Looking ahead

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

To make the most of the breakthrough in Oslo, the government in Colombo must press on with its accommodative approach.

THE latest breakthrough in Oslo was in keeping with the record set by the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) following the general elections of December 2001. The statement issued by the Norwegian facilitators at the close of the third session of peace talks in Oslo said: "Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking people based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities."

Just as the lifting of the security barriers in Colombo in February caught most people by surprise, so was the latest announcement regarding the acceptability of a federal model of government to the two parties. Until that announcement, the LTTE had never categorically stated what type of concrete political solution it would be prepared to accept. Even the present government appeared to be dodging the issue unlike its predecessor, which had forthrightly presented a concept of "union of regions" as an alternative to the unitary model of government.

For the past several years, the LTTE had been saying it was prepared to accept a viable alternative to Tamil Eelam. But it never specified what this might mean. The furthest it would go was to say that this viable alternative should be in accordance with the principles worked out jointly by all Tamil parties participating at the Thimphu peace talks in 1985. The relevant principles being Tamil nationhood, Tamil self-determination and Tamil traditional homelands, it was not surprising that they were construed both by successive governments and by Sinhalese nationalists to mean nothing short of independence.

However, in the context of the mutual inability of the government and the LTTE to defeat each other militarily in the territory demarcated as the traditional homeland, some analysts believed that the LTTE would settle for nothing less than a confederation. In broad terms, a confederation is a political system in which two or more separate states, with their own prime ministers, parliaments and armies, are loosely tied to each other for specific purposes. The Commonwealth of Independent States, which was formed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, would be one example.

During the years of war, sections of Tamil opinion held fast to the confederal model. This may have included the LTTE as well, to the extent those fighting a war could think in terms of constitutional concepts. But inasmuch as the present peace process has opened the closed roads of the north and east, so has it opened the Tamil nationalist movement to the mainstream currents of international thinking on governance in multi-ethnic societies. It is likely that in the engagement and dialogue taking place owing to the peace process, the reality of federalism as the only viable alternative made its presence felt. The international experience with confederations is that they are highly unstable. There is not a single successful example in the world today. The Commonwealth of Independent States is no more than a name board. The system in Switzerland is nominally a confederation, but in practice it is a federation with a high degree of power sharing between the centre, the regions, the political parties and the people themselves at frequently held referenda. The United States was originally based on the Article of Confederation of 1781. But this was abandoned as the system did not work. The centre was too dependent on the states for finance and executive powers.

HOWEVER, the difficulties likely to be faced by the LTTE leadership in accepting a federal model need to be appreciated. After all, federalism was the slogan of half a century ago. In a sense the acceptance of a federal model is to go back in order to go forward to the future. Sections of Tamil nationalist opinion residing abroad and in Colombo, away from the battlegrounds of the northeast, may prefer a harder bargaining position. Besides, the LTTE military cadre itself has been inculcated with a deep yearning for an independent state of Tamil Eelam epitomised in the standard LTTE cry, "The thirst of the Tigers is Tamil Eelam."

It is ironic that the LTTE negotiators will be charged with not bargaining hard enough in the same way that the government negotiators are being criticised by sections of the political opposition. The answer to the charge is that the two sides are not negotiating in a spirit of bargaining. Those who pride themselves on being hard bargainers are often too insensitive to realise that their so-called success is at the cost of long-term relationship-building. They might get themselves a good bargain on one occasion. But the relationship is unlikely to survive. Usually, hard bargaining is most effective in a one-off negotiation, such as when bargaining on the street with a pavement hawker.

However, when it comes to long-term relationships, those who engage in hard bargaining are likely to fail. Sustaining long-term relationships requires a different type of negotiation in which the interests of each side are met in a fair and reasonable manner. It seems that the government and the LTTE negotiators have engaged in such interest-based negotiations with each other. They have not tried to defeat each other at the negotiating table, but have instead sought to engage in joint problem-solving. In short, they appear to have sat together on the same side of the table to solve a common problem that was ruining the country and all of its people.

Federalism is a standard constitutional system that exists in many countries of the world. It is particularly effective in permitting power sharing between ethnic communities in multi-ethnic societies. Federalism permits national minorities who are regional majorities to enjoy the right of self-determination and thereby wield political power at the regional level. But 50 years ago, when the Tamil-dominated Federal Party launched its campaign for a federal state in the north and east of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese nationalists opposed it as a stepping stone to a separate state.

Federalism was bitterly opposed by Sinhalese nationalists to the extent that it became a bad word to mainstream political parties. But after two decades of war, the reality of virtual separation has dawned upon most people. Most of the north and east was inaccessible to the people living in the rest of the country. Federalism has now become a stepping stone to reuniting a divided country and bringing long-term prosperity and peace to all its inhabitants.

THE government is being blamed by the Opposition for not engaging in hard bargaining with the LTTE. If hard bargaining had been the strategy, it is likely that the LTTE would have demanded confederation at the outset. But owing to the government's willingness to engage in problem-solving with the LTTE as a partner and not as an enemy, there was a speedy agreement regarding a realistic framework of governance for the future. The willingness on the part of the Sri Lankan government to accept a federal solution to the ethnic conflict 50 years after it was first raised is a testament to the constructive change that 20 years of war has wrought.

Civil society organisations will have an important role to play in explaining to the general population what federalism means in terms of structures of governance and power sharing. This needs to be done not only amongst the Sinhalese, but also amongst the Tamils and Muslims. In particular, the Muslim voice needs to be articulated at the negotiations on power sharing. To their credit, civil society organisations have found ways to contribute to the substantitve content of the peace talks. Earlier, the Centre for Policy Alternatives contributed to the discussion on federalism by inviting a Canadian organisation, the Forum on Federations, to Sri Lanka. In Oslo, both the negotiating teams had discussions with this Canadian non-governmental organisation.

However, the process of constitution-making needs to encompass the political opposition that has unfortunately become marginalised in the peace process. With the success of the government-LTTE peace talks, it is the absence of government-Opposition understanding and cooperation with regard to the peace process that emerges as a major threat to its sustainability. Now that the framework of a political solution is in place, a joint committee that includes the major Opposition party should be set up to work out the content of the political solution. Civil society organisations need to lobby for bi-partisanship and a more inclusive process of deliberation that includes all political parties in formulating the final solution.

Without the backing of the Opposition, and without a two-thirds majority in Parliament, it would be difficult to ensure changes to the country's Constitution that would permit and create confidence that a lasting political solution has been reached. It would be unrealistic to expect the LTTE to make a full transition from a military organisation to a political one in the absence of a bipartisan political consensus on the future constitution of Sri Lanka. There must be a guarantee that what one ruling party signs today, another ruling party will not undermine tomorrow.

Shortly before the Oslo peace talks the Presidential Secretariat issued a statement in which President Chandrika Kumaratunga said that "the P.A. was the only political party to spell out its devolution of power proposal as a draft constitution in 1997 and still upheld the devolution of power along a federalist or Indian model within a united Sri Lanka".

Accordingly, the government and the main opposition party stand on common ground with respect to a political solution based on federal principles. They need to put their personal and political rivalries to the side and find a means to collaborate to make permanent and just peace a reality for all communities inhabiting Sri Lanka.

Jehan Perera, who works with the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, is a columnist for The Island newspaper published from Colombo.

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