President Mahinda Rajapakse addressing the ‘All Party Conference’ on February 17 said, since the ‘bi-party discussion approach’ which the past governments followed was a failure he would take a “multi-party discussion approach” in handling the peace process in the future. “I don’t want to distinguish parties as for the peace process and against the peace process” he said. “Although the LTTE is a main party in the process there should be room for others who speak Tamil as well,” he added. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) the LTTE’s proxy in the Parliament boycotted this and subsequent meetings. President’s decision to consult all the parties before arriving at a consensus has generally been welcomed by other political parties kept out of the peace talks. The President also said that a new approach would be taken to solve the problems arising out of the implementation of the CFA.
It is the failure to settle the ethnic conflict since the Thimpu talks that has led to the emergence of a separate one-party de facto state under LTTE’s control. Since the ceasefire, LTTE has been striving to extend its control to the areas in the North-East presently under government control and legitimize the de facto state. The LTTE is militarily much stronger now than it was before the ceasefire. It has an Air Wing considered to be evolving as a military wing like the Sea Tigers. Some believe the LTTE will soon have the means to launch air strikes at politically or economically important targets. Notwithstanding the talks on strengthening the implementation of the CFA, LTTE’s preparation for war has not abated. Even civilians are being given basic training in defence, normally done during major war time. The political goal of the separatists also remains intact.
Conflict then and now
The present unitary governing system based initially at the time of independence on the Westminster model permitted powers to be exercised for satisfying primarily the Sinhalese electorate. Irresponsibly, some parochial political leaders considered the neglect of the rights, aspirations, security and welfare of minority Tamils as necessary for pleasing the Sinhalese masses. The national interest was equated with the interest of the majority Sinhalese, who undoubtedly were a neglected lot during British colonial rule. The few who prospered were English educated urbanites. The Sinhalese political leaders sought to resolve the problem of social disparity in their community at the expense of denying equal rights and opportunities to minority Tamils. This is the root cause of the national problem that the Sinhalese leaders failed to address before it aggravated into the present armed struggle for separation. As stated in my previous articles, the Tamil Tigers have little interest in Sri Lanka’s national problem, except to use it as a means to achieve their own goal.
Dr. P. Sahadevan, Associate Professor of South Asian Studies and Review, Editor of the ‘International Studies’ journal of the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, who was recently in Colombo to deliver the keynote speech at a forum organised by the Colombo-based Foundation for Community Transformation mentioned the blunders made by Sri Lankan political leaders that contributed to the present crisis, when Lynn Ockersz sought his views on some key issues relating to the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka. He is reported to have said: “There were political forces which thrived on creating antagonisms on the language question (which) contributed to the worsening of the ethnic conflict here. In countries such as ours, ethnicity intermingles with politics. This aggravates ethnic tensions”. Dr. Sahadevan explained how India avoided ethnic conflicts such as in Sri Lanka. He said in India, there is the concept of the “joint ownership” of the State which facilitates peaceful co-existence of different ethnic communities. Importantly, “the State does not identity with any one ethnic group and there is a great determination among the State’s stakeholders to defeat divisive forces”. Sadly, despite the tragic experience over the past several decades, there are political leaders in Sri Lanka who do not want to accept this basic tenet vital for national unity.
The problem with egoistic Sinhalese leaders is the reluctance to accept the fact that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic country, especially when deciding on matters affecting the rights and general welfare of the people. The hegemonic attitude that prevented the political leaders from adopting an equitable power-sharing governing system seems now to be influencing the thinking of those aspiring to create a separate Tamil state in the Northeast region. Along with the disregard for democracy, pluralism and human rights, there is growing concern amongst discerning Tamils for the future of upcoming generation in contemporary world. The community was globally known for its devotion to civil rights, education and work in administrative, teaching and other productive fields. This standing is declining fast particularly in countries where Tamil gangs operate. This is apparently due to the fallout of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka. Durable peace will be a distant dream, if both sides continue to tread along this conflict-ridden path.
Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz of the Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA in his article – “Will Sri Lanka Defeat Hostile Symbolic Politics?” published in the TamilWeek, February 26 – March 4 issue has provided very relevant facts to compare the current situation to that prevailed when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike entered into a pact with the Tamil leader the late S.J.V. Chelvanayakam with the view to address the grievances of the Tamils. The ethnic problem then focused mainly on the language issue, following the adoption of Sinhala as the sole official language of the country.
The tragedy then was the charismatic leader, “who introduced Sinhala chauvinism into Sri Lankan politics, found himself unable to control the emotions he had unleashed. In 1959, Bandaranayke was assassinated by a radical monk who thought Bandaranayke had made the first step to compromise with the country’s Tamil minority”. Dr. Imtiyaz has made a pertinent comment: “When political elites employ symbols to win the votes, once they gain power, they will have to hold to their pre-elections promises and pledges. The political elites meet opposition from their constituencies when they take step to walk beyond their symbolic pledges. If the political actors stick to their pre-election pledges, their actions run the risk of marginalized group mobilization in both forms – peaceful and non-peaceful – if the state supports these symbolic policies. The net result is social and political instability”. The predicament of President Mahinda Rajapakse is not very different. As Prime Minister, he “struck a symbolic hostile (expedient) deal with the Sinhala nationalists, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU)” both of which are strongly opposed to any non-unitary structure for the Sri Lankan state.
If the new approach is intended to drag the peace process so as to sustain the ‘no war’ situation without any meaningful action on the political front, this will only help to strengthen the forces wanting to partition the island. Past experience also shows it is difficult to avoid ceasefire violations when the waiting time for a political settlement is very long. The party that has the capacity to project the opponent as unreasonable, devious and untrustworthy to the world stands to gain. Hence early settlement will not complicate further the deep-rooted conflict. Interim arrangement will not help to settle the issues that are contributing to distrust and uncertainty. Moreover, it too will require amendments to the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled in the fundamental rights case filed by JHU leader, the simple P-TOMS agreement for the Government and the LTTE to jointly undertake post tsunami relief work as a violation of the country’s Constitution. Incidentally, in the same verdict, the CFA was declared as permissible. However, the Government delegation at the Geneva Talks took the position the CFA suffered from ‘constitutional infirmities’.
The talks on the CFA held on February 22 and 23 in Geneva were considered by many to have opened the door for negotiation. As stated at the outset, the preparatory work for the Geneva meeting was in accordance with President’s new approach. The decision of the parties to conduct a second round of talks in Geneva from April 19-21, 2006 is a relief to the overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans, particularly to those in the troubled North-East. There is definite proof to assert that the people do not want another round of the war that has inflicted enormous suffering and personal losses. It is too early to tell whether the understanding reached will meet the immediate needs of both sides, which were the very limited aims of the Geneva meeting. The joint statement released at the end of the talks by Erik Solheim, Norwegian Minister of International Development – on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the LTTE was acclaimed by many as a ‘win-win position’. It was definitely a gratifying achievement for the host Swiss government and Norway, the facilitator. On the whole the initial success of the Geneva Talks proved the merit in the new approach.
The main concerns of the GoSL were to stop the killings of army, navy and police officers and the resumption of the war that seemed imminent. It was also keen to amend the ceasefire agreement (CFA) reached four years ago when the present opposition and UNP party leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister. The LTTE was mainly interested in disarming the ‘paramilitaries’ that were obstructing its plan to achieve its political objective and also indirectly challenging the LTTE’s claim as the ’sole representatives of the Tamil people’. Their main challenger in the East is the breakaway Karuna group. Although the LTTE stood firm on its stand that the Talks should focus exclusively on the implementation of the clauses in the CFA, the government raised many subjects such as intimidation, acts of violence against security forces and the police, abductions, recruitment of children and political killings. The agreements reached are intended to stop these activities that are against the declared aim of the CFA.
The apparent ‘win-win scenario’ praised by observers arise from the following commitments agreed by both the GoSL and the LTTE. “The GOSL and the LTTE are committed to respecting and upholding the Ceasefire Agreement, and reconfirmed their commitment to fully cooperate with and respect the rulings of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM)” and “taking all necessary measures to ensure that there will be no intimidation, acts of violence, abductions or killings. The LTTE is committed to taking all necessary measures to ensure that there will be no acts of violence against the security forces and police. The GOSL is committed to taking all necessary measures in accordance with the Ceasefire Agreement to ensure that no armed group or person other than Government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations.”
It is significant that the role of the SLMM in strengthening the implementation of the CFA has been stressed in the joint agreement. Here the comment made by Kethesh Loganathan, a director of the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) is noteworthy. To quote: “Considerable burden now lies with the SLMM to go beyond being, in the words of Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial killings and Arbitrary and Summary executions, a mere ‘recording agency’ with an ‘excessively narrow interpretation of its mandate’.” With regard to the agreement that the SLMM “will report on implementation on the above agreements (reference to Geneva Talks) at the next session of talks”, scheduled for April 19-21, 2006,
Kethesh has suggested: “It is also imperative that this report should be brought to the public domain so that ‘naming and shaming’ would act as deterrence, in the absence of powers of enforcement. It is also important that the Report of the SLMM should be transmitted to the Donor Co-Chairs, so that if ‘naming and shaming’ does not act as a deterrence, then the option of sanctions is exercised with the dual objective of not only keeping the parties at the table, but in ensuring that the talks do not lead to a situation where the parties are content only with not using violence against each other, but decide to look the other way when violence is perpetrated against civilians and other stakeholders” (Daily News 27 February).
Quarrelling over agreements
A couple of days after the Geneva Talks both the Government and the Tamil Tigers started accusing each other of failing to honour the commitments agreed at the Talks. President’s Counsel H.L. de Silva a GoSL delegate at the Geneva Talks, addressing the media in Colombo on February 26 said, “Though the LTTE did not agree to amend the CFA, the agreements reached in Geneva did in fact amount to amendments of the CFA. These clarify the ambiguities and specify obligations supplementing the original CFA. In law, such changes constitute amendments”. He cited as an example the new clause in the Geneva Agreement on child recruitment “supplementing the general heading of human rights in the original CFA”. It is not certain whether the comments of the government delegates at the Colombo media meeting were made after reading Anton Balasingham’s interview with the Sunday Leader (discussed below). However, this kind of remark challenging the widely accepted ‘win-win position’ is very unfortunate when the Government is keen on reviving the peace process and build trust for future talks. The Geneva Agreement has, in fact, reaffirmed the existence of two separate territories under the control of different regimes but this has not been the concern of those who viewed the talks from the standpoint of ‘regaining the sovereignty of Sri Lanka’.
Anton Balasingham, the leader of LTTE’s delegation at the Geneva Talks in his interview (February 25) with Sunday Leader described the sudden rise in the killings in the several weeks before the announcement of the Geneva Talks as a ’shadow war’ phenomenon. He said: “A subversive war, because of the paramilitary groups, particularly the Karuna group (that) has launched a dirty war in collusion with Sri Lankan intelligence against the LTTE cadres……. These are killings done in the context of a subversive war launched against the LTTE by paramilitaries. So it cannot be categorised as intensified violence but action against the LTTE”. In reply to a related question he said: “There is no need to use the concept of paramilitary if you study the text of the joint statement because it specifically states that in accordance with the ceasefire agreement, that these armed groups will not be able to function. When we say in accordance with the CFA, there is a specific clause which is 1.8, which says these armed groups are none other than the paramilitaries. So the paramilitaries are specifically included in an undefined form”.
The leader of the breakaway LTTE faction, Karuna Amman responded promptly to Anton Balasingham’s clarification of the key clause in the joint statement. He reiterated his refusal to disarm his fighters unless the LTTE too surrender their weapons. His persistent stand has been that the weapons are needed for self-defence. This too illustrates the point made earlier about the complications that arise when the armed conflict remains unresolved unduly long without the decommissioning of weapons. The ceasefire should be considered as a vehicle for expediting the settlement and not for building up the military capability.
Responding to a question concerning future discussions on political issues, Anton Balasingham said: “Political issues will come only when there is a total de-escalation and normalisation of civilian life in the north and east. That has been our stand for the last so many decades. Even with Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe we insisted on fulfilling the existential problems of our people. Here we are going to insist on de-escalation and normalisation of civilian life as a necessary condition to move towards the next stage which is the political discussion.
Even when we go to the political discussion, Mr. Rajapakse will have difficulties because there is a difference. Both the parties are living in different ideological universes. They conform to what is called the ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ but we go by Pirapaharan’s vision. So these are two different universes with a wide gulf between them. He is insisting on a unitary structure and we are fighting for a regional autonomy with self government in our own homeland. To bridge these two conflictual and controversial positions at the negotiating table is not going to be a simple matter. It is going to be a very difficult task”.
Obviously, the LTTE is not in great hurry to discuss the political issues. This is not surprising as the same disinterest was seen on earlier occasions too. Political issues are relevant only when a settlement is sought within unified Sri Lanka. At least there should be the willingness to consider a viable alternative to absolute self-rule. Anton Balasingham is quite right that the two parties are in different ideological universes.
Another important factor that is likely to hinder President Rajapakse’s approach to peace is the nationalistic stance of the JVP and JHU, the two parties that have entered into separate agreements with the President on matters concerning national policies. The JVP in a statement released after the Geneva Talks said, “the party considers the talks held in Geneva on February 22 and 23 from the angle of regaining sovereignty of Sri Lanka and democracy, as a step in the right direction”. JVP agreed with the initial approach to the Talks but disapproved the joint statement issued at the end. Subsequently, the JVP complained that the Government’s initial statement and the final joint statement were contradictory. Surely negotiations are not meant for endorsing the initial position of one party! The JHU another party that supported President Rajapakse during the election campaign is totally against supporting talks based on the original CFA. It wants a revised CFA that would prohibit the kind of ‘political activities’ the LTTE had been performing in the North and East. It also wants the government to stick to the intentions stated in ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’. A statement issued by JHU General Secretary Omalpe Sobhitha thero said, ‘certain clauses’ in the agreement reached at Geneva went against the electoral pact with President Rajapakse.
On March 1 the LTTE conveyed a message expressing ’serious concern and disapproval’ to the Government of Sri Lanka through the Norwegian facilitators. Regarding this development Anton Balasingham said: “These attempts to distort and misinterpret the joint statement issued by the parties will damage mutual trust and seriously undermine the peace process”. The UNP too challenged the Government to “disclose to the people the details of the amendments,” if the delegation was successful in amending the CFA.
The agreements reached in Geneva, if followed sincerely by both parties will at least create conditions that will avert the resumption of the war for the time being. But given Sri Lanka’s negative political culture, extremists and the opposition party could disrupt the process. Not only the present but also the previous government has put themselves in a ‘no win’ position because of their own weaknesses and ‘wait and see’ stance. Talks must be followed by appropriate actions and it is here successive governments have been found wanting.
Two months notice
S. P. Thamilselvan, LTTE Political wing leader told AFP news agency that they had given “the Colombo government two months to make good on the promises made during two days of talks or risk a return to hostilities”. He also said: “The declarations and words should be translated into action. Two months is amply sufficient (for the government) to demonstrate its sincerity,” adding that the hostilities could result unless the government moved to rein in paramilitary groups. It is the Government’s undertaking to “ensure that no armed group or person other than government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations” that is of immediate concern to the LTTE.
Incidentally, the same AFP report stated that Thamilselvan maintained that the Tigers were not responsible for a spike in violence between December and January when some 153 people, mostly security personnel, were killed in the northern and eastern regions. “We did not carry out the attacks, it was the work of civilian groups that were unhappy about the government’s support to paramilitary groups,” he had said. This comment was intended to convey the message that the people are against the presence of security forces and the ‘paramilitary’ Tamil groups but unfortunately it has also conveyed a different message. The Tamils are generally considered worldwide as non-violent people committed to ahimsa.
At present, President’s approach to peace depends heavily on the support of those who champion unitary administrative system. As Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz has found in his study, there is considerable similarity between the current situation to that the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was in the mid 1950s when he became Prime Minister with the support of the Buddhist clergy and other Sinhalese patriots. The recent developments after the Geneva meeting also cast doubts on the efficacy of the new approach to peace. It should be noted the objectives of the Geneva meeting were very limited, while a negotiated final settlement will have to deal with complex issues.
According to Dr. Sahadevan, “India looks forward to constitutional changes in Sri Lanka which would facilitate equitable power-sharing among its communities. He sees the current system “as not conducive” to equitable power sharing”. Like many other scholars, his comments too are based on the premise that the conflict in Sri Lanka can be settled by negotiation, though the process will take a long time. He has considered it as a conflict related to different group identities where the ambitions, self-interest, and perceptions of the parties are very different. It is difficult on account of these factors, to get such conflicting groups to recognize each others identities. There is a “problem of compromise”. He also said: “It is an uphill task to get these antagonistic groups to make compromises and recognize each others legitimate needs because of the primacy of self interest”. This is generally true when the conflict has not escalated into a full-scale war. However in the case of Sri Lanka, though there is a fragile ceasefire, sporadic violent and persistent nonmilitary actions in pursuance of the separatist goal along with the threat of the resumption of the full-scale war makes the conflict more complex than a clash of diverse group identities. Moreover, a de facto state under the control of the rebels has also emerged giving another dimension to the complexity of the conflict. These have made compromise difficult. The Tamil rebels also believe they are militarily strong enough to be inflexible on their main demand.
Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in his informative article on, ‘The art of negotiation’ has made a distinction between “dispute resolution” and negotiation. “Negotiation is the process whereby interested parties resolve disputes, agree upon courses of action, bargain for individual or collective advantage, and/or attempt to craft outcomes which serve their mutual interests. It is usually regarded as a form of alternative dispute resolution. However, the process of dispute resolution is distinct from negotiation, as methods used in dispute resolution are mostly peremptory, sometimes even leading to violence or even war. Ordinarily dispute resolution practitioners do not usually resort to such extreme measures, since violence rarely ends disputes effectively, and indeed, often only escalates them”. India’s direct intervention in 1987 in the conflict in neighbouring Sri Lanka was a move towards dispute resolution. It failed because both parties to the conflict collaborated during President Premadasa’s regime to oust the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force). The significance of the Indo-Lanka Pact also diminished.
The scholar has explained lucidly the circumstances where negotiations will succeed. One basic condition is that the parties to a negotiation must share a common need. Unfortunately, in the conflict in Sri Lanka this is not the case. “A typical negotiation is a process through which the parties build on common interests and reduce differences that they might have. A successful negotiation is achieved when those differences are settled to the satisfaction of both parties”. The distinction made by this writer between ethnic and separatist conflicts is relevant here. The former but not the latter is open to negotiation.
The Co-Chairs of Tokyo Donors’ Conference and India, the special external stakeholder all want a negotiated political settlement to the separatist conflict. Colombo cannot reject this avenue though success is very unlikely for the reasons mentioned above. Dr. Abeyratne has also emphasised the need to “prepare alternative proposals and establish what is called BATNA (the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement), which is the course of action that will be taken by a party if the current negotiations fail and an agreement cannot be reached. One of the key considerations of this approach is that if the negotiations seem to be offering a negotiator less value than his BATNA, there would be little point in proceeding further. It is, therefore, quite important that prior to the start of their negotiations, the parties should have ascertained their own individual BATNAs. Of course, the most ideal case is to come out with a win-win outcome for both parties”.
All discerning persons know the BATNA of the LTTE. The previous UNF government did not have a BATNA. The present government despite the LTTE leader’s challenge for a ‘reasonable political framework’ has not thought yet of preparing a suitable new structure to replace the present one. The failure to come up with a political framework that is suitable for meeting the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka with a reasonable power sharing arrangements between the center and the regions and between the different ethnic communities will only strengthen the perception that the South will not willingly grant the legitimate rights of the minority Tamils and Muslims. Many Tamils support the LTTE on this premise, which seems to gain strength as governments change from green to blue and vice versa, while the unsuitable political system endures despite the acknowledgment of the main parties that it should be changed. If the government comes up with an appropriate BATNA, not based on the unitary system, the backing of the international community for its implementation is assured. The southern polity has to take into consideration the present realities when formulating the BATNA. It has to be an acceptable alternative to unitary structure as well as the total self-rule demanded by the LTTE. It is wise to avoid using the terms unitary and federal in the BATNA. This is the challenge that must be confronted without delay for arresting the decline in almost every field casting doubts about the future well-being of the people and the country at large.