The question of core issues

by Jayadeva Uyangoda

The SLFP statement on the current peace process has urged the UNF government to bring the “core issues” to the center of agenda of talks with the LTTE. It has proposed that the President, the Prime Minister and the government should endeavour “to persuade the LTTE to enter into talks on the core issues” in order to arrive at a lasting settlement to the ethnic conflict. While giving primacy to “core issues” in the negotiation agenda, the SLFP statement has warned the government that they oppose talks on the formation of an interim administration before the “core issues” are settled. “An interim administration,” the statement continued, “should be talked about and formed only after reaching a final settlement of the problem of the minorities.”

This proposal needs serious examination since it represents a particular approach concerning the agenda as well as the process of negotiations between the government and the LTTE.

It appears that the current UNF government’s approach is not to bring what may be broadly termed as core issues to the immediate negotiation agenda.

The LTTE’s position is also a similar one. On this, the LTTE’s position has been clear and consistent. Since 1995, they have been arguing that their talks with the government should focus not on the ‘causes of the ethnic conflict,’ but rather ‘consequences of the conflict.’ The objective of such talks, according to the LTTE, should be for working out the ‘modalities for the normalization of civilian life’ in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

The LTTE also argued in 1995 that once the “consequences of the conflict” are addressed, there would be better conditions for dealing with complicated “causes of the conflict.”

In this approach to talks, there seems to be a confluence of understanding between government and the LTTE. They prefer talks on the resolution of the ethnic conflict to enter the agenda after some normalization of life in conflict areas is restored and a credible degree of mutual trust built.

They also seem to believe that trust-building process, spanning over some time and producing concrete results, is necessary before the core issues are brought to the table. This is certainly not an unwelcome development, although critics could say that the postponement of political talks on the core political issues is an LTTE ploy to evade the resolution of the conflict.

This approach to talks presently opted for by the UNF and the LTTE constitutes what one may call a multi-phase approach to ethnic conflict settlement. It implicitly proposes what the contemporary conflict resolution theory describes as an ‘interim process.’ The idea of an interim administration, which was originally proposed by President Kumaratunga herself a couple of years ago when the PA was in power, is an interim process that seeks to approach the conflict resolution process from a long-term, multi-stage perspective. In it is the recognition that protracted conflicts have no one-shot solutions and that the settlement process is one interspersed with positive and courageous political experiments, trial and error.

In protracted conflicts in which people have suffered immensely and the conflict has proved itself extremely destructive, there is often a desire for an early settlement. Those who believe in a military resolution would want the war to end quickly in victory. Those who advocate a political settlement might also want the negotiation process to begin and end quickly, by resolving all the complicated issues in an accelerated process of talks between adversaries. These can also be honest expectations of people who are not engaged in either war or negotiations. But, the real processes of both war and negotiations are quite different from wishful thinking and honest expectations. In protracted ethno-political conflicts, there are enormous complexities to be addressed whether one pursues a military option or the negotiation option. To argue that “settle core issues in political negotiations first” is like saying “catch their leadership first” in counter-insurgency war.

There are indeed good reasons as to why it is not a good idea to bring core issues to the immediate negotiation agenda when the state and insurgents begin to engage with each other politically after years of war and failed negotiations in the past. To begin with, in a conflict like in Sri Lanka, the core issues are not all that clear. What the Colombo government, whose thinking is largely shaped by Sinhalese perceptions of the Tamil ethnic question, considers as ‘core issues’ may not necessarily be what the LTTE, or Tamil nationalists, would perceive as ‘core issues.’

Just to give an example, many Sinhalese politicians, both in the UNP and PA, would consider the ‘discrimination of the Tamil minority’ as a core issue that has led to the present ethnic conflict. They are most likely to advocate the entrenchment of ‘minority protection’ clauses in the Constitution as constituting a ‘core solution’ to the ethnic conflict. But the Tamil nationalist response to such an understanding of the ethnic conflict would be entirely different. They are most likely to argue that the problem of Sri Lankan Tamils is no longer one of minority discrimination or their protection through legal safeguards alone, but a question of a ‘minority nation’ with a right to shared sovereignty with the majority nation. In the latter case, finding a political settlement would be more than an exercise in constitutional or institutional reform, but one of re-constituting the state, its constitutional order as well as the political structures.

As the above example indicates, when we look at the future trajectories of Sri Lanka’s negotiation process from the perspective of the issues and the agenda, there is a point we should not ignore at any cost. It concerns the fact that there has not been much dialogue between the Sinhalese and Tamil polities on the framework of a settlement. Actually, a mutually agreed settlement would require the accommodating a militarily successful secessionist movement in the structure of the Sri Lankan state. It cannot be the old, pre-existing state. There is no return to old politics. It should be a joint march towards new politics. That demands a great measure of flexibility and creativity in the way the Sinhalese polity and its ruling elites as well as the political class look at the state, its constitutional foundations and power structures.

The point, then, is that on the core issues to the conflict, there exists a real gulf between the Sinhalese and Tamil - or the government and insurgent - conceptualizations. There has not been any significant move so far in Sri Lanka to find out what these core issues are and how a common ground could be forged. Bringing them to the negotiation table in the present circumstances would not help the cause of conflict settlement. On the contrary, it would force the two sides to re-discover their differences, find new ones and engage in endless ideological polemics.

Although one may argue that the core issue of a settlement should be debated with the LTTE as a priority and immediate theme of negotiations, such a move could be both negative and premature. To begin with, there is no consensus whatsoever among major Sinhalese political forces about the core issues of the conflict and their resolution. Actually, it is on the core issues of the ethnic conflict that the Sinhalese polity is also deeply divided. The SLFP and the JVP, who are presently building a coalition against talks with the LTTE, will certainly find it very difficult to agree on many issues. President Kumaratunga’s recent statement in New Delhi that we in Sri Lanka must find pluralistic alternatives to the unitary state model goes fundamentally opposed to the JVP’s understanding of the ethnic question and solutions.

A more fruitful approach for the UNP and SLFP would be to explore among them what constitute the core issues of the conflict and strategies as well as options for their resolution. If the UNP engages the LTTE on core issues’ without a firm bi-partisan consensus in the South on the core issues, the talks are most likely to end in failure. As Mr. Prabhakaran hinted at his media conference, the Tamil insurgents are quite aware that a solution offered by one party in the South may run the risk of being undone by the other party. Core issues are core issues; they are not there to be haphazardly handled in an ad hoc manner.

What all these tell us is that designing the peace process is crucially important for the present breakthrough in Sri Lanka to go forward. It requires strategizing, sifting through many options available and securing public legitimacy and support for the agenda, the process and the outcomes.

Securing public sympathy in setbacks should also be a crucial consideration. In the present moment, for example, the government should have a credibly clear idea of what it seeks to achieve through the interim administration.

It should also be able to clear off the growing public scepticism about the efficacy of that approach. Meanwhile, the question of core issues cannot be ignored. They need to be introduced to the negotiation agenda at a correct moment in a fruitful process of prior political engagement with the LTTE. A moratorium between the SLFP and UNP not to politicize the negotiation process for partisan gains is a crucial pre-condition for successful strategizing for peace at the moment.

[Emphasis ours.]

Courtesy: Ceylon Daily News [11 May 2002]