SOS from Sri Lanka

By: J.N. Dixit

Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek is the latest initiator of a possible peace process to resolve the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Norway’s claim to play this role of mediator or facilitator is based on the success which it achieved while brokering a peace accord between the Palestinians and Israelis in 1993 and its similar successes in Latin America.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga apparently agreed to a Norwegian role in resolving the military stalemate between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan forces. This has happened in the backdrop of dissensions within the major Sinhalese political parties about proposals formulated to meet Tamil aspirations after the failure of the India-Sri Lanka accord of 1987. The LTTE has also conveyed some kind of an agreement to a Norwegian mediatory role. This is reflected in the fact that Mr. Vollebaek had a preliminary but detailed discussion with Anton Balasingham, advisor to V. Prabhakaran and one of the senior ideologues of the LTTE, in London early in February. That the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict can be resolved only by political means is labouring a truism.

India remains deeply interested in the restoration of normalcy and in the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Though India’s own mediatory efforts and direct involvement in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka between 1983 and 1990 did not succeed, New Delhi remains convinced that a negotiated solution responsive to Tamil aspirations within the framework of a politically and territorially united Sri Lanka is essential. Mr. Vollebaek went to Colombo and had discussions with Ms Kumaratunga and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in mid-February. It was announced subsequently that representatives of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE may commence discussions at Oslo with the Norwegian foreign office functioning as a facilitator.

Any initiative aimed at resolving the ethnic antagonisms in Sri Lanka is a positive development. Leaving aside Indian efforts, there have been previous initiatives by other countries and multi-lateral entities to mediate between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Commonwealth Secretary General and the UN Secretary General were involved in similar initiatives over the last two decades. These efforts did not succeed primarily because of the lack of trust between Tamils and the Sinhalese.

What then are the prospects of the Norwegian attempt? Norway has certain advantages compared to other countries which took similar initiatives. It is a distant country without any colonial linkages in South Asia or an identity as an influence-seeking power. Unlike India, Norway does not have any ethnic, religious or linguistic affiliations with either of the protagonists — the Sinhalese or the Tamils. So Norway’s credibility as a mediator with both ethnic groups should be high.

The down side of Norwegian mediatory prospects is that Norway faces a more complex and fragmented situation in Sri Lanka. Compared to the eighties, political developments, constitutional discussions and patterns of conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army have contributed new characteristics to the crisis. The critical question is whether Norway will be able to persuade Tamils and Sri Lankans to move towards realistic compromises, outside the framework of Tamil demands and Sinhalese negotiating stances. Apart from the overall negotiating positions of Tamils and Sinhalese respectively, there are dissensions within the Sinhalese majority about to what extent they should respond to Tamil demands.

While former President Jayewardene partially implemented the proposals contained in the India-Sri Lanka agreement with reluctance, his successor Premadasa scuttled the proposals through indirect political means and by pretending to negotiate new compromises with the LTTE. Ms Kumaratunga inherited a more fractious situation compounded by higher levels of suspicions and incremental trends of violence. The ethno-linguistic and religious conflict acquired an additional dimension with Muslims claiming a separate identity and homeland, and a compartmentalised devolution of power. These were claims which affected the Tamil demand of a composite homeland consisting of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai. Muslim political parties have put forward territorial claims in these three provinces despite a majority of Muslims being Tamil speaking.

The rise of a separate Islamic identity in Sri Lankan politics and civil society is a new phenomenon which the government and any mediator will have to cope with. The task is difficult because the LTTE is not inclined to accept these claims. On the other hand, the Sinhalese are responsive to Muslim claims as it erodes the Tamil demand for an integrated homeland of the northern and eastern provinces. It is in this context that constitutional reforms suggested by the Kumaratunga Government contained proposals for the re-demarcation of the boundaries of the provinces and districts. The package for the devolution of power to the Tamil areas in these reform proposals — while expanding some provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — modify other provisions which were not acceptable to the Tamils. UNP, the main opposition party, did not agree to the constitutional package as originally suggested. Therefore, it was referred to a select committee of Parliament in 1997. The recommendations of the select committee have still not been accepted by the Sinhala political parties or those Tamil parties which are participating in the Parliament.

The LTTE and other Tamil parties have indicated that the constitutional reform proposals are not fully responsive to Tamil aspirations. Tamil leaders who were involved in fine-tuning reforms proposals have attracted retribution from the LTTE. The prospects of a workable solution depend on the extent to which the Sinhalese majority is willing to meet fundamental Tamil demands about the northern and eastern provinces being merged and declared a Tamil homeland with a single provincial government. It depends on the implementation of extensive devolution of financial and administrative powers to the Tamil Provincial government. Another prerequisite is the removal of inequalities against Tamils in terms of language, religion, educational facilities and opportunities in government service in the civil, police and military fields.

One does not know as to what extent the LTTE will roll back its demands for a resettlement of Sinhalese settled in areas previously belonging to the Tamils in the Mahaweli valley. Reconciling the newly emerged competitive territorial claims between the Muslims and Tamils in the eastern province would be a difficult exercise. The port city of Trincomalee is subject to highly emotional claims by both Tamils and the Sinhalese.

These are the substantive political issues which Norway has to grapple with. Plus, there are new influences affecting the prospects of solutions. Twenty years of military operations have made the Sri Lankan armed forces — consisting mostly of Sinhalese — a more assertive factor in deliberations about possible compromises. The Buddhist clergy remains intensely assertive about Sinhalese claims. No Sinhalese party can ignore the views of the armed forces and the Buddhist clergy. Besides, Prabhakaran has not withdrawn his demand for an independent Tamil State — “Eelam”.

Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government consider Indian support for the Norwegian effort relevant. LTTE representatives have been in indirect touch with their contacts in Tamil Nadu on this matter. Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi was present during Mr. Vollebaek’s discussions in Colombo. The Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary also visited New Delhi to take the Indian Government into confidence. This reflects political realism on the part of both the Tamils and Sinhalese. Given its experience over the last two decades, India should not get directly involved in this latest mediatory exercise. It should, however, do everything possible to strengthen the Norwegian effort and encourage Tamils and the Sri Lankan government to move away from rigid stances and towards practical compromises.

Courtesy: Hindustan Times - March 1st, 2000