Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Negotiation with Armed Groups

Sri Lanka and Beyond

by G.G. Ponnambalam, MP, Tufts University, April 6, 2006

The willingness to transform the current Tamil nationalist project from the expectation of a completely separate sovereignty, to the Tamil People willing to share the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan State, offers a conceptual way out to institute a new political order.

A transition of a similar nature is required from the Sri Lankan State as well. Yet the fundamental aspect of the current crisis is that the Sri Lankan State has no political formula to capture this necessary shift.

(Paper presented by G. G. Ponnambalam M.P. at a symposium held at the Tufts University, USA organized by International Negotiation & Conflict Resolution Club, South Asia Society, and The Asia Club of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy titled “Negotiation with Armed Groups: Sri Lanka and Beyond” held on 6th April 2006, courtesy TamilNet)

G G Ponnambalam MP 2006The first step in the peace process in Sri Lanka, in what was agreed to be a step-by-step process, commenced with the signing of a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the then United National Front (UNF) Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the 22nd of February 2002. A cessation of hostilities coupled with the imperative need to create conditions of normalcy were the cornerstones of the CFA. In this regard the preamble to the CFA states as follows: -

“The GOSL and the LTTE (hereinafter referred to as the Parties) recognize the importance of bringing an end to the hostilities and improving the living conditions for all inhabitants affected by the conflict.”

Under Article 2 of the agreement captioned “Measures to restore normalcy,” the GOSL agreed to several important conditions. Namely, to vacate all school buildings and return them for their intended use; the return of all other public buildings to their intended use; to review the security measures and set-up of checkpoints, particularly in densely populated cities and towns, in order to introduce systems that will prevent harassment of the civilian population; to lift all restrictions on day and night fishing except in certain designated areas.

To date, the GOSL is yet to comply with these provisions despite over four years having lapsed since the signing of the CFA. As a result, hundreds of thousands of civilians are unable to resettle and continue to languish as refugees in camps under miserable conditions, and are unable to freely pursue their livelihood.

S Victor, Jaffna 2002
S. Victor, Jaffna fisherman, with concertina wire in the sea behind, 2002

Despite the Parties agreeing to a step-by-step process - of which the CFA was the first - the LTTE agreed to proceed to the next step of face-to-face talks, even though the GOSL had failed to fully implement these crucial provisions of the CFA regarding the restoration of conditions of normalcy to the war affected inhabitants.

Even when formal talks were to commence, it was agreed to set up an interim administration for the war affected Northeast as a forerunner to negotiations on a final, lasting settlement to the conflict. The envisaged interim administration was to find solutions to the burning day-to-day existential problems faced by the hundreds of thousands of suffering people of the Northeast, and to address the enormous task of resettlement, rehabilitation, reconstruction and development. However, despite this understanding, on a suggestion made by the then UNF government, citing certain political difficulties that it faced, the LTTE agreed to a compromise formula of setting up Joint Task Forces, which eventually gave way to Sub-Committees instead of the original interim administration.

1998-peoples diplaced from mullaithievu oddusuddan.location-puthukudyruppu
Displaced, 1998, Puthukudyruppu, courtesy


Despite these Sub-Committees functioning for several months, the GOSL failed to expeditiously implement the decisions that were taken, and on some occasions took up positions that effectively made them defunct.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs, coupled with the GOSL organizing in Washington DC, USA a donor’s conference that marginalized the Tamil people by the exclusion of the LTTE, led to the LTTE in April 2003, without withdrawing from the negotiations process, to suspend its participation in the peace talks. The LTTE continued to be in contact with the facilitator, the Government of Norway and - through the facilitator - the UNF government.

In consequence thereof, the LTTE put forward proposals in writing for the setting up of an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA). On 31 October 2003 simultaneously, the LTTE requested that dates be fixed for the commencement of talks on these said proposals. It should be noted that this was the first time the LTTE had submitted written proposals in the course of a peace process.

On 4 November 2003, within four days of the LTTE’s ISGA proposals, the President, who did not belong to the UNF government, took over from the UNF Government - which enjoyed a majority in Parliament - the Ministries of Defense, Interior and Media, which were directly linked to the peace process, and assigned the said portfolios either to herself or to her nominees from within her own party.

This action of the President resulted in the facilitator, the Norwegian Government, suspending its role in November 2003 in view of the lack of clarity in regard to who was responsible for the peace process. The ensuing stalemate resulted in the dismissal of the UNF Government, the dissolution of Parliament and the installation of a new Government after the General Elections held in April 2004. President Kumaratunga headed the new United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Government which was an alliance of the President’s own People’s Alliance (PA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). That the JVP campaigned and continues to campaign against the peace process is well known.

This alliance resulted in the hardening of the position against the LTTE’s ISGA proposals and against the peace process. The inability to take the peace process forward was clearly attributable to this situation. It is significant to note that the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) had urged the government to commence talks on the ISGA proposals and had publicly stated that it will support any agreement that was arrived at between the government and the LTTE after such discussions.

The LTTE, on its part, repeatedly stated that it was eagerly awaiting the recommencement of talks on the basis of the ISGA proposals, and that when the talks commence, any proposals the government may bring to the negotiating table in regard to the ISGA could also be discussed.

The lack of clarity, the contradictions within the government coalition partners, and the government’s inability apart from making pious pronouncements to take definitive action to commence talks were the main stumbling blocks to the recommencement of the peace process. It is pertinent to point out that, in the context of the LTTE’s request for dates to be fixed to commence talks when it submitted its ISGA proposals on 31 October 2003, talks would have recommenced in November 2003 itself but for the actions taken by the President on 4 November 2003. This most unsatisfactory stalemate continues to date.

In the meantime, the disarming of Paramilitary Forces as mandated by Article 1.8 of the CFA by the GOSL did not take place. On the contrary, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have been protecting and promoting new Paramilitary Forces. This has resulted in killings and grave incidents that are seriously jeopardizing the CFA. These incidents continue to date.

It was at a time when there seemed very little hope of the resumption of negotiations, and the CFA itself becoming increasingly unstable that the Tsunami struck with approximately two-thirds of the total casualties and over 60% of the destruction being sustained in the Northeast. The result was a serious humanitarian crisis for a people who had suffered immensely during the last two decades of war that had already destroyed the entire infrastructure and economy of the Northeast.

Despite the tremendous human tragedy that the Tsunami created, it was hoped that something positive would come out of the catastrophe. The International Community correctly recognized that the Tsunami had created some space for the GOSL and the LTTE to work together. Space that previously did not exist.

The International Community proposed that a joint mechanism involving the GOSL and the LTTE be created for the Northeast, which would contribute to the creation of a conducive environment for the resumption of the peace process. After much procrastination the GOSL agreed to conclude the Post-Tsunami Operations Management Structure (P-TOMS) agreement, which had the explicit backing of the International Community.

The concluding of the P-TOMS, which was a simple administrative mechanism with very limited powers to handle relief work in a 2km area from the seacoast, resulted in the JVP leaving the UPFA government. Consequently, the JVP resorted to petitioning the Supreme Court, which by granting a preliminary injunction against some key provisions of the P-TOMS agreement has effectively made it defunct. It has been well over a year since the Tsunami struck the Northeast, and the suffering of the affected people continues unabated. It must be seriously noted that the P-TOMS agreement has no significance as far as the Tamil people’s political aspirations - vis-à-vis a solution to the Tamil National question is concerned.

Recently, in November 2005 at the Presidential Elections, President Mahinda Rajapakse won with the backing of an overwhelming majority of the Sinhala people’s votes on the express policies of:-

  • Rejection of the current CFA and insisting on its complete overhaul;
  • Upholding of the Unitary structure of the state;
  • The rejection of concepts of power sharing, federalism and self-determination;
  • Refusal to recognize the areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people;
  • The complete rejection of the LTTE’s ISGA proposals;
  • Abandoning of the P-TOMS agreement;
  • The rejection of Norway’s facilitator role

There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the cumulative effect of these policies will be to shut the door on any possibility of finding a negotiated solution to the Tamil National question.

The aforementioned account will clearly show that not only has the LTTE and the Tamils shown patience, but also unprecedented flexibility. In fact, it is my considered view that, if there was a perception of forward movement in the initial stages of the peace process, it was in fact due to the LTTE’s compromises. And yet the four year process has not achieved any tangible progress from the Tamil point of view.

Clearly, the most fundamental, and thus far, insurmountable problem that has stood in the way, and continues to stand in the way of any forward movement, has been Sinhala majoritarian hegemonism that is unwilling to recognize the inalienable rights of the smaller Tamil Nation living in the island of Sri Lanka. The problem lies there.

The legacy of Tamil Nationalism and the history of the Tamil National Struggle are well known. The struggle that started seeking self-determination through non-violent intra-state territorial nationalism, that in fact explicitly rejected separatism, transformed into separatist nationalism. Even in the case of the latter, Tamil separatist nationalism further transformed from a non-violent struggle to an armed struggle. The single causative feature that triggered the transformation / evolution of the Tamil struggle has been the intransigence of the Sri Lankan State in its refusal to recognise the Tamil People’s right to self-determination and share power, on the one hand, and its violent repression against the initial 30 year non- violent Tamil demands on the other.

The conflict originated and escalated because of the inadequacy of the current political order to address Tamil nationalist demands. Transition from conflict to post-conflict requires reforming the existing State and creating a new political order that enables authentic co-existence without the need to resort to violence.

The willingness to transform the current Tamil nationalist project from the expectation of a completely separate sovereignty, to the Tamil People willing to share the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan State, offers a conceptual way out to institute a new political order.

A transition of a similar nature is required from the Sri Lankan State as well. Yet the fundamental aspect of the current crisis is that the Sri Lankan State has no political formula to capture this necessary shift.

So, when one thinks of the present peace process and its future, the single most important question, is whether such a transition can be expected from the Sri Lankan State? If one is to simply look at the past half-century experience of the Tamils when dealing with the Sri Lankan State, then the overwhelming verdict would be a resounding “NO.” However, there can be no denying the fact that despite the serious reservations vis-à-vis the bona fides of the State, and its willingness to negotiate in good faith, there was a degree of optimism at the beginning of the current process when the ceasefire was signed. I can put this limited optimism down to one thing - it was because there was a specific dimension, namely, the efforts to settle the conflict came about not as a consequence of the secessionist struggle’s military defeat or weakening, but rather as a result of power symmetry through military parity between the State and LTTE. Let me explain.

The Tamil people have long held the view that the only time the Sri Lankan State would be willing to seriously engage the Tamils in a meaningful manner is under immense duress through military pressure that make the threat of secession a real and present danger. By the end of the year 2001, due to the severe military reversals that was suffered by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces at the hands of the LTTE, Tamil opinion was satisfied that the LTTE had demonstrated not only that a military option was well beyond the Sri Lankan State, but had in fact gone further and created a credible threat of secession. In other words, Tamil opinion was satisfied that a critical check on the Sri Lankan State had been achieved, in that the LTTE, through its military power, had created sufficient deterrence to make the Sri Lankan State remain focussed on the essential political nature of the conflict.

However, despite the initial optimism on the part of the Tamils, nothing that has happened over the last four years since the commencement of the present peace process has demonstrated any tangible change in the South. In fact, on the contrary, the last four years has only reinforced the severe misgivings the Tamils have had. So what has gone wrong?

As mentioned earlier, by the year 2001, it had become quite evident that the Sri Lankan State was incapable of prosecuting a successful war against the LTTE. On the other hand, the severe military reversals that the Sri Lankan State suffered, despite the international community aiding the State’s military campaign, created serious doubts about the ability of the State to contain the LTTE. This reality was seriously taken note of by the international community.

The Tamils have little doubt that it was precisely these concerns, and the overwhelming desire to pursue a policy of containment of the LTTE, that motivated key foreign States to actively push for a peace process between the GOSL and the LTTE.

Unfortunately, the international community failed or has refused to grasp these nuances. Its wrong perception of the LTTE being hell-bent on the creation of a separate state has resulted in an unbalanced pro-state approach. The tragic irony is that the more the southern political dynamics turned hostile to the peace process, the greater the pressure that was brought to bear on the LTTE.

It was precisely this flawed approach of the international community, which refuses to identify the greatest stumbling block to reaching a settlement – which is Sinhala majoritarian hegemonism – that was sought to be exposed by the Tamil boycott of the last Presidential Elections. There was an urgent need to get the world to focus on where the problem really lies, and to initiate a rapid course correction to deal with this problem if the peace process was to be saved.

The Tamil liberation struggle has always viewed the international community as a friendly force. Even though the Tamils had little doubt that the primary motivating factor that got the world to push for a peace process was a strategy of containment, it was hoped that through engaging in such a process the international community could be exposed to Sinhala majoritarian hegemonism as being the real problem that stood in the way of striking a settlement, and to get the world to deal with it. The expectation is that the truth will compel the international community to pressure the Sri Lankan State to deliver.

Unfortunately, current events give very little reason for optimism. Whilst on the one hand, the last four years has clearly demonstrated the inability or the unwillingness of the international community to tackle Sinhala majoritarian hegemonism, the recent statements made by the likes of the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and his superior, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, that the US will ensure the LTTE finds a stronger Sri Lankan Military to contend with, have only gone to strengthen and justify the intransigent elements in the South. And such statements at the same time have made the Tamil polity wake up to the real designs of the international community, which is increasingly perceived as unreliable and unhelpful.

In this backdrop, Tamil sentiments can be summarized in the words of that most respected Journalist who was cruelly assassinated by a Paramilitary Group working with the Military Intelligence of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. Mr. Dharmaratnam Sivaram, who concluded in one of his articles to the Northeastern Herald as follows, and I quote:-

“America may be the mightiest nation on the earth today but that cannot detract an iota from our right to live with honor, dignity and freedom in the land of our forebears. It cannot for a moment make us give up an inch of our lands to help India or the US Bloc stabilize the Sri Lankan state for the sole purpose of furthering their strategic and economic interests.”

So, in conclusion, let me say this. There is still a window of opportunity for the international community to play its part that will make the difference between the Tamil people choosing to continue with the process, or to resume the struggle. I have argued that the thus far followed policy has failed, and I have argued for an immediate course correction that involves the following:-

  • A central manifestation of the Sinhala majoritarian hegemonism has been the repeated failure of the SL state to meet the commitments that it had entered into with the Tamils. We are again facing this situation, this time in respect of the CFA, strongly supported by the US and the rest of the international community. Implementation of the CFA, beginning with commitments undertaken in Geneva, is an essential precondition for the peace process. The international community has a responsibility to ensure this.
  • It is also time the world community lived up to its obligations under International Law and recognize that the over fifty year struggle of the Tamil Nation has the sanction of International Law.
  • It is time that the designs of Sinhala majoritarian hegemonism are identified as the stumbling block as far as finding a solution to the conflict is concerned.
  • It is also time that the International Community distinguishes a legitimate National Liberation movement like the LTTE from terrorist organizations.
  • The Sri Lankan State must be made to understand that the international community’s commitment to its territorial integrity is conditional on the Tamil Nation’s legitimate aspirations being met.

A failure to do so will simply not motivate the Sri Lankan State to transform, which in turn can only result in one thing, and that is the serious escalation of the conflict and nothing less.

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