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4th June, 2006  Volume 12, Issue 47

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    

Politics

Decision time for President between Co-Chairs and JVP

While the Co-Chairs put both the government and the LTTE on notice last week over the rising incidence of violence and failure to honour the agreements reached during the several rounds of peace talks, President Mahinda Rajapakse moved to strengthen his government by wooing the JVP and individual MPs from the UNP to avert a crisis of confidence. That the LTTE was going to be listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union (EU) on May 29 was a given after the European parliament and the council adopted resolutions the previous week but it is the strictures passed on the government in the

President Mahinda Rajapakse : Deputy Director General, EU Commission for External Relations, Herve Jouanjean, Japan’s Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi, Norway’s International Development Minister Erik Solheim and US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher shake hands at the Co-Chairs meeting in Tokyo, May 30

Co-Chairs’ statement after the Tokyo Conference that set the stage for an all new ball game in the political field of Sri Lanka.

Co-Chairs’ statement

What the Co-Chairs did was not only repeat the threat of the LTTE being further isolated unless they entered the negotiating process in addition to halting all violence but warn the government of also losing international support if the CFA and the agreements reached during the talks are not honoured. Needless to say consequences on a government of such actions will be much more devastating than on an organisation which has already been marginalised internationally.

Given the fact that the LTTE is branded as a terrorist organisation, such strictures are taken for granted, unlike a government that is publicly rapped on the knuckles for bad behaviour with a warning of being grounded if she does not put her house in order.

And that includes, according to the Co-Chairs, "dramatic political changes to bring about a new system of governance which will enhance the rights of all Sri Lankans, including the Muslims."

The language of the warning speaks for itself and read thus: "The government must show that it will address the legitimate grievances of the Tamils. It must immediately prevent groups based in its territory from carrying out violence and acts of terrorism. It must protect the rights and security of Tamils throughout the country and ensure violators are prosecuted. It must show that it is ready to make the dramatic political changes to bring about a new system of governance, which will enhance the rights of all Sri Lankans, including Muslims. The international community will support such steps, failure to take such steps will diminish international support."

Thus, not only was the government told it must show it will address Tamil grievances, but also that it must prevent groups based in its territory from carrying out "violence and acts of terrorism."

Though couched in diplomatic language, the unmistakable message to the government is that its territory is, in the view of the international community, used to carry out acts of terrorism, indirectly implying that the Rajapakse administration was turning a blind eye to such "acts of terrorism." And that, mind you, is a charitable interpretation. It also reinforces LTTE’s argument the government was acting in collusion with the paramilitary groups.

Karuna group and EPDP

More significant is the assertion that government territory is used to carry out acts of terrorism, charges akin to those reserved for more repressive states around the world by the international community.

This point is underscored in the next paragraph in the following words — "The Co-Chairs recognise that both parties have responsibilities which they have failed to deliver upon, including the commitments made at their meeting in Geneva in February 2006. The LTTE is responsible for numerous terrorist attacks. The government has failed to prevent attacks of armed groups, including Karuna and violent elements of EPDP."

With those words, the Co-Chairs have virtually equated the government to the LTTE in reneging on commitments made and more so through the reference to attacks by the EPDP, a party which is not only a coalition partner of the government but its Leader Douglas Devananda a cabinet minister to boot.

And President Rajapakse’s failure to remove Devananda from cabinet, despite the specific charges made by the Co-Chairs taints him too with the activities of the EPDP, which fact of course was not lost on him.

Thus, following the Co-Chairs’ statement becoming public, the President was to speak with Devananda and call for remedial action, advising him in the process to write to the international community and explain his position.

This Devananda was to do on Thursday, June 1 and almost as a blessing for him came a bomb attack on the EPDP office in Batticaloa the same day, which the LTTE was quick to charge, was self-inflicted to detract from the strictures passed by the Co-Chairs.

And Rajapakse made his thinking on Devananda known to the central committee of the SLFP at Wednesday’s meeting after Anuruddha Ratwatte called for tough action against the LTTE.

Dismissing Ratwatte’s proposal, the President asked whether anyone was naive to believe the LTTE was behind the killings of TNA MP Joseph Pararajasingham, Tamil activist Vigneswaran or the five students in Trincomalee.

Rajapakse said Douglas Devananda must be controlled lest he turns against the government some day. The problem however is the President’s inability to match his words with action and that is the gripe of the international community as well.

That apart, the political bombshell for the government came in the latter part of the statement which called for a recommitment to the agreements reached during the 2002-2003 talks, the CFA and the Geneva agreement.

Federalism

Politically, President Rajapakse could not ask for a hotter potato since it turned on its head the agreements signed with both the JVP and JHU wherein it was pledged to uphold the unitary constitution.

The Co-Chairs’ statement on this aspect which effectively calls on Rajapakse to commit to federalism is particularly potent when read with the earlier reference calling for "dramatic political changes" to bring about a new system of governance: wherein it was also stated, "failure to take such steps will diminish international support."

It is those comments coupled with the paragraph below which gave Rajapakse a sleepless night on May 30, ruining the previous night’s joy of the EU ban, but even that was short-lived when the contents of the EU President’s statement reached him 24 hours after the Co-Chairs’ salvo.

This is what the Co-Chairs had to say on the issue of federalism: "Both parties have agreed to the basic principles of any future peace during the successful period of negotiation in 2002-2003. The parties should recommit to these principles set down in the Cease Fire Agreement, the decisions from the six rounds of talks, and the meeting in Geneva in February 2006. In this context, the Co-Chairs will support any solution agreed by the parties that safeguards the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, assures protection and fulfills the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people and indeed of the Muslim people, guarantees democracy and human rights, and is acceptable to all communities. Norway has prepared a number of initiatives for the parties to return to talks, which will be issued shortly. The Co-Chairs endorsed these initiatives."

Oslo agreement

Now, the bomb waiting to explode on President Rajapakse’s face is the agreement reached after the third session of peace talks in Oslo on December 5, which he, as well as the LTTE, have been asked to recommit to by the Co-Chairs.

And that agreement reads thus: "Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities."

What the Co-Chairs have done through their statement is called upon both the government and the LTTE to inter alia recommit themselves to the said agreement, which is essentially to explore a federal solution.

And what the Co-Chairs decided in Tokyo is that the recommitment must be in the form of concrete action either in a written statement or a proposal sent by either party to the other.

Failure of course would see the international community walking away from the Sri Lankan peace process and with it, all development aid save for humanitarian assistance.

It is thus decision time for the President. He has to choose between the international community and the JVP by recommitting to the agreements reached during the earlier talks or stick with the unitary state.

And no longer is the international community prepared to accept "good intentions." What they are looking for is concrete action from the President, leaving no room for filibustering. Rajapakse has to make the call and it will be to his detriment if the LTTE beats him to it.

The time has therefore come for the President to bite the bullet, and resting on his decision will be continued aid for Sri Lanka, though of course in such a scenario he runs the real risk of losing JVP’s support and with it his government, unless he can bring the Marxists to toe the line.

The Co-Chairs in fact adverts to this fact by referring to the over US$ 3,400 million pledged by donors and states thus, "...as long as the commitment to the ceasefire agreement by both parties is proven by way of their actions, the international community will continue its assistance in addition to humanitarian aid."

It is also not without significance that the Co-Chairs in their statement call for proven action by the government rather than mere blanket denials on issues such as the activities of the Karuna group and the EPDP.

Underlying message

Furthermore, the Co-Chairs commence their statement by stating they are meeting in Tokyo "at a time when Sri Lanka is on the brink of war," the underlying message being that it is for the two parties to the conflict to pull back from the brink under the threat of isolation internationally. And there is no gainsaying it is the government that will be a much bigger loser in such a scenario given its dependency on tourism, foreign aid and investment to keep the economy afloat.

Indeed, the Co-Chairs decided not to fix dates for another meeting with the understanding they will wash their hands off Sri Lanka unless there is a recommitment to the CFA and the agreements reached not just in words but "proven action."

Interestingly, even the declarations by the EU presidency on the LTTE’s listing as a terrorist organisation passed strictures on the government with a warning that failure to address issues of concern raised by them could lead to action even against the government.

Stressing the importance of curbing violence in government controlled areas, the EU has noted "with concern the growing number of reports of extra judicial killings" and threatened action against the Karuna group. The Sunday Leader in this column exclusively reported on May 21 that the EU presidency will advert to the Karuna group in its statement listing the LTTE as a terrorist group.

"The EU views the activities of the Karuna group in the gravest possible light. They are clearly contributing to increased instability in Sri Lanka, and further endanger the peace process. The EU intends to keep the activities of the Karuna group under close review, with a view to considering possible further steps," the statement read.

And the underlying message is that the Karuna group operates from government-controlled areas despite denials by the government. Hence the reference to acts of terrorism from government-controlled territory in the Co-Chairs statement.

With that said, the EU fired a warning shot in this form — "The EU will keep the situation in Sri Lanka under active review, taking account of the activities of all parties to the conflict. It will remain ready to adopt further measures as and when they may be warranted by changing circumstances."

Thus, as much as the LTTE was banned, the government too has been put on notice and the sands of time are fast running out for the President to make that call on federalism and ensure the human rights of all citizens irrespective of where they live. That includes the civilian casualties due to aerial bombardments in the north east targeting the Tigers. The question of course is, can Rajapakse read the writing on the wall?

And that too the EU draws attention to in unequivocal language stating, "The European Union firmly believes that only a peacefully negotiated settlement can ensure a lasting solution acceptable to all. In this connection, the EU recalls the agreement reached in Oslo by all the parties involved to explore a specific institutional solution for Sri Lanka..."

Therefore, in this overall context, no longer can the President delay making public his decision on federalism and on that will depend the future direction of his government and support of the international community.

LTTE views

That the LTTE realises the full implications of the Co-Chairs’ statement was evident from the comment its Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham made to this column, Thursday, June 1.

Said Balasingham, "The Co-Chairs’ declaration seems to be a balanced statement based on an objective assessment of the politico-military situation in Sri Lanka, calling the principal parties to take concrete measures to resolve the conflict. The LTTE leadership is seriously studying the document."

In fact after the announcement, LTTE Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan was to speak with Balasingham via satellite phone and inquire whether the ban will have any effect on him. They then proceeded to discuss the implications of the Co-Chairs’ statement and came to the conclusion a heavy burden has been cast on the government and that the LTTE can once again seize the initiative by exposing the government’s intransigence on the political formula.

Interestingly, the EU ban also does not preclude LTTE members from traveling within the member nations to promote the peace process contrary to the popular belief there is a total travel ban.

This fact was confirmed by the EU presidency in Colombo, Netherlands Ambassador, Reynout S. Van Dijk to this column and according to him, only specific individuals listed as terrorists will be banned from traveling within the member states.

"If they are not in the list of named terrorists, they can travel in Europe as long as it helps the peace process. As far as I see there is no legal obstacle," he said.

In effect, as far as the LTTE is concerned, only Velupillai Pirapaharan and Pottu Amman cannot travel in Europe, given them being listed as international terrorists.

Possibly not realising in this overall backdrop the seriousness of the message sent by the EU and the Co-Chairs, the President looked to striking a deal with the JVP and individual UNP MPs last week, walking right into another trap.

It was at the SLFP central committee meeting on Wednesday, May 31 that the President got authority to enlist the support of UNP MPs wanting to crossover in addition to the JVP and he hinted of this move when he met with some newspaper editors and some heads of the electronic media on Thursday.

The President had indicated to some editors privately that with central committee approval in his hand, he will open the door for the UNP MPs and take JVP into government with offers of cabinet portfolios.

The JVP in fact has been negotiating with the President on joining the government and will this week send a draft MoU for his approval, following which a final decision will be taken on entering the government.

But what Rajapakse does not know is that it is this MoU which will seal his fate with the international community given the provisions therein.

MoU with the JVP

It is only if the President agrees to enter into the MoU with the JVP will it join the government, and a commitment to a unitary state is but one of the critical provisions in the draft.

What the JVP has done in its draft is reintroduce all the provisions Rajapakse signed in his agreement with the party in the run up to the presidential election, only this time he has to sign it as Executive President.

And if he does that, it would be the end of the peace process or what is left of it, not to mention support of the Co-Chairs and the international community.

Failure to sign the deal with the JVP recommitting himself to a unitary state and Norway’s ouster will see the loss of the Marxists’ support for the government.

And to up the tempo following the Co-Chairs’ statement and the EU ban, the JVP launched a poster blitzkrieg in the country urging the people not to fall prey to international pressure under the guise of promoting peace, signalling their commitment to stick with the unitary constitution agenda.

Hardly had the paappa dried on the posters, the JVP received a letter from the President which had the party reeling from shock, little realising Rajapakse himself despatched the missive following the stinging message of the international community contained in the Co-Chairs’ statement.

With the President being advised by the likes of Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Peace Secretariat Chief Palitha Kohona on the seriousness of the situation given the curtain call by the Co-Chairs, it was decided to convene immediately an All Party Conference (APC) with the aim of damage control.

The intention was to signal the government’s seriousness in exploring a political solution which would address the grievances and aspirations of the Tamil and Muslim people in keeping with the call by the international community but at the same time roping in all political parties as well to limit the political fallout on the President.

Accordingly, a letter was sent to the political parties attending the APC on Wednesday, May 31 inviting them for a meeting on Friday, June 2 at Temple Trees but it was the wording of the letter which had the JVP going ballistic.

JVP goes ballistic

The letter of invitation said the APC was summoned to reach a consensus on devolving power within a united Sri Lanka, words practically taken out of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s People’s Agenda as opposed to the Mahinda Chinthana.

To the JVP the message was unmistakable. The President was veering towards a federal solution and decided to read the riot act to him. As much as the international community called on the government to deliver on the agreements reached, so was the JVP.

The President in effect was facing the prospect of being politically buried by his own conflicting agreements and the JVP was unrepentant.

Summoning an emergency politburo meeting, the JVP discussed Rajapakse’s letter and came to the conclusion, the President had moved away from the Mahinda Chinthana and donned Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political garb and as such they would not attend the APC.

With the decision thus taken, JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva the very evening sent a letter to the President notifying their decision and indicating they will have nothing to do with the government until such time allegiance is pledged to the Mahinda Chinthana.

"No way will we agree to attend a discussion to discuss devolution within a united Sri Lanka," was the JVP’s message.

For Rajapakse, it was back to square one.

No sooner this letter was received, President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga was to call Tilvin Silva and urge him to reconsider the decision while the President moved to work on the Marxists through Wimal Weerawansa but the party would not budge.

Trouble-shooter

Finally, it fell on Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera to play trouble shooter by advising the President to send a second letter of invitation with a complete reversal on policy, which only underscored the catch 22 position Rajapakse found himself in.

Thus, the second letter despatched on Thursday, June 1 called on all parties to attend the APC to discuss arriving at a consensus on a final solution to the ethnic conflict.

Only then did the JVP agree to attend the meeting.

The UNP however was not amused at the comedy enacted at Temple Trees following the receipt of the second letter and at the political affairs committee meeting that day it was decided to call the government’s bluff.

With the UNP deciding to send Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya and MPs G.L. Peiris, M.H. Mohamed and John Amaratunga for the meeting, the consensus of the political affairs committee was to raise the Oslo Communiqué and ask the government whether they accept it.

Finally at the APC, the President decided to appoint an all party advisory committee to work at a formula amidst protests by the JVP and JHU he was violating the Mahinda Chintana.

With that done, the President would now have to decide which way he will turn and either way, it is going to be a very rough ride in the days ahead — not just for him but the entire country.


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