Missed Opportunities in Seeking Peace
On March 1st, 1990, around 10 am I rang up Nelson, the Information Officer of the then Chief Minister of the merged North-Eastern Provincial Council, Annamalai Varadharaja Perumal for a chat. Through this conversation, I was able to pick up one or two clues of new developments in Tamil politics which I would later be able to develop into news stories.
It was a highly tense period of time when President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government was having peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a manner that was hell bent on evicting the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) – the Indian armed forces that were in Sri Lanka then under the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord. With that they also wanted to oust Perumal from office – or from the surface of the earth, while scuttling the provincial council system, newly introduced under the same accord.
The IPKF had started its de-induction following a diplomatic row between the governments of President Premadasa and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi over the presence of the Indian troops in the island, leaving Perumal’s security and that of the members of his party, the EPRLF in peril.
Nelson told me “Machang, call me after 12, something very big is going to happen”. When I did, I was aghast to hear that Perumal had made a speech in his council in Trincomalee, threatening the government to declare the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) on March 1st the following year, unless the government met 19 demands that he had already put forward. He had also stated that his council would act until then as a Constitutional Assembly for an independent Tamil State that would be carved out in the north and the east, in the event that the government fails to meet his demands.
He had not declared Independence, as many southern people claimed, but with his claim that his council would be a Constitutional Assembly for such an Independent State he had crossed the Rubicon. I, as a champion of peace from the mid-seventies; as my hopes were dashed with Perumal’s announcement which I thought would complicate the ethnic conflict. I foresaw a catastrophic situation in the north and the east.
When the provincial council system was introduced under the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 all Tamil parties and groups except for the LTTE and all leftist groups except for the JVP accepted it, as it had the basic concept of devolution in it, despite India’s high-handedness in the process. Besides, it was not India’s solution; they had voluntarily agreed upon the provincial council system during the Political Party Conference (PPC) convened by President J.R.Jayewardene, in 1986.
However, who was to blame for the new development? President Premadasa wanted to scuttle India’s strategy in Sri Lanka and at the same time, the LTTE desired to jeopardize strategies of both India and Sri Lanka. When Prabhakaran deceived Premadasa into believing that he was prepared to talk peace, while demanding the de-induction of the IPKF, Perumal was pushed to the wall and desperation led him to play his final trump card – UDI against LTTE’s armed struggle for Tamil Eelam, but this also fizzled.
This was the first major missed opportunity for the country, especially for the Tamils in respect to peace. Another two opportunities were lost during peace talks between the LTTE and the governments of Presidents Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga. Theoretician of the LTTE, Dr. Anton Balasingham during the opening ceremony of the outfit’s courts complex in Kilinochchi in 2003 said that the “Package” presented by Kumaratunga in 1995, shortly after the collapse of the peace talks with her government, should have been accepted by Tamils.
To my knowledge, the relatively most professional one among the several peace processes carried through in the country was initiated by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2002, in spite of the ceasefire agreement signed between Wickremesinghe and Prabhakaran being argued to be illegal, in the light of the subject of defence coming under the President’s purview, according to the Constitution. Talks were conducted in the presence of representatives of a large number of countries and international organizations, which Wickremesinghe later called an international safety net.
Nonetheless, I witnessed several bad omens from the beginning. The media conference conducted by Prabhakarana and Balasingham on April 10, 2002 on the outskirts of Kilinochchi where over 300 local and foreign journalists were gathered – the largest media briefing I have ever attended in my 35-year career – seemed to be just a show of strength. Despite it being obvious that any peace overture by the LTTE implied their willingness to abdicate the concept of a separate State for Tamils, Prabhakaran and Balasingham were very careful not to give the journalists such an impression.
I had to confront Balasingham over this question at a discussion between him and a selected small group of journalists on the sidelines of the second round of the peace talks at the Rose Garden Hotel in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, in late October 2002. I asked him why the LTTE leaders always say that they would consider, rather than accept any solution that would be acceptable to the Tamil people. My contention was that, if a solution would be acceptable to the Tamils should also be acceptable to the LTTE. There cannot be anything to be considered. After my repeated insistence he responded in a subdued tone that consideration is equal to acceptance, in this case.
Finally, the bad omens came true: the peace process collapsed, despite it being the best ever opportunity that the Tamils had.
The main factor that scuttled all peace efforts in the country was the insistence of peace by all parties on their own terms, disregarding the heavy price that had to be paid by the people. They should have taken a leaf out of the South African leaders’ book where the belligerent parties finally agreed to mutually compromise which proved to be a sine qua non for peace and reconciliation anywhere in the world.