The invitation issued by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to the Government of Norway to resume its
facilitative services and seek to recommence the peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),
offers fresh hope of a forward movement in the stalled Sri Lankan peace process. The President's action is a
confirmation that the results of the General Election did not constitute a rejection of the peace process that
has been stalled for over a year. The election-time rhetoric now appears discarded. During their election
campaigns, the President and her allies bitterly criticised the former Government for working along with the
Norwegians to 'betray the country' to the LTTE.
The latter half of the former United National Front (UNF) Government's two year period in office was marked by an increasingly aggressive display of Sinhalese nationalism, in which members of the present Government played a prominent role. Nationalist political parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Sihala Urumaya took the lead in organising demonstrations and marches against the peace process in general and the Norwegian facilitators in particular. But President Kumaratunga and her party members also stridently criticized the peace process, while some of them even joined in the organised mass protests by the JVP-led nationalist coalition that opposed the peace process.
By the time of the General Election in April 2004, the peace process conducted by the UNF Government had been thoroughly discredited in the eyes of most of the Sinhalese electorate. Emboldened by this popular response, the JVP promised to scrap the Ceasefire Agreement in its entirety or renegotiate it on a basis that was advantageous to the Government. They also pledged to get rid of the Norwegian facilitators, who they said were biased towards the LTTE, and whose effigies they burnt. Mainstream opposition politicians routinely rejected the notion of the LTTE as sole representative of the Tamil people, criticised the absence of separate Muslim representation at the peace talks and rejected the LTTE's proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) as a blueprint for separation.
It is in this context that the turnaround by the JVP, the President and the rest of the new Government is quite astonishing, if viewed in the prism of principled politics. The resurgence of faith in the peace process after the election of the new Government has been unexpected to say the least. The condemnation of the very same peace process reached a crescendo during the election campaign in March 2004. But the irony is that, a mere three months later, the very same politicians who vociferously rejected the peace process and the way it was conducted, are following the footsteps of those they condemned, and whose positions they have now secured. And the opposition United National Party (UNP) is pointing this out to the people.
Today, the anti-peace propagandists of the JVP, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and other parties that form the new United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Government, are extremely quiet at a time when the peace process is moving forward in full swing. The Norwegian facilitators have been flying in on a weekly basis, and at the highest levels, that includes the Norwegian Foreign Minister. The new Government has pledged to uphold the much maligned Ceasefire Agreement, and there is no talk of either scrapping the agreement or renegotiating it.
There are three practical reasons why President Kumaratunga and her Government are backtracking on their election rhetoric and getting down to business with the LTTE, even to the extent of accepting the rebel group as the sole representatives of the Tamil people. The first is that they won the election, and being in power, they need to address the main problem that faces the country if they are to remain in power. They skillfully criticised the former UNP Government's compromises to bring peace to the country and discredited the UNP.
The second reason is the need to tap into the donor resources pledged at the Tokyo donor conference in June 2002. The donor countries, led by Japan, pledged a massive USD 4.5 billion in aid, but its release was made conditional upon the progress in the peace process. Although some of that aid has been sent to Sri Lanka, much of it remains to be disbursed. The new Government, which has ambitious plans for welfare economics, would like to have its resources supplemented by those of the international community. There is no better way to do this than by carrying the peace process forward.
The third reason for the new Government's resumption of the peace process is the arithmetic in Parliament, which became glaringly obvious with the defeat of the Government's candidate for the position of Speaker of Parliament. That defeat sent shock waves through the Government, and it was brought to realise that it was but a minority Government. If it were to pass any legislation, it would need some of the opposition parties to either join it as coalition partners or at least to remain neutral in parliamentary voting. For instance, should the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) remain neutral in Parliament, the Government will retain a majority vote. Success in the peace process, and a satisfied LTTE, could do much to ensure that the TNA will not vote with the Opposition.
According to the Norwegian facilitators, both the new Government and the LTTE are eager for peace talks to resume. But the price that the LTTE will exact is likely to be high. The LTTE has been insisting that the peace talks should be on the basis of their proposals for an ISGA that they presented to the former Government on October 31, 2003. These proposals called for far reaching autonomy. However, a few days after these proposals made their appearance, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, then in the opposition, made a comprehensive critique and said that they laid "the legal foundation for a future, separate, sovereign state."
However, the change of heart that the new Government appears to have undergone on the issues of Norwegian facilitation and the Ceasefire Agreement also seem to have carried over to the LTTE's ISGA proposal. When the Government states that it is prepared to negotiate from where the former Government left off, and when the LTTE states that peace talks must be on the basis of the ISGA, it is evident that the ISGA will be the focus of the forthcoming peace talks. The question is whether the Sri Lankan polity will take this type of fundamental reversals of position without generating a backlash. The people who voted for the parties now constituting the Government on account of their anti-peace process and anti-Norwegian rhetoric, are likely to feel betrayed.
Over the past two years, the JVP and other Sinhalese nationalists demanded the withdrawal of the Norwegians from the peace process. They did not suggest an alternative, other than to imply that they could militarily defeat the LTTE if they were given the chance. Soon after assuming office, the new Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, said that India should play a greater role in Sri Lanka's peace process. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister has also suggested that India could play a greater role in the economic development of the North East. There will, no doubt, be much support from sections of the polity for an enhanced Indian role, to counter-balance the dominance of Norway and other western countries in the peace process.
It is also reasonable to believe that India was not happy with the entry of so many foreign powers into the Sri Lankan peace process in an area that it considers to be its area of geo-political concern. However, it is necessary to realize that India cannot play the role that Norway is playing. India has the heavy baggage of its past to overcome, both in terms of having been clearly partisan to one side or the other, and also in having tried to mediate in Sri Lanka's conflict and having failed.
Moreover, a facilitator or mediator needs to be acceptable to both parties. It cannot be acceptable to one party or one side alone. At the time of the President's invitation to Norway to mediate in the ethnic conflict in 2000, and over the past two years, Norway's good offices were acceptable to both the Sri Lankan Government and to the LTTE. It is apparent from the present invitation to Norway to resume its facilitative role that it continues to be acceptable to the dominant section of the Sri Lankan Government, led by the President, and to the LTTE.
It is, on the other hand, unlikely that India, whatever its merits, will be acceptable to the LTTE as a facilitator at this time. India has banned the LTTE as a terrorist organisation and its courts have a warrant out for the LTTE leader for the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. While India's present attitude towards the LTTE is its own internal issue, it does mean that India cannot be thought of as a facilitator in the present peace process. Certainly, however, India's geo-political concerns need to be given priority by Sri Lanka's Governments. For its part, India is likely to feel more comfortable with the present Government than it was with the last - the UNP was more favorably oriented towards the western countries than towards India.
How the opposition UNP responds to the Government's present endeavours is also crucial. In South Asia, generally, opposition parties have not been prepared to accept their rival's victories for a fixed term in office. Instead, they have done their utmost to engineer a premature fall of the Government. The opposition UNP has already been attempting to corner the new Government on its new policy on the peace process. Instead of supporting the new Government in taking the peace process forward, the UNP is asking the Government to explain the reversal of its position hardly a month after coming to power.
At this critical juncture, it is important that those who wish to see the peace process move forward, should learn from the mistakes of the last Government. A most important lesson would be to bring the opposition into the peace process as a willing and equal partner. This would certainly mean that the new Government would have to give up some of its own plans in deference to the concerns of the opposition. An example would be the President's ambition to ram through constitutional changes without the support of the opposition, in order to ensure her own political future beyond the two term limit of her presidency.
Every textbook approach to conflict resolution calls for inclusivity in the peace process, so that all the main actors in society can become stakeholders in the process. The Sri Lankan peace process, which began in earnest with the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002, has had no place in it for the opposition. To make matters worse, under the last regime, the opposition included the country's powerful Executive President. Despite her party's defeat at the general election of December 2001, President Kumaratunga continued to be an integral part of governance. Nevertheless, the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 was signed without the knowledge of the President.
The Norwegian facilitators, as much as the leaders of the last Government, need to take responsibility for this major flaw in the peace process. Their concern at that time was President Kumaratunga's unpredictable nature, and they feared she might have jeopardised the fine-tuning of the Ceasefire Agreement. This genuine concern was coupled with the desire of the members of the last Government to monopolise the peace process and leave nothing in it for the opposition.
However, with nothing in it for them, the opposition went on a propaganda spree against the peace process. They mobilised Sinhalese nationalism and Sinhalese fears of a betrayal of the nation that led to the convincing defeat of the previous Government in the Sinhalese-majority parts of the country. The Norwegian facilitators, together with the Government and LTTE, need to ensure that, this time around, there is a greater degree of inclusivity in the peace process
Jehan Perera is Media Director, National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal