MADRAS, India — The five rounds of talks in as many months between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, are perhaps the most significant development in South Asia in almost two decades. The discussions began after the two sides called a truce.
Under leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers had waged war for nearly 20 years to gain independence for Sri Lanka’s Hindu/Christian Tamil-speaking minority. However, this goal has now been dropped, much to the relief of the country’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
The Tamils and the Sinhalese are now grappling with issues such as how to rewrite the Sri Lanka Constitution, and when the Tigers should be disarmed.
While it is not known why Prabhakaran abandoned his hardline position, the most likely reason is Washington’s decision to label the LTTE a terrorist organization in the wake of 9/11.
Although earlier truces have seldom lasted beyond a few weeks, the current ceasefire between Colombo and the Tigers has held for a year now. And unlike in the past, when Prabhakaran treated ceasefires as opportunities to rearm, regroup and enlist more cadres (often children as young as 12), this time there has been no such activity.
The latest negotiations were brokered by Norway, but they were held largely under the leadership of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is, of course, aware that the talks cannot go on endlessly — he often cites the Israeli- Palestinian process as a failed effort.
“What I am trying to do,” he says, “is move things fast this year to make them irreversible.”
The present ceasefire has driven some important points home for both sides: Colombo and the LTTE realize that there is no acceptable alternative to dialogue, given the fact that neither side can crush the other militarily, and they know that if the peace process fails, war could continue for decades.
For the average Sri Lankan — both Tamil and Sinhalese — the peace has brought back the country’s glorious days. Life has more or less returned to normal. Colombo’s hotels and clubs are throbbing with excitement, and tourists from as far away as China and Japan have returned to the emerald-green island. They savor local delicacies served on banana leaves, and gamble the night away at the casinos. Sri Lanka hopes to receive 500,000 visitors this year.
But all this could come to naught if Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga — who belongs to a different political party than Wickremesinghe, continues to place obstacles in the path of the prime minister and Prabhakaran.
It is well known that Kumaratunga has as little love for Wickremesinghe as she has for Prabhakaran. Her own efforts to bring about a rapprochement in the country ended in 1999 after an assassination attempt left her blind in one eye. The president and her political allies have been complaining about not being included in the talks, have been lambasting the LTTE for every little violation of the ceasefire and have been complaining that life under Wickremesinghe is getting harder.
In fact, relations between the two Sri Lankan officials have hit such a low that they go out of their way to avoid each other. Recently, the prime minister abruptly left a Buddhist pilgrimage center when he found that the president was already there.
Will this squabble between the two mar the last chance for tranquillity in Sri Lanka? Those who wish to play the role of a spoilsport should consider that the civil war has left 65,000 people, including two heads of government in Sri Lanka and a former Indian prime minister dead. They must also realize that Wickremesinghe and Prabhakaran’s efforts represent the best chance for peace since the fighting began.
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