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The path ahead

Print edition : Sep 09, 2005 T+T-
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A mourner holds a poster of Lakshman Kadirgamar during his funeral service in Colombo.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

The overall challenge now is about the difficult task of providing incentives to the LTTE to stay on the path of political engagement and disincentives to its military wing to resort to action.

THE assassination of Lakshman Kadirgamar has reopened an old debate in Sri Lanka. It centres on the question: Is negotiated peace with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) possible at all? The sceptics have begun to reiterate the view that negotiation and ceasefire is not a viable path to peace. Posters have appeared in Colombo calling for the "destruction" of the "murderous Tiger clique". However, the Sri Lankan government has been repeatedly making the point that it is committed to upholding the ceasefire agreement (CFA). President Chandrika Kumaratunga has renewed her call for re-negotiating the CFA. Through the Norwegian government she has requested a meeting between the government and the LTTE.

In Sri Lanka, there are four major schools of thought concerning how to deal with the LTTE. The first approach, describing the organisation as a "fascist-terrorist" entity, advocates a complete military solution. In this approach, negotiation with the LTTE is an unpardonable folly, because the Tigers will use peace and negotiations only to return to war with greater strength. Advocates of this position cite the LTTE's proclivity to violence under the CFA as proof of their line of reasoning.

The second approach does not rule out the utility of negotiations. It says that the government should negotiate with the LTTE only from a position of military and political strength. It assumes that at negotiations the Sri Lankan state should impose the terms of a political settlement on a weakened LTTE.

The third approach advocates the position that the negotiations under any condition should be evaluated in relation to the extent to which the LTTE demonstrates, in words and deeds, its capacity and willingness to reform itself. This school of thought also puts forward the argument that in order to extract reform concessions from the LTTE, the government and the international community should use conditions and sanctions. It may be called the "conditionality approach" to the LTTE.

The fourth school of thought espouses the "transformative approach". It advocates the position that in order to achieve a negotiated ethnic peace, both the LTTE and the state should subject themselves to a process of transformation through dialogue and a series of settlement agreements. It sees peace as a transformatory process involving all "stakeholders" in the conflict.

SRI LANKAN polity is torn between these contending approaches. The debates among them have been acrimonious and intense. The assassination of Kadirgamar has provided arguments to all the four schools to rationalise their respective approaches. Amid these debates, the question being raised everywhere is: Whither Sri Lanka's peace process? This is a question that needs to be explored with considerable patience and calm.

Since the government blames the LTTE for the assassination, it is important for the former to ask one or two fundamental questions about it. Why was this assassination carried out at this particular moment? What is the message delivered to the government through the assassination?

In order to find an explanation, one needs to revisit the period immediately prior to the assassination. The context of government-LTTE relations during the past few weeks was characterised by the legal and political setbacks to the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structures (P-TOMS) agreement, which the two sides signed after much haggling and uncertainty. The process that led to the signing of it in July was a difficult one. The LTTE's reaction to the temporary invalidation of the P-TOMS agreement by the Supreme Court on July 15 was one of anger and frustration.

As this writer learned from individuals who were familiar with the LTTE's thinking on this issue and from the LTTE's public statements, it interpreted the Supreme Court order as another "act of deception" by the "Sinhalese rulers". The LTTE also saw it as yet another instance in which the Sinhalese polity had demonstrated its "unwillingness to treat the Tamils as equals" and its "incapacity to reform the state". It further saw in the setbacks to the P-TOMS an ascendance of Sinhalese nationalist forces which would want to "thrust the war upon the Tamil people". Whether these responses were right or not, the government of Sri Lanka cannot ignore them. These are perceptions and understandings that will continue to shape the LTTE's political and military responses to the government and the state in the period ahead.

Such perceptions have emerged in a context of deep mistrust the LTTE has developed towards the present government. There is a particular history to this mistrust. Hostility towards the LTTE was the main theme the ruling coalition deployed in its election campaign in April 2004. Despite this history of enmity, the tsunami of December 26 offered the two sides an unprecedented opportunity to build trust, to work together in partnership in a complex humanitarian emergency and then develop a working relationship towards returning to the negotiation process. Despite many attempts made by the international community and civil society groups towards that end, it did not happen. After much acrimony and hesitation, they managed to negotiate the P-TOMS agreement and sign it with no particular excitement. The two sides do not seem to have used the P-TOMS negotiations to establish trust at the political level.

The continuing violation of the ceasefire agreement and escalating violence in the Eastern province provided the other dimension of the context for events that led to the assassination of Kadirgamar. The government has blamed the LTTE for most of these violations. On the other hand, the LTTE has blamed the Karuna faction, the "paramilitary" groups and the military intelligence, alleging that all work in collusion to weaken it. Neither the government nor the international community could develop a mechanism to control this spiralling violence which everybody knew would endanger, sooner than later, the CFA and the entire peace process. In fact, the cycle of violence exposed the limitations of the capacity of the government, the LTTE, the international community and civil society in managing a ceasefire in the absence of negotiations. The greatest challenge that the peace process began to face during the past two years was about sustaining the CFA without a process of negotiations and high-level political contacts between the state and the LTTE. This is an issue that requires the serious attention of all those committed to preventing Sri Lanka from relapsing into war. This places a tremendous political responsibility on the government, the international custodians of Sri Lanka's peace and the civil society.

Meanwhile, the emerging situation in the country is certainly one of grave crisis. There can be more events of violence, particularly in the North and the East, further reducing the already shrinking space for the CFA to function. No sane person would wish another phase of war; yet the logic of the present moment poses a real threat of war in Sri Lanka. There is absolutely no point in blaming this party or that once full-scale hostilities begin.

Once the period of grief is over, serious political thinking would become the need of the day. A process of such thinking should begin with the view, however difficult it may sound, that the assassination of Kadirgamar is not a provocative invitation to return to war, now or later.

ASSUMING that the LTTE carried out the assassination, one is baffled by its own calculations of its costs and benefits. The high-profile assassination can hardly rationalise, in the eyes of the international community, the LTTE's grievances against the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration. It has only eroded further the LTTE's claim to legitimacy in the international arena. The killing of Kadirgamar took place at a time when there began to emerge a new argument in the United States in favour of establishing a line of communication with the LTTE. Western countries are now unlikely to show much sympathy towards the LTTE. Its international de-proscription is out of the question, at least for some time to come. Instead, new international sanctions are likely to be imposed on it. The LTTE leadership appears to have taken all these political and other risks in executing a new plan of action that accords a greater role to the military wing.

Meanwhile, the immediate resumption of talks between the government and the LTTE is not possible. It seems that a lot of anger has built up on both sides. There is no clear agenda for talks to emerge either. Political uncertainty is growing in the country owing to the confusion about when the next presidential election is to be held. While Chandrika Kumaratunga thinks that her term should continue until the end of next year, the Opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Commissioner of Election hold that the Sri Lankan people should elect a new President in November. The matter is now before the Supreme Court.

How to deal with the LTTE after the killing of Kadirgamar? The government and the international community are likely to explore domestic and international sanctions against the LTTE in order to make it accountable for its actions. There is now a strong argument in favour of sanctions that may or may not work. The overall challenge is about the difficult task of providing incentives to the LTTE, or its political wing, to stay in the path of political engagement and disincentives to the military wing to resort to action even in a limited measure.

This takes me to an anecdote of some historical value. When Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the mother of Chandrika Kumaratunga, was Prime Minister in the early 1970s, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) insurgency broke out in 1971. Her Defence Secretary at the time was Arthur Ratnavale, a civil servant of Tamil origin. When Ratnavale died in the late 1970s, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in a moving obituary wrote that Ratnavale taught her how to "keep her head cool" in the face of a grave and uncertain crisis. This is the time for her daughter as the President of Sri Lanka to keep her head cool.

Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda is Professor of Political Science, University of Colombo.

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