Nepali Times
Treading carefully in Sri Lanka


COLOMBO-Sri Lanka is one country where you take no time to pick up the thread from where you have left it off three months or three decades ago. It is the same old ethnic divide in different forms at different times.

Currently, they are sitting across the table for sorting out a way to live together in the united country. But this is not the first time they are doing so. They have gone over the exercise again and again.

India was in the picture more than once and even got embroiled and mauled in a war.

After burning its fingers, New Delhi is reluctant to get involved again. Norway is now batting for it and consults India at every step. Oslo has even strengthened its negotiating team and this has evoked some hope. But there are lots of ifs and buts. The Sinhalese believe that the talks will produce little since the LTTE is not willing to be pinned down to anything concrete.

Sri Lanka's chief negotiator says "it is too soon to say anything". In one way, he is right because there were more accusations and counter-accusations at the last meeting. In other way, the Geneva dialogue was a positive development and has come to be an on-going process. The next round has been fixed for late April.

President Mahinda Rajpakse is treading carefully and says the talks are only preliminery. He is being hassled by Chandrika Kumaratunga. She began well as president but then in her eight-year-rule she got lost in political intrigues which were of her own making. Sadly, the talks have not got beyond the preliminary stage. They seldom have in the past because both the Sinhalese and the Tamils have never put all their cards on the table. They always have a few up their sleeves. Both sides know it.

Sinhalese editors, politicians and human rights activists say how can you trust the Tamils who, while being at the negotiating table, are extorting money, buying weapons from abroad and recruiting Tamil children for their Eelam fight? The Tamils are mostly opposed to the LTTE but they have a long tale of grievances. Not many Tamils are either in government service either or the Sinhalese-run industry or business. Schools for the Sinhalese and the Tamils are mostly separate nowadays and there is very little social contact between the two communities.

Two things struck me: the Sinhalese anxiety to maintain peace with the LTTE and the belief that there was the third man, India, which would step in if there were anything worse happening. A few years ago, the word, 'federation', was a taboo. Now the Sinhalese, except the hardliners, talk about it and try to find out how things were working in India. The status of Indian state may be acceptable to the Sinhalese provided they are sure that it would constitute a full and final settlement. The fear of Sinhalese, who constitute nearly 70 per cent of the population, is that the LTTE would use the status of state as a stepping stone to get to the Eelam.

The general impression is that the LTTE head, V Prabhakaran, is interested only in an independent country at the expense of Sri Lanka's integrity. This is where India comes in. An average Sinhalese has convinced himself that New Delhi will thwart the LTTE's ambitions to have an independent Tamil state because it can pose a danger to India itself.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)