On a new course

Published : Aug 29, 2003 00:00 IST

With the government presenting its proposal for a provincial administrative structure for the North and East and the LTTE responding to it, the conflict resolution process in Sri Lanka enters a phase in which self-interest will determine the position of each side.

in Colombo

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But, it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

- Winston Churchill, on the Battle of Egypt.

ON July 17, when the Sri Lankan government sent its latest proposal for a Provincial Administrative Structure to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in another attempt to restart the stalled peace talks, the island's conflict resolution process changed track, subtly though.

From the earlier phase of mutual accommodation adopted by Colombo and the Tigers since the commencement of the negotiations last year, the process has now entered a stage where self-interest would direct the positions of the two sides and determine the pace at which the talks, unilaterally suspended by the LTTE on April 21, would resume. The transition from negative peace, in the absence of war, to a positive one, entailing a negotiated political solution, is bound to be a long and emotional path.

With the LTTE's legal and constitutional advisers scheduled to meet in Paris in mid-August, to chart out a response to the latest offer, the government nursed hopes of a resumption of direct negotiations by end-September.

Titled the Provisional Administrative Structure (PAS) for the North and East, the four-page "proposal for discussion on a Provincial Administrative Council", has become the latest focal point of the country's deeply divided polity. A first-time offer by the LTTE to present a set of counter-proposals, a mini political controversy between the government and the Opposition People's Alliance (P.A.), a campaign by a section of the Buddhist clergy against an interim administration, and initial reactions from the Tigers provide clear indications of hurdles the latest effort is likely to face.

Briefly put, the PAS proposes that the LTTE exercise powers and perform functions in the matter of development-related subjects in the North and East, but specifically excludes it from wielding powers in matters relating to the police, security, land and revenue.

It says: "As are at present exercised and performed by the Government, in respect of regional administration - except the area of police and security, land and revenue - but include rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement."

The proposed council will consist of members nominated by the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka, and include nominees of the P.A. and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. The number of members in the Council would "be determined to ensure" two factors - a "majority for the LTTE" and "weighted representation" for Muslims and the Sinhalese.

The other features of the PAS include a Special Commissioner appointed by the government of Sri Lanka, the institution of a Special Fund, the creation of district committees and committees for economic affairs, infrastructure and essential services. This provisional structure will be "in operation for a limited period agreed upon by the parties, subject to the arrangements being reviewed every six months."

The proposals provide two alternatives for the post of chairperson. The first is to have two chairpersons, one elected by the LTTE and the other by the government, "by and from amongst the members of the Council". Each chairperson shall have "the right to veto any proposal". The alternative proposal is to have "any decision of the council that affects" either Muslims or the Sinhalese subjected to a double majority - of the members of the Council and of the representatives of the Muslim or Sinhala communities as the case may be.

While the proposal is clearly aimed at providing safeguards for Muslims and the Sinhalese, who are in a minority in the North and East, a conceptual difficulty is bound to arise on the definition of what constitutes their interests. For instance, the question of what constitutes Muslim interests has stalled the inclusion of a separate Muslim team in the talks, much to the disappointment of that community.

Moreover, even discounting this conceptual factor, serious differences are bound to arise between the government and the Tigers over the powers of the interim structure. Since discontinuing talks, the LTTE has made it clear that it is not interested in a body that does not grant it political legitimacy and has insisted on a "politico-administrative" mechanism.

Therefore, with the specific exclusion of powers over the police and land from the discussion paper, the fundamental difference persists.

In the LTTE's first response, its political wing leader S.P. Tamilchelvan said on July 27 that the offer fell short of the "expectations of the Tamil people". However, the LTTE maintained that it would keep the "doors to peace wide open" and would respond with a "counter-proposal".

Maintaining its tough position, the LTTE linked resumption of dialogue to Colombo's acceptance of its counter-proposals. In an attempt to show that it would not like to be blamed for the failure of the peace process, Tamilchelvan said the LTTE "will be glad if the government comes forward to solve the Tamil people's problem through peaceful means, understanding our stand". The present situation, he said, presented a "singular opportunity" for the "Sinhala polity" to achieve "permanent peace".

That the LTTE is essentially a military organisation was made clear when Tamilchelvan, a one-time Jaffna military commander of the organisation, said that it was "able to negotiate peace" because it was "militarily powerful". Refuting "a campaign among Sinhalese" that the LTTE was "modernising and expanding" its armed forces "to prepare for war", Tamilchelvan said the effort was only to "sustain" the group's "strength in order to protect" its "own people". In yet another indication that the Tigers had not closed the military option, he said, with a touch of firmness, that the LTTE also needed "power to make progress in the peace talks and to face a war if one is thrust on us".

THE political response in the southern provinces to Colombo's latest offer has skirted the specifics. A mini controversy arose immediately after the offer was published in a Sunday newspaper. Ironically, that was over a fine-tuned version of Colombo's offer that specifically excluded police and land powers from the purview of the LTTE.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe had sent a copy of the discussion paper to President Chandrika Kumaratunga, which was later modified to envisage that the Tigers would not get powers over the sensitive departments of police, security, land and revenue.

However, the Opposition, quick on the draw, was angry that the President was sent an "outdated" document. On July 25, the President's Senior Adviser on Foreign Affairs, Lakshman Kadirgamar, told a press conference that there were "significant differences" between the proposals sent to the LTTE and the President. Police, security, land and revenue, he said, were "absolutely crucial, fundamental issues" to conflict resolution and that it was still unclear what was offered to the LTTE.

Brushing aside the criticism, the government said it had not offered the Tigers the powers of policing or revenue administration . "A mistaken impression has been created," Colombo's chief negotiator G.L. Peiris said. He pointed out that in the discussion paper prepared earlier and sent to the President, the offer of a provisional administrative structure was stated as "within parameters agreed upon by the parties".

Explaining the circumstances that led to the specific exclusion of policing and revenue powers, Peiris said the former Norwegian envoy, Jon Westborg, prior to his departure to rebel-held Kilinochchi to hand over the discussion paper to the Tigers, had sought a clarification on the phrase "within parameters... "

When Colombo said it proposed to "exclude police, security, land and revenue", Westborg had "advised" that it would be "better" to state it. The government "authorised" Westborg "to add any clarifications or amplifications necessary". After Westborg added the clause excluding policing and revenue powers, "we approved it", and cleared the document to be handed to the LTTE, Peiris said. Asked if the President was sent a copy of the final document, he said "there was no need to do so" as the final document "contained nothing new".

Lamenting that opposition to the efforts by successive governments since the 1950s to solve the ethnic crisis took an "emotional approach", Peiris said the political opponents "did not appeal to the mind, but appealed to the heart. That is why a solution has eluded us so long".

With continued political squabbling in the south, and with the LTTE gradually strengthening position on the ground in the north, the odds for a revival of talks are stacked even. A mutually acknowledged stalemate is a possible option, with both the LTTE and the government engaging themselves in a phase that was similar to the backroom negotiations that preceded the signing of the ceasefire agreement in 2002. Even a revival of talks would only indicate the continuation of the process of gaining time.

For the past one year, Sri Lanka has been experiencing "negative peace". That phase is now tapering to an end. The next phase, of a difficult transition to a "positive peace", described by political analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda as the "eradication of conditions that produced, and may re-produce conflict", could well be a long and painful one. During this volatile phase, political emotions are likely to soar and Colombo, and the LTTE will quite likely keep their fingers on the triggers.

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