The long road to Thailand

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

Given the traumatic experiences of past attempts at conflict resolution, the Thailand talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam raise only limited expectations.

"Any event which enables swords to be turned into ploughshares is unusual and big. It deserves a wholehearted welcome. I hope that with this agreement the phase of distrust between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka will end and the two will work together again as brothers to build a harmonious and prosperous Sri Lanka."

- Rajiv Gandhi (Joint Press Conference with President J.R. Jayewardene, July 29, 1987, Colombo)

OPTIMISM was never wanting whenever Sri Lanka started an attempt to resolve its ethnic conflict. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's opening remarks at a press conference in Colombo after signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in July 1987 is worth recalling on the eve of yet another attempt to resolve the decades-long ethnic strife through negotiations.

Sri Lanka's long road to ethnic reconciliation has been traumatic and emotional, and has quite often overlooked the mistakes of the past.

The build-up to the Thailand talks, which are to be held between September 16 and 18, is reminiscent of several previous efforts. Names may have changed - Thailand instead of Thimphu or Colombo, Norway instead of India, G.L. Peiris instead of Hector Jeyawardene or Ranasinghe Premadasa - but the core issues are much the same.

The stated positions of the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have not changed. But the mood in the island is one of optimism, stemming from the hope that the two sides will, during this round of talks, be more accommodating.

To start with, the Thailand talks have come after a formal ceasefire that has lasted close to six months. The presence of an overseas facilitator in the form of Norway, which is distant from the turbulent geo-politics of South Asia, has helped. There have been no major provocations, and those that had cropped up have been tackled with a certain degree of sensitivity from both sides. Certainly, there have been several violations of the ceasefire by both sides - with the Tigers breaking it more often than the government forces - but these have also been managed. Therefore, on the military front, there is some scope for hope that the Thailand talks would mark a departure from the previous attempts at conflict resolution.

Although the same cannot be said of the political battlefield of southern Sri Lanka, it is to the credit of both the major political parties - the United National Party (UNP) and the Opposition People's Alliance (P.A.) - that despite shrill postures on issues of governance, the overarching consensus appears to hold on the conflict resolution front. This situation, however, is entirely dependent on how rapidly the relations between the two parties slide.

On September 1, the dynamics of the politics of governance and of conflict resolution became visible. This was when President and P.A. leader Chandrika Kumaratunga told a delegation of Sinhalese nationalist hardliners that she was against lifting the ban on the LTTE before any progress was made in the talks and that she wanted the interim administration power to be granted only after a final settlement was reached. (A day later, the hardliners, led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), threatened mass protests against de-proscribing the Tigers.)

These statements, which can be given an optimistic interpretation of being part of a presidential posturing before the talks in order to ensure that the best possible terms are arrived at before parleys commence, have the potential to crack the hull of the peace boat. For these have been the prime demands made by the Tigers. In fact, these would constitute the LTTE's raison d'etre in Thailand. When the rebels agreed for talks, it was on the condition that the ban would be lifted to ensure that they participated with dignity. The talks, the LTTE has been maintaining, were meant to work out the manner in which an interim administration can be formed.

Yet, the LTTE today is in a better position than it was during the military offensive. For, the internationally banned organisation has stood to gain from the ceasefire: increasing legitimacy for it, absence of problems in daily life for people living in areas under its control, a quasi-state in place (complete with appurtenances such as police, banks and a tax system), visits from international donors to the devastated areas with offers of financial assistance for reconstruction, and, most important, control over territory.

For southern Sri Lanka, the ceasefire has had its positive effects. To start with, there is comfort from an assurance, howsoever fragile, that there will be no acts of terror. Fortress Colombo of a few years ago has now opened up. Free movement to the north, despite its hurdles, has exposed the country's south to the woes of the north in a striking manner. Delegation after delegation from the south return to narrate the human suffering that lay within their own country.

Absence of war has meant a lot to the civilian population. "It is only now that even the water we drink gets digested," said a villager in the north in the early days of the ceasefire. Now, just ahead of the peace talks, the south hopes that there would be no return to war. The greatest consequence of the ceasefire agreement has been the absence of war. And the UNP hopes this would turn the course of the ethnic strife. But have the peace dividends started to show?

IT IS here that the fairy-tale view of conflict resolution must end and a hard look at the reality be taken. All previous attempts to end the conflict through a negotiated settlement failed for a combination of two reasons: the intransigence of the Tigers was matched by the unwillingness of the southern political parties to lend the much-required helping hand to proceed on the long march towards peace together.

Sri Lanka's ethnic war is a multi-starred story, with an oft-repeated plot. The main protagonists in this tragic tale have been the Tigers and the government and the Opposition parties of the day. For long, the supporting cast has been comprised of the nationalist hardliners in the south, and of late, the overseas Tamil diaspora. The recurring plot of this story has been one that alternates between war and peace.

When governments of the day cobbled together an arrangement with the Tigers, the Opposition, quite often prodded by hardline elements, played truant. This has been repeated often ever since the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact was signed on July 26, 1957. Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike met resistance from the Opposition UNP, but what tilted the scales finally were the vociferous protests from sections of the Buddhist clergy.

History was to repeat itself during the catastrophic Indian experience, when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) opposed the UNP administration's attempts to solve the conflict through the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement signed in 1987. A non-compliant Prime Minister R. Premadasa, who was then to become President, made matters much worse.

The comprehensive approach to prepare a draft Constitution, undertaken by Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1995, was cold-shouldered by the UNP, which was then in the Opposition, thereby strengthening the LTTE's argument that the southern polity is too fractured to arrive at a solution. That the LTTE also rejected the draft is another issue.

A minor change in the script now is that both President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have direct stakes in the conflict resolution process. This also means that both the UNP and the P.A., which are now sharing power, owe it to their citizens to deliver upon the peace promises they have made. In that context, the political cohabitation offers the best possible setting for a sinking of the past.

Of late there have been distressing signals for the Sri Lankan polity. With the President coming under increasing pressure from the Cabinet, a game of political leveraging appears to be on the cards. On the face of it, Chandrika Kumaratunga's observations on the ban on the Tigers and on an interim administration reflect the P.A.'s apprehensions that the Tigers would walk out of the talks whenever it suits them. But deep down, with the Wickremasinghe administration pushing forward to curb the presidential power to dissolve Parliament, the assertion by Kumaratunga has political implications. However, her opposition to de-proscription is in contradiction with the earlier position that the ban could be lifted after the dates for the talks were fixed.

The call to link the granting of interim administration powers to a final settlement does have some implications. What the President suggests is to make it a transitional administration, not something that can fall apart when the Tigers wish to dispense with the need to cooperate with Colombo. However, analysts feel that this is a premature demand and could put a damper on the talks.

THE road to negotiations from Thimphu to Thailand has been long and difficult. The biggest similarity between Thimphu and Thailand is that the LTTE has remained firm on its core principles of homeland, nationality and self-determination. These were turned down by Hector Jeyawardene, the leader of the Sri Lankan delegation, who said in Thimphu on August 12, 1985, that the three principles "must be rejected for the reason that they constitute a negation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. They are detrimental to a united Sri Lanka and are inimical to the interests of the several communities, ethnic and religious, in our country".

Seventeen years later, on April 10, LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran made it clear at the historic press conference in Kilinochchi that the Thimphu principles stood.

How the Sri Lankan state proposes to address this issue and how much the state has changed in its responses are matters that would largely determine the outcome of the Thailand talks.

That a solution would require a further move away from the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement is evident from a statement issued by the LTTE's political committee on October 26, 1988. Signed by Anton Balasingham, the LTTE's chief negotiator for the talks, the statement said: "The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord fails to situate the essence and mode of our struggle as a national struggle for self-determination. Instead, the Accord places the struggle entirely on a false premise, reducing it to a simple problem of a discriminated minority group on a pluralistic social formation".

The statement added: "... the Accord attempts to impose a settlement within the framework of Sri Lanka's Constitution, which is nothing but a legalised embodiment of Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism... We emphasise that a meaningful and lasting solution to the Tamil question can only be achieved by recognising the rights of our people, most importantly, our people's right to national self-determination."

Talks held by the Premadasa administration, characterised by mistrust and duplicity, fell apart and the island was plunged into war. That situation remained until the Kumaratunga administration started yet another process in 1994.

If the LTTE's position in 1988 was that the Sri Lankan Constitution was the root cause of the problem, the Kumaratunga administration took up the task of preparing a draft Constitution. This attempt also marked a departure from the past. An optimistic LTTE welcomed the election of Kumaratunga and declared a unilateral ceasefire. But, as subsequent events showed, the Kumaratunga-Prabakaran talks have gone down in Sri Lankan history as a round that raised the highest hopes but suffered the most miserable failure and led to the most devastating phase of conflict.

While several lessons have been learnt and incorporated in the process of conflict resolution - an operational ceasefire, an end to embargo, some confidence-building measures, for instance - at a broader level the fundamental difference of opinion between the two major political formations persists.

Given this backdrop, the scope for optimism is limited.

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