Talks about peace talks are being heard again. The LTTE is reported to have offered to talk and the government, too, keeps on saying it is amenable to talks without preconditions. The international community is urging both parties to talk. The Opposition is also calling for talks. But, unfortunately, the war is on in all but name, churning out, as it does, death and devastation.
Opposition and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has made an interesting observation. He says unless the government is strong at the negotiating table, it will have to give in to the LTTE. The government, he claims, has not succeeded in weakening the LTTE in spite of its claims to that effect and, therefore, it will be in a weak position at talks. One cannot but agree with him on the need to bargain from a position of strength at peace negotiations.
Does a government stand to gain, in dealing with the LTTE, from a decisive victory in the run up to negotiations? Theoretically, it does. But, in reality, it doesn`t happen so. The JRJ government, for example, almost succeeded in accounting for Prabhakran in 1987 by means of Operation Liberation, which proved to be a huge military success. Had JRJ been allowed to go ahead with that onslaught, the LTTE would have been a thing of the past! However, military success didn`t take JRJ anywhere. He not only had to eat a great deal of humble pie at the hands of Rajiv Gandhi but also sign the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord on the dotted line. The Tigers were let off the hook in the process.
Thus, it could be seen that battlefield achievements are not a sufficient condition for success in dealing with the LTTE. For, Sri Lankan governments are exposed to pressure from foreign powers supportive of the LTTE. During JRJ`s time, there was only India to back the LTTE but today there are several other countries to look after its interests. So, it should be seen that external pressure always militates against, if not negates, battlefield successes of governments whenever they enter into negotiations with the LTTE.
Even without foreign pressure, negotiations could turn out to be advantageous to the LTTE. Having taken on the Indian army, the Tigers were on their last legs in the late 1980s, when they entered into a peace process with the late President Premadasa. The IPKF left in the end but the Tigers remained extremely weak. However, finally they managed to wrong-foot President Premadasa and return to war. That, they did by using the peace process to reorganise and rearm.
Whether the government is strong or weak at the inception of talks, the LTTE is capable of emerging stronger during negotiations by causing them to drag on until time is opportune for it to strike back. It has been able to do so as no timeframes are set for peace negotiations and the LTTE is allowed to have its own way. It only makes a virtue of its difficulties by offering to talk. Its survival is contingent upon occasional negotiations owing to resource constraints including lack of manpower. How it abused the present `peace process` is a case in point. Having offered to talk peace unconditionally to avoid international pressure in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the attendant the US-led war on terror, it began to put forth demands one after the other, which were all met. Finally, it unilaterally suspended talks with the help of its ISGA demand, which the UNF found impossible to meet. Again, it employed similar tactics in negotiations with the present government and walked away from talks.
The LTTE has been using this strategy over the past two decades but successive governments have failed to counter it effectively. Nothing explains it better than a quote from EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda, who, in an interview with this newspaper in June 2003, revealed the contents of an intercepted radio message between Anton Balasingham and Thileepan, the former in India and the latter in Jaffna on the eve of the Bangalore talks. We have reproduced it earlier but let it be repeated once again.
Thileepan : Are we going to talk in Bangalore?
Balasingham :Yes, we are!
Thileepan :What are we going to tell the people? We have told them there is no alternative to an armed struggle!
Balasingham :Why? We are going there with a demand?
Thileepan : What if the Sinhala government meets that demand?
Balasingham : Don`t worry! We will put forward another demand!
Balasingham and Thileepan may be dead but the LTTE strategy remains. When it was offered Provincial Councils and asked to give up its separatist project, it indicated its willingness to settle for federalism. But, when federalism was considered an option in the Oslo Declaration, it demanded an ISGA, which is nothing but a halfway house between federalism and separation.
Even if talks were to be held again, the LTTE would bide time and finally revive its ISGA demand to scuttle talks, irrespective of the party in power. The ability of a government to negotiate with the LTTE successfully and withstand foreign pressure depends not so much on its military prowess but the unity of the two main parties. So long as the government and the main Opposition party pull in different directions, the LTTE can avoid commitment to a solution by claiming its implementation cannot be ensured in case of a change of government, and continue to abuse...