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Sattahip: what is at stake?


Thailandís Theravada Buddhist identity and generous philanthropy toward many Buddhist activities is significant.

The timing of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's ongoing visit to the United State is significant. While the Premier is meeting political and business leaders in Washington and elsewhere, his pitch for the country and his government's policies and plans is backed by what is concretely going on in Sattahip, Thailand.

And the fact that Sattahip is an important Thai naval base that is also used by the US Navy in its South East Asian theatre of operations makes the actual location of the first direct high level talks between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam no less significant. The ground-breaking meeting is being hosted by one of the US' most trusted, long-standing strategic allies in the region. (From a Sri Lankan point of view, Thailand's Theravada Buddhist identity and generous philanthropy toward many Buddhist activities here is equally or more significant.)

G.L. Peiris Milinda Moragoda Rauf Hakeem Anton Balasingham

Vidar Helgessem

Jon Westborg

Also notable is the fact that the leaders of the Government delegation to Sattahip, Ministers G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda, will fly from Sattahip direct to the US to join the Prime Minister at a major meeting with American business people interested in trading with and investing in Sri Lanka. Officials here say that the Americans participating will only be those already committed to a Sri Lankan link-up and that much was expected from the meeting in terms of cementing the linkages through confidence-building. Hopefully, Messrs. Peiris and Moragoda would be able to convincingly demonstrate to their American audience that the peace process is now genuinely under way and is already showing progress.

What should happen in Sattahip that will indicate 'progress'? What are the expectations of this first round of 'formal talks' between the Government and the LTTE and, what is at stake?

At a popular level, I suspect, many people, of all classes and ethnic communities (and genders and castes) are not quite certain about what will happen. In fact, some of them (I should say 'us') are so tense about the outcome of these crucial talks that they (we) would rather not specify their (our) expectations and anticipations. I suspect this to be true at a governmental level as well.

Agenda for talks

Officially, the agenda for the talks is clear: ceasefire implementation issues, refugee settlement and North-East regional rehabilitation matters and, the contours of an interim administration for the North-East. A little less clear is the set of interests the Government delegation will represent.

It is officially understood that the Government delegation would represent the interests of the Sri Lankan State and Society or 'Nation'. But Minister Rauf Hakeem has been included in the team to represent the specific interests of the Muslim community, especially the Muslims in the North-East.

Originally Mr. Hakeem had wanted to cut a distinctive figure by being a'Third Party' in the talks alongside the Government and the LTTE. However, this aspiration is now being sublimated by his inclusion in the Government side.

After all, Mr. Hakeem is a senior partner in the ruling coalition and is an important, multi-portfolio government minister and it would be a contradiction in terms if he was to operate outside and parallel to the Government delegation. Neither Mr. Hakeem nor his Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in its current political manifestation (its leadership being more from the hillcountry and the West rather than from the East), has secession as their ultimate objective. Even those Eastern Muslim hotheads, now justifiably desperate in the face of the triumphalism and arrogance of many Batticaloa Tamils and Eastern Tiger leaders, do not think in terms of 'secession' but rather of power-sharing and a protection of community identity.

But from within the Government delegation, Mr. Hakeem will 'represent' the Muslims' interests. It is up to the Eastern Muslims, however, to decide whether the SLMC genuinely represents their interests today. Indeed, even as Mr. Hakeem proceeds to Sattahip (I doubt whether there would be time for any stop-over in Bangkok), there are Muslim groups and individuals in the East who are in direct contact with the Eastern LTTE (with and without Kilinochchi's guidance) to explore the possibilities of ethnic co-existence.

This discussion of specific community interests, of course, will raise the question about the interests of the Sinhalas and the Hillcountry Tamils.

Some Sinhala ultra-nationalist elements, who are busy being paranoid about the fate of the Sinhalas in the event of a loss of State hegemony, will complain that Sinhala interests are being 'betrayed' by these talks. They have long signalled their mistrust of both the UNP as well as the PA/SLFP, so they will argue that the UNP-led Government's delegation would not care about Sinhala interests.

Lack of faith

Just as much as these ultra-nationalist elements have long signalled their lack of faith in the two main Sinhala-led political parties, the UNP and SLFP/PA, the mass of Sinhala voters have long signalled their lack of faith in the Sinhala ultra-nationalist parties, be it the Sihala Urumaya or the Sinhale Maha Sammatha Bhumiputhra Party or even the JVP for that matter.

Every indication, both electorally as well as through successive opinion polls, is that the vast bulk of the Sinhalas continue to place their faith in the two main parties. There is also the reality that the Sri Lankan State is yet predominantly oriented towards the interests of the Sinhalas. That is why it is only a small minority of people who would argue that the Government delegation would not represent Sinhala interests.

The bulk of the Sinhala people rightly have faith not only in the UNP-UNF Government and its delegation but would also expect the PA/SLFP to endorse the peace process (as it indeed formally does) and would wish that the President too would actively back the Thailand talks.

The Hillcountry Tamils, while watching the Thailand process closely, is well aware that the current focus is narrowly on the North-East and that their own community interests are not directly affected. Their interests would come into play only in the long term when the negotiations turn towards the larger state structure that would have to be arranged so as to accommodate and give effect to a comprehensive political settlement of the ethnic conflict.

But that is far away. In Sattahip, what is being discussed is more at a tactical level, although it is possible to see some strategic implications. After all, what is basically at stake is the political control over people and territory. Right now, the military stalemate implies a 'strategic stalemate' in terms of such control.

But nothing remains static. Even if the armed forces of both sides remain frozen in their positions (and, in some places even these 'positions' are not clearly defined), there is an ebb and flow of people and of resources across the frontlines.

Both the Sri Lankan State as well as the LTTE have such a 'cross-border' reach and there are many examples.

If the State thought it made a successful 'reach-out' through its recent giant trade carnival in Trincomalee, at the same time, the carnival had to accommodate an LTTE stall. In the heart of Army-controlled Jaffna, during last week's hugely successful Nallur Temple festival, there was a prominent LTTE presence in terms of un-armed cadres and there were LTTE stalls selling propaganda videos, books, posters etc. Even if the Tigers could not carry real guns into Government-held territory, they did bring toy guns to Nallur for the kids to play with - during a Hindu religious festival at that (Who said Hinduism stood for 'ahimsa'? Anyway if J.R. Jayewardene didn't mind being pictured in the press showing a toddler a toy gun, why can't Prabhakaran?).

Cross-border reach

The State (and the capitalist class) has the edge in its cross-border reach in terms of economic resources. Trade and investment must flow into LTTE-held areas and the North-East in general. And the people of these regions desperately need such trade and investment ties for income and employment. But the LTTE's cross-border reach is in terms of ethnic loyalty and political control. While money makes its incursions from the South, ethno-nationalist allegiance, backed by coercive force, makes its incursions from the Vanni. The reality is that both are equally effective, or can be made to be effective.

What is necessary is that both sides at Sattahip must recognise the reality of the equilibrium of forces of various kinds and not just military forces.

The agenda in Sattahip is meant to set down some interim arrangements that will accommodate these economic and politico-social dynamics. The two sides will have to realise that all these dynamics are not only inevitable but equally necessary.

On the one hand, the very recognition of that ethno-nationalism of the Tamil people is the essence of a political solution and, on the other, the flow of economic resources and logistical and institutional back-up is essential for survival of any Tamil political community - whether federated or con-federated. No amount of goodies flowing North-Eastwards will be of any use if the ethno-nationalist impulse is not accommodated and accommodated in its current LTTE manifestation. Likewise, the Tamil people will uphold the LTTE and the Tamil nation wherever they go, and go they will if the Vanni and the North-East remains in the grip of its current socio-economic crisis.

Similarly, the contours of the interim administration will also be based on this recognition by both sides that there are cross-border dynamics that must be upheld and institutionalised. The institutions would have to be such as to adequately accommodate all political and ethnic interests in the areas they govern.

While the State must recognise the LTTE's interim regional pre-eminence, the LTTE must be ready to share power within that region. The Tigers and the Tamil people must recognise the co-existence of Muslim and Sinhala communities in the region and the interim institutional arrangements will have to provide for this recognition.

The first meeting at Sattahip will not produce a complete institutional framework even for the interim. But it must certainly indicate the basic contours which become the foundation for the next round.

HNB-Pathum Udanaya2002

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