: Chandrika makes a tactical move: Update 67

Note No. 235             08. 08. 2004

by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

President Chandrika Kumaratunga resigned from the post of leader of UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) on August 4. The Presidential Secretariat said that the decision was due to pressure of work.

Chandrika became the leader of the UPFA after signing of MOU between SLFP ( Sri Lanka Freedom Party) and the JVP ( Janatha Vimukthi Perumana) on 20 January 2004 and have since fought the General elections and the Provincial elections. In both the elections, the alliance was beneficial to both the parties.

Chandrika’s place has been taken over by Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, a former Prime Minister (2000-2001) and a close confidante of President Chandrika.

Ratnasiri Wickremanayake started his political career in 1960 as a member of the MEP ( Mahajana Eksath Perumana), then moved on to SLFP and was its General Secretary in 1977. Wickremanayake was more known for the trust President Chandrika had in him in that he was made acting President when Chandrika was away in London for a few days on a private visit! More importantly he made that famous suggestion in June 2001, calling on the people to have large families to swell the ranks of monks and soldiers and put a stop to the "Small is beautiful Campaign" started in the 70s. The reason was more astonishing as his suggestion was due to the poor response to army’s recruitment!

Is it a tactical move to deal with the ethnic crisis and go ahead with peace talks? It does not look like that, though many analysts believe that it was due to the insistence of JVP not to continue the dialogue with the ISGA proposals given by the LTTE as the basis for negotiations, that the peace talks are stalled. There is no doubt that the JVP had insisted on decentralisation rather than devolution and this was evident even in the MOU signed between the two parties. But there has never been any serious internal dialogue between the two parties on this question and it is quite possible that the JVP would relent.

As recently as August 2, President Chandrika while addressing the UPFA Executive Council Meeting held at her house declared that her government is not ready to go for Peace talks on the basis of the ISGA proposals. If there were differences between her party and the JVP, it would have been known by now when she resigned the post of leader the next day. At least the JVP that believes in a transparent relationship would have responded by now. Therefore it looks that it is the SLFP that is insisting on discussion on core issues along with the ISGA proposals.

Perhaps many differences have arisen over the implementation of "Pancha Maha Piliweth" that relate to the economy, ethnic harmony, strengthening democracy, cultural and foreign policy issues. The JVP quite new to the administration, feels choked with bureaucratic hurdles, corruption and lack of focus. The President by distancing herself from the day to day administration is in a better position to deal with the problems involved between the two groups rather than being part of it.

Stalemate in Peace talks continues. The visiting Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgessen despite three days of talks with both the government and the LTTE could show no progress in the resumption of talks. All he could say was that both the parties are committed to Peace!

He could not suppress his disappointment when he made two significant points. which showed up his frustration. First he said that "the cease fire agreement is not the peace agreement. It only means that war has been frozen. Today the frozen peace is melting at the edges. This is not a good thing." The second point he made was that people are strongly in favour of peace but, not in favour of the peace process!

The Norwegians must be aware by now that it is not going to be easy to bridge the gap between the two parties even for the resumption of talks, leave alone the final settlement. Today the talks are stuck on "talks on talks" and not on talks as such. Where they are making a mistake is in talking diplomatically when clear cease fire violations are being made by both sides and more by the LTTE. The result has been that the LTTE is eliminating with impunity all those opposed to them and is settling old scores. The recent killing of a senior PLOTE cadre in Colombo is one example.

Killings continue. In the last one month there has been a spate of killings. The human rights watch of New York has expressed serious concerns and had asked both the LTTE and the Karuna group to halt the killings. Two most gruesome ones were the open admission and execution of two pro Karuna members on July 8. Their bodies were found near the road side, blind folded and manacled. In another incident eight more people of Karuna Faction who were staying in a safe house in Colombo at Kollupitiya were killed on 26th July while they were asleep. The LTTE indirectly admitted to the killings by declaring that the perpetrators had sought asylum with them!

Attacks on LTTE cadres by Karuna’s faction should also cause concern with increasing evidence of government’s support for Karuna. One TNA member openly accused the Tourism minister Anura Bandaranaike of accompanying Karuna to Singapore and then to Malaysia. This was quickly denied, but Anura feels that his life is in danger.

There is no doubt that many LTTE death squads are on the prowl in Colombo itself to locate Karuna and his associates. Clashes among the security forces, LTTE groups and Karuna’s faction cannot be ruled out. The Norwegian facilitators and the SLMM will be faced with the dauntless task of maintaining peace.

The LTTE is making a big mistake in thinking that by openly eliminating some members of Karuna Faction and perhaps Karuna himself, the east could be regained. While strategically it may not be important for LTTE to dominate the east for the present, what is would lose are the sympathy and backing of the east for the larger cause of the Tamils. In short term, it would find it difficult to get recruits from the east as the north does not have enough manpower to swell its ranks.

It is still not clear why the dialogue process cannot be restarted. We have said before that GOSL should relent from their position and talk on ISGA proposals of the LTTE for two reasons. One, accepting to talk on the ISGA does not mean acceptance of the proposal itself. Secondly the proposals do contain many core issues which can be discussed In having face to face meetings, many of the charges and counter charges on cease fire violations and support to Karuna’s group could also be discussed.

Many theories are doing the rounds in Colombo as to why the Government is not keen to start the talks now. Two main arguments on behalf of the government are being given for prolonging the current stalemate. The first is that the government does not want to renew the negotiations on a "position of parity". Arising out of this, is the assessment that negotiations with LTTE would yield results if the LTTE is weakened. This latter scenario is based on the current split within the LTTE in the east.

All one could say is that it is wishful thinking. Parity has been conceded in the cease fire agreement itself. In fact when the question of vacation of high security zones by the army came up, it was the SLMM which reiterated this position that the balance of power (meaning strategic position) should not be changed.

LTTE is not likely to wait indefinitely until it is weakened to renew the talks. Repeated strident calls by the LTTE that they would renew the hostilities if war is thrust on them should not be dismissed lightly.

There is also a view seen in the media that the LTTE feels that the position of parity is threatened by interference of too many international actors in the crisis and therefore is not willing to continue the dialogue.

This does not appear to be the correct position. LTTE’s position on the ISGA was made clear by Prabakaran in his meeting with Norwegian Foreign minister in May and they have stuck to the position.

It is our view that the peace process is entering into a critical phase and the extended stalemate cannot continue indefinitely. Even the cease fire may not hold unless both parties are desirous of getting into a dialogue soon.