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Home > News > Columnists > Ramananda Sengupta

Hiccups on the road to peace

April 22, 2003

Two major peace initiatives in South Asia suffered severe jolts on April 21.

Within hours of each other, Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the rebel Maoists in Nepal announced they were temporarily suspending peace talks with the respective governments.  

The resumption of hostilities in either of the two nations would add to Indian concerns since they are likely to spill over into Indian soil. 

In a letter to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the LTTE chief negotiator and political advisor Anton Balasingham said the outfit was temporarily suspending peace talks since the government had failed to honour the truce agreement. 

The LTTE would also not participate in an international donor meet scheduled for June in Tokyo since it had been excluded from a preliminary meeting on the subject in Washington, DC on April 14, he said. The LTTE was left out of the talks in Washington since the US still lists it as a terrorist outfit and hence cannot talk to its representatives officially.  

The letter said the LTTE was still committed to a negotiated settlement, and there was no indication of  restarting the ethnic war which has killed over 65,000 people since hostilities started in 1983.

Sri Lankan diplomats and officials believe this is an attempt to extract concessions from the government before the seventh round of peace talks start next week in Thailand.

The concessions they seek include resettlement of Tamil civilians displaced by the war who now live in government controlled regions, and the free passage of rebel boats in Sri Lankan waters. 

While the LTTE wants these issues resolved before starting political talks, the government wants political and human rights issues to take precedence.  

Under the Norway-brokered peace accord signed last February, the rebels gave up their demand for a separate Tamil homeland and settled for autonomy under a federal system.

The blow to the peace process comes at a time when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe's government is at loggerheads with President Chandrika Kumaratunga over concessions already made to the rebels.

The president and prime minister have had an acrimonious relationship ever since Wickremesinghe's United National Front defeated Kumaratunga's Peoples Alliance in the 2001 parliamentary election. Kumaratunga was elected separately as president.  

While officially Kumaratunga criticised the government for making too many concessions to the rebels, there were reports that she was covertly promising more political power to the LTTE in case her party came to power.

The LTTE pullout also comes days after Tamil and Muslim mobs clashed in Muttur, some 270 km north of Colombo, in which at least three people were killed and over 35,000 people left homeless on April 18. Muslims form Sri Lanka's second largest minority after the Tamils. 

Both Muslim leader and government peace negotiator Rauf Hakeem and the LTTE had warned that further unrest in the area could scuttle the peace process.

Muslims, who dominate Muttur, say they were provoked by Tamil mobs, while the LTTE condemned attacks on Tamils and appealed for restraint. 'Attacks of this nature would affect the present peace process,' the LTTE said. 'Tamils and Muslims should join hands to identify the elements behind these attacks.'

A beleaguered government, intractable agendas and pre-talks violence also led to the 'postponement' of the peace talks in Nepal.

Hours before talks between Maoists rebels and Nepalese Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand's interim government were scheduled to start on April 21, rebel negotiator Krishna Bahadur Mahara announced that the two sides had failed to agree on the agenda for the talks.   

While the government wants to discuss humanitarian issues before taking up political ones, the rebels -- who want a new interim government and elections for a constituent assembly -- say the  political agenda must take precedence. 

Our 'interest is to solve the political problems of the country, not to sip tea and exchange handshakes,' Mahara told reporters and advised the government to do 'its homework' first.  There were reports that the talks might resume on April 24, but neither side would confirm this. 

Over 7,000 people have been killed since the Maoists -- who want the monarchy to be abolished -- began their uprising six years ago. Most of the deaths took place after an earlier peace initiative in 2001 collapsed over the government's refusal to negotiate on the monarchy.

After months of emergency and a military crackdown on the Maoists, the two sides agreed to a truce in January, with the rebels announcing a five-member negotiating team led by Mahara.

But the mainstream political parties, who oppose the interim government, refused to send representatives to the talks with Maoists. Finally, nearly three months after the truce was signed, the government named a team of ministers led by Deputy Prime Minister Badri Prasad Mandal on April 16.

On October 7 last year, King Gyanendra Bikram Bir Shah sacked elected Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who had dissolved parliament to hold mid-term elections. The monarch later installed an interim government led by Lokendra Bahadur Chand and indefinitely postponed the elections.

But most political parties have refused to recognise the interim government and are demanding immediate elections.

At the same time, student unions took to the streets to protest against the dramatic rise in fuel prices and the cancellation of student union elections. 

The government crackdown in which a left-wing student leader died last week added further fuel to the fire. At least 150 students were injured, some seriously, in violent clashes with police during weekend protests across Nepal.

New Delhi has given Kathmandu helicopters, jeeps and heavy mortars and offered counter-insurgency training facilities to the Royal Nepalese Army personnel to fight the Maoists, who are linked with similar groups operating in West Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.

Indian Army Chief General N C Vij arrived in Kathmandu on April 22 for a four-day visit to Nepal. 

General Vij, who will be conferred an honorary rank of general of the Nepalese army by King Gyanendra, is also expected to hold talks with his Nepali counterpart and visit welfare centres run by the Indian Army for retired Gorkha soldiers. 

But with the failure of the peace talks, further India-Nepal military cooperation in case the Maoists restart hostilities is likely to be discussed. 

As for Sri Lanka, India has preferred to stay on the sidelines since the Tamil cause is an emotive one in Tamil Nadu. It has also refused to lift the ban on the LTTE which followed the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

On the other hand, India has over 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamilian refugees who cannot return home until peace returns to the island.

After boycotting all previous meetings, New Delhi's decision to send a representative to the mini Aid Lanka consortium meeting in Washington on April 14 has raised the hackles of the LTTE, which fears that India wants to deny the LTTE its sole representative status by involving other Tamil groups in the peace process.

Kumaratunga's recent visit to India during which she met senior Indian leaders including Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who is vehemently anti-LTTE, has lent credence to these suspicions.  

Given the tension on the western border with Pakistan and the not-so-cordial relations with Bangladesh in the east, officials in New Delhi ought to be vehemently praying that the situation does not degenerate further in its northern and southern frontiers.  


Ramananda Sengupta

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