13 July 2006 Edition

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International: republicans' unique credibility with opposing sides

Martin McGuinness travelling by military helicopter from Colombo to the Tamil area

Martin McGuinness travelling by military helicopter from Colombo to the Tamil area

Mutual suspicion block to progress in Sri Lanka

Sinn Féin's Chief Negotiator returned last week from Sri Lanka where he met the senior political leadership of the Tamil Tigers in the rebel controlled north of the country. The visit had not been announced in advance of this meeting but had the support of the Sri Lanka President. Here MARTIN McGUINNESS gives a fascinating insight into his Sri Lankan visit.

Sri Lanka is a small island, about the size of Ireland, just off the south east coast of India. Apart from its size it has a number of other things in common with Ireland. For centuries its people were the victims of European imperialism and from 1802, just after the Act Of Union was passing through the British parliament, Sri Lanka became a British colony. Just as in Ireland the legacy of that domination and exploitation is a society politically divided against itself. Since 1983, a bloody civil war has raged, claiming over 65, 000 lives as Tamils in the north of the island, demanding political autonomy, waged a war against the Sri Lankan armed forces. A ceasefire was agreed by both sides in February 2002 but little political progress followed.

Last Spring, then Prime Minster of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse, visited Ireland to study the relative success of our peace process and to see if lessons could be applied in attempting to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka. I met the Prime Minster and discussed the need for a credible political process as the only effective way to bring conflict to an end. From that point forward I paid increased attention to the situation in Sri Lanka but otherwise didn't anticipate further personal involvement in the politics of an island half way across the world.

Then on 17 November 2005, the Prime Minster was elected President and immediately offered to open new peace talks with the Tamil Tigers. In the latter part of last year I received initial inquires from Inpact, a neutral peace initiative in Sri Lanka's main city, Colombo, asking if I would be prepared to travel to Sri Lanka to share my experience more widely with the key parties in the conflict there and particularly the new president and the Tamil leadership.

Apart form the obvious benefits of hearing firsthand the experiences of our peace process, both sides identified to some degree with the anti-imperialist and progressive nature of the Irish freedom struggle. This gave us an almost unique credibility with most sides as we were seen as having no hidden political agenda.

So in January, against a background of escalating ceasefire breaches, Aodhán Mac an tSaoir and I set off on the long plane journey to a country and region that we had never visited before. Our message was simple and direct. Just as in Ireland, a military victory was not achievable by either side in Sri Lanka and a political process, based on equality, inclusion and respect was the only alterative to perpetual conflict and suffering. We met with the President and all of his senior government ministers and advisers. We listened to their view of the Tamil leadership. We met representatives of the Tamil people, and we listened to their view of the Sri Lankan government and military. There was an atmosphere of intense distrust, suspicion and anger on both sides. But we made the same point at every meeting - demonisation of one's opponents is counter-productive and makes a political settlement more difficult. Peace can only be achieved through a process of political engagement, negotiations and accommodation based on equality and mutual respect.

Unfortunately on that first visit the LTTE was unable to meet us and we reluctantly returned without having met the Tamil leadership. Peace negotiations in Geneva recommenced in February but quickly broke down again with attacks claiming more and more lives on all sides.

It was in this context that I was again asked to visit Sri Lanka, this time to travel to the north to meet with the Tamil leadership at their headquarters in Kilinochchi. This visit was arranged with the agreement and encouragement of the President whose helicopter carried us, last Monday, from Colombo to a small town just south of the dividing line between the government and the LTTE controlled areas. From here a military troop carrier took us to a military base close to the border checkpoints. This was one of the most heavily militarised areas I have ever seen. Sri Lankan army motorbikes accompanied our car to the border checkpoint before we crossed no-man's-land into the LTTE controlled zone. Here we were met by two Tamil police patrol jeeps with flashing lights and wailing sirens and armed Tamil Tiger policemen crammed into the back. We passed the Tamil border checks and customs points before beginning a long journey 50 miles further north on roads that showed obvious signs of recent bombings and poor maintenance. Every two hundred yards for this entire 50 miles a Tiger Tamil fighter stood guarding the road armed with an AK 47. Behind them Tamil Tiger patrols combed the fields. The deprivation and poverty in this economically isolated area was shocking. Small huts built from concrete block and roofed with tin or straw were the only houses visible. Old women and young children peered out, alerted by the wailing sirens of the police cars. Little other traffic moved on the pock marked road. We passed areas where towns had once stood and which were now no different from the surrounding countryside apart from the ruins of long destroyed buildings. This was the scene right up to the 'town' of Kilinochchi, also decimated by decades of conflict.

We were welcomed in an incongruously modern guesthouse before travelling a few miles to the newly built offices of the LTTE Peace Secretariat. Here we had a long and candid discussion, through translators, with the LTTE's political head, S.P. Thamilselvan, accompanied by the head of the Tamil police and the Secretary General of the LTTE Peace Secretariat. We urged them, as we had done with the Sri Lankan government, to test the option of a negotiated settlement to its limits.

After a two hours meeting we left to travel to Colombo for meetings with the President and his senior officials.

Leaving Colombo airport on Tuesday afternoon, our assessment was that mutual suspicion was the real block to progress and that direct engagement between the Tamil leadership and the government was the only way to break the increasing cycle of violence and death.

Everywhere we went ordinary Sri Lankans urged us to help bring about effective peace talks. The prospect of a return to conflict is unthinkable for most people in the region. But the absence of political progress or even political discussion is causing an inexorable drift into all out war.


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