ASIA/SRI LANKA - Political, social and religious forces must unite to guarantee peace and reconciliation necessary for progress and prosperity

Saturday, 10 July 2004

Colombo (Fides Service) - In Sri Lanka tension is high, but the time is ripe for a change; the country’s political, social and religious forces must commit themselves to guaranteeing peace and religious freedom imperative for harmony, development and lasting prosperity. This is the opinion of authoritative Church sources in Sri Lanka, at this difficult moment in the Island’s history. A recent suicide bombing in the capital Colombo was a disquieting signal which caused concern in the local Church and among all men and women of good will.

The violence of terrorism
Terrorism returned to Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, with a suicide bombing which threatens to undermine the treaty signed by the government and Tamil separatists coagulated in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); a treaty which has held since February 2002. On July 7 a woman blew herself up in front of a police station in the security zone of Colombo, near the residence of the Prime Minister and the US and UK embassies, killing four policemen and injuring nine other people. The woman was near the office of the Minister of Agriculture Douglas Devananda, a Tamil, leader of the Elam People’s Democratic Party, who strongly opposes the rebels and has been accused in recent years of helping a secessionist faction of the group to form a political party.

Suicide bombing Responsibility
The Tamil Tigers have denied all responsibility for the bombing issuing a statement harshly condemning the incident “which could seriously damage the peace process”. However the Sri Lanka authorities have not abandoned the suspicion that the LTTE was behind the bombing also because the Tigers have had recourse to suicide attacks, in the past ,including the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. This was the first suicide bombing in Colombo since the cease fire was signed and verified in October 2001, when a member of the LTTE blew himself up after being stopped by one of the body guards of the Prime Minister at the time Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.

Black Tiger Day
The attack came two days after the anniversary of “Black Tiger Day ” 5 July 1987, the date of the first Tamil suicide bombing. On the anniversary the LTTE threatened to take action accusing the government of ignoring their requests and of launching two military attacks in open violation of the cease fire agreement.
Over recent weeks the rebels accused the army of having connections with the secessionist leader of the group who split the movement in April this year Colonel Karuna, former leader of the military wing of the LTTE in the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Ampara.
Tension in the country is high: the episode underlines the urgent need to resume peace talks which stalled in April 2003.

Role of Norway
At this stage there are two possible agents of neutral mediation : Norway and India. Norway has been called back to participate in the negotiations by Chandrika Kumaratunga. Norway gave up its role of mediator in November 2003, following a policy dispute between former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Kumaratunga. The latter dismissed three ministers and dissolved parliament: an act which led to early elections last April in which the Freedom Alliance coalition led by Ms Kumaratunga, won but without obtaining an absolute majority of seats.

Restoring trust among the parties in conflict
The first aim of Norway is to rebuild a minimum of trust among the parties as it already did with the old government. But this will not be easy. One of the strong points with which the Freedom Alliance won the last elections was the “hard fist” position with regard to the Tamil instances. Kumaratunga has already said that the requests for self government in the Tamil regions of the north and east are unacceptable.

The Tamil requests
This is however the basic condition put by the LTTE for it to return to the negotiating table abandoned in April 2003. The Tamils want an ad interim government for the northern and eastern territories. The request is firmly opposed by many MPs of the coalition in government who see it as a path to secession. The Tamils’ request is clear: autonomy within a federal framework.
Besides these difficulties there are also problems within Kumaratunga’s coalition with the Marxist ally of the JVP Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, who wants Norway’s role of mediator cancelled.

Possible Indian mediation
On Sri Lanka’s difficult path to peace there might be another possible mediator: during a visit to New Delhi, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar obtained support of India’s Premier Manmohan Singh for a possible role of mediator in the civil conflict between the Colombo government and Tamil rebels.
India could have a determinant weight in dealing with the Tamil minorities because the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka are of Indian origin. In fact India has 56 million Tamils in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. India has already helped Sri Lanka in the past: in 1987, India sent a peace force, withdrawn two years later because of heavy losses (more than 1,200). Moreover, India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who sent the troops, was assassinated by the Tamil suicide bomber in 1991. After that India withdrew from any intervention, political, military or diplomatic in Sri Lanka’s civil war. Recently the Indian government appointed Mrs Nirupama Menon Rao, adjunct secretary of the Foreign Ministry High Commission for Sri Lanka.

Elements for and against negotiations
Favourable elements in the framework of future negotiations include open support for peace expressed by the international community and subjects engaged in Sri Lanka’s reconstruction (Japan, European Union, United States and the World Bank) which have already promised some 4.2 million dollars of aid over the next five years.
A negative element is the inclusion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on the list of terrorist groups drawn up by the United States: a fact which strengthens the position of the Sri Lankan government in the negotiations, while the group’s cancellation from the black list will depend on the outcome of the talks.
(PA) (Agenzia Fides 10/7/2004 lines 635 words 654)