Hakeem faces peace dilemma
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's historic visit
to the war-ravaged Jaffna peninsula has given a major fillip to the current
peace initiative. It has brought the two protagonists closer to a negotiated
political settlement which will ensure all communities in this blessed
country could live in harmony within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.
The visit was planned some time back, but kept under wraps due to obvious
reasons. One of the ministers who was associated with the plan, was T.
Maheswaran. He was instrumental in preparing the groundwork for the Prime
Minister 's visit, which is seen as an important step in Mr. Wickremesinghe's
political career. It was aimed at allowing the prime minister to obtain
first hand information regarding the situation of the northern people.
The visit, which was hailed by the local and international media, has
generated unprecedented interest in the UNF government's peace efforts.
The international response to the visit was so overwhelming that it has
forced the LTTE to take positive measures towards establishing peace.
It is now becoming increasingly evident that the LTTE is desisting from
committing provocative acts that could torpedo the peace efforts. But reports
from the east say LTTE cadres there continue to terrorise the people, especially
the Muslims. Though the incidence of such acts has been on the decline
during the past couple of weeks, they are certainly causing concern.
It is in this backdrop that the US embassy in Colombo last week issued
a tough statement, calling on the LTTE to fall in line or face the consequences.
The LTTE was shocked and thoroughly distubed over the statement.
The statement assumed added significance because it was issued a few
days before the visit of a US Assistant Secretary Christina Rocca and a
top ranking marine commnader to Sri Lanka.
The LTTE resorted to diplomatic strategy in responding to the statement.
First, its chief negotiator Anton Balasingham issued a modest statement
from London, defending the rebel group's position. Then it apparently manoeuvred
the Tamil National Alliance to come out harshly against the US statement.
Tamil political parties described the statement as an unwarranted outburst.
The LTTE did not stop there. It launched a probe to find out what prompted
US ambassador Ashley Mr. Wills to issue the statement. It now believes
that SLMC leader and Minister Rauff Hakeem was instrumental in influencing
the US envoy to issue the statement.
Mr. Hakeem had met US envoy Mr. Wills in several occasions and sounded
his concern over LTTE excesses in the east. He made his concern known in
an interview with an Indian newspaper.
Mr. Hakeem lamented that there were insufficient safeguards in the ceasefire
agreement to protect the interest of the Muslims.
With the ceasefire coming into force, the SLMC was placed in a delicate
position. On the one hand, it has to take action to stop LTTE harassment
to the Muslims in the east, from where the party draws its strength. On
the other, the SLMC, as a key constituent party in the UNF administration,
is committed to the peace process though the agreement had not taken into
account the fears of the Muslims.
The situation in the East is fluid, because unlike in northern districts,
there are no clear-cut 'lines of control' separating the security forces
and the LTTE. The situation is so volatile that areas, which are under
security forces control during the day time, come under the control of
rebels in the night. Besides, the demographic composition of the east is
delicately balanced with Muslims and the Sinhalese accounting for nearly
two thirds of the population.
Thus Mr. Hakeem's grievance is not entirely without foundation. He is
duty bound to ensure the safety of Muslims who helped his party return
more than ten members to parliament. He cannot remain silent when the LTTE
keeps on abducting Muslims and extorting money.
But the question that arises is why did Mr. Hakeem wait for so long
to air his grievances. It appears that he had kept his views to himself
ó suppressed ó since he read the contents of the ceasefire
It appears Minister Hakeem had restrained himself in the larger interest
of peace. That probably explains why he did not want to tell his side of
the story even to a local newspaper. Though he had discussed the matter
in private circles, he didn't want to make it public because he wanted
to see the peace moves progress at a rapid pace.
Another reason for his silence is that he did not want to be accused
of torpedoing the peace process, because he is part and parcel of the peace
process and the UNF government. Thus he is fully committed to the peace
initiative. Moreover, he does not want to be seen as a problem similar
to the way he was treated by the Kumaratunga administration.
Mr. Hakeem was at loggerheads with the Kumaratunga government over the
Mawanella incident and other issues. But the issue at stake today is more
serious than the Mawanella problem. It affects the entire Muslim population
in the east. So he has to do something without upsetting the peace efforts.
Whether he had any role to play in the statement issued by the US embassy
is not known. But it was the first occasion where the Muslim grievance
was addressed since the ceasefire agreement was signed on February 23.
The US statement inferred the international crackdown against terrorism
would be extended to the LTTE if it failed to honour the ceasefire agreement.
'There were 'credible reports' that the LTTE was taking advantage of
the truce by rearming itself as well as stepping up the recruitment of
child soldiers and extorting money from civilians, especially members of
the minority Muslim community,' the US embassy said in a toughly worded
It said the LTTE's reported moves could undermine the trust needed to
move from a cessation of hostilities to a lasting peace. It added that
in the current international context, in which terrorism was being condemned
in more and more countries, the LTTE should be especially vigilant about
observing the terms of the ceasefire accord.
The US statement, however noted that incidents of LTTE recruitment,
kidnapping and extortion had apparently decreased in recent days and said
it hoped the trend would continue.
The embassy said if the LTTE chose the path of peace, ended its reliance
on terrorism, accepted that an independent 'Eelam' was both unattainable
and unnecessary and honoured democratic and human rights norms, the US
would respond positively.
The TNA reacted equally strongly and a spokesman said the US had no
authority to issue a statement evaluating the success of the implementation
of the ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.
It said if ever there was a violation of the ceasefire, it was up to
Norway, which functioned as the facilitator to comment on the matter.
The TNA said the statement was detrimental to the peace process and
called on the US to refrain from exerting undue pressure in the internal
affairs of Sri Lanka.
The US embassy statement and the visits of Ms. Rocca and Marine Brigadier
General Timothy Ghormley to Sri Lanka, especially to Jaffna, would seem
to indicate a growing US role in the Sri Lankan peace initiative.
Tosether with the United States, the government would wish to keep India
in the picture.
India's interest in Sri Lankan politics is understandable and Prime
Minister Wickremesinghe is correct in his approach if he gets close to
the regional power.
In the late seventies and even in the eighties we saw how India made
things difficult for us. India, trained, armed and funded the LTTE. Thereafter
in 1987, it virtually coaxed us to sign the Indo-Lanka accord amidst widespread
opposition. Soon it paid the price for feeding the Tigers. First, it got
embroiled in a prolonged battle with the LTTE, losing hundreds of its soldiers.
Then Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister responsible for sending the
Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka, was brutally assassinated by a
Tiger suicide bomber.
The Vajpayee government, which when in opposition backed the Tamil cause,
declined a request to hold the proposed peace talks in an Indian destination.
Some observers believe that India is concerned about growing US role
in Sri Lankan affairs.
One of India's concerns could be that more and more Sri Lankan military
top brass are trained in Hawaii, whereas in the past they were trained
at the National Defence College attached to the Alahabad University.
Thus it won't be a surprise, if India gradually increases its involvement
in Sri Lankan affairs.
If the government realizes the importance of the Indian factor, it would
not be difficult to deal with political resistance from the People's Alliance,
the JVP or any group that opposes the peace initiative.
The LTTE may in given circumstance consider giving up its claims for
a separate state and settle for something less, may be a federal solution
with enhanced powers for Tamils in the north and east to determine their
own destiny within a united Sri Lanka.
To give effect to such a solution, the constitution should be amended
and people's approval has to be sought at a referendum.
The LTTE may at present look favourably on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
but the question that is flashing across its mind right now is how much
he could offer for a just solution.
Despite such misgivings, the LTTE is getting ready for a negotiated
settlement and talks between the government and the LTTE are likely to
begin somewhere in May.
For this, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakharan needs close liaison with
his theoretician Anton Balasingham who will be in Sri Lanka shortly.
Mr. Balasingham's visit was kept a closely guarded secret till Tamil
newspapers flashed it during the week.
The government's thinking was that giving publicity to the arrival of
Mr. Balasingham would be counterproductive with the local elections round
On the economic front, Minister Ravi Karunanayake's visit to Brussels
has yielded some results, when he was able to persuade world renowned businessman
George Soros to reinvest in the Sri Lankan share market.
Mr. Soros, who is a lover of Sri Lanka, was, however, linked to the
1997 South Asian financial crisis and the Russian rouble crisis a couple
of years later.
But financial sources say, his re-entry to the local share market will
give a major boost to the ailing economy in general and the stock market
Meanwhile, Industries Minister Rohitha Bogollagama visited the war ravaged
Jaffna peninsula with a delegation of Sri Lankan investors to rebuild the
shattered economy of the northern peninsula.
The investors were impressed by the business opportunities available
in the North if normalcy returns to the country.
State banks and major business houses pledged to embark on various development
projects in the peninsula which would benefit the Jaffna citizens.
Be that as it may, the UNF government, it appears, is keen to take on
President Chandrika Kumaratunga in a direct confrontation.
On Wednesday, Minister G. L. Peiris accused President Kumaratunga of
deliberately violating the provisions of the constitution by delaying the
nomination of her appointee to the constitution council.
Last week in Parliament Minister Peiris said the government was unable
to set up the Police Commission and the Election Commission without putting
the constitutional council in place.
The opposition is accusing the government of police inaction and election
malpractice but the President is delaying the appointment of the constitutional
council which in turn could appoint the much needed Election Commission
and the police commission aimed at de-politicising the system.
While in opposition the UNP campaigned for the setting up of those commissions
and it is commendable that it is continuing with the good work to democratise
the system while in office. It's a rare phenomenon in the Sri Lanka's political
set up. Often what happens in Sri Lanka is, parties who agitate for democratisation
of state institutions forget those lofty ideals when in power.
But now the UNF government in power is keen to have those commissions,
the President should expedite the process without delaying it anymore.
What is worrying is that Minister Peiris' remarks could lead to a political
confrontation, which could prove unhelpful for the government in the long
The present situation in the government is similar to the French political
set up where the President and the legislature are from two different parties.
Cohabitation principles work well in France, but here it is most confrontation
At the Commonwealth summit, Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando played
a prominent role for Sri Lanka in the absence of the President and the
Minister Fernando along with Indian counterpart Jaswant Singh averted
a possible split in the Commonwealth over Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was adamant that Zimbabwe should be
suspended from the Commonwealth while the African Heads of State vehemently
opposed the move.
If not for the efforts of Jaswant Singh and Tyronne Fernando, which
helped prevent a split right in the middle, would have sharply divided
Minister Fernando also made the moves for a meeting between Prime Minister
Wickremesinghe and the British Premier. The meeting will take place during
Mr. Wickremesinghe's visit to Washington, it is learnt.