Thursday, December 16, 2010

Peace in Sri Lanka- What a Process! (Published in the Daily Mirror of 14th February, 2007)

Many were the frustrations and drawbacks we had to live with in trying to tame the blood-thirsty LTTE who violated the spirit of the CFA through and through with impunity, while all we at SCOPP could do was to change the adverbs in the GOSL ‘condemnation template’ i.e. “The Government condemns/strongly condemns/ unreservedly condemns/vehemently condemns/ condemns in the strongest possible terms the killing of……..” and dish out media releases which the LTTE couldn’t give two hoots for. The suppressed journalist in me could only sigh in frustration.

There were many who regarded SCOPP as some sort of an institution mandated to mollycoddle the LTTE. One can hardly blame them given the fact that we were most of the time bending over backwards (while trying not to appear to be doing so), to appease the incorrigible Tigers.

The Operations Division of SCOPP, headed by Major General Sanath Karunaratne of the Sri Lanka Army, and manned by the three armed forces and the police was assigned the unenviable task of ‘ensuring the safety of the lives of the terrorists’ whenever they wanted to travel outside ‘their territory’. Be it on land, sea or air, they coordinated the ‘safe passage of LTTE cadres’ while their own men out there were being brutally gunned down by the LTTE with impunity.

This was supposed to be in keeping with the true spirit of the CFA, which was sine qua non to the Peace Process. They ensured ‘safe’ transportation of LTTE terrorists for medical treatment in Colombo without getting any of them killed. They were also ‘safely’ flown to the Colombo International Airport, whenever they decided to talk and sometimes not talk. They were also ‘safely’ flown back from the Colombo International Airport to the Tiger den territory, whether they talked or not.

Soon after the devastating Tsunami in December 2004, we at SCOPP yet again tried to extend our hand of goodwill to the LTTE. We collectively gathered food, clothing, medicine etc., and sent it to the LTTE Peace Secretariat in Kilinochchi via the SLMM. They returned our goodwill by brutally gunning down our Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and the then SCOPP Deputy Secretary General Kethesh Loganathan amongst many others.

I recall way back in April 2006, after another disastrous round of Peace Talks with the LTTE held in Switzerland in February that year, we at SCOPP were preparing for another round of these so-called ‘talks’ yet again to be held in Switzerland in April. In the meantime, the LTTE was ‘globe-trotting’ with the Norwegians footing the bill, and we at SCOPP busy as bees processing their passports, visas etc.

After one of their ‘globe-trots’ the customs officers at the Colombo International Airport had found some ‘war-like’ material they had brought with them and not taken very kindly to it. The LTTE ‘Peace Talkers’ made a huge fuss about it and complained to us at SCOPP. But as usual we had to appease them at ay cost, in order to keep the Peace Talks process going, so that mess was also taken care of by SCOPP!

Of course we at SCOPP were now preparing for the forthcoming Peace Talks to be held in April 2006. We had meetings, meetings and meetings!

During one of these meetings the Head of the GOSL Peace Talks delegation- Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva referred to the incident when the LTTE had brought in ‘war-like’ material and our Customs Officers had not been too happy about it. These were his words, “we must treat them (the LTTE) better, no? After all we are trying to talk peace with them, no? So we mustn’t treat them like this, no? We must be more lenient with them, no?” What he said made sense then, but certainly not now!

With all due respect to those ‘Peace Pundits’ who pen down page after page of wide and varying theories on how Sri Lanka should attain Peace, as well as those who shout themselves hoarse ad infinitum on peace solutions, let me add my humble two-cents as a former Director Communications of SCOPP and my first hand experience of almost three years, in trying to coordinate an impossible Peace Process.

Despite the frustrations and drawbacks we had to live with in trying to get the LTTE to the negotiating table, there was also the lighter side to our functions.

With the signing of the CFA the Peace Process also proved to be a very lucrative source of income for some especially NGOs, which mushroomed by the dozens and some even tried their level best to legitimize their over loaded wallets through SCOPP. They came up with such ludicrous ideas in the name of Peace. The workshops on Peace which these NGOs conducted in five-star hotels attracted a fair number of people, most of who left or fell asleep after a sumptuous lunch.

SCOPP also proved to be a useful stepping-stone for some, who were aspiring for higher office.

Then there were those ‘eminent’ personalities from the international and local arena, specializing in ‘Peace Making/Peace Building’ who were also frequent visitors to SCOPP. A few spoke on matters with substance and the rest spoke a lot about nothing.

One gentleman in particular whose visits to Sri Lanka were eagerly looked forward to by the media was Mr. Yasushi Akashi- Representative of the Government of Japan on Peace Building, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Sri Lanka.

There was a standing joke at SCOPP that good old Akashi decided to visit Sri Lanka, whenever the weather was not to his liking in Japan!

Then there were the co-chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference, comprising Norway, Japan, the United States and Japan. Their mandate was to promote a peaceful conflict resolution in Sri Lanka. During the height of the Norwegian-facilitated peace process that generated optimism of a negotiated settlement between the government and LTTE, these co-chairs dangled US $ 4.5 billion for the reconstruction of the North and East of Sri Lanka.

However that too became obsolete, when the LTTE refused to attend the Tokyo Donor Conference in 2003 because they a terrorist outfit was not being given parity of status with the elected Government of Sri Lanka.

With the collapse of the Peace Process, the role of the Co-Chairs has become obsolete. However they still continue to voice their opinion, which nobody asked for.

Yet another gimmick in the name of Peace was a workshop on Peace Making/Building for all staff at SCOPP. One had to be present to believe what we were put through, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand what the hell its objective was.

A case in point was a gentleman who gave us a long and arduous lecture on the LTTE and secularism.

He also spoke inter alia, of the significance of garlands carried by LTTE suicide cadres, with special reference to the Rajive Gandhi assassination.

According to this gentleman, garlands of sandalwood signify only one thing- painless and swift death, while garlands of flowers implied something else (I can’t quite recall what it was). From this I gathered, that one must be extremely cautious of garlands, because if you accept one, especially the sandalwood kind, you will definitely end up dead and most of those around you as well.

This was just one example of several, and at the end of this long and painful session, my boss Jayantha Dhanapala summed up most of our sentiments with just one question/statement, “So what about it”. I’m not quite sure if the gentleman who had taken such great pains to explain all this bla, bla, bla was very pleased with the very skeptical and bored looks on our faces. I think he left SCOPP, a very disappointed man.

Then there was yet another workshop on this Peace Making/Building business for all staff at SCOPP, including the new Secretary General Palitha Kohona who made a short appearance and disappeared

We were made to perform something akin to gymnastics; forming circles and trying to creep under each other without breaking the circle, I also remember something like a bicycle tube which we had to creep through etc. most of us who are not exactly spring chickens, almost ended up with disjointed limbs. At the end of this session of torture, I was wondering what the objective of this entire exercise was. Were we being trained to perform gymnastics with the LTTE in order to make Peace?

Then of course, there was this lady from a donor agency who wanted to fund Peace related Street Dramas and parade Peace Caravans in various parts of the country. I wonder if the good lady expected Prabakaran to mount one of these caravans and deliver his ‘Annual Speech’ or even get him to play the lead role in the Street Dramas.

Of course I must not forget to mention all those numerous meetings that took place at SCOPP, with all those who claim to hold a stake in the Peace Process. I’m sure the only beneficiary of these meetings was the caterer, who faithfully provided short-eats and cups of tea.

Working at SCOPP during Jayantha Dhanapala’s tenure as Secretary General was an honour and a privilege. There was a sense of esprit de corps amongst all of us under his leadership. He referred to all his subordinates as his Colleagues! Under his guidance, all of us at SCOPP were totally motivated and we worked with sheer dedication in order to bring the much longed for ‘Peace’ to our strife torn Sri Lanka.

We didn’t just sit behind our desks in our plush office at the World Trade Centre, but accompanied the Secretary General each time he visited Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Mannar and Ampara where the District Offices of the SLMM were located. We interacted with the people of all these districts, including Civil Society, Religious Heads, the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka, resettlement camps etc.

As we interacted with the people of all these districts, we could not help but notice the expressions of hope and expectation on their faces, as they regarded us as the ultimate bearers of a long lost Peace.

I must mention here, that visiting the resettlement camp called the ‘Peace Village’ located in the high security zone in Jaffna, which was the brainchild of the then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Major General Susil Chandrapala, was an experience to behold.

We also did have some very successful meetings during this period, although some of them produced rather unsuccessful results like P-TOMS.

The National Advisory Council for Peace and Reconciliation (NACPR) was a brain-child of the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge with SCOPP assigned to take care of the logistics.

The inaugural meeting was held at the Presidential Secretariat with the participation of religious leaders of all the religious communities, leaders of political parties represented in parliament (except the United National Party and Tamil National Alliance), leading NGOs which have made a genuine contribution towards the Peace Process etc.

At the head-table were President Kumaratunge and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa with very serious expressions on their faces taking down notes while the speakers were adding their two-cents-worth over the microphones.

Both my Deputy Directors Anila Hettiarachchi and Roshika Karunaratne were seated in the balcony just above the head-table.

I was told later, that both the President and Prime Minister had not been taking down any notes but had been competing at drawing caricatures on their note books!

This inaugural session was very ‘impressive’ with so many wise people expressing their views on Peace, but the refreshments served at the end were a disaster. We were all ushered into a plush hall upstairs for refreshments where I found little groups huddled together except for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who was all alone standing by a table laden with short-eats. I too joined him and to our utmost horror, found that leather would have been more edible than what we were chewing and the sandwiches had gone stale.

I must mention here that though we at SCOPP arranged the logistics for the inauguration of the NACPR, but we were certainly NOT responsible for the catering- the staff at the Presidential Secretariat was!

There followed several NACPR meetings, but at the end it proved to be yet another futile attempt at getting the LTTE to the negotiating table.

Amongst the success stories of SCOPP was The Economic Affairs Division headed by Seneka Abeyratne and his Deputy Director Dr. Rajith Lakshman. They exemplified their dedicated contribution to the Peace Process through a well researched and informative document titled, ‘Impact of the Ceasefire Agreement on Regional Economic Growth in Sri Lanka’.

This document has been quoted widely by the donor community as well as local researchers, as it is the only paper to provide sound empirical evidence of a significant economic dividend in the conflict-affected areas of Sri Lanka during the post CFA period.

The solid contribution of the Economics Division which of course went beyond this document, also engaged the private sector, Chambers of Commerce and the Multi-lateral Investment Guaranty Agency (MIGA). Abeyratne and Lakshman, provided solid analytical support to the Secretary General Jayantha Dhanapala in addressing the various economic dimensions of Peace.

The Communications Division of SCOPP launched its Tamil version of the ‘Peace in Sri Lanka’ website. Even the LTTE Peace Secretariat didn’t have their website in Tamil. The island-wide child art competition conducted by SCOPP in collaboration with the Peace Education division of the Ministry of Education was a great success. We even received entries from children in rebel held territory. With the six winning entries, we printed thousands of desk calendars (not with the tax payers’ money) in Sinhala, Tamil and English, which were distributed island wide.

Now that the CFA and the so-called Peace Process is dead, those of us who sacrificed much for the sake of a Permanent Peace in Sri Lanka, can only sit back and wonder, was it all for nothing?
However despite all, SCOPP still existed until it was dissolved in 2009.
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