Last week, for the first time in the history of the ethnic conflict, a high-powered international consortium came together in Oslo to pledge support for the ongoing peace negotiations between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers. There has never been a more opportune time to talk peace. Nay, push for peace. Consider. For the first time since the start of the horrific civil war in Sri Lanka, due to unique changes in international relations dynamics, following the September 11 tragedy, exacerbated by events such as the Kuta beach disaster, Sri Lanka and its forgotten war has gained international importance. To date, the Norwegian facilitated peace process following the historic cease fire agreement signed between the Ranil Wickremesinghe government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is the only agreement in a civil conflict that seems to have worked.

While the concerted efforts of the facilitators and the parties to the negotiations have played a vital role in this success, one cannot ignore the huge effect the sudden change in international opinion towards groups who use terrorist tactics to achieve their goals has had on the parties to the conflict.

The United States has categorically stated it would "play its part" towards implementing the peace agreement and actively participate in the reconstruction of Sri Lanka. Whether the LTTE rejects the contents of the statements made by the United States is immaterial. The stance of the world's most powerful country is clear. US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage while praising and encouraging the positive steps taken by the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka to ensure peace, has urged the LTTE to go one step further and renounce violence, thus demonstrating to the Sri Lankan public and the international community that the LTTE has abandoned its armed struggle for a separate state and instead have accepted the sovereignty of a Sri Lankan government over all the country and respect human rights.

The Oslo declaration signed by 40 countries from the Asia Pacific region, North America and Europe at the donor conference held in Oslo last week was an impetus for the peace process, and another step taken in the right direction. Another donor conference, to be held in Tokyo in 2003, with a greater focus on longer-term financial assistance would further strengthen the resolve of those who strive for peace.

LTTE's Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham already assured the international community in Oslo last week that the parties in conflict have ceased violence under the truce agreement and was sincerely and firmly committed to peace and a negotiated political settlement.

In his Heroes' Day speech last Wednesday, Tiger Leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, following the assurances already made by Balasingham at the first two rounds of peace talks held in Thailand, for the first time publicly announced he was willing to accept internal self determination. This was the clearest statement yet that the LTTE was prepared to give up its demand for a separate state.

Prabhakaran is also well aware of the international pressures. In his speech on Wednesday he admitted that "we can't ignore the realities of today's world. We have to realise this and adjust our path to freedom."

The road to peace is long and arduous. There will be many pitfalls and setbacks. However, there is no other way for Sri Lanka except the path to peace. And a negotiated settlement based on economic progress and enjoyment of a peace dividend is necessarily people driven.

The issues before the Sri Lankan public are these. Does the public want war or peace? Development or deprivation? Unity or division? If we choose war, can we still attract large numbers into the armed forces? The government coffers are empty. For the first time, last year negative economic growth was recorded. Sri Lanka is now in a near state of bankruptcy. Thus, the government will have to resort to compulsory conscription.

Are those who now shout war willing to send their sons to the war front? Are they prepared to see them come home in body-bags? Will these Colombo society pundits and expatriates living in safe climes and educating their children in Ivy league universities be willing to sacrifice their sons? Will those who cry war while sipping Martinis on the cocktail circuit be willing to send their sons to war? Even at the very height of the conflict, while army camps were continuously being over-run by the LTTE during the reign of the previous government, the night clubs in Colombo were packed with rich, drunken revellers.

Meanwhile, the media have now to be doubly vigilant and meticulously responsible. Publishing screaming headlines with out-of-context quotes in order to whip-up public emotion and ethnic disunity has no place in the present context. Indeed, the headlines this past week in some newspapers that the LTTE would not renounce violence and had rejected Richard Armitage's call to do so, is a case in point.

A careful reading of the statements made by both Balasingham and Prabhakaran will reveal that the LTTE rejected rightly or wrongly the label of terrorists resorting to pure violence they felt was conferred on them by the United States.

It is also easy for political opportunists, extremist groups like the JVP, opposition political parties using the situation to gain political mileage, arms dealers, and those benefiting directly or indirectly from a war situation to whip up public frenzy and cause panic.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga's call for swift action to close down the LTTE police stations and kangaroo courts maintained in LTTE controlled areas is somewhat ridiculous considering the fact that these police stations and courts have been in operation since 1993 and continued through the period the People's Alliance governed this country. Meanwhile, the government has issued a statement that it strongly disapproves of the establishment of such courts as Sri Lanka has only one legal system.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission has confirmed that the kangaroo courts and police stations remain only in LTTE controlled areas. This, then, is just another example of irresponsible politicking at a time when the President, the Prime Minister, the cabinet and the Sri Lankan public should cooperate to bring peace to our land.

This is not to say that given the past record of the LTTE, the government of Sri Lanka should trust them 100%. But every chance for peace must be given. The Sri Lankan public has to face reality. The reality is that the LTTE has, for over a decade, controlled large areas in the north. We cannot approach the peace process with naivete. Neither should we approach it with closed minds and bigoted ideas. As much as there are those who oppose peace in the south, there will be those who oppose peace within the LTTE cadre. With 17,000 of their men dead in pursuit of an illusory separate state, the LTTE leadership will need to answer to such hardline queries as much as the government of Sri Lanka has to do so in the south. It is important that these hardliners are quickly convinced that peace is the only way forward for all communities.




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