Forcible occupation of land no basis for harmony - BBC Sinhala service head

[TamilNet, Friday, 09 May 2003, 00:02 GMT]
Speaking at the South Asia Discussion Group of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London Wednesday, Mr. Priyath Liyanage, head of Sandesiya, the BBC’s Sinhala service, said the “effort to avoid the involvement of the Tamil Tigers” in rehabilitation and development in the north raises the question of the other ulterior agendas by Colombo.

Following are excerpts of his speech:

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, first of all I must thank the South Asia Discussion Group of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and Mr. Alexander Evans for inviting me for this discussion. I must say, that I am not an academic or a politician who usually make speeches here. Most of my knowledge about the conflict in Sri Lanka had been through first hand experience and working with the conflict for nearly two decades. I will make this speech short, and hope that it will ignite lively discussion. On one hand I am not a great public speaker, on the other, the matters with regards to the peace process are in the public domain, and there is, not much we can reveal by discussing along the same lines. So, I am hoping to shed light on some of the aspects which I feel that we need to address.

Currently, the official talks are suspended although both parties; the government and the Tamil Tigers are still working together. Mr. Anton Balasingham had arrived in Vanni, and the government had facilitated his journey from here to his home land. Government delegations had returned from India with the Norwegians and Mr. Akashi where they had discussions with the Indian government representatives. Tamil Tigers who had suspended all their official meetings still went ahead and met the Muslim leaders in the East. All these indicate that the current peace process is still very much alive.

Today, Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe had told the parliament that the government has worked out a road map for federalism.

The cease-fire had been holding for nearly seventeen months while the MOU had been effective since February last year. There were few incidents initiated by both parties, while the Tamil Tigers blamed the government forces of sinking their merchant ships, and continuing the hostilities mainly in the sea; the government was accusing the Tigers of killing informants and anti Tiger Tamils, Gun running child recruitment etc. While both parties are accusing each other, Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission had found some Phantom Menace responsible. They say it is another third force involved in the incident, yet to be identified.

While these things are taking place, there are remarkable changes happening to the day-to-day life of the people of the island. Check points are gone, and the A9 high way is open for traveling up and down. Many people in the government controlled areas feel secure. There are no bomb threats or the fear of sudden suicide attacks. Tamil Tiger threat as it used to be is on the hold. People in the North also feel relative safety. They do not have the threat of aerial bombing or constant fighting. Yet, the problems faced by internally displaced people remain unchanged. Over 25,000 families who were evacuated from the government designated high security zones are still waiting to go home, and the Muslims who had left the North in 1990 are still in camps.

In the Valicamam (sic) North area surrounding the Palaly camp and the Airport alone, over 58 square kilometers of land is lost as part of the designated High Security Zone. It covers 830 acres of rice growing fields and over 170 acres of fruit cultivation. The Northern fishing areas of the zone had nearly one hundred motorised fishing boats and two trawlers. They dispatched fish to Colombo daily. There were 30 Hindu temples, 7 churches and 20 schools in the area. All this had been lost for many years. The houses and other buildings remain empty, and the fields are baron (sic). The owners of the land are still in refugee camps waiting for handouts. The military condition to hand over the area back to the people is that the Tamil Tigers should disarm the long-range guns. Somehow this forcible occupation of the land by the military does not provide a basis for harmony. A way to solve the problem of the High Security Zones is needed immediately to the progress of the process.

With the suspension of talks, a significant development was seen in the North. The Tamil Tiger leadership hurriedly organised a campaign to educate the masses about the reasons of their suspension from the talks. It is noteworthy that they felt the need to do so. It is political practice of the kind they never used to do before. It shows that it is not as easy to make decisions about the war and peace any more without convincing the masses in the North. I see this as one of the most significant development in the on going peace process. Now people know a world without war. Suddenly it had become a feasible reality.

The question arises now about peace. Is it somehow stopping the war, kind of at any cost. So, the Northern areas could be open to investment. When a few supermarkets are opened, and some money is pumped to Jaffna, people will forget the Tamil Tigers? There is a feeling of trying to out do each other in the process. Some sectors accuse the government of using the peace process as a means of weakening the Tamil Tigers. The agenda is to win the “hearts and minds of the people”. [I feel we had heard this term before very recently] by passing the Tamil Tigers. Certain people in Colombo think that the Tigers could be deceived to believe that their efforts are genuine. The real threat to the peace process comes from these people who think that their agenda is going to succeed. It is more counter productive than the campaign of the Sinhala nationalist forces led by the JVP; and rather confused approach of the PA. They also believe that the Tigers could be tamed by applying pressure through the war against terrorism launched by president George W Bush.

The talks up to now had mainly focused on reconstruction and rehabilitation. The road map for fiscal federalism was also supposed to have been discussed at the last meetings. Mr Anton Balasingham mainly complains about not being able to take part in the Washington meeting a fortnight ago. That grievance clearly indicates the importance both parties give to the economic aspects of peace. Is this all about money? Certainly it is a case for concern.

Up until now whatever little was done in the North as rehabilitation was done through government agencies without much involvement of the Tamil Tigers. This effort to avoid the involvement of the Tamil Tigers again raises the question of the other agendas. If both parties are indulging in a peace process together, it is only reasonable to treat each other as equals. If the government thinks that they are giving concessions to a lesser important organisation, they would find it extremely difficult to achieve a positive result in the long term. It is not only the government of Sri Lanka who should open their eyes to the stark reality of the situation, but also the foreign powers involved including the US, Norway, India and Britain. The Tamil Tigers are an equal partner in negotiations not a group of subordinates. If they are to be absorbed in to the democratic process, they need to be respected as equals.

It is also important for them to be seen as equals in front of the eyes of the Tamil people. The peace and liberation should be won with dignity, not at any cost. It has to be the organisation which had been responsible for running an efficient civil administration in the areas they control who should be responsible on carrying out the rehabilitation of those areas. They would know the needs of the people, and the efficient way of delivering the solutions. Let the Tamil Tigers have the glory of peace as well. Having a meeting about reconstruction of the war torn areas, without the Tamil tigers is a useless exercise. Not involving the Tamil Tigers in the aid conference, looks like a short sighted decision by the US government agencies who does (sic) not always take all aspects of a problem to account before they launch pre-emptive strikes. This kind of behaviour may enhance the feeling expressed by the chief negotiator Anton Balasingham who said that they would not allow the peace process to be a peace trap to weaken the Tamil tigers.

The premise for peace talks was inspired through the economic downturn as a result of the protracted war, and triggered by the huge blow to the economy in the aftermath of the attack on the airport. It is fair to say, the process would not withstand the test of time without economic help from outside. The peace process was mainly backed by the local business community. Any prospects of foreign investments were drying out. As a result, the process was pushed to the fore of the present government agenda by the forces of the internal and external business need than the genuine need to confront the issues. That may be the reason for conflict within the peace process and outside it with the other interested groups.

The workers organisations, trade Unions and the Left, who campaigned for years against the war, had not been involved in the current peace process. They feel it is deliberately done so that it would be possible for the market forces to take hold of the situation rather than establishing the rights of the people who were oppressed by war for decades. On the part of the Tamil Tigers, they had openly declared their support for free market economy and privatisation of the resources in the areas under their control. The resulting debate had now alienated the Tamil Tigers from the solidarity they enjoyed from the left wing political organizations in the island.

While the public persona of the Tamil Tigers express the desire to be part of the globalization bandwagon, more radical parts of the organization had started to express concern about selling off the family silver. Recently, one of the military leaders of the organization Soosai expressed his concern about what is happening, and expressed his displeasure on the agenda of government minister Milinda Moragoda, who is the main minister responsible for privatization and one of the four members of the government negotiating team. If the peace process is taking this rout (sic), it would alienate the grass roots organizations of the North and the South, resulting in further obstacles for peace.

The economic project, which is called Regaining Sri Lanka, had come under criticism from the Tamils, for not involving the people and their organizations of the area. This is perceived to be a project to re-establish the trade opportunities lost by the war, for local and international business organizations.

These projects and other enterprises launched by the government have further infuriated the leadership of the Tamil Tigers as well as the people of the area. Judging by the statements given by the Tamil Tiger leadership in the recent past, it is clear that they would probably not oppose the privatization projects, but they would like to be consulted. In the case of partial sale of the oil tank farm at the Trincomalee harbour, the sale was done without any knowledge of the Tamil Tigers.

Northern areas of the island had been self-sufficient during and before the war. The Tamil Tigers had excelled in enhancing the yields in agricultural products during the war period. In an atmosphere of an economic structure developed through agricultural produce, introduction of an open economy could bring in further problems. It was the introduction of the market economy, which triggered the unrest in the North in the late seventies. Introduction of the free market competition by the J. R. Jayawardhana’s government crushed the onion, and potato farmers in the North depriving the education of their children resulting of them rebelling against the Colombo rule. Another round of introduction of free market and privatisation can result in rebellions against all parties concerned, of which the Tamil Tigers would have little control.

It would be important for all parties concerned to be open and transparent about their approach to peace. While the government is controlling main media outlets in the country, most of the mainstream media seems to be hostile to the Tamil Tigers while supporting the government’s approach. This ambiguity is stark in many of the English and Sinhala media. This approach further questions the real agenda behind the government’s facade of peace. On the other hand, the main negotiator of the Tamil Tigers, Mr. Anton Balasingham is well known for giving different statements to different media organisations or even to the same organisation in different languages. He is known to give a different spin to Tamil audiences and another to the international media.

President Chandrika Kumaratunge has mastered this art to a level of no comparison. The opposition headed by the president’s People’s Alliance seem to be changing their mind to suit the situation. A party, which executed (sic) the war until the last day in power, now claim that they started the peace process. At the same time, they are quick to accept the responsibility of attacking a Tamil Tiger ship by the Sri Lanka Navy. Former minister Mangala Samaraweera told a newspaper, it was not the government but the president who ordered the Navy to attack. They seem to be seduced by the prospects of attracting the support of the Sinhala right wing anti peace lobbies.

Yet, in a dual power situation which prevails at the moment, it is difficult to ignore whatever is uttered by the opposition and the president who remains to be the commander in chief. She wields the executive power and threatens to use it from time to time. The present allegiance they have developed with the Nationalist socialist JVP presents a threatening scenario to the Prime Minister Ranil Wickranmasinghe. They are raising the stakes by brandishing a dagger of early general elections.

Any amount of peace talks would be fruitless without the final agreement with the opposition. There could not be any solution without dramatic changes to the constitution of the country. Only positive result the Tamil tigers can hope to get out of the current round of talks is to get as much foreign aid as possible and deploy it themselves to strengthen their position in the areas they control. It is clear that they are aware of the limitations of the current round of talks. That is the reason why they are upset about being sidelined in the economic programs. They wants to spend money to build what they want, and hoist their flag at the opening ceremony and show people that they have now become politicians capable of doing things that are of value to the masses.

They may be becoming politicians, but current talks and the cosmetic changes it can bring would not bring the real long term solutions. Tamil Tigers would not come to the democratic process without the power being devolved first. They would not fight elections under the present constitution which requires the swearing of allegiance to a unitary Sri Lanka. It is impossible to bring the necessary changes without the two thirds majority in parliament. Sri Lanka does not offer any concrete solutions to this difficulty without the collapse of the present power structure of the government of slim majority living together with the executive president.

Beyond the peace process, there are many issues which needs to be addressed immediately. One of the main concerns is the reparation for the victims of human rights abuse. Only a handful of culprits were prosecuted for gross human rights abuses including extra judicial killings, abduction, rape, torture and even genocide blamed on the hands of the government forces on one hand and, abductions, killings of civilians including women and children on dawn attacks on villages, forcible recruitment, abductions, ethnic cleansing of the Muslims and murder, allegedly committed by the Tamil Tigers. It is needed to address these issues and accept responsibility so that the victims can get on with their lives. The process could be built in to the mechanisms of the peace effort.

The question of the Muslim community is largely ignored until recently. Their call for proper representation at the negotiations had been denied. Since the issue of the East where the Muslims have a substantial percentage of population is one of the main issues discussed, their participation would be vital.

The concern arises from the denial of the nationhood of the Muslims by both the Tamil Tigers and the Colombo governments. Many, even liberal minded Tamils discourage discussions about the issue, stating the aspect of the Muslims mainly speaking the Tamil language (sic). The Muslims who had always been a different ethnic group had the right to ask for their rightful place in Sri Lankan society. Let them decide if their rights were violated. It is not up to the Tamil or Sinhala leadership to decide what they should do. Recent incidents in Muttur in the East, highlighted the need for dialogue without delay before the differences escalate.

Months of peace and calm in the island had made people on all sides of Sri Lanka realise the need of a lasting peace more than ever. It is by far the longest period of peace since 1983. It needs to be prolonged. It needs to last forever. There are many obstacles. There is the question of the way it should go. There needs to be trust between the parties. It is not peace and freedom at any cost. It is not political liberation and peace and economic slavery the people of the island are looking for, after two decades of war and sixty thousand deaths.

We had seen many ways of establishing democracy in the recent times. Sometimes it is not needed to send an army and tons of bombs to democratise a community. There could be other ways of doing it. Is Peace and freedom in Sri Lanka having McDonalds and a Starbuck opened in Jaffna and people blissfully drinking water from bottles filled by Coca Cola company where the peace is delivered to your doorstep by a colonel called Buck Waters with a gun on his hip; or everyone being able to cultivate their own piece of land, being able to fish in their own waters without restrictions, have education, health care, infrastructure and being able to dig a well in the garden to drink water without paying anyone else?

It is peace with dignity people are looking for not peace at any cost! Only the time will tell if the current peace process can deliver that.


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