Movement forward, very honestly
Author: Ravi R Prasad interviews President Chandrika Kumaratunga
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 09/20/2004
Sri Lanka is in the throes of peace process that has come to a grinding halt. The separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are insisting that any talks with the government can take place only if the government is prepared to discuss their proposal for setting up an interim administration for the Tamil dominated north and east of the country.
Meanwhile, the split within the Tamil Tiger guerrillas has led to bloodshed in the east of the country. The in-fighting among the rebels has destabilized the eastern part of the country. The LTTE is accusing the government of engineering the split and harbouring the renegade leader, Colonel Karuna. The Tamil Tigers have said that it has put the peace process as well as the two year old cease-fire in danger. (see also Ravi R Prasad’s Comment in this issue, Sep 2004).
In an exclusive interview, the first since her party returned to power in April this year, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga outlined her strategy to establish peace in the country.
The Norwegian mediators are trying hard to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, but have failed. The Tamil Tigers are demanding an interim administration under their control for the north and east of the country. At present they are not willing to negotiate anything else with the government.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga is keen on restarting the peace talks and taking the process forward.
Q. The peace process has come to standstill. Vidar Helgessen, the Norwegian deputy foreign minister was here and he was saying that both sides do not seem to be serious about the peace process. So how do you propose to take it forward when Tigers have taken a very defiant stand and they want to discuss only their interim administration proposals?
A. From here he (Vidar Helgessen) went to India..sorry to London and met the LTTE s (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) main spokesman and representative named by the LTTE for the peace process, Mr Balasingham, and he reported to us that it was certain positive movement forward and that they had said they were happy with the easing out of the situation in the east, which has nothing to do with us. The LTTE has split into two and they are blaming the government that the government is helping one side and not the other. Both sides are blaming us. It is a very serious internecine struggle within the LTTE, which was brewing for many years. It is a traditional conflict that there .between the Batticaloa Tamil and Jaffna Tamil people. I don t want to go into this. It s for the LTTE to say what it was brewing for a long time. Apparently Mr. Karuna, who is a Batticaloa tamil and who was the military commander of the LTTE resented the political authority and strong authority and lack of freedom that he had because of the excessive authority of the northern leaders, it has split. And they are killing each other from time to time. Now we have Sri Lankan forces have been able to bring about some kind of alleviation of the situation. We cannot bring it totally under control because of the Cease-Fire Agreement, which stipulates that the Sri Lankan forces or the police will not go into those areas which the last government decided was under the LTTE s control. And the killings go on mainly in those areas between their own cadres, which have now split into two sides. I in fact brought out the army and the forces much more strongly since the cease-fire agreement was signed in order to control the situation in Batticaloa and also suggested to the LTTE that if they want us to control the situation rather than accusing us of promoting, that if they agree for a short period of time we bring it under control that the forces can come into the so called LTTE controlled areas, we can arrest anybody who is armed. In any case that is in violation of the cease-fire agreement. But the LTTE did not like that, so the forces, the security forces, have been given strict instructions by the government that anybody in the government controlled areas moving around with weapons has to be arrested we don t care who it is because it the government s responsibility to control law and order.
Q. What is the threshold of your tolerance? How long will you tolerate this kind of internecine war, where people are dying? It is destabilizing the situation.
A. The only way to control it is to march into the LTTE controlled areas.
Q. Would you be willing to do that?
A. As you say we have to decide what that threshold is. What I can tell you is that as head of state I have never I have been holding this post for ten years I have never baulked at doing what is required of me as the head of state in the national interest, never, even at the risk of my life I have had attempted to the best of my ability to execute responsibilities handed to me by the people, entrusted to me by the people lets say at two presidential elections. If it is required we will not hesitate, if it appears to us after long reflection that it is required in the national interest.
Q. So you will order the armed forces to march in and prevent .
A. In such a situation yes. At the moment we don t think it is necessary because it s at a very low level.
Q. You have risked a lot for this country. Did you ever consider going out and meeting Prabhakaran and thrashing out the differences across the table straight away?
A. If, well at one time I did suggest that we should meet one to one when we the first time we went into negotiation with the LTTE,10 days after my government was elected to power almost ten years well not today in one week. ..within 10 days I wrote to Mr Prabharakan inviting them to talks and all that and we had eight months of cease-fire no fighting and talks. At that time when I found that the talks were going a bit awry I suggested that we meet face to face at some appointed place either in a foreign country or in Colombo, obviously security forces would not have allowed me to go to Jaffna but they were not too keen. They didn t say no but they were not keen.
Q. So is that offer still standing? Would you still like to meet him?
A. Why not. Not for the sake of just shaking hands but if negotiations begin and we are progressing positively quite definitely at some point of time we have to meet . Even though he would have been my murderer and still is a potential assassin of me, as long as I hold this position I will have to forget personal considerations and lead the country. If that is required, yes.
Q. Right now the peace process has come to a standstill, the Tigers are insisting on their ISGA (interim self governing authority). Has the government suggested anything to the Tigers?
A. Oh yes, we have sent them seven or eight drafts. They have refused them all without any flexibility at all. Absolutely no flexibility.
Q. What is the future of the peace talks now?
A. What we are told, by the facilitators that the LTTE has not said so but what their impression that is, that you see we went into this process after the Karuna faction broke away. They broke away one month before the elections and I restarted the contacts about five, six weeks after that, after the Karuna faction broke away. Apparently, it appears that the LTTE present leaderships main concern is this and they want to stabilise the eastern situation before they come to talks. And our impression is that the agenda is not the main point, but they want to stabilize the east before coming to talks.
Actually we have gone about seventy five percent of the way to meet the Tigers request for the agenda. Because, officially it is sticking on the agenda. We have gone 75 per cent of the way the Tigers are not willing come the other 25 per cent of the way. We are still hoping to persuade them to come 25 per cent of the way because we have gone 75 per cent of the way. Very briefly the government s previous position was that we should discuss and it should on the agenda, both matters, that is – to look at the possibility of setting up an interim arrangement as well as the final solution. Discuss parallely both, once that agreement on both is reached and signed or whatever, that the government is willing to set up the interim council first and the interim measure while working towards the agreed final solution that would take more time. And also to give the tamil people and the LTTE the confidence that the government is serious and not playing the fool. The LTTE said no we are not ready to talk of the final solution, only the interim solution., You have to talk about it, sign it, set it up, finish setting it up, then we will start talking, whilst it is operational, of the final solution. So we told them, you know it is a bit of a joke if they expect any government agree to that .
And then through eight drafts .through eight stages which ended up in written drafts we went 75 per cent of the way to meet their demand and said we will only talk about the interim and not the final solution. We will agree to set it up, we will start setting up and we will give a limited time frame to say that so many months it will be operational, but when we start setting it up and before it becomes operational we must sit down and talk about the final solution also, but we will continue to do the work to set it up and make it operational, because what we are going to set it up is not what exactly the LTTE wants in the ISGA so it will be a negotiated version of the ISGA which the LTTE has put on the table. Obviously if we sign on the dotted line it will be something that the government can also accept. We proposed the interim council before the LTTE asked for it we have
All I can say is that there is movement forward, very honestly.
Bio: Ravi R. Prasad is a South Asia Analyst based in Colombo. He has written on South Asia, Europe and Balkans. He can be contacted at email@example.com