Wed, 05 Mar 2003

Sri Lanka gives peace a chance

Peter Preston, Guardian News Service, Colombo

There are some good deeds in this bad old world. There are some bitter enmities and bloody wars that can end in peace. There is always hope, practical hope -- if only you want it enough. Which is where Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland come in.

I'm here in Colombo just a year after one of the direst civil conflicts of our era drew to a close (or paused for breath). Thousands upon thousands have died in the Tamil Tigers' fight for independence; every family you meet seems touched by tragedy. Two prime ministers -- one Indian, one Sri Lankan -- lay dead at an assassin's feet. Madam president in her palace has a blinded eye to remind her of bomb blasts past.

It is the lousiest, the most corrosive of legacies. But it is not where matters rest. John Hume, the Northern Ireland Nobel laureate for peace, will be here in a week or two, spreading his wisdom. Sinhalese delegations are used, by now, to reading the runes in Belfast (along with the truths and reconciliations they find in Johannesburg). The Tigers, if you please, have had an all-expenses-paid trip to Switzerland to study the cantonal system.

The quest for final settlement couldn't be more zealous, more studious, more utterly determined. And that makes it, in an often amazing way, a model to be observed and learned from in turn. G. L. Peiris, the minister for constitutional affairs (and thus guardian of the process), takes honesty and transparency to astonishing lengths. Have the Tigers really disarmed? Aren't they, in fact, still bringing in weapons?

Look, says Peiris, not everything can stop overnight. Some guns are there, of course they are. This is very hard for them. They are guerrillas turning themselves into a political party. They can't all march in step. My Sinhalese constituents have got to get -- and stay -- real. We have to be calm and wise and understanding. We have to realize how difficult the Tigers will find it to change. We have, above all, not to grow impatient.

The first few meetings of the truce have gone almost too swimmingly; Sri Lanka is euphoric. But now we're on to the tedious stuff: Policing responsibilities, civil administration, tax collection and distribution. After the white doves and cheers, the rate support grant settlement. After the Lord Mayor's show, the dustcarts of detail creaking slowly down narrow streets.

It is an impressive message because it rings true. Are there politicians and editorial writers out there who can never trust the Tigers and never forget the past? Of course. Will the dream collapse or turn into another version of Stormont suspended and dismal chunterings from David Trimble? Perhaps. But you can't escape the Sri Lankan government's tone -- or the passion behind it.

The Sinhalese negotiators don't pass parcels of blame to the north. They know both sides got it wrong two decades ago. They know issues come in shades of grey and compromise. And they do not, for a second, forget the pain -- merely argue that it must be accepted. No winners, no losers; necessary reality all round.

Well, we shall see. Just as we shall see whether Northern Ireland continues somehow to keep the same desire for peace (and thus consensus) alive. Place no large bets. But nevertheless, in a simple, humble way, these negotiations -- like the Good Friday ones that went before them -- make a point most world crises never publicly acknowledge: The need to move on, to negotiate in good faith; the need to acknowledge exhaustion with conflict and division.

Cyprus? Kofi Annan has one last plan and a final, desperate timetable, which will collapse on March 30 amid the intractabilities of EU accession timetables. Will the Ankara government at last bring Rauf Denktash to the signing table? Will Greek Cyprus's new president, Tassos Papadopoulos, prove the rejectionist his critics feared?

Ankara has every reason to put on the pressure. This is its own EU case in the balance, too.

That, crucially, is the Sri Lankan key. Peace doesn't come out of the air. It comes from the courage and commitment to prepare the ground for it. But where are the back channels in Cyprus? Who meets privately over Kashmir except to offer the same shrugs and snarls they offer for television cameras? Where, anywhere, in Israel or Gaza or the West Bank, is there the willingness to bite the hardest bullets and fight for the most difficult compromises?

It is always easier to stay in the foxholes of intransigence. It is always more comfortable and popular to settle for the easy rhetoric of defiance -- or immobility dressed up as sweet reason. Ariel Sharon has his act honed. Musharraf and Vajpayee go through their familiar routines. Ian Paisley's chest swells with electoral expectation as the old enemies depart. Where there are no back channels, hope freezes over.

But it survives. It survives here in Colombo, with much help from benevolent friends. And it lives not because of threat or flurries of outside diplomacy -- but because it is needed, sacrificed for, explained, hungered after. When you've got that, then peace has its chance.