The peace process - a reality check

Print edition : January 17, 2003

President Chandrika Kumaratunga with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. - GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/ AP

The perception of a political breakthrough in the Sri Lankan peace process is seen to be misplaced if reality testing, which addresses six hard questions, is undertaken.

THERE is a widespread international perception that the peace process in Sri Lanka has made significant headway over the past few months and that, in the latest Oslo round of talks (December 2-5, 2002), there has been a `breakthrough' towards an enduring political settlement of the island's two-decade-old armed conflict. If the perception of a breakthrough were accurate, there would be reason to cheer on what would be a remarkable triumph of hope over horrendous experience. We would then need radically to revise our assessment of what used to be regarded as an intractable conflict or `crisis', which defied a negotiated solution in the short as well as medium terms. We would also then need to recognise that the time frames and agendas indicated by the authors of the exercise who promised `a step at a time' and a multi-stage and long drawn out talking process have been overtaken by events and got dramatically telescoped.

Is the perception of such a breakthrough accurate?

Velupillai Prabakaran (right) and Anton S. Balasingham at a press conference in Kilinochchi on April 10, 2002.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/ AP

A recent visit to Sri Lanka, a close reading of the relevant texts and developments, and some critical reflection enabled me to attempt some reality testing of the perception. In psychology and psychoanalysis, reality testing is the technique of objective evaluation of an emotion or thought against real life, as a faculty present in normal individuals but defective in some psychotics. Here the reality check is against the perception that, with a breakthrough achieved in the latest round of talks in Oslo (as evidenced by an official statement made by the Norwegian government on December 5, 2002), the gulf separating the two parties to a horrendous conflict has been bridged in a manner and at a speed nobody could have anticipated. Asking the relevant hard questions opens the door to the exercise.

The core of the Norwegian government's statement was the formulation that "responding to a proposal by the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (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 peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka.'' On the face of it, this was a statement of intent and endeavour, vague in its contours and not amounting to any kind of commitment.

Nevertheless, superficial media coverage could plausibly report a breakthrough since the terms "the principle of internal self-determination,'' "federal structure,'' and "within a united Sri Lanka'' were strung together in one sentence and there was no explicit reference to the LTTE's secessionist goal of "Tamil Eelam.'' International media reports and G.L. Peiris, a senior Minister and the Sri Lankan government's chief negotiator, went so far as to claim that the LTTE had abandoned the goal of Eelam.

The Norwegian government's statement also highlighted recognition by the parties that "progress on political issues must be supported by the continued consolidation of the Ceasefire Agreement'' and outlined some new concrete measures to "facilitate further de-escalation and to improve normalcy.'' Peiris declared, at the press conference at the end of the Oslo talks, that the peace process was "irreversible,'' adding "it is a commitment to peace. There is not going to be war.'' Anton S. Balasingham, the LTTE's chief negotiator, contributed his bit to the euphoria: "I totally agree with what Professor Peiris said.''

Let us review, on a strictly factual basis, the major developments relevant to the perception of a breakthrough.

I. Non-fighting as `Negative' Peace

The basis for all the hopeful readings is the prevailing reality of peace or non-fighting in Sri Lanka. This has been in place for a whole year now. Some analysts have characterised the situation as `negative peace'.

It was on December 24, 2001 that the LTTE unilaterally announced a ceasefire. The background to this was the military standoff in which the combatants found themselves in the North-East. The LTTE was obviously responding to the reality of a newly elected United National Front (UNF) government headed by Ranil Wickremasinghe. The leader of the United National Party (UNP) had, at various points prior to his election, declared himself to be in favour of peace, talks "without preconditions,'' and even an interim administration headed by the LTTE. Soon, as the new Prime Minister noted in Parliament, there were "two cessations of hostility operating in parallel.'' Norwegian facilitation, initiated in 1998 by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her People's Alliance (P.A.) government, paved the way for a negotiated Memorandum of Understanding, signed by the two parties to the conflict on February 22, 2002. This was the third ceasefire agreement the LTTE had signed since the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement came unstuck, in 1989-90.

While some of the terms of the 2002 ceasefire have been criticised by the Sinhala Opposition parties, which accused the UNF government of making unprincipled and dangerous concessions to the LTTE, there can be little doubt that the non-fighting is popular among all constituencies in Sri Lanka in equal measure, it seems, among the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people. According to figures cited in Parliament by Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state has taken an estimated 60,000 lives and directly cost the island 500 billion Sri Lankan rupees. Although Sinhala chauvinist elements, and notably the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), advocate a military offensive to eliminate the LTTE in a fight to the finish, nobody seriously believes that there can be a military solution to the `ethnic conflict'.

There have been reports and intimations of growing disaffection among sections of the Sinhala people. This disaffection centres on socio-economic issues and also on anxieties over where the Wickremasinghe government's entente with the LTTE is taking the country. Despite its general support to the peace process, political India's disquiet over the concessions, privileges and space extended to the LTTE by the UNF government is manifest. This disquiet is heightened by the peculiar situation in which India finds itself vis-a-vis the Sri Lankan peace process. Bilateral relations are in excellent shape, the top leaders of the two countries have been in close touch, and the $100-million line of credit India has extended to its small southern neighbour has sent out a strong positive signal. Nevertheless, given the LTTE supremo's undisputed involvement in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, India's ban on the organisation, and strong public feelings against the LTTE, there is no way India can participate actively either as a facilitator of the peace process, or in donor conferences. India played no role whatever in the November 2002 donor conference in Oslo and it is highly unlikely that it will be any different in mid-2003, when Tokyo will host a second major conference. India's disquiet finds its socio-political reflection across all constituencies in Sri Lanka.

There have also been a number of incidents in both the North and the East turning on the LTTE's conduct in a time of non-fighting. Its power play, quest for hegemony, extremist intolerance, attempts to expand its parallel quasi-state structures, militarism and determination to keep its fighting machine replenished and primed up do not, in the least, suggest it has made a break with Pol Potism and extremism. There have been credible reports of the LTTE arranging arms shipments for itself. For all the assurances V. Prabakaran, the LTTE supremo, held out to the Muslims and Sinhalese of the North-East, the East continues to be a volatile region. While the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and other moderate Sri Lankan Tamil parties have fallen in line, at least for now, with the hegemon's programme and dictates, Tigerism continues with its rough-neck ways against smaller anti-LTTE political forces such as Douglas Devananda's Eelam People' s Democratic Party (EPDP).

The LTTE has also put pressure on the ground situation in the Jaffna Peninsula by orchestrating the demand that the "humanitarian'' issue of internally displaced persons be addressed urgently through dismantling the `high security zones' and making them available for re-settlement and cultivation. This has led to some speculation in Colombo that the talks could run into trouble and even break down on this issue. The situation has also invited a forthright clarification from Trond Furuhovde, head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), that there could be no one-sided reduction in the balance of forces and that a normalisation programme "in the name of progress and development'' and at the expense of security was "unrealistic'' and "could undermine the building of permanent peace.''

But sheer relief at the absence of conventional and guerilla warfare, bomb explosions, suicide attacks, and overt acts of terrorism is strong and palpable and keeps the negative factors in check. Economically, politically, socially, the peace dividend for Sri Lanka is in the nature of an axiom that requires no proof. Internationally too, there is great relief at this spell of non-fighting in Sri Lanka.

It is this peace platform that has provided Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and his government with momentum, opportunities, and an attractive national and international image, at least for now. A corollary is that if the hopes for peace are dashed by the LTTE reneging on the ceasefire agreement after developing a seeming justification or inventing a plausible excuse the UNF government's political and electoral stock can plummet in no time. In this sense, the fate of the Wickremasinghe government hangs precariously on how the LTTE chooses to behave in the near and conceivable future.

II. Does the LTTE have a real choice?

This naturally leads to the second key question: how free or constrained is the LTTE in matters of war and peace? There are those who argue that, given the post-September 11, 2001 international situation and the political climate against terrorism, the LTTE has no real choice and that recidivism, a return to the path of war and overt terrorism, can virtually be ruled out. Even before September 11, several countries, notably India, the United States and the United Kingdom, either imposed a ban on the LTTE or designated it as a terrorist organisation under special laws. The proponents of the view that the Tigers will not return to war because the international climate forbids it include some leaders of the `moderate' Sri Lankan Tamil parties, UNF partisans, peace campaigners, and a fluctuating band of international pundits.

An additional constraining factor is believed to be the hardened climate for fund-raising by the LTTE in developed countries. It is suggested that the prospect of these external sources of major fund-raising completely drying up will act as an effective deterrent to Pol Potist recidivism.

These restraining factors are real and should not be brushed aside in an exercise of reality testing. In other words, the relevant question is not whether these restraining factors are at work. It is whether their weight is such as to counteract the LTTE's proven extremist and Pol Potist character, its commitment to Tamil Eelam through armed struggle and terrorism, and the formidable military and political capabilities it has built up over the years.

An alternative answer to the question of how free or constrained the LTTE is in matters of war and peace is suggested by the Sri Lankan Tamil journalist and political analyst, D. B. S. Jeyaraj: "Perplexing as it seems, other indicators suggest that the LTTE has not revised its fundamental objectives but only engaged in a tactical shift as a political ploy... If so, the LTTE game plan is clear. The proclaimed intention of seeking a federal solution is only for international consumption. It seems the Tigers want the negotiating process to fail at some stage without any blame attaching to them. The peace process should not arrive at a logical conclusion; instead, it should collapse without a satisfactory solution being structured. If and when that happens, the LTTE could opt out and exercise its `right of external self-determination' and pursue a `secessionist war' again. Pinpointing the failure of Colombo to arrive at a federal solution, the Tigers would assert that the Sinhala people were incapable of redressing and accommodating Tamil grievances and aspirations within a united Sri Lanka'' ("A tactical shift'', Frontline, January 3, 2003).

G.L. Peiris, Constitutional Affairs Minister and the Sri Lankan government's chief negotiator, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Peterson.-PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/ AFP

Such a reading of the evolving situation is backed by the LTTE's horrifying track record. The question that must be kept open at this time of non-fighting is whether the new international situation, including the signal sent out of the recent Oslo donors' conference that the Tigers must renounce separatism as well as the use of violence and terror if external funds are to flow into the North-East for the work of rehabilitation and rebuilding, can exert the kind of overwhelming pressure that will compel the LTTE to make a decisive break with this track record.

III. Is a Southern consensus possible?

It is axiomatic that any peace process, in order to be successful, must win broad agreement from the two main `Sinhala' political parties the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and ideally from all the parties that have a popular base in the South.

The LTTE's extremist intransigence aside, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement ran into political heavy weather because the SLFP led by Srimavo Bandaranaike opposed it and the JVP waged war on it. President R. Premadasa's 1989-1990 entente with the LTTE did not even bother to try and win Opposition support for whatever political solution he had in mind. Between 1995 and 2001, President Kumaratunga who decisively broke with the tradition of Sinhala political chauvinism and made bold, far-going devolution proposals made a serious attempt to engage the UNP in the quest for a constitutional settlement. But the SLFP and the P.A. encountered non-cooperation and obstruction from the UNP and its leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe, and found themselves opportunistically making common cause with the JVP.

The present political situation, involving `cohabitation' between Wickremasinghe's UNF government backed by a parliamentary majority and the executive presidency of the P.A. leader, Chandrika Kumaratunga, presents complications as well as opportunities. Real political power seemed to pass into the hands of the newly elected government. For several tense months, there was talk of "impeaching'' the President and even an ill-advised legislative attempt to checkmate the President by bringing in the "19th Amendment to the Constitution.'' But all this changed with Sri Lanka's Supreme Court pronouncing a landmark judgment in October 2002. All seven Supreme Court judges upheld the position that "the executive power of the People is inalienable and shall be exercised by the President''; that the power to dissolve Parliament (not earlier than a year after the general election, unless Parliament by resolution requests the President to do so) is "a component of the executive power of the People, attributed to the President, to be exercised in trust for the People'' and therefore cannot be alienated; and that any change in this feature requires a constitutional amendment to be adopted by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and also approved by a simple majority in a referendum.

The apex court's judgment tilted the balance of power back towards the President. Although she has publicly stated that she has no intention of dissolving Parliament, she clearly retains the executive power to do so "in the interest of the people and the country.'' She also retains the power to dismiss the government for the same reason. It is not inconceivable that this will happen if something goes terribly wrong with the peace process.

Some commentators have seen the `breakthrough' formulation agreed upon in Oslo chiefly as a response to the expiry of the one-year constitutional restraint on the President's executive power to dissolve Parliament. But whatever the motivations behind that formulation, it is clear that the UNF government's attitude towards the chief Opposition party and President has changed noticeably. Through regular meetings between a Minister assigned for the job and Lakshman Kadirgamar, former Foreign Minister and currently Senior Adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs, the President is kept informed of the progress and complications of the peace process. Constitutionally speaking, the President of Sri Lanka has vast executive powers, especially in relation to questions of war and peace. Bowing to the 2001 popular mandate, Kumaratunga has thus far wisely exercised executive restraint. Her active cooperation and support is imperative if the peace process is to make further headway.

Some weeks ago, Peiris ruled out in Parliament any possibility of Opposition participation in decision-making relating to the peace process. But the Oslo statement promises that the Government of Sri Lanka "will, in order to arrive at the broadest possible consensus, establish an appropriate mechanism for consultation with all sections of opinion as part of the ongoing peace process.'' The statement also records the acknowledgement by the parties that "the solution has to be acceptable to all communities.''

In a press release dated December 13, 2002, the SLFP has welcomed this attitudinal change and remarked that "wisdom has finally dawned on the two negotiating parties.'' More materially, the main Opposition party has taken a favourable stand on the concept of finding a political solution along federal lines (without mentioning the word `federalism'). "We commend for the consideration of the Parliament and people of Sri Lanka,'' the SLFP statement says, "the concept of devolution of power to the regions presented by President Kumaratunga to the people of Sri Lanka in the draft Constitutional proposals of October 1997 and August 2000. These proposals set out clear solutions, acceptable to all communities, for the resolution of the core issues of the ethnic question.''

This signals a new opportunity to work out a Sinhala political consensus on the systemic change needed to accommodate the just demands and aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people. If agreement can be reached between the main Sinhala political parties on the nature and unit of the federal structure (by whatever name called) pertaining to the North-East, that would be a genuine breakthrough. It is another question whether such a structure will be acceptable to the LTTE.

IV. What about an interim administration?

The idea of an interim administration for the North-East, to take charge until a final political settlement was reached, first came on to the agenda with the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987 (even though the text of the Agreement did not mention or provide for an interim administration). The LTTE first agreed to, and then went back on, an extremely liberal proposal made by India and accepted by the government of President J.R. Jayewardene, with consequences that were fatal to the attempted political solution.

The widespread impression about the approach of the Wickremasinghe government to the ethnic conflict was that it was in no hurry to find a final political solution and that it would be satisfied with ad hoc `practical' arrangements with the LTTE for the North-East so long as non-fighting prevailed. The apprehension was expressed in Sri Lanka and India that the UNF government was going to `hand over' the North-East to the LTTE. The instrumentality of this `handing over' would be an interim administration dominated by the LTTE, with token representation for Muslims and perhaps some other sections. In his April 10, 2002 press conference at a jungle location in the Wanni, Prabakaran revealed that the focus of the forthcoming talks in Thailand would be the formation of an interim administration in the North-East.

The project ran into political heavy weather, in Sri Lanka, India and internationally. Democratic, human rights and security concerns were raised and, despite the many concessions on the ground made to the LTTE, the UNF government could not put in place the interim administration that Prabakaran wanted. Eventually, the same Supreme Court judgment that restored the balance of power between the President and the government with a parliamentary majority ruled out, in principle and by implication, an interim administration for the North-East. The project would not pass muster with President Kumaratunga, whose executive powers could not be taken away without a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approval in a referendum.

Consequently, a decision was made by the UNF government and the LTTE to bypass the whole concept of an interim administration and take the empowered committee route. In early November, at the end of the second round of talks in Nakorn Pathom in Thailand, it was announced that the two sides had taken "significant steps'' touching on three key areas civilian rehabilitation, military concerns, and political matters and that three committees had been constituted to deal with these areas.

The committees, comprising preponderantly LTTE and government representatives, would report to the negotiators. The legal and constitutional status of the committees was left deliberately ambiguous.

It remains to be seen whether, in the event of the peace process progressing, LTTE pressure for some kind of interim administrative and political control will intensify, and whether the committees or practical arrangements made by them will approximate an interim administration.

V. What will happen to the parallel state structure?

The SLFP in its press release of December 13, 2002 asks another kind of hard question: "Does the UNF government know where it is going? Does it know the destination? And when we reach the destination what will we find a so-called federal state with a standing Army, a standing Navy, a permanent administration, an independent judicial system, a tax structure, a banking system what would this mean other than a separate State by a friendlier name?''

Despite the polemical tone, these questions about where UNF government policies supervening on existing realities in the North-East are taking Sri Lanka are astute and go deep into the heart of the challenge. The issue of de-commissioning of arms, not to mention disarming of the LTTE fighters, is bound to come up soon enough if the peace process is to make any sense. So will democratic and human rights issues, including the issue of children snatched from their families to be trained as fighters and the condition of women in LTTE-controlled areas. The existence of a quasi-state structure, armed to the teeth and boasting its own institutions of governance, notably an efficient tax-collection machinery, a "Chief Justice of Tamil Eelam'' and kangaroo courts dispensing speedy justice, will be a major roadblock as the peace process progresses. Will the LTTE agree to dismantle, even in stages, this parallel state structure in the region of its military control?

VI. The framework for a final settlement

The announcement from Oslo, at the end of the third round of talks, that the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE had "decided to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka'' came as a major political surprise. It seemed that the political agenda had been brought forward so that the fourth and fifth round of talks in Thailand, scheduled for January and February 2003 respectively, could engage with the three major areas identified consolidation of the ceasefire, humanitarian and rehabilitation action, and political matters simultaneously.

Does this mean that something dramatic a final political settlement acceptable to the LTTE, which the UNF government will present in Parliament as radical new constitutional proposals on federal lines is round the corner?

When the hard questions are asked, it becomes clear that neither the key concepts nor the contours of a political settlement have been defined by the negotiators. A huge gulf separates the two sides when it comes to basic concepts, ground realities, and practice.

The key words in the announcement of a `breakthrough' in Oslo are the following: (a) the principle of internal self-determination, (b) a federal structure, (c) areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, and (d) a united Sri Lanka. It must be noted that (a) figures for the first time in an official statement accepted by the Sri Lankan government, (b) figures for the first time in an official statement accepted by the LTTE, (c) is a formulation lifted from the text of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, and (d) is clearly an imposition on the LTTE by the weight of international public opinion.

But how do these key words, expressing key concepts, perform together? What, for example, is the relation between the principle of internal self-determination and a federal structure? Are areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples a proxy for the "homeland'' that the LTTE has always claimed as the historically determined birthright of the Sri Lankan Tamils? Can the principle of internal self-determination be exercised within a united Sri Lanka?

In order to answer these questions, we have plenty of guidance, theoretical as well as practical, from the LTTE. First, there are the first three of the four "Thimpu principles,'' put forward by the LTTE and the other Sri Lankan Tamil militant organisations in July and August 1985. These are recognition of the Sri Lankan Tamils as a distinct nationality; recognition of the traditional homeland (the North and East of the island) and a guarantee of its territorial integrity; and recognition of the right of self-determination of the Tamil nation. Then there is Prabakaran's notorious instruction, issued in his 1989 `Heroes Day' address, to his cadres to gun him down if he ever committed `treachery' to the `ideal' of Tamil Eelam. At the April 10, 2002 press conference in the Wanni, the LTTE supremo was asked by an Indian journalist whether this deadly instruction remained and the answer was in a light-hearted affirmative.

Lakshman Kadirgamar, former Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka and currently Senior Adviser to President on Foreign Affairs.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/ AFP

In his November 2002 "Heroes Day'' address, Prabakaran set the terms for what was to follow in Oslo. Asserting that the LTTE stood "firm in the attachment to the right to self-determination,'' he explained that "the Tamil homeland, the Tamil nation, the rights of the Tamils to self-determination'' were "the fundamentals of our objectives'' and that the LTTE had been "insisting on these issues from Thimpu to Thailand.''

He stated that "as a distinct people the Tamils are entitled to the right to self-determination,'' adding that this right had "two aspects internal and external.'' Internal self-determination "entitled a people to self-rule.'' The Tamil people wanted to "live in freedom and dignity in their own lands, in their historically constituted traditional lands, without the domination of external forces." They wanted to "protect their national identity, pursuing the development of their language, culture and economy'' and to "live in their homeland under a system of self-rule.''

Characterising this as "the political aspiration of our people,'' he asserted that this demand constituted "the essential meaning of internal self-determination.'' Then came the key formulation that set the stage for the Oslo `breakthrough': "We are prepared to consider favourably a political framework that offers substantial regional autonomy and self-government in our homeland on the basis of our right to internal self-determination.'' What was missing, of course, in the Oslo announcement was any reference to the threat Prabakaran held out in his 2002 `Heroes Day' speech: "But if our people's right to self-determination is denied and our demand for regional self-rule is rejected, we have no alternative other than to secede and form an independent state.''

Does all this sound like giving up the secessionist goal of Eelam (as Peiris misleadingly claimed in Colombo) and settling for a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka even assuming that the best elements of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, and the Kumaratunga proposals of 1995-2001 can be creatively combined and improved upon by, let's say, 50 per cent through an astonishing Sinhala political consensus?

As the scholar, Professor V. Suryanarayan, suggested in an analysis published nearly four years ago, the LTTE's conceptual approach to a federal structure has been extremely confederal in content. He cited as evidence certain constitutional proposals prepared by a London-based firm of solicitors in the 1990s and handed over informally to President Kumaratunga. These proposals envisaged the creation of a Union "which would be in the form of a confederal structure, consisting of two states each being internally autonomous.'' Each state would have its own internal constitution, which would determine the size and structure of the legislature. A Central Council comprising "an equal number of representatives from each state'' would be empowered to look after foreign affairs, defence, security, monetary policy, common currency, and inter-state relations ("Talking to the Tigers'', Frontline, January 29, 1999). At other times, the LTTE's ideological supporters abroad have held out other `models' such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and even the European Union.

The details of the confederal idea may have changed, but the "principle of internal self-determination'' and "self-rule'' can be manipulated to demand something way out, way beyond what the Sri Lankan state can offer at its enlightened best. Add to this Jeyaraj's interpretation that the LTTE "has not revised its fundamental objectives but is only engaged in a tactical shift as a political ploy'' and you have a possible disaster in the making.

It is the task of all reasonable people, people of goodwill, to work to ensure against the heavy odds that the disaster does not take place and that Sri Lanka is not pushed back into a no-win war.

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