TamilWeek Feb 26, 2006
Facets of one-upmanship in Switzerland

By Malinda Seneviratne

Substance is not the same thing as form. Packaging is
more important than what is inside. These are a couple of
truisms that, lamentably, define this age of ours, the
century of spectacle. And so, it is not surprising that the two
parties facing each other for the first time in some three
years are focused, as much or more on the wrapping paper
of the discussion, as on the agenda itself.

‘That’s politics’ is an easy excuse and pardonable too,
considering the history of negotiations between the
Government and the LTTE, in my view nothing more,
nothing less than a circus, where our so-called
representatives bent over backwards to submit to
Balasingham’s agenda, taking care not to utter any
complaint of significance, for fear of upsetting, tripping or,
in other ways, compromising the enemy (only someone who
does not understand things like nation, self-interest and
even self-respect, could consider Balasingham a ‘friend’ or
‘partner’, I believe). If, indeed, politics is this, then there is
little room to hope, but then again, if this is the context we
have to operate in, then we have little choice but to
manoeuvre within it.

One thing is certain, though, the packaging did provoke
enough entertainment. It started the moment it was
announced that talks will be held in Geneva. Actually, the
talks are not in Geneva, strictly speaking, but some 20-odd
miles away, in Celigny. The Celigny Talks, then, started way
back in January, with both sides jockeying for positional
advantage, via all kinds of media games.

The run-up, we all know, is as important as the talks. From
the word go, the LTTE did its best to discredit the
Government. The LTTE’s propaganda machine, especially
their website, planted stories about alleged atrocities
committed by the armed forces. Knowing very well that the
issue of child soldiers would be brought up in Celigny, they
launched a white-washing exercise, blaming it all on
Karuna. This was to be expected because, Karuna was no
Douglas Devananda and was too much of a headache, not
to figure in the talks. The LTTE, clearly not understanding
the meaning of the word ‘paramilitary’, at a loss as to how to
deal with Karuna, and not quite understanding that Article
1.8 and other related clauses of the Cease-fire Agreement
(CFA), believed that it could get the man classified
alongside the EPRLF, the EPDP and the TELO. An all out
propaganda blitz against Karuna was carried out by the
LTTE, desperately trying to link him to the Government.

The LTTE, in a last-ditch attempt to wash their hands of the
issue of child recruitment, even said that it was not
specified in the CFA, not realizing that it refers to norms of
civilization that are much broader than the CFA -and
ratified, as such, by many international conventions to boot.
It was a glaring slip-up because, it amounted to a
confession.

The four-years that have passed since the CFA was
signed, werelong enough for it to be clear to anyone that it
was severely flawed. This is why, one can argue, that after
four years, we are back at the CFA. And yet, Balasingham
and his friends insisted that it is a problem of
implementation. In a word, bullshit. The long and short of it
is that the LTTE was rattled, and it showed.

The LTTE found quite a few willing partners, in weaving this
elegant wrap. Sections of the media, notoriously loyal to the
UNP, smarting after defeat at the hands of Mahinda
Rajapaksa, were more than happy to paint the President in
black. They drew extensively from the campaign lexicon and
we saw a lot being said about ‘hawks’ and ‘hardliners’, in
the various columns authored by such people. Bad
mouthing the government delegation went into top gear and
to a point, where it became apparent that they would love
nothing better than the government to be bested by
Balasingham in Celigny

It was not only the media. There were the usual culprits in
the NGO sector, who had come out of their respective
closets, during the election, to make what they thought was
the last stand, bad-mouthing the JVP and the JHU and their
choice for president. They gave Balasingham what support
they could, citing Karuna as the main obstacle to progress
in negotiations, amazingly ignorant of the fact that this
postulation was in direct contradiction of their often
articulated championing of democratic principles. Put
simply, one could ask, ‘If you advocate talks with an armed
organization like the LTTE, should not the principle be
applied to Karuna as well?’

Lasantha Wickramatunge, Editor, Sunday Leader, was at
hand to interview Jehan Perera (National Peace Council)
upon his arrival at the Geneva Airport. Jehan was slipping
on and off, as the occasion demanded, his peace-advocate
and journalist masks, granting interviews as the former and
attending media briefings as the latter.

Lasantha, reportedly, had told H.D. Mahindapala of the
Asia Tribune, a man renowned for the unwavering stand he
has taken against terrorism, that Mahinda is but carrying on
Ranil’s agenda with respect to the peace talks. I believe
that, there are peace talks and peace talks and personally,
feel more comfortable that this time around people like H.L.
Silva, Palitha Kohonna, Gomin Dayasri and politician
though he is, Rohitha Bogollagama are out there
representing me rather than G.L. Peiris and Milinda
Moragoda, whose loyalties to the nation and the national
interest, I am persuaded to suspect. Mahindapala, however,
had something pertinent to say by way of response:
“Lasantha, if that is the case, why is Ranil not putting aside
other differences and backing Mahinda to the hilt on this
one?” (or something to that effect). QED.

The Government was not idle either. Gathering together
the best advisors available, the Government quietly went
about compensating for the serious human resource
problem it faced in terms of competent ministers. The State
media, or at least some sections of it, did its part by striving
to obtain maximum argumentative and moral leverage for
the Government delegation, painting the LTTE for what it is,
a terrorist organization perpetrating atrocities that were not
acceptable by any standard.

Neither was the Government alone. Working on the premise
that, be it war or be it negotiations, it is to the Government’s
advantage to operate from a position of strength,
individuals and organizations (and this includes myself)
consciously referred to the LTTE’s track record and
supplied arguments in the media outlining strategies,
whether or not the Government would actually adopt them.

Anti-LTTE groups from all communities working together as
the Universal Movement for the Protection of Democracy
and Human Rights (UMPDHR), put together propaganda
material highlighting LTTE atrocities, especially, against the
Tamil community and its most vulnerable section, children.

In London, last Sunday (19), anti-LTTE Tamil groups held a
demonstration, where, well known personalities, such as the
widow of Appapillai Amirthalingam, the TULF leader
assassinated by the LTTE and Nirmala Nithyananda (an
ardent advocate of a separate State) pointed out that the
Tamil people had essentially fallen from the frying pan into
the fire.

Even while talks were in progress (well, I really can’t tell if
that’s a suitable descriptive at this point) in Celigny, the
UMPDHR (couldn’t they come up with a less verbose name,
I couldn’t help wondering) held a demonstration at
……………. Outside the UN Headquarters in Geneva,
demanding that the international community wake up to the
fact that the LTTE is a terrorist organization. The
protestors, the most vocal of whom were Tamils, demanded
that a comprehensive ban be imposed on the LTTE and
that Balasingam be tried for crimes against humanity, in the
Hague. Their presence, more than the articulation evident
in the placards they held, made it clear that the ‘sole-
representative’ status by the LTTE was an undeserving tag.

There were around 300 protestors in total, putting up quite
a show. And, they came from all over Europe; Sinhalese,
Tamils and Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus,
standing together in the name of democracy and human
rights. What is more significant is the fact that the LTTE,
despite its reputation for having a streamlined operation in
Europe, especially, when it comes to fund-raising and
demonstrations, did not or, could not raise even a whimper
by way of countering all this noise, which was clearly
detrimental to their cause and compromised what thunder
its delegation in Celigny were planning to unleash.

I am getting ahead of the story. The one-upmanship thing
or, the negotiating wrapping, if you will, was being woven
right up to the opening of proceedings on Wednesday.
Ridiculous as it may sound, even toilets were an issue, as
Dushy Ranetunge has hilariously reported in the Island.
Then, it was the issue of “who goes first”. No, not to the
toilet, but at the talks.

Balasingham wanted to start, perhaps to try and rattle the
Government delegation with a barrage of allegations and to
steal their thunder by refuting the anticipated allegations
regarding the CFA violations and, especially, the issue of
child recruitment. It is reported that he even threatened to
pull out if this demand was not met. It was brinksmanship of
the worst sort, considering the impact of such a decision on
the people he is purporting to represent (on a sole-
representative basis). The truth is that the LTTE doesn’t
have a leg to stand on and is severely handicapped also,
by a clearly inferior team, with Balasingham having to
shoulder the entire burden of talking, demanding,
defending and pleading, it is to the credit of the
Government delegation that it agreed, as a gesture of
goodwill, to let Balasingham make his opening submission
subsequent a few academic comments by Nimal Siripala de
Silva.

The media got to see the teams on Wednesday morning
and the cameras were clicking away like crazy, once the
teams took their seats. We heard Eric Solheim making a
guarded and hopeful speech, following the opening
comments of the Swiss representative.

The media didn’t get to see the ‘talks’ and, at 10.56 am on
Thursday, it is impossible to say what the outcome is going
to be like. Going by the opening statements of the two
groups, it is clear that the Government has, contrary to
even my expectations, come up with a no-nonsense
document, which, at the same time, leaves no room for the
LTTE to up and walk out at will. How the talks unfold, what
matters ruffle whom, whose egos suffer scratching, what
kind of one-upmanship is attempted, etc., etc., we will know
in a few hours. This is not the moment to talk about the
opening statements and the political meaning of the talks.
That will have to wait, I am sorry to report.

What I can say is that I had a very interesting conversation
with the driver of the car that Bandula Jayasekera, Editor,
Daily News, was using. It was quite late and I asked this
young Moroccan, who said his name was Biko, “So Biko,
are you married?” His answer floored me. Biko, who has
lived in Switzerland for ten years and knew enough English
to understand the question, said, “A little” (!) “What the hell
do you mean, ‘a little’?” I asked, “Are you saying you have a
girl friend?” “I have a girl friend also,” he explained with a
half smile. “Are you staying with your wife or your girl friend
tonight?” Perhaps, it was an uncalled for question on my
part. He smiled, so did I and we left it at that.

What has it got to do with ‘Celigny’? Just this: ‘a little’ is an
answer you can give to any question about these talks. A
little hope, a little success, a little slip-up, a little bit of fun, a
little argument here and there, a little spilt milk, a little smile,
a little result, a little bit of one-upmanship too. Nothing earth-
shattering anyway.
[DailyMirror]