PICAR Sri Lanka Problem-Solving Project

by Donna Hicks and William Weisberg

Has anything changed in the past 10 years or are we right back where we started? Note in particular points boldfaced below -- Editor

Since 1994, Harvard University’s Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution (PICAR) has been working to foster problem-solving dialogue in an unofficial effort to contribute to peace in Sri Lanka. Under the direction of Donna Hicks and William Weisberg, the Sri Lanka Project began by convening, in collaboration with the American Friends Service Committee, problem-solving workshops with expatriate Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims based in the United States. The workshops were designed to bring together influential members of the three communities for a discussion of their needs, fears, and concerns, and to jointly develop actions, responsive to the concerns of all sides, that would support a peace process in Sri Lanka. After their experience in the workshops, the participants concluded that PICAR should convene a workshop with participants from Sri Lanka, and subsequently set up meetings in Sri Lanka in 1995 for Hicks and Weisberg with high-ranking officials in the government, the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and non-official leaders representing a wide variety of viewpoints on the conflict. In 1996, a problem-solving workshop was held in the United States with a group of Sinhalese and Tamils from the United States and Sri Lanka. Possible joint actions to encourage a return to government-LTTE negotiations were discussed, but could not be implemented in the face of escalating tensions between the communities back home.

With the support of a grant from the United States Institute of Peace, PICAR intended to bring together influential persons affiliated with the government and LTTE in 1997 and 1998, using the interactive problem-solving approach, for discussions designed to lay the groundwork for effective official negotiations.

Both the government and the LTTE have publicly stated conditions to be met for negotiations to resume, but it is unclear exactly how the conditions would be operationalized, what concerns underlie these conditions, and where there might be flexibility in the publicly stated positions. A joint group could seek to arrive at a solution to satisfy the basic needs and interests underlying the positions of the two parties. Non-officials would be free from the political constraints faced by official decision makers, and might discover conditions for official negotiations that would not only encourage the parties to meet, but offer them a better chance of success than the last round of talks.

It was necessary to travel a second time to Sri Lanka to meet, in person, with prospective participants. Meetings in Colombo with a variety of political and civic leaders produced an excellent participant group from the Sinhalese community.6 After the meetings in Colombo, our intention had been to travel north to meet with the LTTE leadership to discuss the list of prospective Tamil participants but an impending military offensive meant we were refused clearance for travel into the war zone, and it was not possible to assemble a joint group of non-officials who had the blessing of the officials from their respective sides.

The parties’ disagreement on conditions for official talks have given rise to competing requirements for the types of PICAR problem-solving meetings each would endorse. The government is ambivalent, at best, toward the possibility of future negotiations with the LTTE and is currently pursuing a military campaign to weaken the Tigers and a political campaign to marginalize them. Though the leader of the opposition UNP has publicly stated that talks with the Tigers are necessary if there is to be parliamentary progress on constitutional reforms addressing ethnic tensions, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has stated that she would consider talking with the Tigers again only after further progress on the constitutional reforms. For their part the Tigers have been repeating their call for negotiations through an official international mediator, a condition the government has consistently resisted. Likewise, the government and the LTTE would prefer different types of problem-solving dialogue. The LTTE has insisted that high-level officials be involved, explaining that it cannot work through conduits and must speak for itself. The government has agreed to allow non-officials to participate in problem-solving dialogues, but has not responded to inquiries regarding official government participation in such a process.

Our analysis strongly suggests that significant progress toward ending the conflict can only be made through face-to-face interactive processes. Messages communicated through press statements do not help either party understand the concerns and constraints of the other in the full and vivid fashion necessary for the significant changes required to reverse protracted conflict. For strategic and other reasons, the parties have disagreed about the format, content, and participants for official talks for the past several years, even during the cessation of hostilities two years ago when official contact occurred.

The Tigers want to begin any talks with discussion of the flow of supplies to territory under their control; would like high-level officials as the negotiators; and want an international mediator present at negotiations. This is not surprising for the guerrilla army of a liberation movement seeking respect and international legitimacy. The government would like to discuss their proposed devolution of power to local regions, without international mediation, in talks attended by low-level government advisors. This follows from their view of the Tigers as the most radical element of the Tamil community, one that should not be accorded status as an equal partner to the government in negotiations. In an environment of mistrust—in which two past agreements and a more recent cease-fire have been scuttled—these strategic differences appear irreconcilable, and in the absence of interaction between the parties, any attempt to reconcile these differences backfires. During the cessation of hostilities, President Kumaratunga suddenly suggested a mediator for the talks, an apparent concession to the Tigers. But this unilateral suggestion was rejected by the Tigers because she did not consult with them and had simply named a possible French mediator whom the Tigers did not know or trust. If the president’s initiative was genuine, some discussion with the Tigers prior to the announcement might have produced a breakthrough.

In the absence of trust and interaction between the parties, the government continues to wonder whether the Tigers are capable of giving up their aspiration to total independence, and the Tigers continue to question whether the government is sincere about negotiations. Without direct communication with the government, it is difficult for the Tigers to accept the government’s political constraints—the pressures from the military, from the Sinhalese nationalists, or the parliamentary coalition partners. Without direct communication with the LTTE, it is difficult for the government to accept the extent to which the devolution package becomes irrelevant to the Tigers when they are not included in the process of developing it.

The first step needed would bring the parties together to break down their isolation from one another. In the absence of any prenegotiation contacts which might lay the foundations for the development of working trust, official talks could prove more harmful than helpful. Without some reason to believe that the partner with whom one is negotiating can be trusted to respect and carry out agreements, negotiations are destined not only to fail, but to exacerbate the cycle of mistrust and enmity. "Relationship-building" opportunities between the government and the LTTE could begin the development of a relationship that would sustain official negotiations when they do take place.

The agenda for the relationship-building sessions should not focus on the substantive issues that divide the parties, or the laying out of demands. One possibility would be to ask both parties to address how, in the absence of trust, a meaningful peace process could begin. The parties could identify interim steps that would provide a basis for them to conclude that there is sufficient self-interest at stake to engage in meaningful official negotiations.

To address this topic, we will gather a joint group to engage in interactive problem solving. The question of the level of participant—officials or non-officials—is not yet settled. Over the next several months, contacts with our many Sinhalese and Tamil advisors, as well as communication with the government and LTTE, will determine this matter. Though the eventual purpose is to reverse the isolation and lack of interaction on the official level, it may be necessary to work toward this goal on the non-official level. A joint group of non-officials could understand the needs, fears, concerns, interests, and constraints of the two parties sufficiently to begin to view the conflict as a joint problem, and endeavor to arrive at initiatives responsive to both communities. Our Tamil and Sinhalese advisors, who have had extensive contact with members of the other community on these issues, have suggested issues a joint group could profitably explore—for example, beginning negotiations without a cease-fire, saving the government internal pressure from those who would claim that they are allowing the Tigers to reposition while they talk, at the same time allowing the Tigers to avoid a cease-fire when they are in the disadvantageous position of having surrendered most of the Jaffna peninsula.

Rebuilding a sense of possibility for negotiations and building a relationship of working trust among non-officials could produce a thaw in the relations of officials. The ever-present and powerful influence of political and military maneuvering requires persistence in effort and flexibility in project design on the part of non-official third parties.

While our analysis continues to suggest the possible benefits of joint problem-solving among non-officials, we are ever mindful of the powerful ability of events to overtake efforts. The military offensive and its eventual success, failure, or stalemate is likely to have much greater influence on the possibilities for future negotiations than the outcome of interactive problem solving. In fact, just as the military offensive produced a delay in our ability to gather a group in late spring 1997, other significant turns in political or military realities could require further modifications in our plans. This need to respond to official events necessitates persistence on the part of the third party team as the pendulum swings; it also necessitates flexibility of project design to respond to changing realities.



Posted October 13, 2004