Chandrika for more guarantees

COLOMBO, JAN. 20. With Sri Lanka's latest Norwegian-guided peace process underway, the LTTE seems to be at pains to maintain that it is under no pressure to negotiate even as the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, has advised the Government to obtain more guarantees from the Tigers before talks.

At the LTTE's first press conference in several years last week in northern Sri Lanka, its political wing leader, S.P. Thamilselvan, was spare in his praise for the Government, which met a long-time demand of the Tigers by substantially easing a seven-year economic blockade.

The Government and the LTTE are also observing a truce which could be converted into a permanent cease-fire soon. Though Mr. Thamilselvan expressed the ``positive anticipation'' that there would be a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the main thrust of his presentation was that the onus was on the Government.

The Government had to lift the ban on the LTTE and remove economic restrictions completely. It had to take these steps because it had a mandate for peace that it could ignore only at its own peril, because its past mistakes would serve as a ``lesson'' for the future.

Asked what concessions the LTTE was prepared to make to demonstrate its sincerity, Mr. Thamilselvan said the unilateral cease-fire called by the Tigers had conveyed their peaceful intentions to the people.

The entire premise of the peace process is that the Tigers are now prepared to settle for ``Eelam minus'', as bureaucrats and diplomats like to call it.

But when Mr. Thamilselvan was asked if the LTTE was prepared for a resolution within the united framework of Sri Lanka, he refused to comment, saying it would ``not be prudent'' at this juncture for him to say anything.

Observers are concerned that while the Government seems to be making all the concessions, the LTTE has offered no assurances.

Kumaratunga expresses concern

Ms. Kumaratunga said in an interview to a news agency last week that the Government must get ``guarantees'' from the LTTE before peace talks.

Though the Government is run by her political rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the executive power vests in Ms. Kumaratunga's office. She has assured that she would not place any obstacles to the peace process, but said she had ``certain concerns'', which she had conveyed to Mr. Wickremesinghe.

Ms. Kumaratunga said she expected more international pressure on the Tigers, but the LTTE brushed off suggestions that it was under pressure due to the current international climate, and said it had advocated a peaceful settlement to the conflict long before September 11 or the events thereafter.

``It has not in any way impeded our march towards freedom,'' said Mr. Thamilselvan on the decision by several countries to put the LTTE on their list of terrorist organisations. He was confident that very soon those countries would learn to differentiate between the ``fanaticism and madness that leads to terrorism'' and the ``liberation struggle of a people who just want to be left alone''.

It was not they (the LTTE) who were under pressure, but the Government that was ``feeling the heat'' of the LTTE's military prowess.

``Past Governments harboured the notion that the LTTE could be militarily defeated. But their bitter experience has taught them a lesson,'' he said.

Meanwhile, with the substantial lifting of economic blockade, military officials are saying that the main lesson to be learnt from the previous experience is to remain equipped and alert for any contingency.

``Our intelligence has to be 100 per cent, no less. We have to continue training and psy ops even as the government goes about winning the hearts and minds of the people,'' a top-ranking military official said.

The military has been smarting under the embarrassment of the police recently blowing the cover off its most ambitious ever ``psy ops'', the so-called Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), believed to have been behind the several targeted killings of LTTE leaders in northern and eastern Sri Lanka over the last year.

Earlier this month, the LRRP safe-house, complete with ammunition, was busted by police looking for the perpetrators of the several incidents of violence during the elections. Six members of the unit, including an officer, five soldiers and a former member of the LTTE were arrested, and were let off only after high-level intervention.

With previously banned items now flowing into northern Sri Lanka, military officials are apprehensive that cement and construction iron rods going in would find their way into the hands of the LTTE.

``God forbid, if we have to fight again, we will have to deal with pukka bunkers this time,'' he said.

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