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This is my Nation


 International pressure for a ceasefire

Firing the first salvo was the German Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Jurgen Weerth. Weerth’s remarks at the funeral of assassinated Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge raised several eyebrows in the government. The Ambassador was to remark in his eulogy that the diplomatic community “should have spoken before” and that “it is too late”. He was subsequently summoned to the Foreign Ministry where the government in Colombo - through Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona - expressed “displeasure and concern” regarding the remarks.

Amidst reports of the armed forces taking the Eelam war deep into Tiger territory with the capture of the strategic base at Elephant Pass, there was a different kind of war being waged in the south, in the diplomatic enclaves of Colombo.

Firing the first salvo was the German Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Jurgen Weerth. Weerth’s remarks at the funeral of assassinated Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge raised several eyebrows in the government.

The Ambassador was to remark in his eulogy that the diplomatic community “should have spoken before” and that “it is too late”. He was subsequently summoned to the Foreign Ministry where the government in Colombo - through Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona - expressed “displeasure and concern” regarding the remarks.

This may have passed off as an isolated diplomatic storm in a tea cup if not for the events that followed. A few days later the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict was raised in the British Parliament by ruling Labour Party MP Keith Vaz.
Vaz is known for his interest in the Lankan conflict and his queries came as no surprise. Instead, what aroused immediate indignation in Colombo was British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s response.

Brown was to reply stating that there was “terrible violence” in Sri Lanka and said he wished a ceasefire would take effect. He also said the issue would be discussed with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That statement elicited the desired response from Colombo. Defence Spokesman and Cabinet Minister Keheliya Rambukwella rubbished suggestions of a ceasefire at this decisive stage of the war and said it was possible only if the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) surrender, a remote if not improbable possibility.

What all these diplomatic posturing points to, is that international focus is once again turning towards Sri Lanka. Therefore, despite the national euphoria that has followed the liberation of Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass, Colombo will have to tread with caution in dealing with the LTTE, especially with regard to the civilian population trapped in the jungles of Mullaitivu.

This is no easy task especially because the Tigers are known to use every weapon at its disposal and these include civilians as human shields. Arguably, the LTTE is facing its biggest debacle since it began its guerrilla war and therefore will resort to any tactic to try and bring pressure on Colombo to halt its current offensive.

The government in Colombo knows it must tread warily - which is why the visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon has been accorded great significance both in the local and Indian media.

It is not long ago that relations between the two nations were taking a dip as the central government in India came under tremendous pressure from Tamil Nadu to intervene in Sri Lanka. There were even fears that a repeat of the ‘parippu drop’ of the J.R.Jayewardene era would be enacted. That however, did not become a reality.

In that context, India’s decision to despatch Menon to Colombo for talks with the Lankan leadership is understandable. Given the volatile politics of Tamil Nadu on which the central government is reliant it is anxious to appear as if it is doing what it could do for the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamil population.

But at the same time, the central government is keen to send a clear message to Tamil Nadu: that it will not side with an organisation that practiced terrorism, killed an Indian Prime Minister and is still a banned organisation in that country..

Already, the diplomatic cannons have started firing in trying to hype up the visit - which in reality is not even at ministerial level. Menon himself confirmed that India has formally requested the extradition of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran from Sri Lanka, to stand trial for conspiracy to murder former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

As if on cue, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, Romesh Jayasinghe announced Colombo “was willing to consider the request,” an indication that Sri Lanka was aiming to please its giant northern neighbour at a time other nations were being less than enamoured with the war effort.

There was however some confusion in this regard as Defence Secretary and presidential sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was quoted in the local media as saying Prabhakaran and his chief lieutenants would first have to face trial in Sri Lanka before extradition to India could be considered.

This issue will no doubt take priority in Foreign Secretary Menon’s agenda in Colombo but the fact remains that for all the discussions, Prabhakaran is still a man on the run and elusive as ever, hence it may be only an academic exercise, albeit with some propaganda value for both Colombo and New Delhi.

These diplomatic exercises will increase in their significance as the military prepares for a final assault on the Tigers. The grand prize will of course be the capture of Tiger Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran but even without such a scalp, the military could claim a victory in terms of regaining control over previously Tiger-held territory.

For the government in Colombo, with one eye on upcoming provincial elections and with general elections due in just over a year, that would be a bonanza with which it could go from a shaky coalition to stable government, a luxury that Presidents have not enjoyed for the last one and a half decades.

Even so, all eyes may well be on the theatre of conflict in Mullaitivu but the diplomatic battle ground in Colombo is equally abuzz with what would happen next.

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