Sri Lanka's peace process : from crisis to paradigm shift?

by Jayadeva Uyangoda

The LTTE's 'temporary' withdrawal in early May from negotiations with the UNF Government and from the proposed donor meeting in Tokyo created the first major setback in Sri Lanka's peace process of 2002-2003. Attempts made by the UNF Government, the Norwegian mediators and the international custodians of peace in Sri Lanka to persuade the LTTE leadership to end its boycott stance have not yet been successful.

Price of war - a damaged hospital in the North

Whether the LTTE will participate or not in the Tokyo meeting in early June is perhaps not the most important issue at the moment. The real issue is linked to the qualitative nature of the present crisis in the peace process. It concerns the capacity or incapacity of the UNF Government to work with the LTTE towards a win-win outcome.

This indeed poses a fairly serious challenge to the UNF Government leaders to prove what they really meant when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Minister Moragoda repeatedly asserted that their peace initiative represented a 'paradigm shift' in thinking.

While the UNF Government was preparing its response to the LTTE's latest demand concerning setting up of an interim administrative structure in the North and East, the old paradigm has once again appeared in posters pasted on Colombo's walls. The opposition political posters call upon the UNF Government not to 'betray' the country and its 'sovereignty' to the 'murderous' LTTE.

Many newspaper editorials as well as commentaries and TV debates on the present crisis of the peace process also indicate that a paradigm shift in thinking is indeed necessary to grasp even the elementary essentials of current conjuncture of Sri Lanka's quest for a political transition from war to peace. It is quite amazing that the old notion of state sovereignty developed in post-medieval Europe has found its respectable presence one may even say re-hashing - in the learned political debates in Colombo's English press as well as in Parliament.

For many critics in the Opposition, the LTTE's action of negotiation boycott is typical of its politics of deception and cunning. This critical reaction in its extreme form presents an analysis which may be summarized as follows: 'Pretending to be negotiating peace, the LTTE has got everything possible from the foolish UNF Government. After taking Ranil Wickremesinghe for a good ride, they are now after the pound of flesh.

Prabhakaran is merely looking for an excuse to strike back.' Some Opposition politicians even appear to think that a re-alignment of political forces in the South, coupled with a regime change, is necessary to arrest what they see as a quick march to an impending disaster.

This rejectionist reaction obviously stems from a partisan and therefore inadequate understanding of the present historical phase of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict as well as the shift in the LTTE politics it has facilitated. The 'hidden agenda' explanation it offers can only lead one to make, as we witnessed in Colombo during the past few weeks, bad political judgements while legitimizing narrow political perspectives.

An alternative explanation of Sri Lanka's negotiation crisis can be offered by looking at the structural dynamics of the negotiation process itself. When the UNF Government and the LTTE began the peace initiative in December 2001, the two sides represented two militarily undefeated entities, one the State and the other a counter-State military-political movement. There was a state of symmetry and the parity of status in military power, as well the recognition of that shift, providing the structural context for the UNF-LTTE political engagement. Meanwhile, and quite paradoxically, there were subsequent developments within the negotiation process itself that seem to have altered this state of power symmetry in favour of the Sri Lankan State.

The so-called international community, both state and non-state, entered the negotiation process in a somewhat spectacular manner, giving the impression that the global State system, led by the USA and followed by Japan, was there to back the Sri Lankan State in its engagement with the 'terrorist' LTTE.

The Washington Aid Seminar in April from which the LTTE was officially excluded and the US-led war against Iraq were two major events that probably dramatically presented to the LTTE leadership a new political reality for which they had not earlier bargained. Concerning the Washington episode, the LTTE appears to have two main grievances. Firstly, it has been treated as a secondary entity to the Sri Lankan Government. Secondly, its exclusion was based on the US Government's position that the LTTE still remained a 'terrorist' organization.

The LTTE's argument is that even after major political concessions they have unilaterally made to the Sri Lankan Government, treating them as a 'terrorist' entity would smack a real danger, especially in the post-Iraq war context. This further complicated the LTTE's peculiar security dilemma.

The above developments occurred in the backdrop of another structural dynamic of the negotiation process, namely its excessive internationalization. We may note that it is the internationalization of Sri Lanka' conflict that, to begin with, made the negotiation option possible. It is also the excessive internationalization of the negotiation process that in turn created a new condition of structural asymmetry between the two negotiation parties. The LTTE leadership seems to have perceived this shift in balance of power as one that clearly favoured the State.

Against this backdrop, we may also note that Sri Lanka's present crisis of the negotiation process can be better understood as one which occurred in a context of post-Iraq war conditions, rather than under post-September 11 conditions.

The LTTE has explained the boycotting of negotiations as well as the Tokyo donor meeting in terms of the UNF Government's failure to implement promises made to improve the conditions of civilian life in the North. Indeed, the LTTE's first letter to the Prime Minister on this issue had, in both tone and argument, a remarkable similarity with their letters to President Kumaratunga in March 1995, written just before the PA-LTTE talks collapsed.

This appears to have prompted some PA leaders to believe that in May 2003 the LTTE was going to repeat its action of April 19, 1995. However, a closer look at the political conditions under which the LTTE knows it operates now in 2003 would favour the argument that it is not easy for the rebels to unilaterally return to war by totally violating a ceasefire agreement which has a measure of international sanctity.

Quite apart from the fact that the LTTE leaders have repeatedly assured the UNF Government that their suspension of political engagement did not mean returning to war, it also appears that the LTTE has decided to 'correct' the structural 'imbalance' of the negotiation process primarily by non-military means.

The LTTE's action hardly constituted any 'brinkmanship' in a purely military sense, as some foreign correspondents based in Colombo hastened to describe it. No serious analyst of the LTTE's current politics should miss the point that the LTTE this time has not resorted to the threat of war to achieve negotiation objectives. It is their military strength and military preparedness as a parallel state entity, and not the threat of war of a mere military entity, that the LTTE has deployed to make political gains through the present phase of negotiation.

The 'corrective' actions the LTTE has initiated during the past several weeks to restore negotiation symmetry indicate that the LTTE leaders are quite sharp and decisive in political engagement as well. From the LTTE's perspective, a mid-course correction is necessary to take the negotiation process to a new level. One wonders whether the Wickremesinghe administration in Colombo too has made a serious political assessment of the negotiation experience.

For the Colombo Government to engage in a comprehensive analysis of the negotiation process, it would have required from it to acquire the ability to look at problems from the LTTE's perspective and then take constructive and effective corrective measures. Such an analysis would have enabled the Government to quickly grasp what the LTTE leaders meant when they complained that the Government had not delivered its promises of improving the civilian life in war-ravaged areas.

One can make a number of observations in this regard. The first is that the LTTE leaders would not want to be treated by Colombo Governments the same way that the latter have treated the parliamentary Tamil parties in the past. As it is strongly put in Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist lore, the Sinhalese political leaders have only deceived Tamils by making false promises to the Federal Party, Tamil Congress and the TULF. Radical Tamil nationalist critique of the traditional Tamil political leadership quite similar to the JVP critique of the old Left is that they allowed themselves to be deceived by the Sinhalese bourgeois political elite.

The LTTE is an efficient military force with a semi-state political character that has decided to politically engage the Sri Lankan State.

Therefore, it is most unlikely for the LTTE to act on Colombo Government's legal-procedural or constitutional excuses for not letting them establish political-administrative consolidation of their power in the North and East during a phase of economic and social reconstruction. This perhaps is one way to understand why the LTTE has given a deadline to the PM to present his concrete proposals concerning an interim administration.

The second observation one can make concerning the LTTE's complaints about the non-implementation of promises is that the LTTE may have made a serious assessment of the negotiation outcome so far. Although critics in Colombo have often complained that the LTTE has got 'everything' they wanted through negotiations, from the LTTE's point of view, they have not yet got much.

Instead, they have made three fundamental concessions which the Government has not yet adequately reciprocated. Firstly, they signed a ceasefire agreement at a time when the Government had no resources to fund the war, due to economic bankruptcy.

Secondly, they unilaterally announced, at the second round of negotiations, that they were seeking a settlement on the principle of internal self-determination. Thirdly, they entered into the 'Oslo Consensus' with the UNF Government committing themselves to explore a federalist framework within which to find a political settlement. It is inconceivable that the LTTE leaders at their Central Committee meetings would have ignored a thoroughgoing assessment of the gains of the peace process against these three fundamental concessions they have made to the Colombo Government.

It needs to be noted that the LTTE's recent public statements reveal a deep sense of frustration about the negotiation outcomes. Perhaps, this frustration arises from the fact they had initially placed a great deal of trust in Ranil Wickremesinghe's personal ability to manage the service delivery promises effectively and diligently. But when the issue of managing funds for re-construction emerged, the UNF Government too proved itself to be not only ineffective, but also taking refuge in administrative and procedural obstacles.

It is quite surprising that three top leaders of the LTTE Prabhakaran, Balasingham and Thamilselvam, repeatedly expressed in public a measure of personal confidence in Mr. Wickremesinghe, even giving the impressions that they were merely indulging in ego-pleasing politics. But the point is that Mr. Wickremesinghe has not delivered much, contrary to expectations implied in the personal trust.

If one looks at this issue from the LTTE's perspective, one may feel that Mr. Wickremesinghe while failing to deliver promises, has also invited, or at least allowed, very powerful international forces to take over Sri Lanka's peace process. This indeed is the flip side of one of the smartest political achievements Mr. Wickremesinghe gained when he put together a powerful international coalition to back his move to negotiate with the LTTE. The LTTE's present apprehension is perhaps that with the direct involvement of such international heavyweights as the US and Japanese governments and the World Bank, they are compelled to deal with a formidable set of forces which has not been their choice at all.

Meanwhile, the LTTE is a hardcore nationalist entity that might not want to see the indigenously mapped out trajectories of the future of Sri Lank's Tamil polity being overtaken by international forces. It would not be surprising if the LTTE leaders suspected that the UNF Government had a hidden agenda, in collaboration with the US Government. Rebels are always conscious, often in a paranoid mode, of the possibility of traps beneath the negotiation table.

This is exactly why Messers. Wickremesinghe and Moragoda should, in a post-Iraq war world, handle their links with the US Government with greater care and sensitivity than they have so far demonstrated. A wrong message given to the LTTE at this very sensitive stage of Sri Lanka's peace process can have far reaching and even irreversible consequences.

This backdrop helps one to make sense of the LTTE's present reluctance to attend the Tokyo donor meeting. The LTTE may or may not go to Tokyo. If they do, they will still have achieved their objective of drawing enough international attention to their argument that the negotiation process as well as the agenda of reconstruction had some crucial flaws.

If they do not, they will initially lose international support and sympathy; but the international community will still find it difficult to ignore the LTTE's claims and arguments if the Sinhalese political class continues to waver in its commitment to finding a fair and just settlement to the ethnic conflict. Then, sooner than later, the international custodians of Sri Lanka's peace will be confronted with the issue of LTTE's international de-proscription. Indeed, international de-proscription is at the heart of the LTTE's political manoeuvring at this moment, although they have been maintaining a studied silence about it. The LTTE leaders appear to be allowing the logic of political events surrounding their negotiation and Tokyo boycott lead itself to the agenda of de-proscription.

Meanwhile, the issue of interim administration is shaping up to be a crucial test of the UNF government's willingness to put into practice any paradigm shift it may have experienced in its political thinking concerning the LTTE and ethnic conflict resolution. The way the LTTE has raised the issue this time leaves hardly any room for the Wickremesinghe administration to take refuge in constitutional obstacles or procedural difficulties.

If the Government cannot change the constitution, it has to find out an alternative course of action that will still make the interim administration legally valid. Such a move might be challenged before the Supreme Court. But, the Government will have to be bold enough to take a political-legal risk, rather than slipping towards the risk of war. If Government leaders could exercise political imagination and creativity, the issue of interim administration may not be an insurmountable one. If they do not, they should still not explore any non-political options, as some bright young advisors at the US State Department might hasten to offer.

For Sri Lanka's peace process to move forward, the negotiation initiative has to enter into a qualitatively new phase. The primary responsibility in that direction lies with the UNF Government and the international community that backs the peace bid. The LTTE's boycott is a telling reminder to the Government as well as its international friends that phase I of negotiation process has effectively ended and phase II is struggling to emerge.

The transition from phase I to phase II requires bold, fresh, creative and dramatic political initiatives that can accomplish two immediate goals: re-defining the trust between the UNF Government and the LTTE in stronger terms and re-designing the negotiation process in a sustainable manner. Let us hope that the Wickremesinghe administration possesses necessary will and the resources to further pursue that transition.

(The writer teaches Political Science at Colombo University)

NB: He was also a member of Pres. Kumaratunge's first team to negotiate with the LTTE in 1994.

Daily News, May 28, 2003