Although communication with the LTTE is prohibited under Emergency Regulations introduced in January 1998, sources say that the Defence Ministry granted permission for the visit to the Vanni on 8 February, which was sponsored by the National Integration Programme Unit (NIPU) within the Justice Ministry.
The delegation met the LTTE’s deputy leader SG Karikalan and head of its political wing, SP Thamilchelvan, at Mallavi in Tiger-controlled Mullaitivu District on 10 February. Implying that politicians are not in full control of the situation, Mr Thamilchelvan told the mission that it was up to the Army and the government to take the peace process forward. He condemned government attempts in the last four years to deceive the international community with non-existent peace initiatives and an unacceptable devolution package, while continuing the war.
The Thera told the Tiger leaders that peace work was difficult because of the continuing LTTE attacks in southern Sri Lanka. The assault on the holiest Buddhist shrine in Kandy, the Dalada Maligawa, in February 1998 has alienated a large section of the Sinhalese community, the prelate noted. Remarking that the Army had destroyed a large number of temples and churches in the north-east, Mr Thamilchelvan pointed out that there has been no government response to LTTE leader V Prabhakaran’s November call for peace talks.
Convener of NPA and Colombo University Professor Tissa Vitharana says that it is unfortunate that last year’s priority was war and now it is the forthcoming elections. Thousands of people marched in Colombo on 26 February demanding political parties to unite in ending the war. Press reports say that a senior cabinet minister has indicated that there is no change in the government position on peace talks with the LTTE. This means conditions that the Tigers must lay down arms and abandon the struggle for a separate state remain.
The Tamil parties welcomed the NPA’s initiative and urged the government to build on the discussions of the Vanni mission with the LTTE. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) MP Neelan Tiruchelvam tabled a motion in Parliament on 24 February to commend the initiative and urge cooperation among political parties.
Only 14 MPs were present in the 225-member Parliament for a debate on the issue. All the important members of the ruling People’s Alliance (PA) and the main opposition United National Party (UNP) were absent. Observers are convinced that currently the political parties have little interest in peace. Shipping minister MHM Ashraff says that the clamour for power takes precedence and the present Sri Lankan politicians will never solve the ethnic conflict.
All the important leaders of the Sri Lankan political parties, including opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, came together on 25 February to discuss the forthcoming provincial elections, following an invitation from President Chandrika Kumaratunge. The parties decided to appoint a Monitoring Committee headed by the President.
Following the Supreme Court order in December to hold provincial elections within three months, Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake announced 1 April as the day of elections for five Provincial Councils. After religious leaders protested because important religious days fell during the week, including Good Friday on 2 April, the Commissioner fixed elections for 6 April, after Supreme Court approval.
In her Independence Day message on 4 February, President Chandrika pledged that she will discipline her party members who acted contrary to the PA’s pledges to the people. The President is furious over the violence at the North-West Provincial Council elections in January. She told Inspector General of Police Lucky Kodituwakku that police officers must ensure strict compliance with election laws. She also ordered the police in early February to remove all unauthorised weapons from politicians.
But observers believe that without election law reform and strengthening of the office of the Elections Commissioner, violations are likely to continue. The Monitoring Committee proposed by the political parties had not begun work by the end of February. In late February, as Mr Dissanayake sought amendments to election laws granting more powers to the police, violence was reported in the provinces facing elections.
There are grave doubts whether the political parties will cooperate to maintain law and order or in the search for peace. The UNP walked out of the Parliament on three occasions in February, accusing the government of dictatorial attitude and violating democratic principles.