'A stagnant peace process is potentially dangerous'

Print edition : December 19, 2003

Interview with G.L. Peiris.

As Chief Government Negotiator, G.L. Peiris led Colombo's discussions with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the peace process. Against the backdrop of a prolonged suspension of talks, the LTTE's counter-proposals and the recent political stalemate in Colombo, Prof. Peiris, a former Vice-Chancellor of Colombo University, told V.S. Sambandan in an interview that the differences between the People's Alliance (P.A.) and the United National Party (UNP) on substantive policy issues were "marginal" and "relate at most to matters of nuance".

G. L. Peiris at a press conference in Colombo, on November 6.-ROB ELLIOTT/AFP

Expressing caution that it was "potentially dangerous" to have the peace process in a "stagnant situation", Prof. Peiris said that the "the main issue is not prestige or ego" but the impact of the President's moves "on the coherence and the consistency of the peace process." Excerpts from the interview he gave on November 27:

What are your views on the current impasse and what do you think is the way forward?

The objective of the next phase of talks is qualitatively different because we are now addressing the substantive elements of a durable and just solution. We have to take a view of the mechanisms and structures. Now it is not just the sharing of information but the provision of opportunity for a more direct and vigorous input by the President and the People's Alliance (P.A.). Of course, there are different modalities for achieving this purpose and these need to be considered in earnest.

One possibility is to have an overall committee jointly chaired by the President and the Prime Minister to consider the parameters within which the negotiation should be held. It is evident that when one is negotiating a substantive solution there must be cross-party consensus otherwise there will be no implementability.

The Opposition cannot be isolated. There has to be clarity with regard to the process in the south. That is the crux of the problem right now. It is not principally a dispute about three portfolios. The main issue is not prestige or ego but the bearing of this on the coherence and the consistency of the peace process, because the task, which was at the best of times inherently difficult, becomes virtually impossible to handle if you have responsibility bereft of authority. It is certainly impossible to handle the peace process without control over the military apparatus.

The President is also now realising the reality of incumbency. There are clear indications of that. One is the President's comment to you when you interviewed her (Frontline, December 5, 2003) that she acknowledges that the LTTE's proposals constitute a basis for discussions.

She is of course not suggesting that the proposals in the existing forms are acceptable, nor are we saying that. We are saying that there are fundamental differences. But the fact that there are fundamental differences is certainly not a reason to decline to engage in a process of negotiation.

The whole rhetoric has been much softer since the President took over the Defence Ministry. Chris Patten would not have had access to Kilinochchi if the President as Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces opposed it. The government's position was also that it was acceptable. From the beginning we had taken the view that this kind of exposure is beneficial. It will prevent the emergence of very hard and inflexible and unyielding attitudes.

What you can see is a far greater degree of convergence. Had Patten visited Kilinochchi before the change in Defence portfolio, then the P.A.'s attitude and rhetoric would have been fundamentally different. The reality of incumbency is a significant factor and is certainly influencing attitudes and perceptions at this moment.

What is striking is the strong political will on both sides to come up with a pragmatic solution which addresses the real issues, but without inflicting humiliation on anyone. There is no question of who has won and who has lost. There is no question of a victor and someone who has been vanquished.

Do you think there is a possibility of the differences between the two main political parties narrowing down?

Quite candidly, if you look at the substantive policy with respect to both the economy and the peace process the differences are marginal. They relate at most to matters of nuance.

On the peace process, the two major parties stand for devolution of power. There are parties at the extreme, which adopt a different view but those views are not reflected in the policies of the two major parties.

There does not appear to be an irreconcilable difference with respect to substantive policy in critical sectors. The acrimony has been triggered by other factors. Today there is a recognition that an attempt has to be made to assuage tensions. The thaw is quite evident.

The international community is playing a catalytic role. The Prime Minister's own attitude of conciliation and restraint, above all, helped to defuse a crisis which could have otherwise have escalated and resulted in a highly inflammable situation.

Professor, from your experience in academics as well as in public life, what weight would you give to the hardline protests?

In any peace process that is a factor you have to reckon with. There are always those strident assertions and attitudes coming from the margins of society. But the important thing is they are at the fringes. So long as there is consensus in mainstream public opinion that is what matters. That is why at least a limited accommodation for a period between these two parties is important.

Now, with regard to the attitudes you spoke of, I think a conspicuous feature of those attitudes - not only in Sri Lanka but also in comparable situations all over the world - is that their aggressive quality is out of proportion with the numerical strength of the people who articulate those views. They sometimes dominate the media. It is very dramatic, graphic, vivid.

(For) the silent majority who appreciate the tranquillity, serenity of their lives, a war situation is a calamity that they devoutly wish to avoid. These are not people who shout from the rooftops. They have their own lives to lead.

It is often all too easy to forget that overwhelming majority in the midst of the seemingly uncompromising attitude that is articulated by what is after all, and what is quite demonstrably, a microscopic minority. To retain a sense of perspective, it is necessary perennially to remind oneself of that fact.

As Chief Negotiator, what were your expectations when talks started and how do you see it now after the long pause?

When we began, I was very conscious of the fact that there are going to be ups and down. Indeed the Prime Minister made it very clear.

I remember a phrase by the Foreign Minister of India, Yashwant Sinha, in the course of a long conversation with me. The advice he would give the Chief Negotiator, was: "Take a long breath, do not be in undue haste and do not allow yourself to become dispirited when problems manifest themselves regularly because it is natural and inevitable." I think that was excellent advice. I have often remembered that when there have been negative developments.

Through it all, I think, one has to take a long-term view. Take the LTTE's proposals. Those who criticise the proposals need to be considered in great detail. The government has a point of view. But it does mean a great deal that they have been prepared for the first time to formulate in considerable detail a structure relating to the Sri Lankan state. There is a paradigm shift. One has to recognise that. Even while recognising that there have been breakdowns and problems, to achieve a sense of balance, one has to take into account the positive features and the achievements during the first six rounds of talks.

As Chief Negotiator and as a constitutional authority, how do you see the LTTE's counter-proposals?

I think it will be inappropriate and unhelpful for me as Chief Negotiator to comment on the LTTE's proposals. That should happen only at the negotiating table, once we get there. The LTTE has not commented substantively on our proposals, nor have we done that. I think the way forward is direct discussions between the parties and the sooner that happens the better it would be.

We have views of our own and some of those are strong. The Muslims have views. So what is required is a meeting of minds, it cannot be done by unilateral declarations or statements in interviews or correspondence. It has to be done at a face-to-face meeting. To do that effectively and productively, we have to resolve the crisis in the south. That is why we don't have the luxury of time. It is not only unsatisfactory but also potentially dangerous to have the peace process in this stagnant condition.

In your interactions with the LTTE delegation, what is the moment you recollect as a significant one?

A moment I recollect vividly is that we have reached a stage where a certain rapport has been established. That is necessary in any successful peace negotiation. It may be over a cup of coffee, it may be a break in the formal negotiating sessions, the personal chemistry, that kind of contact is very important.

I think there was a major breakthrough when we discussed the war, the futility of it, the need to address a political solution in earnest. The agreement by the LTTE in Oslo that there need not be continuing violence directed towards secession and that substantial devolution of power through a federal structure is the key to a solution - that is a moment one would recall vividly. What we need to do is to work towards many more such moments in the future.

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