The high profile fundraising effort undertaken by the Sri Lankan government in partnership with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has raised many issues. Unsure of the rapprochement with Jaffna, critics of the move, including several opposition parties, denounced the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, for sharing a stage with LTTE spokesman, Dr Anton Balasingham, at the 25 November Oslo meeting with international government representatives. Even so, this historic partnership represents what might be described as a paradigm shift in which former foes are now constructively dealing with each other.
What it also represents are this government’s leadership qualities. Since its election in December 2001, Wickremesinghe and his ministers have been considerably ahead of the rest of society in evolving a relationship with the LTTE. By sitting with Dr Balasingham at the Oslo meeting, the prime minister has substantially elevated the status of the LTTE in the eyes of the international community. This has been difficult to accept for those who continue to see the LITE as an enemy of the Sri Lankan state. In the past two decades of war, the LTTE has assassinated many Sri Lankan leaders and attacked the island’s civilian population, the economy and the military. It is easy to understand why old patterns of thinking have a continuing appeal – the present ceasefire, though the longest ever, is not yet a year old.
However, with the rapid evolution of political life and ground realities, there is at least now some willingness to countenance new strategies. The proceedings at the recent annual convention of the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Colombo, on human rights, peace and democracy bear out this assertion. The opening session’s panel, comprising ethnically representative and non-partisan discussants, devoted itself to analysing the two-decade-old conflict. As the chairman of the panel, Colombo University political scientist Dayan Jayatilleke pointed out, the panellists ranged from those who have criticised the present negotiation process as conceding too much to the LTTE to those who supported it as the only feasible option. But the common element, he said, was that they all believed in the necessity of a negotiated settlement, whereas the old polarisation was between those who advocated a brokered settlement and those who supported a military solution. As indicated by recent opinion polls, Jayatilleke’s observation on the attitudinal shift holds true for the Sri Lankan public as well.
According to surveys carried out by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo, more than half the respondents are unhappy with the concessions being made to the LTTE. Most prefer a harder bargaining stance. Regardless, the vast majority (over 80 percent) believes that a negotiated political solution is the only way to solve the ethnic conflict, and only about 10 percent place their faith in a military approach. In other words, after experiencing 20 years of war, the overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans is convinced that the bargaining table, and not the countryside, is the place to sort out differences.
The weakness of the political parties is that they have been unable to better the negotiation strategy of the government. Their general critique is simply that the government has conceded too much to the LTTE. Concerning the Oslo meeting in particular, they have raised three objections to the government’s decision to sit with the LTTE. The first is that the LTTE’s presence at the meeting will enhance its image and, among other things, lead to the lifting of the international bans placed on it. The second is that the government, by so awarding the LTTE equal status, is paving the way for a separate LTTE-led state. The third is that the LTTE continues to commit human rights violations in the north and east, which are ignored in an effort to keep the dialogue alive.
The first two objections reflect the persistence of the old belief that the LTTE is the enemy of Sri Lanka. While it is true that the LTTE’s presence alongside the government at the Oslo meeting will strengthen its credibility, it must not be forgotten that this boost arises from within the framework of an internationally monitored peace process that has a united and democratic Sri Lanka as one of its primary objectives. The LTTE is not receiving help for dictatorship or war, but for democracy and peace. Further, any pledge made by the LTTE will be monitored internationally, making it difficult for the LTTE to renege on its commitments.
The concern about enhancing the LTTE’s legitimacy is shared by several opposition parties. As an un-elected body, and one branded internationally as terrorist, the Oslo meeting’s status-conferment is important to the LTTE. But its gain will not be the Sri Lankan government’s loss. The LTTE has a long distance to travel before it can overcome the reputation it has with the international community; in order to gain legitimacy, it will have to demonstrate a respect for human rights and the electoral process, in not only words but deeds. The Oslo meeting is only a step towards acceptance; until the LTTE contests and wins elections, it will not be a legitimate political organisation by international standards.
There is no question at this time that the Sri Lankan government will remain the representative of the country in the eyes of the international community. Indeed, the government’s bending over backwards to avoid a breakdown of the peace process will only generate further international support for Colombo. A government that gives top priority to peace and the well-being of its population will enjoy the greatest degree of international legitimacy.
It is in the context of the people’s wellbeing that the third objection concerning human rights violations has the most validity. At the second session of peace talks in Thailand, the LTTE pledged to recognise political pluralism in the north and east. But this message, which represents a paradigm shift for the LTTE, a hitherto authoritarian military organisation, has yet to be transmitted to all levels of the organisation. The LTTE needs to be held to its word in this matter. Civil society organisations and the international community must place pressure on the LTTE, and also the government, to see to it that respect for human rights and democracy prevail in the north and east in the postwar period.
In particular, the LTTE must end its continued recruitment of children, and the rehabilitation of the children who have been recruited must begin. The LTTE leadership must desist from its attempts to forcibly oust Tamil political parties that have opposed it, such as the Eelam People’s Democratic Party. The harassment of Muslims and the setting up of LTTE police stations in the north and east without consulting the government is another indication that the LTTE has yet to think about the interests of all.
Clearly, outdated thinking persists not only in the south of the country but also in the north and east. LTTE leaders who continue to recruit children and repress dissent are locked into the old paradigm of thinking ‘enemies’ rather than ‘partners’. Members of opposition parties who attack the government for engaging with the LTTE are also thinking in outmoded ways. The new thinking of partnership, mutual respect and acceptance has yet to seep through to all levels of society, in the south, north and east.