Missing Dimension in the Peace Process

By Jehan Perera

The centre stage of public attention over the past several weeks has been the deficiencies of the ceasefire agreement and the violations taking place despite and because of it. These have included media reports of arms smuggling, near clashes at sea, forcible recruitment of child soldiers and extortion by the LTTE. On the other side, the LTTE have been protesting that the armed forces continue to remain in schools and other public institutions. One of the motives in highlighting the LTTE’s violations would be to set up countervailing pressures that would put a stop to such violations and to induce the government to take a tougher stance vis-à-vis the LTTE.

A series of statements made recently by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suggest that these pressures are beginning to take their toll on him. He has made some promises that he will find hard to keep if he is to keep the peace process with the LTTE on track. These statements by the Prime Minister could have the effect of publicly staking out the government’s position at future negotiations with the LTTE. They relate to the substantive political issues that would more fittingly be dealt with at the negotiating table than through the mass media.

Three such Prime Ministerial statements are that government will not accept the concept of Tamil homelands; that the government will not set up an interim administration for the north-east without the approval of the people; and that the government will advocate that the international bans placed on the LTTE should be continued.

Each of the three issues dealt with unilaterally by the Prime Minister is of great importance to the LTTE. At a time when the peace process is getting itself built up to become a negotiation process, it might have been better for the government to discuss such positions with the LTTE. The value of negotiations is that they often permit mutually acceptable formulations to be arrived at, even in highly contentious situations.

Possible reformulations of the homelands concept could be to designate the north and east as areas of traditional habitation or historical habitation of the Tamil people or a variant on the lines as already exists in the13th Amendment. It could specifically address the fears of the Tamil people of Sinhalese colonisation and address the Sinhalese (and Muslim) fears that the homeland would give special privileges to Tamils. It is also possible that when the Prime Minister spoke of the interim administration being approved by the people, that it means the approval of Parliament, where the people’s representatives will give it their assent. The question is why the Prime Minister felt he needed to make public statements on these contentious issues at this time.

Nevertheless, it is significant that the LTTE has not responded publicly to the Prime Minister’s statements or contradicted him. While they use various channels of communication to get across their side of the picture, it is also noticeable that the leadership on both sides has not publicly questioned the bona fides of the other side. It is possible that the LTTE leadership is aware of the politics of the south, and realises that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has to protect his political base among the Sinhalese majority. The LTTE may believe that the Prime Minister is directing the statements not at them but at his party’s voter base. If so, the LTTE is displaying a commendable degree of political maturity.

People’s View

Accompanying the ceasefire agreement is an ongoing attempt to erode the confidence of the Sinhalese people in the peace process not only by sections of the media but also by the combining of opposition parties who are finding fault with the ceasefire agreement.

However, field investigations at the village level reveal little or no visible opposition to the ongoing peace process. Instead it reveals that the people are quite aware of the futility of war and do not want it to resume. In the village of Danture in the Kandy district, for instance, a soldier on leave said he fully supported the peace process and so did his colleagues in the army. His views reflected the general trend. After 19 years of war, and promises of military victory, people no longer believe that a return to the path of war is a positive one.

Observations that the Sinhalese majority is supportive of the peace process are often made only at an individual level. They are not reflected at the larger macro level.

At the macro level what is evident is the criticism of the peace process by sections of the media and opposition political parties. This imbalance between publicly expressed opposition to the peace process and privately expressed support for it may be putting the government under pressure. A consequence of such pressure may be Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s strong public statements that would be better reserved for the negotiating table.

There are two categories who are opposed to the present ceasefire agreement. One is a relatively small group of die hard nationalists who believe that a military solution should be pursued against the LTTE, and that no negotiations should take place with them. The second category consists of supporters of the opposition parties, who will support their party line, whichever way it may turn. Thus, PA supporters who once were in favour of the devolution package would today be registering their disagreement with the ceasefire agreement for the reason that their party leadership appears to be taking that stand. But their stand either for or against the peace process is a politically motivated one, that could change when their party decides to change its stance.

Civic Engagement

The missing dimension in the present peace process is the lack of involvement of those organised sectors of civil society that could potentially mobilise large numbers of people to give visible expression to their support of the peace process. An example would be the Sarvodaya Movement, which mobilised hundreds and thousands of people in support of peace. But the movement has received little or no recognition from either the government or the LTTE for its contribution to strengthening the foundation of the peace process.

Certainly the LTTE’s reluctance to encourage civil society activism on behalf of the peace process may stem from its unfamiliarity in dealing with social institutions in a non-military way. In seeking to claim the mantle of sole representative of the Tamil people the LTTE has been unable to encourage independent civic activism, which is what organisations like Sarvodaya aim to do. But a democratic government should have no similar inhibitions. While the government is not trying to control civic organisations in any way, it needs to do more than allow them to do their own thing. The government needs to consciously give civil society a more prominent place in the ongoing peace process.

Peace is more than an end to the fighting and destruction of war. It also involves people understanding and supporting what is happening and feeling that they are contributing to the birth of a new society. However, the manner in which the government is proceeding with the peace process suggests that its conception of peace is a minimalistic one of striking a no-war pact with the LTTE.

Perhaps the government hopes that the reintegration and reinvigoration of a divided society will take place through the opening of markets and roads. This is not enough. The government needs to do more to bring civil society into the picture and encourage the media to reflect their aspiration for peace.

21 May 2002