Fourth anniversary of shaky truce in glow of
resumed negotiations?

It was a week for the simmering inferno that is Sri Lanka's political landscape to
finally boil over.

The faltering peace process received a leg up finally, with the LTTE deciding to
compromise on a venue for talks about the implementation of the fragile
ceasefire agreement. The Norwegians, once called "salmon eating busybodies"
by the foreign minister of this same government, are now heroes. Solheim, who
the new administration loved to hate at the beginning of its tenure and even
asked the Norwegian government to remove from the Sri Lankan peace effort,
proved his mettle and wangled a compromise from the rebels.

Nobody was more alive to this home truth than Solheim himself. All eyes were
on him this week, given the importance of his mission in the backdrop of
escalating violence in the north and east. At a cocktail hosted by the Norwegian
Embassy last Monday (23), Solheim was greeted warmly by certain media
personnel who said they had been eagerly awaiting my arrival.

"Only not so long ago, you guys were painting me like some kind of devil in
your media," quipped the Norwegian Development Minister, greeting them.
Striking a more serious note, Mr. Solheim urged them to assist his mission by
refraining from inflaming passions in the south against the peace process.
"Peace is so important for you country. So please help me to bring the
government and the LTTE back to the talks table as soon as possible," the
Peace Envoy said.

Bala coaxes 'Thambi'
But it was Anton Balasingham, the LTTE's Chief Negotiator and Theoretician,
who played a pivotal role in effecting the breakthrough.

Balasingham, under massive pressure from the Norwegians, no sooner he had
landed in Sri Lanka to agree to the Swiss capital for the initial meeting, held
several rounds of talks with Tiger Supremo Vellipillai Prabhakaran about the
problem with regard to the venue. It was deep in the jungles of Mullaitivu at the
private residence of the LTTE leader that Bala finally managed to convince
Prabhakaran of the ground realities.

"Thambi," Balasingham said, addressing the guerrilla leader, "you live in this
jungle. I on the other hand feel the pressure from the rest of the world. This is
not the time to annoy the international community."

Coaxing the LTTE leader, Mr. Balasingham pointed out that it was Prabhakaran
himself who had called President Mahinda Rajapakse a pragmatic leader in his
Heroes Day speech. "Let's give Mahinda a chance and see. If he messes
things up, we will take care of things from there," he said.

Finally, the revered Tiger commander, believed by his people to be a
reincarnation of the sun-god, agreed and summoned his most trusted
lieutenants to disclose to them his ultimate decision. Sea Tiger Commander
Soosai, Political Wing Head Tamilselvan, Peace Secretariat Chief Pulidevan
and Intelligence Head Pottu Amman, who had all been against any moves to
change the Tigers position on Oslo as the first venue, meekly backed down
when Prabhakaran informed them of his decision.

And so it was that the country breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was
announced on Wednesday that the two sides had finally ended the haggling
over a venue for talks. The Rajapakse administration was adamant not to hold
the first round of discussions in Oslo, while the LTTE seemed equally
head-strong that it was compulsory that the initial discussions took place in the
Norwegian capital.

Strategic venue
The significance of Geneva, the capital of Switzerland is three fold - firstly,
Switzerland has maintained its position of neutrality in global politics since time
immemorial; it is the global capital for the protection of Human Rights and most
importantly - it is not a part of the European Union which has imposed a travel
ban on the LTTE following the assassination of former Foreign Minister
Lakshman Kadirgamar.

In one strategic maneuver, the government managed to get the Tigers to
compromise on a venue that would not result in a violation of the EU ban. It was
speculated that the LTTE was insisting on a European venue to wriggle out of
the international restrictions imposed on them, in the guise of pursuing peace.

Colombo for its part had to back down from its previous stance about talks
having to be held in Asia, and was compelled to agree to an European or
"Western" venue despite the President's promise to the electorate at last
November's poll to sideline the Western World in the Sri Lankan peace
process, giving regional countries a bigger piece of the peace pie.

Talks on CFA
The dates for talks in Geneva are yet to be set although government sources
confirmed that it would be about the third week of February. The LTTE has
already named its delegation for the talks but the government is yet to do so.
Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa told journalists last week that the
President was in the process of finalizing those arrangements. The discussions
are to centre around the implementation of the ceasefire agreement (all plans
to review and amend the existing document as per the election manifesto
appear to be on the back-burner), and it is believed the government will
demand that the Tigers cease attacks on military targets while Anton
Balasingham and Co. will want the paramilitaries disarmed to prevent
internecine warfare that has been underway since February 2004.

It should be borne in mind that when the existing CFA was drawn up in 2002,
the renegade Karuna faction did not exist and therefore were not considered
paramilitaries such as the EPDP, PLOTE, EPRLF and TELO. No doubt Bala, on
the instructions of his leader, Prabhakaran will urge that the Karuna faction,
which the LTTE continues to insist work hand in glove with the security forces,
be neutralized.
And small wonder too. Just a few hours after the announcement of talks in
Geneva, suspected Karuna cadres attacked an LTTE camp in Batticaloa killing
and injuring several Tiger cadres. On Thursday evening, an attack on an LTTE
vehicle also killed some eight cadres. What the reprisals for these attacks -- not
to mention the now mysterious Mannar explosion allegedly carried out by the
military deep penetration unit, but brushed off by the rebels as a training
exercise -- will be is anyone's guess. It can only be hoped that in the runup to
the talks, the LTTE will desist from carrying out further attacks against the Sri
Lankan armed forces as they would jeopardize any chances of a positive

A beleaguered Opposition
For the moment, however, all the signs are positive. President Rajapakse told
his cabinet of ministers on Wednesday that in a gesture of goodwill the LTTE
would release one of the three National Child Protection Authority policemen in
their custody. The government is hoping that the other two policemen will also
be released, ending months of negotiation and concern about the fate of the
officers who were detained by the Tigers after they accidentally ventured into
the LTTE-controlled area in Mannar in pursuit of a suspected British

But if things are looking up for the ruling coalition and the new President, the
UNP is in a state of complete disarray. As if on cue, no sooner the
announcement came about a compromise on the talks venue, than two UNP
stalwarts crossed over to the government, accepting ministerial portfolios that
were especially vacated for them over the last few weeks. Chief Opposition
Whip Mahinda Samarasinghe and Kandy District MP Keheliya Rambukwella
were sworn in by the President on Wednesday (25) night. It is speculated that
some 20 more UNP MPs are poised to break ranks as well, seriously eroding
the the party's numbers in parliament.

Both Rambukwella and Samarasinghe informed UNP leader Ranil
Wickremesinghe of their decision on Tuesday evening. Expressing their
individual reasons for crossing over the two MPs said they would be sworn in as
ministers of the UPFA the next day. Several more MPs also told the UNP leader
of their decision to defect, but it is learnt that many of them decided to defer
being sworn in until an auspicious date and time could be obtained.

When the UNP working committee met for emergency discussions on Thursday
at Sirikotha, all hell broke loose. The meeting that began at 3 p.m. was in a
state of disarray throughout. The rebel group agitating for a change in the
leadership threatened to cross over and continued to demand serious reforms
with regard to the leadership of political party.

No takers
But it was former Justice Minister and the UNF's chief negotiator Prof. G.L.
Peiris who got the rawest deal. Having told all and sundry that he was going to
join the government to support the President's peace effort, the good professor
found himself in no man's land after the JVP lodged its vehement protest at the
prospect of his joining the government. Knowing that should he join the UPFA,
Professor Peiris would be elevated in the ranks and given an important position
in the peace negotiations, the Marxists alleged that he was one who would "sell
the country" and aksed the President not to take him on board.

Now painted as a traitor by the current UNP leadership and rejected by the
government he was wooing, Professor Peiris sat sidelined at the Sirikotha
meeting on Thursday while there was pandemonium around him.

The crossovers are not going to make the main opposition party's life in
parliament any easier. With the CWC poised to join the government after the
local government polls and the impending defection of several MPs,
Wickremesinghe also stands to lose his position as the Opposition Leader, for
which title, he has to command the confidence of a majority of the opposition.
To hold the position, the UNP as a single party would have to contend with
opposition from the JHU, the JVP and the CWC if it joins the President as well,
provided Rauf Hakeem's SLMC continues to hold with the greens.

And the UNP has another problem on its hands. Having portrayed itself as a
virtually 'peace-at-all-costs' party for several years now, it would find its support
base seriously eroded if the government, previously perceived as hawkish
become dovish with the peace process appearing to take off again. In which
case, the UNP can resign itself to being in the opposition for many more years
to come, with the UPFA growing more stable in the future because of the peace
dividends. A large contingent of moderate UNP dissidents would only
strengthen the hand of the present administration, allowing it to if necessary
sideline the hardline JVP and the JHU in decisions with regard to the peace
process, giving itself more room to manoeuvre.

But these are future concerns. For the moment, the government of President
Mahinda Rajapakse and the LTTE have to be commended for having effected
a compromise that looked very remote last week. It is hoped that it will be in the
glow of resumed negotiations - even if only about the CFA -- that Sri Lanka will
commemorate the fourth anniversary of the shaky truce next month.

[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]