Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka

Efforts, Failures and Lessons, Volumes I & II

Review by Shanthi Sachithanandam, Daily Mirror

Today, we feel overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, in our realization that building peace means allaying the fears and providing for the interests of these myriad forces. It is not just trying to solve the original problem.

Building peace is to encourage each of them to create and participate in a process of understanding the ‘other’ point of view and arrive at a solution, where all of them win. How can one possibly attempt this?

Peace talks in retrospect and what might have been

Internal conflicts, in most countries, start off with posing seemingly straightforward problems that are relatively easy to solve. When there is reluctance to find honest solutions to the problems posed, then, many other complex dimensions to the original problems are allowed to creep in to take their own place.

Jaffna Schoolboys (Reuters) 2006These dimensions are, sometimes, purposely introduced, in order to distract from the main issue at hand; and some others develop on their own, due to the nature of violent power politics. And, they grow in direct proportion to time. Needless to say, these various dimensions change this simple problem into an intractable complex issue.

Take Sri Lanka’s case. At the beginning, the demands of the Tamil people were for the preservation of their cultural identity, for security, participation in decision making and the exercise of their democratic and citizenship rights.

These demands were formulated within the principles of acceptance of Tamils as a Nation (distinct identity), the North-East as a homeland (a territory where there is both security and the resource base for development), and the inalienable right to self determination (an appropriate political structure that enables the exercise of the rights as well as the enjoyment of their benefits). The Sri Lankan government responded negatively. “That... they are wholly unacceptable to the government. They must be rejected for the reason that they constitute a negation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, they are detrimental to a united Sri Lanka and inimical to the interests of the several communities, ethnic and religious in our country.”(Thimpu Talks)

The Sri Lankan government could have agreed to all four cardinal principles, had it been able to see beyond the Tamil positions, which looked seemingly rigid and intractable, to their real interests (S. Liyanage & N. Wickremasinghe, Vol 1). They were compatible with all principles of democracy. Instead, the problem was left to fester and to be militarized. The North-East Muslim question, the regional interests of the Indian State, the Tamil militant splinter groups, acting as paramilitary units for the government armed forces, the Sinhala settler communities in the borders and pockets of the North-East, each added a complex dimension to the original problem. For now, the beginnings of the ethnic conflict are forgotten, while each side vies with the other to wrest some concessions, some benefits for itself, in the scramble for influence and political power.

The conflict itself is viewed within the parochial confines of the viewer’s interests and fears; only either as a politico-military struggle between the LTTE and the government or, as the attempts at assertion of Sinhala and Muslim minority community rights in the North-East or, as various Tamil militant groups being pitted against the LTTE’s military might, and so on.

Today, we feel overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, in our realization that building peace means allaying the fears and providing for the interests of these myriad forces. It is not just trying to solve the original problem.

Building peace is to encourage each of them to create and participate in a process of understanding the ‘other’ point of view and arrive at a solution, where all of them win. How can one possibly attempt this?

“Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons” convinces us that it is possible through providing us with many insights into the past experiences of negotiations in Sri Lanka. .

Both volumes of “Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka...” are collections of articles and papers written by academics, peace practitioners, media analysts and more importantly, those officials, diplomats and politicians, who were directly involved in past negotiations from the sides of the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE and the Indian government.

There are also two interviews with Mr. Erik Solheim and Prof. G.L Pieris, conducted by the editor. Volume 1 deals with the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, the Premadasa - LTTE talks of 1989-90, and the Kumaratunga - LTTE talks of 1994-1995. Volume 2 deals with the UNF - LTTE negotiations of 2002-2003.

Ceasefire agreements and security concerns, process issues pertaining to direct negotiations, the roles of civil society, as well as the international community (in particular India), in the peace process, the necessity for ensuring economic dividends of peace, and the Muslim question, are the broad themes under which these papers have been written. Since the writers are professionals in a variety of fields and drawn from each side of the conflict, we are sometimes provided with different perspectives of the same situation, which makes interesting and informative reading.

As the reader wades through these events of a decade and a half, it cannot but be helped that the tragic words of “if only.” come up repeatedly in one’s mind. “If only President Premadasa’s government genuinely attempted implementing the 13th Amendment...”, “if only President Chandrika Kumaratunga utilized the immense amount of national goodwill, present for her government in 1994, to take the peace process forward in a constructive manner...”, “if only the UNF government was able to forge a bi-partisan approach to the negotiations in 2002...” and so the list goes on. There are several unanswered questions, too, in relation to these exclamations.

For instance, why did President Premadasa, being a staunch advocate of devolution of power to the grass roots, through the strengthening of the Pradeshiya Sabhas, attempt to undermine the structure of the Provincial Councils? He, who was famously quoted as being prepared to give “Ellaam (everything) except Eelam,” had gone to the extent of issuing a directive to the newspapers that no advertisements in the name of the North-East Provincial Government be published, unless, the term ‘Government’ is changed to ‘Council’. The status report prepared then, by the team of North-East Provincial administrators, observed that,

“The inadequacy of the 13th Amendment became very apparent over the past seven months, during which period, the elected North-East Provincial government made all attempts to implement it in practice.

The experience of (this) government has been that even the meager powers devolved by the 13th Amendment were systematically denied to the Province, by the administration of the Sri Lankan Government.

The 13th Amendment itself was being interpreted by the Sri Lankan side to the disadvantage of the Tamils. Some of the glaring features of the amendments are that appendices to the Provincial list, take away from the Province, what was devolved in the main text. In like manner, entries in the concurrent list take away powers devolved by the provincial list.

The Sri Lankan Government treats the concurrent list as its own preserve, like the Reserved List”. (Ketheesh Loganathan, Vol 1).

Towards the end of the Indian involvement in the North-East, the Indian side had to acknowledge that serious doubts existed in the minds of the Tamil people regarding India’s ability to persuade Sri Lanka to make concessions, where Sinhala interests are affected (M.K. Narayan, Vol 1). Actually, the reader thinks that losing credibility thus, was the most important reason for India’s reluctance to again involve itself in conflict resolution, in Sri Lanka.

The other perplexing question that comes to mind is, why did not the subsequent government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga attempt to build upon the already existing blueprint for devolution that was the 13th Amendment, but was trying all kinds of gyrations to pass yet another constitutional reform proposal in Parliament, which was next to impossible? And, she came to power with the most progressive stand on the Tamil national question, being the first Sinhala leader to acknowledge that Tamils “had a problem”.

Then also, why could not any of the governments of Sri Lanka, implement the language provisions adequately? Why is it that obvious possibilities, such as these, are not examined and implemented, but are shelved in favour of almost impossible and long -winded actions? Although, these ideas are strewn here and there in the articles, the possible connections between these factors and the ‘intransigent’ attitude of the LTTE is, unfortunately, not clearly drawn, and the LTTE’s stand on a separate state of Tamil Eelam is discussed as if it is, somehow, an independent given. Perhaps, if these and other similar questions were answered, we might be able to fathom the mind of the LTTE, its deep distrust of the Sri Lankan government and its consistent stand on Tamil Eelam.

Finally, the government of Sri Lanka comes to the realization that “beating the LTTE or, any such armed force that thrives on ethno-nationalism in their home ground, and backed by a powerful diaspora, was unachievable, except at great cost.” (Bradman Weerakoon, Vol 2). The imperatives of the sagging Sri Lankan economy (Sunil Bastian, Vol 2) and the alignment of forces in the international arena, force, both the government and the LTTE, to come towards negotiations. So, it is not an accident that this is the most longstanding agreement so far.

Perhaps, the most poignant lesson to be drawn here is that in any conflict each concerned party has to work through all the available options on its own until, it becomes convinced about the only option available; till then no amount of advice and wisdom sharing, will suffice. Unfortunately, in history, actions are not initiated due to issues of justice, but, on the basis of interests and power.

Each of the negotiations are chronologically sequenced in the books and presented from the local and the international perspectives. The advantage of this is that it shows the reader how both protagonists are progressively maturing, albeit slowly, in their handling of the negotiations. Experience counts and this is amply demonstrated in the way the UNF plans out its strategies for negotiations in 2001-2002. The full involvement of the international community obviously, had contributed a lot to this improvement in the technical prowess of the government. Keith Noyahr enumerates in detail about the role of the international community, the US, EU, Japan, India and Norway. He concludes that “given the mistrust between the two parties and extreme nationalism on both sides, it is my contention that the international community (India included) must play a role until, a reasonable, lasting solution (with all communities in mind) is hammered out.”

Sumanasiri Liyanage’s paper on 'Civil Society and the Peace Process' is sure to be of interest to social activists and peace practitioners. In this, he contends that peace movements failed in Sri Lanka due to their “inability to transform (their) framing to accommodate other realities (that evolved during the progress of the Tamil national struggle)”. “Recent attempts at building nationwide peace movements appeared to have failed to understand this situation; those attempts take the form of classical NGO organizational structure. Given the intensity of conflict between the GoSL and the LTTE, the bilateral dimension of the conflict was foregrounded to such an extent so that the conflict resolution agenda was given an overarching importance. Although, a negotiated settlement between the two contending parties is of paramount importance in bringing about peace, conflict resolution agendas and the agenda of the peace movement cannot be the same, as the latter belongs to a category of politics of contention.”

Liyanage puts forward a controversial argument that “had the peace movement come out against the inhumane actions of the LTTE, as it did against the inhumane actions of the security forces and the GoSL, it would have become a movement that could have mobilized a substantial support of the Muslims and the Sinhalese...” This paper exposes the need for peace activists to reflect on their work.

Although, the two volumes have striven to present many different points of view, still, one is left to feel that there is inadequate representation of the Muslim point of view, with only one article that deals with the issue.

The interview technique is very effective in encouraging the protagonists to share their experiences frankly. Mr Solheim is interviewed in his capacity as the facilitator; Prof. G.L Pieris is interviewed in his capacity as one of the negotiators from the government side. However, an interview from the LTTE side could have brought out an equally candid exposition of their case, which is missing.

Overall, these two volumes document the events leading to each phase of negotiations, explain or, try to explain some of the imperatives that drove the decisions, and draw lessons to be learnt to be used in future negotiations.

This is essential reading for, especially, peace activists, politicians in decision making roles within party structures, media personnel, diplomats and high officers of the defence establishment.

Kumar Rupesinghe, editor. Volume I published by International Alert in London in 1998. Volume II published by Foundation for Co-Existence in 2006.

For book inquiries:
Foundation For Co-Existence
105/3, Fifth Lane
Colombo 03
Sri Lanka
Tel +94 11 4734395 /6
Fax +94 11 4734397

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