A shaky basis for Sri Lankan peace
Peace overtures, considered a prelude to any positive approach for sustainable and lasting peace in Sri Lanka, used to end up with the realignment and re-grouping of scattered forces of the Colombo government and its warring rival, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This has been the norm of all the previous peace initiatives.
The latest one, but probably not the last, was proposed by Britain last week.
According to this latest proposal, the two main political parties President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's People's Alliance (PA) and the United National Party (UNP), led by opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe agreed to a bipartisan approach to a settlement to end the ethnic war that has ravaged Sri Lanka since independence from Britain on Feb 4, 1948.
But the PA and UNP both represent the majority Sinhalese community and not the minority Tamils.
However, for the first time in talks about ending the bloodshed, the world has seen the major opposition party come forward to agree, on record, to a bipartisan approach on the ethnic issue and allow the government to take the necessary measures for a negotiated settlement.
But the comments made by Wickremasinghe, after the announcement of the peace deal between the government and the opposition, reminded one of the deceptive see-sawing approach of the UNP. He stated that the UNP would not try to undermine any government initiatives, but that was not an assurance of any type of support for the government's search for lasting peace.
Early Tamil political leaders alleged that, from day one of Ceylon (Sri Lanka's former name) attaining independence, successive Sinhalese governments have unleashed state-sponsored terrorism. This was followed by state orchestrated ethnic clashes and military offensives from 1972 unto this day.
There has been a series of anti-Tamil legislation and it started with the 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act, which made approximately one million Tamils of Indian origin stateless and voteless in the country. This was followed by the 1956 Official Language Act, which made Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka and Tamils second class citizens.
Other institutionalised persecutions were the unconstitutionally proclaimed Republican Constitution of 1972 and the adoption of the so-called ''standardisation" procedures. The latter concerned university admissions, whereby Singhalese students were given priority over Tamils.
The introduction of all those pieces of draconian anti-Tamil legislation were followed by state orchestrated communal disturbances which erupted in the country, with the Tamils suffering heavy loss in property and thousands of lives.
The early 1970s saw the UNP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the two main political contenders and protagonists representing the Sinhalese community, in on-again, off-again agreements and opposition to any political concessions acceded to the Tamils by whichever party was ruling.
The said concessions were vehemently opposed by the political party that was not in power, which would ultimately stir up ethnic tension and eventually lead to Tamils again losing their lives and property.
Owing to all this friction, the Tamils were pushed to move to the northern and eastern provinces to seek their own personal safety.
In 1957, SLFP's leader S W R D Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's father and who later become the fourth prime minister entered into an agreement with the then Federal Party leader, S J V Chelvanayakam, to seek an end to the Tamil problem. The agreement was opposed by the then leaders of the UNP, Dudley Senasayake and J R Jayewardene, a former prime minister and the first president of Sri Lanka.
The latter two staged an acrimonious protest march from Kelaniya to Kandy, against the agreement.
Then in 1958, when the Buddhist clergies staged a sit-in protest in front of the private residence of Bandaranaike, he tore up the agreement and backed out of it due to pressure by the UNP leaders and the Buddhist sector.
When the UNP came to power in 1965, Senasayake, its leader, entered into an agreement with the Tamil leadership, better known as the ''Dudley-Chelva Agreement", and formed a national government with the help of the Federal Party.
The SLFP led by Srimavo Bandaranaike currently the prime minister and the mother of President Kumaratunga staged a protest march against the agreement, which led Senanayake to ultimately renege on the agreement.
In July 1987, Jayewardene, the then president of Sri Lanka and Rajiv Gandhi, the late prime minister of India, entered into the famous ''Indo-Lanka Agreement". With this, India brokered and guaranteed peace in the country.
About 100,000 Indian troops were deployed on a peace-keeping mission, which eventually turned out to be an unending war with the LTTE for the powers-that-be in New Delhi. India got itself involved in an unfortunate war for peace with the militant Tamil organisation.
When Ranasinghe Premadasa became the Sri Lankan president, he made covert overtures to the LTTE and entered into a secret agreement with it. Premadasa supplied arms, ammunition and provided all available facilities to the LTTE in its battle against Indian peace-keeping forces. It was a joint effort to get Indian troops out of Sri Lanka.
When the mission was successfully accomplished, the LTTE and the Sri Lanka government were once again engaged in fierce battles.
In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga led her People's Alliance Party to a resounding victory, after 17 long years of misrule by the UNP. She won on a platform that led her to initiate a peace process with the LTTE. The government sent three low-key delegations to Jaffna, the major Tamil city, to negotiate.
But as the two parties were vying for reasonable compromises to achieve the sacred goal of peace, negotiations faltered in April 1995. The breakdown was followed by several well-organised military manoeuvres against the LTTE.
Even though several of the military offensives initiated by the government were claimed as successes, the results, however, cannot really be seen as such.
With the loss of innocent civilian lives in the thousands, the exodus of several thousand Tamils by boat to India and the death of more than 2,000 Sri Lankan troops, no-one was truly a victor.
Material losses included more than 15 war planes and several billion dollars worth of government property.
Unlike earlier governments, the present one under Kumaratunga has successfully mooted and managed an international propaganda warfront to confront the LTTE at their own game.
The government, while continuing with its military offensive, came out with its constitutional proposal to decentralise the administration of the country. This proposal received a mixed reaction from the Buddhist clergy, the UNP and other political parties that represented the Sinhalese and Muslim communities.
Even constituent members of her own political party gave a lukewarm endorsement to the proposal.
The LTTE and the majority of the Tamil academics and political leaders flatly rejected the proposals put forward by the government as another deception ploy.
The government's constitutional proposals fell far below the genuine aspirations of the Tamil community and the LTTE, who considered it was not in any way an alternative proposal for their stand for ''a separate Tamil state".
As the war raged on, the government announced that it was ready for direct negotiations with the LTTE. The former is, at least, ready for a token Tamil surrender of the arms at its disposal.
The government also insisted that it was against any third party intervening. At the same time, the LTTE made public that it was ready for a third-party's intervention concerning negotiations, but was not ready for any token semblance of surrendering its weapons.
They insisted that any token surrender amounted to making them look ''defeated" in the eyes of the world.
Sri Lanka is a country with a history of countless uncertainties and the latest British proposal for brokering peace in the country remains largely ambiguous. It remains unclear why London has come forward to take the role of a third party mediator to guarantee and underwrite peace in Sri Lank.
The British Embassy in Bangkok, in a statement, said that it ''welcomed the agreement reached by the leaders of the People's Alliance and the United National Party of Sri Lanka" on a bipartisan approach to ending the ethnic conflict. The embassy further emphasised that this approach would also see the two parties dealing with the LTTE.
On March 24, Palestinian Liberation Organisation President Yasser Arafat offered to mediate a settlement to end Sri Lanka's ethnic war. Arafat publicly announced at a meeting in Colombo, shortly after talks with Kumaratunga, that he was willing to help restore peace.
Later, Lakshman Kadirgamar, the foreign affairs minister, announced at a press conference which Arafat had addressed, that no formal offer of mediation had been made to the government. This led Arafat to retract his offer.
In the light of the above fiasco, before Arafat made his offer of mediation, he contacted the British Embassy in Bangkok to get a clear position of London's role in their latest peace initiative. A spokesman for the embassy said that Britain was a close friend of Sri Lanka and would be delighted if a request was forthcoming for any friendly assistance.
These British-brokered peace initiatives have to be watched with caution because the situation is still very fluid in Sri Lanka.
If Britain comes forward to take a leading role as mediator with the mechanism of deploying peace-keeping troops to monitor ceasefires and their violations, then one could be optimistic that the peace Sri Lanka is looking for could be sustained.
It is now up to the government in Colombo and the LTTE to invite Britain to play a major part in the peace process. In the meantime, Britain is involved with its own general election and everything else hangs in the balance.
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