The number of lives saved in Sri Lanka in the past five months of ceasefire probably amounts to about 1500, given an average death toll of 10 per day of conflict. The ceasefire has had other benefits as well; the fear of sudden bomb blasts does not disrupt day-to-day life anymore. A general sense of improved security pervades public life. But with the passage of time the benefits of peace appear to be slipping out of the public debate, as the recent focus of both political and media attention has been on the shortcomings of the peace process. A commonly voiced complaint is that the government is giving in to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) without getting back anything in return, leading to a feeling that the LTTE is getting the better part of the deal. The bottom line is whether the country is prepared to pay the price of war again for extracting more concessions from the LTTE than Colombo has so far been able to get.

Certainly, there are major persistent problems, some of which have even been aggravated in this time of ceasefire. For instance, international monitors have issued a ruling critical of the LTTE's refusal to open the A-9 highway to Jaffna to uninterrupted passenger traffic. Human rights organisations have challenged the main actors in the peace process for not doing enough to put a halt to continuing human rights abuses, including the recruitment of children by the LTTE. There has also been a failure on the part of international monitors in giving advance notice of the movements of the LTTE and Sri Lankan armed forces.

On the one hand there are all these issues that threaten the long-term sustainability of the ceasefire. On the other hand, the benefits of the ceasefire are being taken more or less for granted, and even being dismissed as unworthy. One of the most important benefits of this period of peace has been that the growth of ethnic polarisation has been halted. In addition, thanks to the ceasefire agreement, most roads in the north and east have been opened to passenger traffic and the markets are beginning to function, helping revive the formerly embargoed LTTE-controlled Wanni.

The high degree of politicisation in Sri Lanka ensures that considerations of party politics enter every nook and cranny, be it in media or civic organisations. On the political front, the inability or unwillingness of the government to get the mainstream opposition on board the peace process is a major impediment to progress. It leads pro-opposition sections, who might otherwise be supportive of the peace process, to find reasons to oppose it on behalf of their political parties. The government's strategy up to now appears to have been focussed on getting its own way in Parliament by pushing through the 18th Amendment, which weakens the presidency by taking away its power to dismiss parliament after one year. Even though there are signs that the passage of this constitutional amendment is not a certainty, it can be anticipated that sections of the media and civil society that are pro-opposition will continue their aggressive campaign to discredit a peace process that is being taken forward by a government formed by a rival political party.

Public attitudes

However, the infighting among politicians in Colombo is not necessarily illustrative of opinions throughout the country. The overwhelming victory by the United National Party (UNP) government in the local government elections of 20 May was a public vindication of the peace process.

An attempt made to assess opinions on the ground by the National Peace Council revealed three important aspects of public attitude towards the peace process, the first being the general absence of overt anger or hatred among Sinhalas against Tamil people or even the LTTE. There appears to be the acknowledgement of another group (or nation) of people who had their own cause and their own valid reasons for fighting, dying and killing. There is private pain, sure, but there is no evidence of community-based anger or hatred towards the other.

The second observation is that the people interviewed in the survey were by and large very well informed about political affairs in Colombo. They knew, for instance, of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's forays abroad where she had spoken in favour of the peace process, and her contrasting words and behaviour in Sri Lanka. They were also aware of the issues surrounding the proposed 18th Amendment to the constitution, especially its main objective of curtailing presidential power. It is evident that mass media, in particular radio and television, has the capacity to penetrate the farthest reaches of the country, taking the debates in the capital to the countryside.

The third observation is that in instances when the debate in the capital is itself weak or non-existent, people elsewhere are equally in the dark. This is the case with issues pertaining to the sharing of power and the form of the possible political solution in a multi-religious and bi-national society where Sinhala nationalism has been confronting Tamil nationalism for the past five decades. These are issues that are not systematically or rigorously discussed either in the mass media or even academia in the capital. It is therefore inevitable that the people at the grassroots level will also not be conversant with these issues.

Pressures, internal and external

Obtaining the cooperation of the opposition in the peace process may not be as difficult as anticipated by the government. It must not be forgotten that the former People's Alliance (PA) government made strenuous efforts to convince people about the need for a political settlement to the ethnic conflict. PA stalwarts frontally confronted nationalist sections of the Sinhala population who opposed the devolution package the PA government had put forward as the base of its solution to the ethnic conflict. They were vilified, but, undeterred. The PA government launched massive propaganda campaigns to promote constitutional reform that sought to abolish the unitary constitution and take the polity in the direction of a more suitable federal one.

The major political grievance of the opposition appears to be the government's effort to marginalise President Chandrika Kumaratunga. As a popularly-elected president who has not yet even completed half of her term of office, President Kumaratunga is theoretically entitled to share power with the UNP government and have it reflected in practice. The president appears to be getting important international backing for her position, as was indicated during her recent trip to India, where the welcome she received suggests that the Indian government would like her to play a more participatory role in the country's governance. This Indian expectation becomes more relevant in light of the government's announcement that the Indians are offering some form of technical assistance to Sri Lanka in the fashioning of political arrangements pertaining to the peace process, such as in the interim administration for the north and east.

It is entirely plausible that the imminent appointment of an interim administration for the north and east headed by the LTTE is causing concern in Indian circles. It is reasonable to believe that India will be concerned about the demonstration effect that an interim arrangement in Sri Lanka might have on Indian separatist groups. Further, India may be concerned that a government headed by Wickremesinghe will be less inclined to resist LTTE demands for maximum autonomy. India may also be concerned that Sri Lanka not offer its Tamil separatists a degree of autonomy that far exceeds what India is prepared to give its own separatist groups. In this regard, ensuring that President Kumaratunga gets back to the centre stage as a partner in the peace process who will be more prepared to strike a harder bargain with the LTTE may seem to be an attractive option for South Block.

Certainly the main credit for the rapid progress of the peace process in the past five months needs to go to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP government. But the prospects for sustaining the support for the peace process in the long term, especially amongst the Sinhala population, would be tremendously boosted with the participation of President Kumaratunga and the PA opposition. A government-opposition memorandum of understanding that provides both sides with mutual guarantees is inescapably necessary if the peace process is to succeed in the long term. A bipartisan approach will not only help to unify the negotiating position of the mainstream polity and provide a sense of security to the Sinhala population — it will also help to get partisan political and media critics of the peace process on board.

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