TamilWeek Feb 12, 2006
President courting enemy and all to pursue
peace

Sweet music unlikely in the House on Valentine’s
Day

by Dharisha Bastians

For the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, it was a week to
eat humble pie. After the delegation for the talks in Geneva was
announced the previous week, the media took potshots at the
inexperienced team Colombo had put together, vis-à-vis the
battle-hardened LTTE delegation led by Anton Balasingham.

Now with the legal luminary Faiz Musthapha P.C. dropping out
to make way for an eastern Muslim, the government would be
further hard-pressed. But, according to unconfirmed reports,
President’s Counsel H.L. De Silva, who is currently in Australia,
is learnt to have agreed to offer his services in response to a
request from President Rajapaksa.

Quick to react to criticism, the government promptly organised
a workshop for increasing the knowledge base of its delegation
and the accompanying advisory team. Sharing their “insights”
about experiences across the negotiating table during the last
peace talks with the LTTE between 2001 and 2003, were none
other than members of the UNP. Professor G.L. Peiris who
functioned as the government’s chief negotiator at the last
round of talks during the UNF regime, addressed senior
Cabinet members, Foreign Ministry officials and officials of the
Government Peace Secretariat, in an effort to prep them for the
discussions in Geneva. Also addressing the high-level
government audience was former UNF Government chief
strategist Milinda Moragoda and Defence Secretary Austin
Fernando.This was the same delegation that, in the heat of the
run-up to last November’s Presidential poll, was criticized for
attempting to sell out Sri Lanka to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE). For those observing the interesting unfolding of
events, only one thing seems apparent – how the mighty have
fallen.

But to look at things more positively, it seems that President
Mahinda Rajapaksa is learning quickly into his term that the
best course of action when faced with alien situations is to arm
oneself with information and surround oneself with as good an
advisory team as is possible. Since ascending the Presidency,
Rajapaksa has with much haste thrown off his nationalist
hardline garb and chosen to tread a more moderate path. (His
supporters in the JVP/JHU during speeches on election
platforms fiercely criticized the peace process). While the
deception has well been noted, Sri Lankans have also been
relieved that their new President, at least, managed to avert a
resumption of the war, which seemed imminent in the first two
months of his Presidency. The international community too
played its part to prevent the LTTE from resuming hostilities.

US Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead officially conveyed the US
Government’s support for the forthcoming talks to the Head of
the Government delegation Nimal Siripala de Silva on
Thursday. Mr. de Silva, in turn, had informed him that President
Rajapaksa had paid special attention to the peace efforts of
previous regimes, including the successes and failures.

Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa told journalists at
the Cabinet briefing last week that the government was
attempting to prove that they were being well prepared for the
Geneva discussions. Workshops have been held and steering
committees appointed to ensure that the Tigers do not get an
advantage due to the immaturity in dealing with the peace
process on the part of the new administration.

The government’s haste to get as much training and
information before the February 22 talks drew a sardonic
response from LTTE Political Wing head S.P. Tamilselvam on
Thursday. Responding to a comment by a journalist in
Kilinochchi soon after the political chief held talks with the
Norwegian and Swiss Ambassadors, Tamilselvam flashed his
trademark smile and said, “We are very happy to hear that the
government is getting training for the talks. We don’t need such
training, we have already been briefed about what to do and we
will simply go ahead with it.”

Striking a more serious note, the LTTE politico said that he
hoped that, most importantly, the government team would
arrive for talks in Geneva with a better understanding of the
problems of the Tamil people than what they currently
possessed.

By all accounts, the Tigers are putting their foot down.
Tamilselvam has insisted that the talks in Geneva will be only
about implementation of the ceasefire, while LTTE Theoretician
and Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham reiterated this stand
when he met Norwegian Development Minister and Special
Peace Envoy to Sri Lanka, Eric Solheim at his Wimbledon
residence last week.

‘Bala’ urged the Norwegian envoy to convey to the government
that the LTTE was adamant about the ‘only CFA’ talks. He also
complained bitterly to Solheim that the government’s lethargy
with regard to the investigation into the TRO abductions was
not a good sign for the Geneva talks. “Our leader is watching
the developments with regard to the abductions very carefully.
What is the point of talks if these things continue to happen
even after the LTTE agrees to negotiate?” he told the
Norwegian Minister.

Mr. Solheim promised Mr. Balasingham that the President had
given him a personal assurance that the matter of the
abductions was being looked into in an unbiased and efficient
way.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, meanwhile, is taking no chances
with the Geneva talks. Not above requesting the assistance of
the Opposition in briefing the main delegation for the talks, the
President has also decided to put his foot down with regard to
media coverage of the talks.

Rajapaksa is believed to have told confidants that it was the
unlimited media access to the previously held rounds of talks
that had been the UNF’s undoing, and ordered that this be
checked this time around.

But quite apart from the battle of diplomacy across a
negotiating table that Rajapaksa’s government is gearing up
for, the Local Government elections scheduled to be held next
month is also posing its share of fights and fisticuffs.

The JVP has decided to go it alone, after having their ludicrous
demands turned down by the President and the SLFP. They
are to contest the Local Government polls under the Bell
symbol as a single party. The news does not bode well for the
SLFP, which has banked heavily on the JVP’s efficient
grassroots network to win the last two major elections. The
SLFP, now being compelled to lead the People’s Alliance
Coalition made up of several almost defunct political parties,
without the strength of the fiery reds. A full-blown conflict
erupted last week after the JVP issued a strong letter to UPFA
General Secretary Susil Premajayantha for submitting
nominations under the ‘bulathkole’ when the JVP was clearly
not in the mix. It is learnt that Premajayantha was compelled to
do so because Minister D.M. Jayaratne who is General
Secretary of the PA was not in the country at the time to
authorize the nominations.

Nominations opened on Thursday and the Tamil National
Alliance is learnt to have decided to contest the polls. The TNA
is likely to sweep the local councils in the North and East with
the help of the LTTE. It is a healthy development as it gives the
LTTE an opportunity to effect development of the region in a
legal way through the local councils. The controversial Interim
Self Governing Authority (ISGA) that stood in the way of
continuing/resuming peace talks would not be required as
development could take place through the councils even as
talks on a final settlement is pursued.

If the TNA contests, then there would not be a boycott of polls
in the North and East as was observed during the last
Presidential polls. But the TNA has requested the government
to postpone the polls and it is not clear whether the TNA would
contest if no postponement is granted.

No doubt the government’s decision to bring in the likes of
Professor Peiris and Austin Fernando to ‘brief’ the government
delegation will also not sit well with the Marxists, who have
incessantly accused both men of trying to hand Eelam on a
platter to the LTTE. When parliament reconvenes on February
14, the fireworks are imminent.

The UNP’s on-going battle for the Colombo Mayoral candidacy
is not making life easier for the main opposition party, while the
party’s lawyers also badly let down the team last week when it
went to court demanding an injunction to prevent nominations
for the Local Government polls because of the faulty electoral
register crisis. Making elementary mistakes, the UNP lawyers
allowed State Counsel to sweep the floor, with the court holding
with the state argument that the court should not consider the
application, as it was not properly prepared. For the Grand Old
Party to be slipping up in so childish a way does not in any way
inspire public confidence in its ability to be a formidable
opposition.

That said, the stage is set for talks to kick off on the fourth
anniversary of the much maligned ceasefire agreement, and it
is hoped that both parties will strike a compromise that will put
an end to the backtracking on the path to a permanent peace.
 
[Courtesy: DailyMirror]
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