More vigilance needed, not euphoria                                                                

There was a sense of national celebration last week as the Armed Forces announced the capture of Pooneryn, a strategic base in the North. Regaining control of the camp after more than a decade is indeed a landmark in the Eelam War and congratulations are due to the Army, Navy and Air Force for executing a task that has eluded them for many years.

The significance of the achievement was underscored in the government reaction to the event. President Mahinda Rajapaksa chose to announce the triumph through a brief address to the nation and the government declared a week of national celebration. The state media broadcast special programmes-and even some of the private media joined in.

Since that event, two other bastions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Mankulam and Muhamalai have both been captured by troops. Indications are that the Armed Forces are continuing their thrust downwards and eastwards in the Northern peninsula and that there would be no let up in the military offensives.

What was more significant though was President Rajapaksa’s articulation of the government’s stance in his address to the nation. He appealed to the LTTE to return to the negotiating table to discuss a political solution even at this stage, but was firm that there would be a condition attached: the Tigers should lay down arms and renounce separatism.

This is not the first instance that governments in Colombo have offered to negotiate with the LTTE and its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. In fact, all of Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidents except the late D.B. Wijetunge have negotiated with the Tigers. But this appears to be the first instance where Colombo is calling the shots and demanding negotiations.

Previously, the trend has been for the Tigers to have the upper hand and the government has been frog marched to the negotiating table-at times under pressure from the international community and in other instances, because negotiations had been forced upon them due to their military vulnerabilities.

There have also been instances in this long separatist war where the LTTE has used negotiations when they were militarily weak to recover, regroup and rejuvenate. Often the negotiations have then been abruptly called off and the violence and terrorist attacks have resumed with even greater intensity.

This has been possible because successive governments in Colombo have previously been tempted by the possibility of peace and have commenced talks with the LTTE without pre-conditions-which meant that the Tigers retained arms and hadn’t renounced violence and terrorism. Therefore, the LTTE was effectively negotiating from a position of strength.

That is precisely why President Rajapaksa’s current call to the LTTE is noteworthy; while the government is clearly indicating its willingness to negotiate and hammer out a political solution to the grievances of ethnic minorities, it is also sending another powerful message-there will be no negotiations until separatism is renounced and arms are laid down.

Critics of this policy towards the Tigers will argue that the LTTE will never agree to these conditions and that therefore, the negotiations will be a non-starter. That may well be true. But to be fair by Colombo, its fingers have been burnt not once but many times by negotiating with the LTTE in good faith. Hence, the policy now is not fearing to negotiate but never negotiating out of fear.

It is remarkable that when President Rajapaksa visited New Delhi this week and met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, although military matters were discussed there was no disapproval of what the President and the government in Colombo has been consistently articulating.

It must be appreciated that the government in New Delhi itself is under enormous pressure from the state government in Tamil Nadu to espouse not only the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils but also the cause of the LTTE. The Central Government in New Delhi, we must remember, is dependent on the support of legislators from Tamil Nadu for its survival.

And the specific demand from most of the vociferous Tamil Nadu lobby was to call for a halt to the military offensives in the North of Sri Lanka. Despite this, all that New Delhi would insist on was the need for a political solution in Sri Lanka; there was no re-echoing of the sentiments expressed in Tamil Nadu.

Of course, as the government forces become stronger in the theatre of conflict, there would be a temptation to cast aside the political options and go all out for a totally military solution to the crisis in the North - a luxury that has not been available to previous Presidents since this conflict began.

There will also be demands from the more chauvinistic elements in the south for such an exercise, since some of them do form part and parcel of this coalition government. But the government and the President, we are sure, realise the folly of such a move and will have the sagacity to devise and implement a political settlement to the ethnic question.

While that remains the duty of the government in office, it will then also be the incumbent duty of the opposition to support such a move-and not opt for the perennial role of opposing what the government does for the sake of being in the opposition. Whether the collective opposition can rise to that challenge remains to be seen.

But of course, more remains to be done. Pooneryn maybe a landmark battle but we must also realise that the war has yet to be won. And until then, vigilance-and not euphoria-should be the order of the day.