Sri Lanka: Making, and keeping, promises

It has been a consistent feature of the Sri Lankan peace process that important initiatives by the LTTE are downplayed and trivialised by sections of Sinhala nationalist opinion, which could instead, more profitably, seek to hold Jaffna to its word. One of the biggest breakthroughs of the present peace process was the announcement by the LTTE's chief negotiator at the current peace talks, Dr Anton Balasingham, that the LTTE would be prepared to settle for a federal solution. The international media and most analysts outside Colombo viewed this statement as setting the basic parameters within which a negotiated settlement may be found. In Sri Lanka, the response to Dr Balasingham's pronouncement, made in Oslo in December during the third round of talks, was more qualified. Analysts pointed critically to the text of the official statement, prepared by the Norwegian facilitators, saying that the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government had agreed only to explore a federal solution, which was not equivalent to actually accepting one. The noticeable gap between the LTTE's words and deeds (especially in matters of human rights) makes this a plausible line of argument. LTTE negotiators and the top leadership have repeatedly denied that children are still recruited as soldiers, but they are. They have also verbally accepted that the north and east are constituted by a plural society in which democracy should prevail, but on the ground the Muslims and rival Tamil parties still find themselves suppressed.

This disjunction casts doubt on the credibility of the LTTE and its sincerity in the peace process. Those who go on the basis of the ground situation have reservations about the LTTE's commitment to a negotiated compromise settlement on the lines of generally accepted federal models. The presidential spokesperson's comments that the LTTE has recruited an additional 10,000 cadre since the commencement of the ceasefire agreement a year ago and thereby vastly increased its manpower, coupled with the findings by international monitors of the continuance of child recruitment, give credence to these apprehensions.

Reports from visitors to the north and east confirming child recruitment and of people being intimidated into paying LTTE taxes are gloomy in the extreme. However, those who have face-to-face interactions with the top leadership of the LTTE tend to come away with a different perception. Members of international fact-finding missions and aid donors, as well as organisations working directly with the top leadership of the LTTE, depict a more optimistic situation in which the LTTE is indeed committed to the peace process.

The challenge is to explain this disparity between the ground reality and the impressions given by the LTTE's top leadership. The LTTE's concern is undoubtedly to maintain its monopoly of control in the territories it has acquired. It is also now seeking to extend its influence over the rest of the north and east where the government's security forces are present. The request for international funding for its peace secretariat suggests that while trying to maximise its control on the ground, the LTTE is also seeking to reorient its cadre from war- to peace-time duties. This is likely to be an uphill task for the LTTE, given its serious capacity handicap for such a programme.

International delegations and others visiting the LTTE's Wanni headquarters speak of the communication bottleneck caused by very few personnel having the linguistic and technical wherewithal to engage with outsiders. As an organisation that waged a guerrilla war for over 20 years, the LTTE has only a handful of cadres who are able to speak in English and have human rights and political education. Further, the LTTE's mistrust of outsiders has made them reluctant to bring in even Tamil expatriates as new leaders or advisors, possibly for fear of losing control.

Capacity shortfall
The challenges that the LTTE faces in transforming politically need to be appreciated at this time. Even if the LTTE leadership has the will, it does not at the moment have the capacity. But it needs to develop its capacity to respect human and political rights on a priority basis as a foundation for a democratic society. This is a problem that the government also faces in a different area. The lack of visible progress in the rehabilitation and development programme in the north and east is prompting doubts among locals about the government's commitment to uplifting their condition.

The observations made by the parliamentary opposition leader, Mahinda Rajapakse, on returning from Jaffna in late January need to be taken seriously. While it is a damning indictment of Sri Lankan politics that it took until now for a leader of the opposition to visit Sri Lanka's second largest city and meet its people, it is a case of better late than never. Rajapakse spoke of the lack of development and strongly condemned the government. He said that the government had appointed a plethora of ministers and set up many agencies to deal with the rehabilitation and development of the north. But despite several ministers visiting Jaffna midst great fanfare and making all sorts of promises, there had been little change on the ground.

When the Colombo ministers go to Jaffna and make promises they certainly mean them. They are moved by the immensity of the destruction, the poverty of the people and their hopes for a peaceful and normal future. Their failure to deliver on their promises is not due to deliberate ill will or deception but because they do not possess the material capacity to honour their word. The government, as much as the LTTE, needs to strengthen its capacity for fulfilling its promise of ensuring peace and prosperity for the people of the north and east.

As in every sphere, there is a need here too for accountability. The role of the media, civil society and the international community is to be supportive of requests for capacity building while being watchdogs of the peace process. An offer by the Japanese government to assist the LTTE in setting up a peace secretariat needs to be seen in this light. The day the LTTE begins to demobilise its child soldiers and permits international verification of the demobilisation will be a turning point in the internationally mediated peace-making effort.


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