The most significant achievement of the Oslo talks in December 2002 was the categorical statement, made by the head of the negotiating team of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Anton Balasingham, that the militant organization was prepared to accept a federal unit for the north and east within a united Sri Lanka.
This statement represents a crucial development in the conflict transformation process in Sri Lanka. This transition from secession to internal autonomy is the outcome of two decades of civil war, combined with political and strategic sensitivity to radically new circumstances of global, regional and national politics.
The details of the talks were not outlined and different positions taken by the two sides on various vital issues have not been disclosed at the conclusion of the talks. The process designers have obviously been careful to send out a positive message through the substance as well as symbolism of the talks. At the press conference held after the conclusion of discussions, the two negotiating teams, as well as the Norwegian interlocutors, expressed ‘complete satisfaction’ on the progress, and an earnest desire to carry forward the peace process.
With the autonomy announcement, the LTTE has repositioned itself vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan state in such a way that returning to the old Eelam (separate state) goal would not be particularly viable. However the trajectories of transforming the LTTE’s proclamation of autonomy into a stable political commitment will be contingent on how the government handles the future challenges and progress towards the establishment of a firm mechanism for devolving power to the north and east regions. That is an extremely hazardous path and substantial reforms will be required to reach that goal.
The history of Sri Lankan agreements and subsequent failures of implementation goes back five decades. The differences between the two principal ethnic communities in the country came into prominence even before independence in 1948. The Sri Lankan state was not founded on a collective idea acceptable to the principal ethnic minority – the Tamils – and this has manifested itself, first in peaceful and non-violent protests, and subsequently in an armed struggle that has created critical constitutional and legal challenges to the state and its institutions.
Democratic Tamil leaders of the Federal Party (FP) had advocated a federal solution from the very beginning. However, various agreements – such as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagham (1957), Senanayake-Chelvanayagham (1965), the Annexure C Formula proposed by Special Indian Envoy G. Parthasarathy to President Jayewardene (1983), the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement (1987) – were either abrogated or were not fully implemented. Similarly, all rounds of negotiations between the government and the LTTE – Thimpu (1985), Delhi and Bangalore (1987), Colombo (1989-90) and Colombo (1994-95) – faced the same fate, with disastrous results in terms of escalating violence after each debacle.
Political analysts are, however, much more optimistic about the current peace process. The post-9/11, global anti-terrorism drive; pressure from the Tamil Diaspora on the LTTE; the realization on the part of the government and people of Sri Lanka as well as the LTTE that no side could attain a final military victory; and growing economic compulsions are some of the international and domestic factors underlying this optimism.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the United National Party’s election manifesto in December 2001, had proposed a cease-fire with the Tamil militants, to be followed by negotiations to find a political solution. He also proposed an interim council for the northeast be set up with the participation of the LTTE for a period of two years, to prepare the ground for a lasting political settlement. He had earlier proposed that there be de-escalation of the conflict and asymmetrical devolution for the northeast.
For the first time in nearly 20 years of a civil war, which has caused the death of an estimated 64,000 people and displaced over one million people, there might be some hope to bring the conflict to an end, and to allow for the return of the internally displaced. Peace talks were initiated at the end of year 2001 between the two warring parties, the LTTE and the government, with Norway as an intermediary. While the first two rounds of talks were held in Thailand, the third round took place at Oslo in the first week of December 2002.
Prior to the talks, the government eased the economic embargo on rebel-held areas in the north. An open-ended cease-fire, which includes international monitoring, was signed by both warring parties and came into effect on February 23, 2002. At the beginning of March, the government announced the lifting of travel restrictions on Tamil civilians with immediate effect.
With the lull in military activities, the government has taken steps to resettle or relocate internally displaced persons (IDPs). Over 150,000 IDPs have been resettled or relocated during the last 10 months. Plans have been formulated to resettle all IDPs by end-2004. Since the beginning of 2002, displaced persons have already started returning to their homes to check on the possibilities of return.
While the majority of the IDPs in the north and east are expected to be resettled within the next two years, most of the IDPs currently living in the southern parts of the country, or in India, will not return until there is a permanent political solution, or at least clear signs of long-term peace. Although there is a renewed attempt to find a consensus, the dilemma nevertheless remains as to how a Constitution, one that lays the foundations for a pluralist democracy, can be promulgated in the face of entrenched institutional and cultural biases.
The constitutional amendments for implementation of any final agreement will require the support of the opposition in order to obtain the mandatory two-thirds majority in Parliament, which will have to be endorsed subsequently in a national referendum. Although President Chandrika Kumaratunga expressed her commitment to a peaceful political solution, she has emphasized that the ‘sovereignty of united Sri Lanka’ should not be diluted. Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance (PA), which is the main opposition, has already questioned the government on several issues pertaining to sovereignty. The PA has urged the government to ‘close down’ the LTTE courts.
India has also blessed the peace process, but New Delhi is watching developments very closely because of past experiences with the LTTE. Despite Colombo’s repeated requests, India refrained from participating in the Oslo meeting on international economic aid to north and east Sri Lanka, because it was attended by LTTE’s Anton Balasingham, who belongs to the militant movement that was responsible for the assassination of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Many crucial issues such as legalizing the LTTE’s armed cadres by forming a paramilitary force for the northeast region, power sharing arrangement for Muslims in the east, land rights, etc., will have to be tackled before a final solution and, as Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said, "it is an extremely hazardous path and the process is a very long one". However Wickremesinghe’s new initiative has taken firm roots, and Constitutional Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris, who led the Sri Lanka government delegation in the talks, while expressing satisfaction over the positive outcome, has asserted that the two sides would be firmly entrenched on the peace path and would reach the ‘point of no-return to war’ by the middle of 2003.
The author is Associate Director, Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), Colombo. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal