Focus on obstacles to peace

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

Since the onset of the fourth (undeclared) war early 2006 between Sri Lankan government forces and the LTTE in breach of the February 2002 Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA), the appeals and warnings by concerned third parties to end hostilities and seek a political settlement to the conflict acceptable to all communities have fallen on deaf ears. The factors hindering negotiated political settlement are basically the same that created and exacerbated the ethnic problem. However, the continuation of the war with increasing intensity has created other complex problems. A political settlement acceptable to the ethnic minorities must entail major changes to the present unitary structure. The unwillingness of Sinhalese nationalists to change it is now clearly evident. The main reason for insisting on the unitary structure is its usefulness in upholding the country-wide Sinhala-majority rule.

The belief that durable peace in undivided Sri Lanka can be achieved through negotiated political settlement is sound in principle but the problem lies in the underlying factors obstructing this approach. Even the veteran TULF leader V. Anandasangaree in his appeals has not considered fully the factors that exacerbated ethnic divisions intensifying the case for a separate homeland for the minority Tamils, who have their ancestral roots in the North-East. The majority Sinhalese had lived for centuries in other parts of the island, while some parts of the Eastern Province had Muslim settlements. This has been the demographic pattern for centuries. The claim of some Sinhalese that the entire island including the Tamil and Muslim regions in the North-East is theirs as well makes sense only when there is unity and peace in the country and a political system acceptable to all the communities. India’s non-unitary constitution, while accepting that the country is the motherland of all Indians, regardless of their ethnic, religious and regional differences also recognizes the affiliations of ethnic groups to particular regions. Thus, Tamils are the majority community in Tamil Nadu and likewise other states have connections with different ethnic communities according to the majority of the population residing there. There is no objection for families from one state to settle voluntarily in another.

[Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka]

Motherland denied

Fr. Elmo Dias in his recent article (This Land Belongs to All of Us to Live in Harmony) has vividly explained the meaning of motherland and the sentiment and attachment that comes from the equal ways the State treats all the citizens, as a loving mother would treat her sons and daughters. To quote: “Just as much as motherhood gives meaning and dignity to a woman of being or becoming a mother, so is the concept of motherland that gives meaning and dignity to a land or a territory. Motherland is defined as the country that you were born in and that you feel a strong emotional connection with. The word motherland has a connotation of ones country of birth and growing up, with the country being respectfully viewed as benign mother nurturing its citizens as her children.

A motherland belongs to all citizens, irrespective of their race, creed or caste. When citizens are convinced that everyone born in a territory designated as a country are joyfully absorbed into her being and are treated with equal rights and freedoms, equal opportunities, responsibilities and duties, it is then that they consider a country as their motherland. Then they develop a sense of belonging to that land which has become their motherland”. Many Sinhalese admit the Tamils were not ‘treated with equal rights and freedoms, equal opportunities, responsibilities and duties’ except the odd ones who claim to be proud of their Sinhala-Buddhist heritage because of what the Sinhala-Buddhist political leaders have and haven’t done in the blessed island! It is a fact that the way the contest for power was conducted soon after independence roused Sinhala chauvinism. The kind of dogmatic thinking and over-confidence that influenced the politically ambitious Sinhalese leaders is also apparent among the Tamil separatists. Their strategy has been to deepen speedily the division created by majoritarianism in the belief that this would by necessity result in the territorial division of the country. They are not concerned now whether lasting peace is achievable or not by this means.

Land struggle

What started as a Tamil liberation struggle transformed after 1987 into fierce fight for control of land. One cannot dispute the fact that considerable damage has been done to the Tamil cause by the miscalculations and reckless actions taken to gain control over the North-East unilaterally against world opinion, especially India that is vehemently opposed to the division of her closest southern neighbour. The split in the militant Tamil organization with the breakaway Karuna faction trying forcibly to assert authority in the East has also been unhelpful to the Tamil cause.

The over reliance on military strength, despite the manpower shortage (partially met by child recruitment) has also led to the present predicament. A vast majority of Tamils in 1983 were convinced that non-violent methods were futile and an aggressive approach was needed to gain their legitimate rights and equal opportunities deprived by the acts of commission and omission of successive governments. But not all Tamils expected the resistance to turn into a bloody violent struggle for a one-party state. This resulted in the elimination of thousands of Tamils considered as traitors to the LTTE cause. More Tamil lives were lost in this internal strife than during the war for liberating the land from Sinhalese rule. Land without people is useless for any solitary ruler. The enormous losses and suffering endured by the Tamil people are difficult for the LTTE leadership to ignore when considering any political solution short of independent Tamil Eelam.

No effort was made to complement the military campaign by mobilizing external support for a reasonable and viable political solution short of complete separation. Even the opportunities that emerged during better times were shunned. Now after the losses incurred in the East, the LTTE is convinced, “peace is not possible with Rajapaksa in power” (Reuters report 12 July). The pertinent question is: What kind of peace was expected when Mahinda Rajapaksa was their preferred candidate at the November 2005 Presidential election? Apparently, from the latest revelations (Sonali Samarasinghe in Sunday leader July 8 and D. B. S. Jeyaraj Tamil Week and Morning Leader July 11), the LTTE imposed the boycott of the Presidential election to prevent the Tamils in the North-East casting their votes to the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as sought after by his rival Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is widely known that the latter won by a narrow margin, as a result of the boycott enforced by the LTTE. Details of the alleged financial deal with the LTTE leadership involving substantial money (US Dollars and SL Rupees) have also surfaced. More than the funds, LTTE wanted a Sinhalese hardliner as President to resume the Eelam war. With former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as President the prospect of a political solution based on the December 2002 Oslo Declaration, which was also recommended by the Donors at the June 2003 Tokyo Conference was high. Notably, India too welcomed a political settlement based on mutually acceptable federal structure. When the LTTE leader rejected a federal solution, despite the understanding reached in Oslo with the delegated Sri Lankan officials by his team, the main obstacle to negotiated political settlement became very clear.

People don’t count

The LTTE has used the people as a tool for achieving the Eelam goal. Their losses and sufferings are considered as essential inputs. The purpose for which their franchise was denied in 2005 also illustrates the enforced role of the civilians in the struggle. D.B.S. Jeyaraj has stated poignantly the actions taken by the LTTE to influence the outcome of the 2005 Presidential election. The following quotes are from his article, ‘LTTE Duplicity in the Presidential Stakes of 2005’ in Tamil Week July 10, 2007 (

“The LTTE too has shown that it is a master in the politics of duplicity. Whatever, his faults Wickremesinghe had tried sincerely to accommodate the LTTE in a peace process. This gave the beleaguered Tamil civilians a much needed respite. For this Wickremasinghe was attacked as having appeased the tigers and betraying the country.

Under these circumstances the LTTE should have backed Wickremesinghe or at least not laid obstacles in his path. Instead the tigers tried to get the UNP leader give an assurance in writing that he would give the LTTE an Interim Self – Governing Authority (ISGA). Wickremesinghe to his credit, refused.

Now the LTTE cuts a deal with Rajapaksa. For an organization claiming to fight for the liberation of the Tamil people a man like Rajapaksa should have been anathema. But these liberators are very business like literally and metaphorically. So they bargain with his representatives and strike a deal. In return the LTTE enforces a boycott and ensures Rajapakse’s victory. … But things worsen and an undeclared yet full – scale war continues. The Tamil people have suffered in a way never experienced before.”

In Northern Ireland both the Republicans (Catholics) and the Unionists (Protestants) realizing the prolonged suffering endured by their people and the futility of continuing the un-winnable war decided to seek peace via power-sharing arrangement. In Sri Lanka, both sides do not have the same feeling for the suffering people. In a recent letter to President Rajapaksa, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: “Over the past year, we have become more and more concerned about the conduct of the Sri Lankan Government, which has been implicated in serious human rights abuses since the resumption of major hostilities in 2006.” The victims were mostly Tamils. Moreover, the displacements of tens of thousands of Tamil and Muslim families were also due to the hasty moves made in November 2005 by the LTTE. The displaced families are now facing a serious problem in returning to their original dwelling places because of the government’s decision to create new High Security Zones and Economic Zone in strategically selected areas in the East. Many have also gone as refugees to Tamil Nadu. Some were not so lucky; they failed to reach the Indian coast alive.

Alleged abuse of public funds

The term patriotism has different connotations in Sri Lankan politics. It is merely a catchword to deceive the masses. Even treacherous acts get concealed under the cover of patriotism. According to the Sunday Leader July 8 report, damning evidence of the government’s secret deal with the LTTE has now surfaced. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is alleged to have facilitated the transfer of huge amount from public funds under multi million rupee bogus housing projects to settle the second part of the payments for the pre-election deal reached with the LTTE. According to the report, “The projects were whitewashed through a cabinet paper submitted on August 2, 2006 by Rajapakse,” It also said: “The bogus projects were being given to the Wanni even as a water crisis depriving some 15,000 farmers of water raged on in Mawilaru, a humanitarian crisis was brewing in Muttur resulting in thousands of Muslims being displaced from their homes, and hundreds of soldiers had been killed in fierce fighting ordered by Rajapakse no less”. The source of the funds paid before the Presidential election to clinch the deal is unknown. The report simply states, the first payment of a large sum of money, some in dollars was made “by Basil Rajapakse (President’s brother) to the LTTE front man Emil Kanthan”.

The reported finding is shocking and if true is deceitful. To quote: “The cabinet note forwarded by the President on August 2, 2006 sought approval to grant the first housing project in the north and east in terms of the post election part of the deal. It was for forms sake to be under the Rebuilding the Nation Jayalanka Housing Programme and given to B & K Holdings (Pvt) Ltd. of No. 437A, 3rd Lane, Hirunavukulam, Thandikulum, Vavuniya. ….The entire cost estimate for the required 1200 housing units would be Rs. 757,166,000 (inclusive of consultancy fees).”

It is also appalling to see a country in need of capital to finance essential programmes for improving the welfare of the majority of citizens, waste public funds on celebrating military victory and on meeting the recurrent expenses of a bloated cabinet. There are other questionable items of public spending that are unrelated to public interest and need.

Following this revelation, the UNP which is still the main Opposition Party despite the defection of some 18 members also announced that it has documentary evidence regarding the alleged deal the Government had struck with the LTTE in the run up to the Presidential Election in 2005. Its spokesperson also alleged the Government provided large amount of money to the LTTE through a Cabinet paper ostensibly for housing projects in the North-East including Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu, under LTTE’s control. Detailed audit of the disbursements is needed to confirm the allegation that the approved amount in full or in part has been misappropriated. Nevertheless, the intent to provide funds for massive housing programme at that time with Cabinet approval is disturbing. Apparently, when former President Chandrika Kumaratunga tried to set up the Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) for reconstruction and rehabilitation work in the North-East, Mahinda Rajapaksa as the then Prime Minister, along with the JHU and JVP opposed it. The point here is that principles and views of political leaders in Sri Lanka change according to their (not country’s) needs, especially when opportunity to seize power arises.

According to the Morning Leader July 18, Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi the rebellious SLFP MP, (now along with former minister Mangala Samaraweera SLFP MP is in the splinter group the SLFP-M) has made a second submission with four supporting documents to Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara on July 17, calling for the urgent appointment of a select committee of parliament to probe the allegation of the government paying money to the LTTE to influence the outcome of the Presidential election of 2005.

The Ceasefire Agreement (CFA)

Initially, many thought the Ceasefire Agreement signed by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on 22 February 2002 would lead to a negotiated final political settlement followed by lasting peace. Ideally, the ceasefire period should have been used to build mutual trust and create the conditions conducive for negotiations on the issues that have contributed to the continuance of the ethnic problem for nearly half a century. To the LTTE the CFA was a device to pursue their political aims taking advantage of certain clauses such as the freedom to perform political work in areas in the North-East under government control. During the period when the CFA was not breached by way of clashes between the LTTE and security forces, the targeted killings were internal within the Tamil community aimed at reinforcing the Tigers’ claim as the ‘sole representative’ of Tamils in the N-E region.

The LTTE was not interested in building trust and confidence because that would undermine its main political aim. The strategy has been to kindle Tamil nationalism and exacerbate the mistrust and the ethnic division so as to strengthen the case for secession. In fact, government’s plan to win the confidence of the Tamil people was obstructed for the same reason. Negotiating for a political settlement would have also trapped the LTTE closing all avenues for pursuing sovereign Tamil Eelam. If the negotiation was on the land issue, the LTTE leader would have shown interest in the negotiation process. The government, on the other hand, knew the causes of the ethnic problem as some of the Ministers were party to its escalation in the 1970s and 1980s but were also conscious of the difficulties in reaching Sinhala consensus on structural changes to the Constitution.

The then government with Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister was keen more on sustaining the ‘no war’ state than disturbing it by pressing for negotiations on core political issues, which the LTTE was not interested in discussing. The ceasefire held on for nearly four years because of the interest taken by the international community (IC) in the so-called ‘peace process,’ despite the numerous violations by the LTTE and the collapse of the ‘peace talks’ in 2003. The IC believed with the usual ‘carrots and sticks’ policy, the parties can be persuaded to resume direct talks. The distinction between the ‘peace talks’ and the ‘negotiations’ needed for settling the conflict permanently was blurred. The (wishful) thinking was that the talks would result in the negotiations on substantive issues. There was no basis for this assumption, as there was neither the desire nor the compulsion to negotiate. In hindsight there was no connection at all and the ‘peace talks’ served to buy time for one side to extend the ‘no war’ state and for the other to prepare for the next round of the war. The irony now is both the present Rajapaksa regime and the LTTE while reiterating their commitments to the CFA (that exists only on paper) are engaged in a full-scale war! This has enabled the Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to stay outside the ‘war zone’ with reduced activities.

To the LTTE, the CFA is vital but it is uncertain whether this is for negotiating a final settlement. Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar who visited Kilinochchi to bid farewell to his LTTE acquaintances is reported to have told the government afterwards that the LTTE has expressed the view if there are to be peace talks these would have to be based on the 2002 CFA. Unless there are some vital prior understandings as outlined by Dr. John Gooneratne (stated below), the CFA will at most serve only to suspend the war for some time. Paradoxically, a TNA (LTTE’s proxy party) parliamentarian is reported to have told the weekly ‘The Nation’ July 15, “if the government genuinely wanted to resume talks, then it should honour the Ceasefire Agreement” and “would also have to strictly honour all the clauses enshrined in the CFA”. This is unlikely because of all what happened during the past 5 years, particularly after the escalation of hostilities early 2006. Interestingly, the government has now assumed the role of liberator, calling the LTTE the oppressor of the Tamil speaking people. Some actions in violation of international laws and human rights have given this damaging label to the LTTE. Some analysts have labelled the President as the liberator of the oppressed people in the East. It remains to be seen how long the concern for the suffering people will last.

This switch is also seen from the statement of the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on July 13 following the capture of Thoppigala (Kudumbimalai in Tamil). He told the media that it was the task now of the armed forces “to see that the (liberated) civilians live as free people and are able to engage in gainful economic activities and employment”. Perhaps the intention is to keep the armed forces in the captured areas as long as necessary. The LTTE has throughout considered them as ‘occupying forces’ and has been trying hard to evict them from government-controlled areas during the ceasefire.

Dr. John Gooneratne, former Deputy Secretary General at the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) whose recent book is considered to be an authoritative account of the ceasefire years has in his July 5 article – The Ceasefire Agreement And Its Different Types Of ‘Sex Appeal’ – has commented: “Without a readiness to talk, and agreement on what to talk about, negotiating becomes a non-starter. The onus for being ready for talks is, of course, greater on a government. And for this a preliminary consensus on the southern front is a prerequisite. At the present time this is nowhere in sight. As a result, meaningful negotiations are not on the horizon. While military measures at times are needed in a political process, one has to ensure that military measures do not dictate the pace of the peace process. The two sides have to agree to talk. They have to agree what they will talk about, and the goal towards which they want to progress”.

‘Divide and rule’ strategy

This writer has in several previous papers pointed to the fact that it was the Sinhalese political leaders, who by their thoughtless public utterances (intended to gain popular support among the Sinhalese) and discriminatory legislative and executive actions heightened the ethnic division in the Society and which later led to the demand for the division of the island into two separate states. Political power should have been used to unite the communities and not divide them, as has been the case since independence. By this thoughtless act the national leaders made the unitary system unsuitable for uniting the communities in the multi-ethnic Society. Ethnic division was promoted because of its usefulness as a weapon in the contest for power.

Divide and rule policy was useful to the British colonial government because the people did not have the freedom to exercise their rights but this was counterproductive in a sovereign democratic country. Moreover, the colonial masters were interested more in the future of their country than of their colonies. The price for pursuing this method by the leaders of a sovereign nation is evident from the crisis, chaos and confusion prevailing now in Sri Lanka. The island nation could have advanced rapidly with the potential it had at the time of independence compared with the then poorer countries in South and South East Asia that have now advanced far ahead with high income, low unemployment and far better living conditions for majority of their citizens.

Building mutual trust and confidence, essential for national unity and common national identity was neglected because of the feeling that the Sinhala-majority rule is fixed permanently under the unitary system. The notion that the entire island is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation influenced many discriminatory and disturbing decisions of the post-independence governments. Party oriented interests superseded national interest. The sinister project to transform the entire island into a Sinhalese nation started soon after independence. Perhaps, the expectation was that in due course the island will be recognized globally as a Sinhalese country. As observed earlier, since the division served as an expedient to win majority votes/seats under the unitary system, the compelling need to promote ethnic equality and unity did not arise. The attraction and the desire to retain the unitary structure is because it has in effect succeeded in setting up Sinhala-majority rule over the entire island in which the minorities have no independent decision-making powers on matters concerning their aspirations, safety, security and well-being even in the provinces where the majority of the inhabitants are non-Sinhalese.

Besides the ethnic division (which without a unifying cause led to the ‘two nations’ concept) and distrust promoted by the State, cutthroat politics within the Sinhala polity centered on seizing and holding on to power also hindered stability, peace and progress. The two main rival political parties, the SLFP and the UNP vying for power seldom cooperated in solving the problems faced by the Tamil speaking people. This damaging competition for power obstructed several attempts in the past to seek a constitutional settlement to the ethnic conflict. The last time this happened was in August 2000 with the aim of denying credit to the mover, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga who was also the leader of the SLFP. The recent MoU between the present leaders of the SLFP and UNP was dumped by the latter when 18 members of his party joined the government. This shattered any hope of bipartisan approach to conflict resolution. Although the dissidents who call themselves as reformists are known to be moderates, they are now silent on the hawkish approach of the SLFP-led coalition government to solve the Tamil problem. The extreme Sinhala nationalist party the JHU led by Buddhist clerics seems to be the one ally very close to the President on this issue.

Lack of political will

Peace via negotiated political settlement is not in the psyche of the LTTE leader, who is also an indicted person both in Sri Lanka and India. The latter for some reason is considered by the peace seekers non-issue to political settlement. It is an important issue, if the final settlement is within one country and one judiciary. There must be some assurance on this matter for the leader to consider even a federal solution. It is also not unreasonable to state without a Southern consensus on credible political solution, it is risky for the LTTE to abandon the chosen goal and the path. The present Constitution itself is an impediment to the vital change needed for lasting peace. Its chief architect has ensured that an alternate cannot be adopted easily. Incidentally, the 1978 Constitution is very attractive to those who are after personal gains, including pecuniary benefits during their tenure as well as after retirement as powerful executives or just legislators. Corruption is now considered widely as a major obstacle to good governance and poverty alleviation. No effort is being made to bring the culprits to justice. Findings of the Parliamentary Select Committee – COPE remain without action though actionable. This is also contributing to the chaos and uncertainty in the country. Its gravity is being suppressed by the focus on the current military operations to defeat ‘terrorism’. Confusion is created deliberately to hoodwink all concerned about normalcy and peace in Sri Lanka.

President Rajapaksa’s unsophisticated blunt approach to conflict resolution itself is counterproductive. It could also be regarded as lack of interest in seeking a political solution, hoping to retain the dominant status of the majority Sinhalese by other means. Even the military option is being pursued at enormous cost hoping victory will strengthen the present regime’s hold on power. The confusion created by his utterances to camouflage the problem and divert the attention of the donor community has not been that successful. For example, the emphasis at the beginning was on ‘home grown’ solution and later there was the claim that ‘there is no ethnic problem now, only terrorism has to be eliminated for gaining durable peace. Meanwhile, the President as leader of the SLFP had a say in the final set of proposals his party submitted to the APRC.

President Rajapaksa’s recent admission on the real purpose of setting up the APRC and Experts Panel has compounded the earlier confusion. According to D. B. S. Jeyaraj following the forum held on June 18th at the Sri Lanka press institute “intended to encourage more discussion in all three linguistic media about Prof. Vitharana’s working paper submitted to the APRC”, President Rajapaksa met with members of the APRC in Parliament the very next day. He had said: “The APRC was primarily for the benefit of India and the Western nations”. According to Jeyaraj – “It was a stratagem to demonstrate to the International Community (IC) that a political process was on”. The President is reported to have also “re-iterated his stance on what the final product will be. Sri Lanka was to be a unitary state” and district would be the unit of devolution. (Ref. Uncertain Future for Tissa Vitharana’s Proposals to the APRC – Tamil Week 29 June 2007). The UNP having stated its commitment to one undivided nation and province to be unit of devolution has asked the coalition government to settle the internal differences and forward their joint proposals to the APRC before the 6 weeks deadline. This may be a politically motivated challenge knowing the opposition of other allies to the SLFP proposals. Is this a replay of the same old political game?

This writer has expressed constantly the view that the way to end the destructive conflict, is to convince the minority Tamils there is no need for separation. The Sinhalese polity must boldly take the required steps to demonstrate that the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims can live in harmony as equals without any fear of being marginalized. This is feasible in one united multi-ethnic country by sharing power at the centre and devolving powers to the regions (regional autonomy in specified areas) to enable all the different ethnic communities to safeguard their interests and fulfill their aspirations without endangering the territorial integrity of the country. This, in turn, requires major changes to the present Constitution. This is the challenge facing all parties committed to enduring peace, unity and well-being of the motherland. Political will is needed to face the challenge boldly. Future of the island nation depends crucially on overcoming it. Unity and lasting peace cannot be achieved by military victory and the subsequent enforcement of the failed unitary system.

Related article:Unitary Constitution for ensuring Sinhala Supremacy: By Dr. S. Narapalasingam – Tamil Week 27 May- 2 June 2007

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

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