March 1, 2001



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Major General Ashok K Mehta

The smile returns on Kumaratunga's face

A happier, though minus one eye, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was in Delhi last week to brief Indian leaders about developments in Sri Lanka and also to push SAARC forward. Her last visit was two years ago. At that time, the Sri Lankan Army was being badgered by the LTTE and she had to call off Operation Sure Victory.

Now, she is smiling more easily. She has scored three straight victories: in the elections, court battle challenging the election, and winning back Jaffna. No one has forgotten the military crisis of May last year when Sri Lanka sent an SOS for evacuating its garrison in Jaffna and calling back the IPKF. Sri Lanka's biggest ever politico-military crisis was averted, not by what the SLA did, but by what the LTTE couldn't do -- grab Jaffna. They missed the chance of a lifetime.

While some Tamil leaders in India were in jubilation over the expected defeat of SLA and waiting for Eelam to happen, the impression had gathered in Sri Lanka that India had wanted Jaffna to fall and evacuate the SLA. The truth was otherwise. Though India was not averse to the LTTE improving its ground position in Jaffna, it had made clear that it stood for Tamil aspirations being met within a united Sri Lanka. Such was the scary scenario in Jaffna just nine months ago.

Since then there has been a dramatic shift in fortunes. It is now the LTTE which is on the ropes , urging the Sri Lankan government to reciprocate its ceasefire. Such a ground situation was unthinkable. Never in this war has the LTTE observed a unilateral ceasefire, leave alone extending it twice, by 30 days each time. The known breakers of ceasefire are now its chief brokers.

What has brought about this turnabout in LTTE capabilities? Among other reasons, military pressure by the SLA, fear of being named a terrorist organisation by other countries (India, the US and Malaysia have already done so) and simply military exhaustion. It is short of weapons and cadres to fight the war. A tired and depleted LTTE had no choice but to declare a ceasefire -- on December 24 -- as a face-saving measure. Prabhakaran and Tamil leaders in India had been saying that the LTTE would take Jaffna before the end of the year. When that became wishful thinking, the LTTE made a virtue of necessity.

The Sri Lankan government has refused to end military operations, because for a change, it is going along with the advice of the Army commanders. The SLA has its eyes on recapturing Elephant Pass, a strategic garrison that it was forced to shamefully abandon last year. This narrow causeway is both the physical and emotional bridge that links northern Jaffna peninsula with the mainland. It is the glue that joins the Tamil heartland with the rest of Sri Lanka. Together with Pooneryn to its west, Elephant Pass has to be secured before Jaffna can be made threat-free. Attached to Elephant Pass is also a prestige value. The fortress garrison had never been lost to the LTTE, though in 1991 the Tigers were pretty close to capturing it.

The revival of the peace process has never looked so close as now even though new hurdles are emerging. The Lankan government is persisting in its unwillingness to "cease firing" before sitting down to talks with the LTTE. Probably it wants to take Elephant Pass. It says it will come to the negotiating table but will signal its readiness to respond to the ceasefire only after testing the LTTE's sincerity about the talks and whether at all they are seeking a political resolution of the conflict. Eric Solheim, the Norwegian facilitator, has had several meetings with both sides, including his unprecedented encounter with Prabhakaran late last year. He is trying to narrow the differences between the two sides on the implementation of the ceasefire, the composition of a monitoring group, an acceptable set of Confidence Building Measures and a broad agenda for talks.

It is this last item that appears to be the main stumbling block. Sri Lankans are asking: talk about what when everyone knows the LTTE has no fallback position from Eelam? In their scheme the parameters of devolution have to be woven around a united Sri Lanka. The LTTE has been harping on the Thimpu principles: recognition of ethnic identity, a Tamil homeland and self-determination. Despite this seemingly irreconcilable divergence between the two sides, it is being said that Prabhakaran is prepared to consider a viable alternative to Eelam. The present devolution package, which is the best so far on offer, would have to be substantially liberalised for the LTTE to even look at the proposals. The starting point for any talks would have to be an affirmation that the LTTE are prepared for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Sri Lanka is also under considerable pressure from the international community, especially the London and Paris club of donors, to restart the peace talks. Kumaratunga has to walk a tightrope to balance the need for dialogue with the compulsion of the SLA and the sentiments of the Sinhalese people. It is against this background that Kumaratunga sought the Delhi meetings. This was the first high-level exchange after the Jaffna crisis when misunderstandings and bad blood had vitiated the atmosphere. Neither Kumaratunga nor Prime Minister Vajpayee chose to speak to each other at the time though Jaswant Singh flew to Colombo for an unscheduled meeting with her and her foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The latter was in Delhi in December last year to press Delhi to move the SAARC process which has been in a limbo since the military takeover in Pakistan.

Sri Lanka is the current leader of SAARC and is keen to break this stalemate. Sri Lanka has very close relations with Pakistan. During the 1971 war in East Pakistan, Sri Lanka provided refueling facilities for Pakistani aircraft. During the latest round of fighting in Jaffna, Pakistan was the first country to come to Sri Lanka's help by supplying the crucial Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers and ammunition. Of late, retired Sri Lankan Army chiefs are being posted as ambassadors to Islamabad. Further, cash-strapped Pakistan has given Sri Lanka $ 20 million as aid. Kadirgamar met Gen Parvez Musharraf only last week and, no doubt, talked about the prospects of reviving SAARC.

During a one-day programme of briefings, Kumaratunga met just four people: President K R Narayanan, Prime Minister Vajpayee, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and Home Minister L K Advani. The agenda was restricted to regional and bilateral political issues. Kumaratunga's briefing on the LTTE ceasefire and revival of the peace process was overshadowed by the urgency she gave to kickstarting the stalled SAARC summit. Given Sri Lanka's known proximity to Pakistan, only she could have nudged the Indian leaders to giving up their inflexibility on rekindling SAARC. The economic cost of Indian intransigence is seen as being much higher than the political satisfaction of delegitimising a military regime responsible for the Lahore betrayal.

India agreeing to convene a meeting of foreign secretaries of SAARC nations in May is a minor victory for Sri Lanka. This is likely to cushion the three-month long third extension of the ceasefire in J&K and who knows, before the end of the year, open a window of opportunity for twin summits: India-Pakistan and SAARC ?

The timeframe for holding the meeting of SAARC standing committee of foreign secretaries, running parallel with extending the ceasefire in J&K, may not just be a coincidence. Further, Kumaratunga might be able to persuade Pervez Musharraf in helping to rein in the militants with the immediate prospect of peace in J&K and in the larger interest of SAARC regional cooperation.

India is no longer pessimistic about the prospects of peace in Sri Lanka. Stability in the Jaffna peninsula has a long-term bearing on peace and stability in India's own backyard. Delhi, Colombo and preferably Madras, have to take an integrated view of the periodic resurgence of violence in Jaffna and take steps to prevent its recurrence. Despite statements to the contrary, Sri Lanka has never been closer to a just and lasting solution of the ethnic conflict as now.

That there are three ceasefires and a treaty of peace and tranquillity in place in all the four corners of the subcontinent indicates the scale of instability that surrounds India. Kumaratunga may go down in history as the one who succeeded in taming the Tigers and also reviving a terminally-ill SAARC.


Kargil to Kutch
The mantras for peace

General Ashok K Mehta

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