TamilWeek Mar 5, 2006
Geneva: Full of missed opportunities

By Farah Mihlar Ahamed

Geneva - As the dust settles after the first round of talks in
Geneva between this Government and the LTTE, it is timely
to assess in more detail what this round of talks means to
the peace process in the country. It has already been stated
that the biggest success of these talks was that it averted a
war. But the two days of negotiations also unravelled some
serious issues that could threaten the prospects for peace.

The Sri Lankan peace process is complex and several
intricate issues can have a bearing on the country’s peace
prospects. One of the major problems with the current
process is that it is flawed by its recognition of only two
parties to the conflict. But even whilst working within this
premise, the recently concluded talks exposed problems on
both the part of the government and the LTTE that need
rectification if the process is to successfully continue.

On the part of the LTTE two critical problems were evident,
firstly their continuous callous lack of accountability and
secondly their dominant war ideology.

During the entire negotiating process and its aftermath in
Geneva, the LTTE displayed an unbelievable element of
confidence and this was more than a simple show. As far as
the rebels were concerned they played tough at the
negotiating table and succeeded, and judging by the
conversations I had with LTTE officials on the sidelines of
the talks, it appears that they are thriving on this confidence.

The LTTE’s ability to set the agenda has enabled it to
abscond from any sense of accountability. Throughout the
talks they refused to acknowledge or accept anything linked
to the Sri Lankan state, which was why they refused to
consider the argument that the ceasefire was
unconstitutional or illegal (whose constitution and whose
law, they questioned). They often refused to even take
responsibility for their acts of violence, killings and human
rights abuses, which either they excused on the lines of
provocation from the government or simply ignored. This
attitude on the part of the LTTE is understandable for a
militant organization. But what is of concern is that after four
years of a cessation of hostilities, the change they are
showing in terms of moving towards democracy is limited.

The significant international support they receive also acts
as an incentive to this position. Whilst in Geneva, LTTE
officials, when contacted, often made comments like ‘..we
have a meeting with a government delegation.’ The rebels
consider themselves a de-facto government and meeting
with European government officials is interpreted as
legitimating this status. On the part of the international
community, there appears to be a mixed strategy with the
US and India taking a tough stance and European nations
attempting to engage with the Tigers. Most European
governments believe that engaging with non-state actors is
one of the main ways in which they can be brought in to a
peace process, the recognition they get is crucial in helping
them realize the peace dividend. It is also unlikely that at
whatever capacity these delegates meet with the LTTE that
they simply paddle their violence-centred ego. The reality is
more likely that the engagement itself is seen by the LTTE
as an endorsement of its position, and this is further
validated in comments its members make constantly citing
international criticism against Sri Lankan state institutions.

The other major weakness on the part of the LTTE that will
continue to hamper peace prospects is its imminent reliance
on war as a strategy to achieve its goal. While the rebels did
stay away from a conflict situation for nearly four years, the
recent series of events is indicative that the war option is still
looming large. As one LTTE official commented, “We are
trained fighters and we can always go back to fighting.” The
LTTE maintains that it plays a political and militant role at
the same time. However, recent history has shown us that in
times of challenge there is no reliance on the political wing
and the military option is easily favoured whilst a political
strategy is rarely seen as a form of defence. Again, it can be
argued that this too is a huge step for a terrorist
organization to make in a short period of time. But more
progress in this sphere is needed if some level of peace is
to be realized in Sri Lanka.

On the part of the government the major problem is the
politicisation of the peace process and the pathetically
juvenile manner with which it chooses to do this.

The Government delegation clearly underestimated the
LTTE. The team was mainly prepared to argue a case for
the amendment of the CFA (Cease-Fire Agreement) and
was not equipped for any hard talk beyond this. The
Government had a seven-member team, all of whom were
pitted against one person – Anton Balasingham, as he was
the only English speaker for the LTTE and its chief
negotiator. Except for specific interventions by
Thamilselvan, it was Balasingham who dominated the talks
as he has done for several years now and he has mastered
the technique of outsmarting his opponents.

But outside of the negotiating table, it was virtually suicidal
for the government to problematise the ceasefire, partially
on the grounds that it was signed by an opposing political
party. Setting such a tough stance has forced the
government to stick to its position. In the aftermath of the
talks, members of the government delegation are
maintaining that the ceasefire was amended because the
talks were held on the CFA whilst new points were added to
it. Making such an argument is lame, partly because of the
petty political motive behind it and also due to the absolute
inconsideration on thir part to the possibility that such
statements could destabilise the process.

The government has childishly belittled the peace process
to a petty political conflict, and it is certainly not unique in
adopting this approach. Every successive government has
played political games with the peace process and the
lessons learnt and lives lost appear to have no implications.
In the case of this government, perhaps this is a strategy,
the only way to pursue peace with the LTTE by consoling its
coalition partners and challenging opposition claims. But
such a strategy can have severe consequences, particularly
in an environment where trust and confidence is only
beginning to be built.

Aside from this particular response to the Geneva talks, a
much larger problem exists. These talks were imperative to
build confidence only because it was a new delegation as a
result of a new government. The whole meeting was
overshadowed by the issue of amending the CFA because
the new government had new ideas and different political
positions. Such novelty and change offers poor benefits for
a peace process.

There is an urgent need for a multi-party approach to
resolving the ethnic conflict. The main political parties must
sit together and come to some level of agreement on how
they want this process to move forward. Even if all
concerned parties do not necessarily agree in entirety, they
must be willing to support commonly reached decisions.
Perhaps some consideration must be given to reviving the
Liam Fox agreement between the UNP and the PA, in case
of a lack of cooperation by the other main political parties. A
consensual approach will enable this government, or any
government, to have a consistent, continuous, coherent and
strong position against the LTTE, not one which changes
after every election. In a democratic context no government
will be able to survive through an entire peace process that
could run into decades. This can’t then entail the entire
process moving back to the starting line with a changed
strategy and a new negotiating team entering the process.

The failure by the main political parties to take on a
reconciliatory position on the peace process indicates their
lack of commitment to resolving the ethnic conflict. Sri
Lankan politics is almost always defined by voracity for
power, where the crucial interests of the country are
sidelined. Any genuine effort for peace cannot be sustained
by such a short sighted attitude.
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