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Tuesday, Feb 05, 2002

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`Time ripe for talks with LTTE' -- Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy, Director, ICES, Colombo

Rasheeda Bhagat

Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy, Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo

With the LTTE's stance turning "more conciliatory" following the September 11 attacks on the US and the ban placed on it by such countries as Canada, the US, the UK and Australia, this is the biggest window of opportunity for the peace process in Sri Lanka, says Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy, Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo. In a recent interview to Business Line, she said that the ethnic conflict had affected practically every family in the nation.

Excerpts from the interview:

What toll has the long ethnic conflict had on Sri Lanka's society?

An enormous toll. I know for sure there is no Tamil family in Sri Lanka that has not suffered through this long war. Every family has been affected in some way. They have lost either relatives or friends. The Sinhala population too has suffered, especially in the South with a number of soldiers getting killed. So practically every family in Sri Lanka has suffered the consequences of the war.

How would you view the mandate of the people — voting out the PA and bringing in the UNF government? Would you say it is a vote for change?

I think we should not be too idealistic and talk about the hope for change. It is very much like what Mr Bill Clinton said of the American elections, `It's the economy, stupid'. The pre-election poll showed that people were very concerned about the economic situation. Also, more Sinhalese have voted for the PA and the JVP. So we have to be realistic that it is not such an open mandate.

But a significant development is that a large number of Sinhalese are willing to go the way of peace. The pre-election poll conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives showed that 70 per cent of the people wanted peace.

What do you make of the LTTE's latest ceasefire initiatives?

What is important to note here is that in his Hero's Day speech Prabhakaran talked a lot about September 11 and I think that is probably a determining factor. The LTTE depends a lot on its international operations. The banning of the LTTE in Canada, Australia, the US and the UK will have serious implications for it. Against this background the time is ripe for negotiations.

So would you see a softening in the stance of the LTTE with the international opinion against terrorism hardening?

I do not know if it has softened its stand; but it is certainly more conciliatory.

You seem to have a government that seems more conciliatory because Ms Chandirka Kumaratunga's stand, compared to Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe's, was more confrontationist...

Ranil is very practical. My sense is that he would prefer what is known is the Premadasa style — which is to allow the LTTE the space in the North but to contain it the East and the South. He might not rush into a solution.

What is the sentiment among the Tamil population? Are they not weary of being caught between the two sides?

Though the Tamil population is extremely weary, it knows there will be peace only if the LTTE is brought into the fold. Ask any Tamil and he will say `negotiate with the LTTE' because only the LTTE can bring peace.

Do you feel this is the right time to initiate the peace process?

I think this is one of the biggest windows of opportunity that we have ever had. It is also going to be a very long process. One wonders if the solution to which the LTTE agrees can be sold in the South and whether the solution the government agrees to will be okay with the LTTE. So I think it will be a long haul.

What do you think will be achievable?

Some form of asymmetrical federalism. That could work.

Will that be agreeable to Prabhakaran?

Well, we will have to see. A lot will depend on actual content and what is actually given. But I think another serious problem is to ensure human rights protection in those areas.

Would Prabhakaran's cadres go along with the peace process and its outcome?

I think so.

How can one be sure it will not be a repeat of the Yasser Arafat story?

Prabhakaran is very much in control of the LTTE. He is certainly not a moderate. Mr Yasser Arafat like making a deal with the TULF, that is, the Hamas being the LTTE.

Prabhakaran is in total control?

Very much so.

So you are cautiously optimistic about something positive emerging this time?

Yes, and concerned about how the human rights issue of the Tamil people will be handled.

If that happens, what will happen to the economy?

It will simply boom.

What kind of time frame are we looking at?

If they come to some kind of a working arrangement and put the final solution on hold, that should be fine...

Some analysts in Colombo see a long period of "armed peace" ahead. Do you agree?

I have already suggested an interim council, with the LTTE dominance in the North.

How soon can this be done?

In the next six months.

How do you feel about the road-blocks in Colombo being removed by the new government?

A lot of policemen have written that these check-post are counterproductive. There is now a body of thought even within the security establishment that this kind of heightened security is not useful and irritates the Tamil people. I think this is a good sign and inspires confidence in the people.

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