TamilWeek Feb 26, 2006
Hostile stares to handshakes: Another
chance for peace

By Farah Mihlar Ahamed

Geneva – Anton Balasingham can smile after all. The stern,
hard look he adorned on the opening day of the Geneva
talks, had melted a day later into a cordial smile, whether it
was because he had become more comfortable with his
adversaries or if it was because he got what he wanted, is
the key question.

The government delegation were all smiles all along, though
it wasn’t clear what warranted it, considering that the red
carpet had been pulled from under their feet even before
they approached the negotiating table.

It would be misleading to negate the success of the Geneva
talks. As journalists, anxious to hear the outcome of the
talks, were kept waiting for more than two hours, speculation
was rife that the parties were unable to reach agreement.
Several scenarios were being conjured, including the
possibility of the Norwegian facilitator Erik Solheim walking in
and informing the media that a joint agreement could not be
reached.

However, as Ferial Ashraff later discreetly whispered to a
journalist, for 20 years of conflict, two hours of waiting is
nothing. Eventually the parties trickled in and Solheim made
the grand statement that the parties had reached an
agreement on some issues but, most importantly, the
process was to continue and a second round of talks was
set for April 21.

After having emphasised the importance of keeping
expectations low, Solheim, responding to a question posed
by this writer, admitted that the outcome had been far
greater than what he had expected.

His reaction was understandable. Considering these talks
were restricted only to the ceasefire, the result was
impressive. The decision to conduct a second round of talks
is very significant. It means the process will continue and as
long as there is continuation, violence will be limited. The
parties had approached the talks in a climate of extreme
distrust, hostility and scepticism and their ability to reach an
agreement must be construed a success. But the result of
the negotiations has vastly different meanings for both the
warring factions.

The success of the talks augurs well for President Mahinda
Rajapaksa and his government for two main reasons.
Firstly, they broke the ice with the LTTE, which, until now,
saw this Government definitively as extremist, hard-line and
unwilling to compromise. Secondly, the outcome will help
convince the people of Sri Lanka that they are capable of
manoeuvring a peace process, contrary to the impression
created of the government bent on war mongering.

At the very basic level, the Government delegation did not
give the impression it could even achieve this much. The
constitution and performance of the Government delegation
was sometimes worrying. First, it was questionable as to why
the Government needed four ministers to be part of their
delegation. Ferial Ashraff’s candidature as a woman and a
Muslim was justified. Rohitha Bogollagama played a
commendable role as spokesman for the team, although he
made a huge mistake in giving a press conference on the
eve of the talks. Speaking to the Sri Lankan media, that is
split down the line with extreme political affiliations, was
ridiculous as it exposed the extent of opposition the
Government has whilst the LTTE walked into the talks
brimming with confidence, portraying themselves as the
undisputed representatives of the Tamil people. Apart from
this poor judgement, Bogollagama played a crucial role in
protecting the government’s position. However, the role of
the other two Ministers appeared dubious. Nimal Siripala de
Silva, as head of delegation, was not given a chance to
open his mouth at the news conference and it was unclear
as to why someone who can’t be trusted or thought
incompetent to speak to the media, could head the
delegation. The three members, apart from the Minister,
specially the eminent lawyer H L de Silva, had important
tasks. But it is doubtful that all the government
representatives (with the exception of Sarala Fernando, the
Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva) who filled
the second row of chairs behind the delegates, were very
useful at the talks.

But the calamity for the Government delegation extended
beyond this. The Government had entered the talks
insisting on amendments to the ceasefire, it was imperative
to them, in keeping with their political mandate that changes
be made to the current agreement. However, they lost their
case even before they started the talks because the agenda
was set in a way that effectively excluded the possibility of
considering any changes to the CFA.

This restricted agenda haunted the Government delegation
all throughout. According to some sources, this stance had
dishevelled the government’s entire attitude to the talks,
they weren’t able to discuss what they had prepared for and
as a result their approach to the LTTE was marred by a
slight lack of coherence and strength.

Throughout the discussions the Government had tried to
undermine the character of the ceasefire, attempting to get
the LTTE to sideline its legally binding nature. As one official
explained, there is a significant difference in the meaning of
the term ‘ceasefire’ and ‘ceasefire agreement’. However, the
LTTE, supposedly backed by the Norwegians, insisted on
the fact that it was a legally binding agreement and could
not be undermined.

The debate spilled over to the formulating of the joint
statement as the Government again hesitated to have the
word ‘agreement’ in the statement. However, with an
uncompromising LTTE and after several consultations with
Colombo, it was agreed to keep the term ‘Ceasefire
Agreement’.

The LTTE also scored a second victory over the
Government in getting their commitment on the disarming of
paramilitary groups. According to the joint statement “The
GOSL is committed to taking all necessary measures in
accordance with the Ceasefire Agreement to ensure that no
armed group or person other than Government security
forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations.” Though
this sentence does not mention the word disarm, it says that
the Government will have to prevent such groups from
carrying arms in accordance with the CFA, which in Clause
1.8 specifies the word disarm.

However, the true nature of negotiations is evident in that
this very sentence also forced concessions from the LTTE.
The Tigers had argued for the usage of the term
paramilitary and had wanted the wording in the statement to
specify the word disarm. Though the government
inadvertently has committed to disarming the paramilitaries,
they succeeded in using the terminology of their preference.

The LTTE also had to sacrifice discussing the issue of High
Security Zones, which was critically important for the
organization. It was not immediately clear on what grounds
the hot topic was pushed for a later date. But for the LTTE it
would have certainly been a concession to have to
deprioritise it.

In all negotiating processes, opponents have to concede
and make compromises, the haggling that takes place at the
table is hardly as important as the later implications of these
positions.

For the LTTE, there is little to lose. At the most they have to
rest their cadres who have been extensively groomed to
fight. But considering that the rebels operate such
successful war machinery and have exceptionally good
internal propaganda mechanisms, they will make sure that
the right message is sent out to each and every cadre, who
will fight when there is war but will still be preparing to fight
when there is peace.

Apart from this, with a lack of accountability and limited
concern for international pressure, the implications of the
LTTE concessions in this negotiating process are minimal.

But even if we indulge in the petty argument that the
Government made equal or fewer compromises than the
LTTE, the more important issue is the consequences of
these concessions. President Rajapaksa has done more
than backtrack on a political position. He has had to
validate, and his government has committed itself to, an
agreement they have already condemned in the highest
terms. His coalition partners backed him on his refusal to
endorse the CFA. Are they now supposed to support his
decision to proceed with it?

Both parties have less than two months to get their acts
together and prove that what was discussed and agreed on
in Geneva is more than rhetoric. There are two key
elections in the next few months that will have a major
impact on the fate of Sri Lanka’s peace process. For the
Government, it will be the Local Government elections
where it will be important to see how the JVP and JHU
campaign -- will it be with the government or separately --
and how this position will influence their success. For the
LTTE, it will be the Tamil Nadu elections, which will
determine if its future policy should be one of war or of
peace.

There may also be other stumbling blocks like what
mechanism the Government can use to ensure members of
the Karuna faction are unarmed and LTTE political cadres
who return to work in the east will be protected.

The challenges that lie ahead are colossal. But, at least,
both parties were more amicable as all delegates shook
hands during the media conference. The extreme difference
in response from hostile stares to cordial handshakes spoke
volumes of the confidence built in the past two days. It is
obvious that the smiles will not be enough to ensure peace
in Sri Lanka but, at least momentarily, it has certainly
salvaged the country from returning to war.
[DailyMirror]