Lankan peace talks getting on track

With Sri Lanka’s cricketers playing in fits-and-starts in their current tour of Australia — being slammed by the host nation in a one-day encounter — perhaps the only good news for the country is that peace talks are getting on track after a near three-year stalemate.

The government and Tamil rebels last week — through the good offices of Norwegian chief peace maker and government minister Erik Solheim — agreed to revive negotiations on the ceasefire which was under severe strain after some 200 people, half being government troops, were killed in violence unleashed by the rebels in the past two months.

There was instant joy across the island. There was nothing but praise for President Mahinda Rajapakse as he walked a delicate path towards the resumption of peace talks. Despite objections from hardline allies like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the JHU, the president may have given in a lot to the rebels but ultimately if the peace process gets on track, its worth all the criticism he would have to face.

In many ways, he has gone back on his word — speaking to the Tigers on his own terms. That was part of the deal that helped the coalition to sweep Rajapakse to power at the November 2005 polls. The rebels insisted on Oslo as the venue for obvious reasons. The EU has slapped a ban on travel on the Tigers and ensuring talks in Norway would have put pressure on the ban being lifted. The rebels agreed to talks in Geneva as a second option to save face for Rajapakse.

Rajapakse was insisting Japan or an Asian country as a venue but he found himself in a corner as the Tigers daily attacked and killed government soldiers. The pressure was mounting and he had to decide either way — stop the war and lose his allies or deny the Tigers and face an angry population as killings mount. He opted for the first option and surprisingly the JHU and JVP reaction has been muted. If these two had their way, it would be a full-scale war and chaos.

While the composition of the government delegation is yet to be finalised, newspapers have speculated on various names like Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle or Mahinda Samarasinghe, who crossed over to government ranks from the UNP in a move that threw UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe off gear, being touted as leader of the team. The others speculated to be in the team include Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and head of the government’s Peace Secretariat John Goonaratne. There is speculation that the government will request a nominee from the opposition UNP and also from the JVP and the JHU. If these parties agree to be on the team that would be a triumph for Rajapakse.

It remains to be seen whether the LTTE would want to negotiate with such hardline groups. However the JVP and JHU inclusion and hopefully, LTTE acceptance bodes well for the peace process because it means that all the hardline groups are involved in the process. In a way both sides could accept the hardline positions and look at some compromise options towards a peaceful settlement. Samath, a freelancer, writes for THT from Colombo