Sri Lanka peace process R.I.P. (IANS Book Review)

October 5th, 2008 - 9:43 am ICT by IANS  

Book: “My Belly is White”; Author: Austin Fernando; Publisher: Vijitha Yapa Publications, ColomboThis is a revealing book on Sri Lanka’s now dead peace process, written by one who was in the thick of it all. Austin Fernando was Defence Secretary when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement (CFA) with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in February 2002. In no time, critics, dominantly from the Sinhalese majority, began to accuse the government of betrayal.

The opposition and the media viciously targeted Fernando, whose job was to ensure that neither the military nor the Tigers spiked the prospects of long-term peace. He had no direct control over the LTTE. But he could influence the military. Critics thought he was stifling the armed forces while allowing the Tigers to blossom. In this packed-with-information 927-page volume, he argues that the allegations against him were mostly false, at times bordering on fantasy and libel.

Fernando has written the book so that the “misconceived notions” about and derogatory attacks on the Wickremesinghe government’s actions do not “become historical truths”. He admits there was “evidence based criticisms too”, especially in the English media.

“The much maligned government paid a huge political toll because of its commitment to the peace process,” he moans. “Superficial and sometimes immature rationalization of highly complicated, intricate and sensitive issues was routinely used by political opponents and the media for hypocritical advantage.”

The reference is to the defeat Wickremesinghe’s United National Party suffered in April 2004, coinciding strangely with an event that severely dented the Tigers from within: an unprecedented split in the LTTE, led by Karuna, the group’s then eastern regional commander.

But unlike many who whitewash their errors, Fernando comes across as one of those rare individuals who admit that he and his government also slipped on occasions. He is bitter vis-à-vis President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who came from the SLFP. She tried to score brownie points over Wickremesinghe and eventually undid the sagging truce by virtually sacking the prime minister in November 2003.

By then, the LTTE had walked away from the peace talks. Fernando’s grouse is that for all her bluster, she did nothing concrete to weaken the LTTE. “Our approach was different. It was to corner the LTTE through negotiations and international pressures.”

As one who was left wing in his student days, Fernando thought that peace could be brought to Sri Lanka through give-and-take, without compromising the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But making peace was no easy task. The military, he says, had no faith in the LTTE; the ceasefire pact was not a perfect instrument; the Sinhalese radicals were opposed to truce; the militarist LTTE would not trust the government; the media did not give the government breathing space. Thus the search for the elusive peace took place “under great difficulties, complexities and under great stress”.

Why did Sri Lanka sign the truce in 2002? One key reason was that the war was bleeding Colombo. One sortie attack by the air force costs Rs.2.5 million, and “we fire 5 to 10 of these attacks per day on the average when the war is on”. When he took charge, the defence ministry did not have pellets for training. Add to it, the LTTE would just not give up.

Fernando is no admirer of the LTTE. He calls them “unpredictable”, “stubborn” and “ruthless” and accuses them of trying to have their way at every turn, of creating “many-faceted problems”. For one accused of appeasement, his understanding is revealing: “LTTE cadres suspected everybody, and breaking into their hearts was extremely difficult. The outer rim of the LTTE mind was very thick and rigid and also the core. Their hearts were of hard rock.” But the Tigers “had a long range vision, mission, strategizing and action planning.” Fernando however contradicts himself. “LTTE cadres would not change their stripes just because their leader has signed on a dotted line.” Eighty pages later, he says: “They changed their stripes (so) fast (that) one cannot place trust on promises made by the LTTE.”

Fernando has a grouse against Erik Solheim, Norway’s first Special Envoy to Sri Lanka. He calls him “stubborn” and accuses him of “favouring the LTTE for some unknown reasons.” In the same breath, he gives credit to the Norwegians for persisting and coming up, in December 2002, with what came to be called the Oslo declaration, in which the LTTE agreed to explore a possible federal solution to the ethnic conflict. But what is the point of giving out Solheim’s phone number in the book?

Among the reasons the peace process failed, he says, were shortcomings in the CFA as well as “negative media reporting”, which turned many against the truce. He admits that both “the government and the LTTE … were guided by military considerations”.

Fernando candidly admits that the government he worked for followed a strategy: “giving a sense of dignity, a relatively free hand to the LTTE other than in HSZs (high security zones), building an international safety net for further stabilization of the peace process, strengthening of confidence building measures to consequently lock the LTTE to peacemaking.”

And “compromises were possible if properly approached, planned and executed, even with the LTTE”. But critics saw “such close understanding and public relations by us as our sympathy towards the LTTE! In both parties there were individuals or groups who would consider that war was the panacea to every illness.” No wonder, the peace process kept getting weakened. “Its abrogation in January 2008 (by the present regime) sounded like issuing a delayed Death Certificate to a decomposed corpse!

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