As a fresh attempt to kick start the Sri Lankan peace process takes shape, the future of this strife-torn island swings uncertainly between no war and new war. Formal talks between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been stalled since 2003. After much dispute over a mutually acceptable venue, the two sides finally agreed on Geneva, and talks are set to take place on February 22-23, 2006. But both sides are looking at only a limited mandate for the upcoming talks. On the governmental side stands the clear agenda of reviewing the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and making it less prone to violations. The LTTE, on the other hand, has made it clear that it seeks a more complete implementation of the CFA and not its revision. Beyond this lie deeper issues such as the LTTE's demand for de-escalating the Sri Lankan's military presence in northern Jaffna peninsula. The Army's presence in the area undermines the Tigers' claim to the northeast as part of the larger aspiration for a Tamil homeland. This demand is also intrinsically related to the actual territorial control the LTTE wields in the northeast. Another issue pertains to disarming the "paramilitaries" in the eastern district. These 'paramilitaries' refer to the Karuna faction's shadow war against the Tigers. This stands as an unprecedented challenge to the LTTE leadership and has weakened its claim to be the sole representative of the Tamils.
Given these entrenched and asymmetric positions, there is not much scope for optimism. But the exercise of going back to the negotiating table does point to a greater willingness on the part of the new government in Colombo to engage in dialogue, and reflects the changing dynamics on the ground for the rebels.
A great deal of diplomatic activity has preceded the decision to meet at Geneva. The internationalization of the Sri Lankan conflict has witnessed the involvement of several interested parties and actors in the fate of the ethnic struggle. The international community has become a key player in the peace process, and it has sought to use aid as a tool for peace-building. While much disagreement raged over the disbursement of Tsunami aid followed by the Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) fiasco, the fact remains that both the government and the LTTE have a stake in laying their hands on international aid which remains locked up. Besides, given the growing international isolation of the LTTE, it has found it difficult to avoid negotiations in the face of international pressure.
Domestically too, this fresh bid at peace is in keeping with President Rajapaksa's electoral promise to start a new peace initiative that is both transparent and inclusive. In keeping with his Mahinda Chintana or Vision, the new President has gone about forging a national consensus in favour of talks by convening an All Parties Conference meeting recently.
As far as India is concerned, despite Rajapaksa's open efforts urging a more direct Indian role as a Tokyo Conference Co-Chair during his December 2005 state visit to New Delhi, India has made clear its inability to be more active. Although the Sri Lankan peace process is of much significance, it is mainly through tools like military cooperation, economic aid, and negotiations on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) that the Indian government has maintained a policy of supporting the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE.
Another dimension that requires attention is that the US role has visibly increased in the peace process. In early January, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera visited Washington and met Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as well as the Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Richard Lugar. Foreign Minister Samaraweera reportedly requested the US to ban the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), which is the LTTE's main aid arm and is reputed to be a front organisation for fundraising from the Tamil Diaspora. Samaraweera also reiterated President Mahinda Rajapaksa's resolve to pursue a negotiated settlement, curb escalating tensions with the LTTE and forge a 'southern consensus' in the country. Later, US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns visited Colombo. In what can be described as an unmistakable signal to the rebels to abandon violence, Burns described the LTTE as a "reprehensive terrorist group" which was responsible for keeping Sri Lanka on the edge of war. In an interesting statement that echoes New Delhi's long held view, Burns also drew a distinction between the grievances of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and that of the LTTE. He made explicit US support for ending violence, a return to negotiations and the maintenance and strengthening of the ceasefire agreement. Besides, Burns made it clear that the LTTE would not gain any support if it continued to follow the path of violence. The US has also taken steps to send a top-level team to Sri Lanka comprising agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to carry out a close study of the prevailing situation in the country and the activities of the Tigers.
On his part the LTTE supremo Prabhakaran, in his Heroes Day speech on November 27, 2005, made it clear that the Tigers would intensify their struggle for liberation unless the new government comes forward with a reasonable political framework within a year's time. This seems to be a reiteration of the LTTE's Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) demand, which was earlier rejected by the Chandrika Kumaratunga government.
The recent escalation in violence, as witnessed in the suspected Black Sea Tiger claymore attack on a convoy killing eight sailors of the Sri Lankan navy and the recent assault on a Fast Attack Craft (FAC) near Trincomalee harbour, has tested the government's resolve. According to Sri Lankan Army statistics, since December 2005 over 130 persons have been killed, including 77 from the security forces, 42 civilians and 15 LTTE cadres.
But it is clear that the government is not willing to be drawn into a military confrontation. It seeks instead a political solution that can be facilitated and made acceptable with the help of external agencies and actors. In this context, perhaps a federal solution could be adopted. The international community including India is actively encouraging an exploration of a federal solution. USAID recently held a Workshop in Colombo to popularise the federal idea. If a domestic political consensus can be reached, it will then be a matter of making the LTTE accept the same. This is something that everyone understands will be the long-term challenge.
The last round of talks at Hakone, Japan (March 2003) was a tame affair. The ppeace talks were dominated by the issue of the sinking of a LTTE ship by the Sri Lankan Navy in international waters. The issue of high security zones (HSZs) also figured in that round, with both sides arguing for and against the removal of HSZs. For the Tigers, the HSZs have posed a major hindrance to the resettlement of the displaced population; but the Government negotiators wanted to link demilitarization with a final political solution. Today, the issue of HSZs has been overshadowed by the Karuna factor, which seems to be not only a major irritant for the Tigers but also an unprecedented challenge.
At Geneva, the LTTE are to be represented by their chief ideologue Anton Balasingham, political wing leader S P Thamil Chelvam, `Police Chief` Nadesan, Ilanperiyan and Jeyam from Jaffna, with Adele Balasingham as secretary to the delegation. The government's negotiating team led by the Health Minister Nirmal Siripala de Silva is relatively inexperienced. A series of workshops have been launched to better equip the negotiators. Even the former negotiator of the Sinn Fein, Martin McGuiness met with President Rajapaksa to discuss whether the negotiation techniques employed in the Irish peace process could be employed in the Sri Lankan case. The new government, despite its hardline Sinhala nationalist allies, wants to project itself as a supporter of the fragile ceasefire. It reportedly seeks to tow a softer line, and be more accommodating. Despite its determination to revise the agreement, a concerted effort to return to talks implies a decision to stave off war and keep the negative peace of 'no war' alive.
While it's off to Geneva for now, the room for optimism is low. Consistent pressure from the international community has been a prime reason for resumption of talks. However, unless both sides agree to significantly shift their stands, the talks would essentially prove to be a time buying tactic for the Tigers.