Ranil, Chandrika speak in same voice

COLOMBO May 29. For the first time since a co-habitation Government came into being last December in Sri Lanka, a meeting of minds is now evident between the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, on the issue of the peace process.

Addressing the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday, Mr. Wickremesinghe said his Government was looking at devolution modelled on the Indian or British pattern as a solution to the country's ethnic conflict.

Reiterating that a united Sri Lanka was non-negotiable, Mr. Wickremesinghe told MEPs (members of the European Parliament) that while the LTTE wanted priority to be given to the setting up of an interim administration in the north-east in talks next month, his Government wanted discussion on core political issues as well, the Daily Mirror reported today.

Reflecting the underlying apprehension that if an LTTE-controlled interim administration comes up in the north-east, it might automatically become entrenched as the final solution and a precursor to a de facto separate state, Ms. Kumaratunga also expressed the identical view.

As recently as Monday, she told the visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgesen, that the interim administration must be linked to a final political solution to the conflict.

But this is the first time that Mr. Wickremesinghe has clearly articulated the view that an interim administration should be linked to core political issues. Echoing another view held by the President, the Prime Minister also said the LTTE must agree to respect human rights and democratic norms.

It had been earlier the perception that the Government was agreeable to the LTTE demand for an interim administration in the north-east and not averse to putting off discussion on substantive issues till a more convenient time.

As a result, whenever the President brought up these issues, she was described as opposing the peace process. But now, the Prime Minister and she appear to be expressing identical views.

Earlier, the cabinet spokesman, G.L. Peiris, had hinted that the Government wanted discussions on substantive political issues when he said Indian constitutional experts would be consulted on devolution under the 13th amendment which came into being after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.

A questionnaire that the Norwegians are reported to have given out to both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE on the agenda and logistics for the talks has also raised the relationship of the talks on a proposed interim administration to the process for a permanent settlement of the ethnic conflict.

For the LTTE, which was preparing to soon take over the administration of the north-east, this is a bit of a let-down. A stinging editorial in the Tamil Guardian, an accurate barometer of LTTE thinking, accuses the Government of "buckling'' to the hardline pressure exerted by Ms. Kumaratunga and her People's Alliance.

``Hitherto, the UNF's positions on matters related to the peace initiative have been starkly distinct from those of the ultra-hawkish People's Alliance (PA) of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. But the apparent adoption by the UNF now of some of the very positions which the PA maintains and which earlier thwarted the Norwegian peace initiative has justifiably heightened concern,'' the London-based weekly said in its latest issue.

It argued that the Government seemed to be back-pedalling on its initial agreement with the LTTE on restoring normality for an "interim'' period and cast doubts on the whole process, including the proposed peace talks in Bangkok. ``Yet suddenly, the dynamics of the Norwegian peace initiative seem to have turned about. President Kumaratunga has instructed Wickremesinghe to ditch the idea of an interim administration and pursue `core issues' instead. With the UNF Government apparently buckling to Kumaratunga's pressure, the Norwegian facilitators will no doubt struggle to find a way forward now,'' the publication stated.

While it did not make specific mention of Mr. Wickremesinghe's address to the European Parliament, the editorial said the failure of the Government to lift the ban on the LTTE and withdraw the army from public buildings and schools as yet had heightened Tamil "suspicions'' about the peace process.

The Tamil Guardian also noted the Government's decision to lease the Trincomalee oil tank farm to Indian Oil Corporation and the imminent signing of a military agreement with the U.S. as developments that would impact on the peace process.

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