Crucial as it may seem the visit of Norwegian Minister Erik Solheim and his meeting with Tamil Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran is unlikely to yield an immediate response from the government to any demand over the venue for peace talks. Colombo and the LTTE have been haggling over the location for talks amidst gun battles and ambushes of government troops in the northeast region. The war has escalated in the theatre of conflict (northeast) and daily reports are coming in of rebel attacks on military convoys and alleged harassment of civilians or at checkpoints.
Everyone says the situation is worsening and hoping the government would see reason in getting back to the negotiating table. The government on its part is doing its best to create confidence-building measures like meetings chaired by President Mahinda Rajapakse with the countryâ€™s main parties sans the main Tamil and Muslim parties. Both the rebel-backed Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) have not attended these meetings but have had separate one-on-one discussions with the president. Lankaâ€™s main chambers of commerce have praised the governmentâ€™s restraint and also Rajapakseâ€™s efforts to be flexible in the location for talks.
Anton Balasingham, LTTE theoretician and chief advisor to Prabhakaran, also arrived in Sri Lanka from London where he lives as a British citizen, and is expected to take the same flight from the Colombo airport to the rebel-held town of Kilinochchi where the meeting with Prabhakaran takes place.
Solheimâ€™s â€œdesperateâ€ mission is to break the ice on the location of peace talks. Some newspapers say he is to carry a government offer of the first round of peace talks â€” suspended since April 2003 â€” being held in Geneva, against the LTTE demand of Oslo.
Colombo has backed down from its earlier demand that the talks must be held in an Asian venue against the rebel choice of Oslo. The LTTE on its part has not changed its original stance. Analysts say the LTTE tactic in insisting that Oslo be the venue which could be linked to future plans to travel to Oslo regularly and urge Norway to persuade its European colleagues to remove the ban on travel for the LTTE in some EU countries. The fear psychosis with a couple of â€˜redâ€™ alert by military is throwing off-gear the live-styles of Colombo residents. There is a feeling of uneasiness as checkpoints have sprung up.
One thing is clear â€” even the worst enemies of the Tigers (the JHU and the JVP) â€” are also in some agreement that a full-scale war is not the best option for Sri Lanka, however much the provocation from the Tigers. There appears to be more flexibility from government ranks towards meeting rebel demands in terms of a location for the first round of peace talks. However in the political games that politicians practice nowadays, the government will grumble, delay and give in only after a few days â€” instead of agreeing at once â€” if the Tigers insist and donâ€™t step down from its demand to hold negotiations in Oslo. Solheimâ€™s trip thus as the messenger of peace is a crucial event for Sri Lankans this week.
Samath, a freelancer, wr-ites for THT from Colombo