Next Phase of Negotiations

by Jayadeva Uyangoda, Daily Mirror, Colombo, November 28, 2003

Next phase of negotiations: Don’t wait

Is the Southern polity ready to do serious political business with the LTTE? Unless the Sinhalese political class makes up its mind in the next few weeks to do pretty serious political business with the LTTE in the coming months, the paths of political change in the North and the South may not perhaps intersect again for some time to come. One needs to make this prognostic assertion even at the risk of being branded as alarmist.

There are indeed quite a lot of arguments still being made in the political debate not to maintain any political engagement with the LTTE. The advocates of non-political engagement with the LTTE occupy a wide political-ideological spectrum ranging from extreme Sinhalese nationalism to Tamil human rights activism in Colombo. The Sinhalese extreme nationalists advocate a line of primarily military engagement. According to the Tamil human rights activists, talks with the LTTE amounts to appeasement of fascism. Such talks, as they argue, can only lead to a ‘totalitarian peace.’

Conditionality and Transformation

Meanwhile, there are two other perspectives that present alternative approaches for political engagement. One such perspective argues that political dealings with the LTTE should be conditional to the demonstration by the latter that its behaviour concurs with the norms and standards as set out by the international community. In this ‘conditionality approach’, the LTTE should rehabilitate itself and earn recognition and respectability through its words as well as deeds. The Tokyo donor conference of June, which the LTTE boycotted, exemplified this strategy of dealing with the LTTE. The second argues that political engagement with the LTTE should not be conditional, since it is the political engagement alone that would build capacities within the LTTE and Tamil society for much the needed democratic transformation. In this transformatory approach, there is emphasis on the acknowledgement as well as recognition of the major concessions made by the LTTE as constituting an acceptable starting point for political engagement. The LTTE’s unilateral shift from external to internal self-determination, its declared commitment to federalism, and the decision to engage with the Sri Lankan state through internationally facilitated talks in a background of a cease-fire agreement are the major concessions which the transformationists highlight.

Indeed, in Colombo donor and intellectual circles, there still is a debate over the merits and demerits of the conditionality and transformatory approaches towards the LTTE. There now seems to be some convergence of the two emerging. When Chris Patten of the European Union addressed a few days ago a gathering in Colombo before he went to Kilinochchi, he was articulating a particular, one may say hard, version of the combined conditionality-transformatory approach. The Sri Lankan journalists who questioned him on the validity of the very idea of his meeting with the LTTE leader were obviously strong critics of the political engagement approach. Their assumption was that political engagement would only legitimize a terrorist entity that has not yet demonstrated any remorse of its past deeds or even any serious evidence of self-reform. In contrast, the EU Commissioner appeared to hold the position that continuous political engagement defined as furthering dialogue with conditionality will facilitate possibilities for changes in the LTTE in the direction of norms and standards as set out by the international community.

There is also a soft version of the transformatory approach to the LTTE. It argues that the desired process of transformation cannot be externally imposed and that the change is most likely to occur over a period of transition. The key word here is ‘Transition’ in all sides to post-civil war reform. The external agencies should facilitate internal dynamics and potentials for reform that may require a series of interim phases. In contrast, the conditionality approach seeks reforms only in the LTTE. It has not yet seen the need for changes in the Sinhalese polity or the state as a whole. It also assumes that the changes in the North should occur and be demonstrated rapidly, in accordance with a timetable as set out by the external actors. As the Japanese government learned recently with some shock, that approach is not the most productive one in dealing with the LTTE. It appears that the donor community has been re-examining this approach, although some countries and agencies still prefer the hard-conditionality strategy.

For the Southern political class also, a strategy based on a transformatory perspective is needed to deal with LTTE in the period ahead. This has become particularly necessary in the context of emerging consensus between the UNF and the SLFP on a joint approach to the peace process. We may note in passing that the UNF-SLFP talks have generated much anxiety among minority parties. Some of them see a pan-Sinhalese alliance emerging threatening minority interests. Any reconfiguration of political forces is bound to create its own winners and losers. Those who strategize the UNF-SLFP accommodation should take steps to make that process inclusivist, addressing the ethnic minority fears.

Shared, Yet Divergent

Although the President and the Prime Minister have a generally shared understanding that the peace process should continue, their strategic approaches to the LTTE have been quite divergent. The SLFP approach during the past two years has been one of ‘hard conditionality’, backed up by the military strength. In contrast, the UNF approach has been one of ‘soft conditionality’ backed by international support. In case the President and Prime Minister agree to work together in pursuing peace, what would be necessary is not a combination of their two contending approaches, but working out of a new approach that will enable them to engage the LTTE in a mutually-transformative framework. What it means that if the next phase of the peace process is to produce a significantly constructive outcome, change and transformation should occur in the North as well as in the South, and in three main political actors who are based in Colombo and Vanni. Peace processes should best be seen as practices producing transformative outcomes for all those who are engaged in them.

This backdrop makes it necessary for the Sinhalese political leadership to quickly settle their dispute over the power struggle and begin to seriously examine the LTTE proposals for an interim administration. It is a real pity that their attention is not yet drawn for formulating a constructive response to the LTTE’s ISGA proposals. The UNF had only one initial response and that even failed to seriously examine the constructive possibilities offered in the ISGA framework. The SLFP presented an ideologically informed negative response while some civil society actors in Colombo have been excessively legalistic in their understanding of the LTTE’s approach to transition from its secessionist project. The limitations of liberal constitutionalism, in its unitarist as well as narrow devolutionist versions, are now quite apparent. Incidentally, the only positive development to emerge in this regard during the past few weeks was the fact that both the President and the Prime Minister had articulated the position that the ISGA proposals constitute a basis for future negotiations.

Renewed Engagement

Meanwhile, the general sentiment among the Tamil people appears to be one of disappointment over the inability demonstrated so far by the Sinhalese leadership to offer a serious and constructive response to the LTTE proposals. As I have noticed in a recent visit to the North, they even feel slighted. In political conversations with Tamil people, one can see a sense of deep disappointment and even the possibility of being let down once again by the Sinhalese political leadership. They feel that the MOU has not been adequately implemented and that de-militarization of civilian life in Jaffna has been conveniently forgotten by the government. This mood of disappointment was of course heightened by the political uncertainty that suddenly erupted in Colombo just a few days after the LTTE unveiled its proposals. The government does not seem to communicate with the Tamil people at all. They don’t get positive political messages from the South. They get only negative signals. The President and the Prime Minister as well as the UNF government’s chief negotiator need to realize that any further delay in exploring constructive engagement with the LTTE around the ISGA proposals would undermine the confidence of the Tamil people on the peace process well as the capacity of the Sinhalese political leadership to do serious politics with the North.

The negotiation process needs to be revived soon. The exploration of the conditions under which the next phase of talks might take place should not be delayed under the pretext of either the political negotiations between the UNF and SLFP or the budget debate. If talks do not resume so soon, there should be other forms of political engagement between the LTTE leadership and the government. Otherwise, as I noticed in the North, a new process of estrangement between the Sinhalese and Tamil polities might emerge under the conditions of uncertainty created by the present process of no war-no peace.

(The writer is Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science, Colombo University)

Daily Mirror, Colombo
November 28, 2003

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