The Sri Lankan debate on the peace process is a pessimistic one, opined Professor Johan Galtung in mid December at a seminar on peace journalism organised by the Sarvodaya Movement in association with the National Peace Council and the People's Action for Free and Fair Elections. Galtung, a world-renowned authority on conflict resolution and a pioneer in formulating peace concepts, came to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Sarvodaya leader Dr AT Ariyaratne, and his speech was at least partially an appeal to his old friend and civil society more generally. Speaking at a gathering of journalists, Galtung urged his audience to cultivate a spirit of optimism and take it to the country at-large.

There are pessimistic and optimistic ways of looking at matters. Religious teachings have often been a source of optimism for human beings, whatever may be their rational or irrational basis. They provide hope that the future can be positive even when the present is negative, thereby inducing people to work hard for a better tomorrow. While finding fault with the present peace process on many grounds, including the issue of the Voice of Tigers radio transmitters, Galtung urged optimism in working through the problems and finding solutions to them.

In his address, Galtung drew a distinction between war and peace journalism. In war journalism, which is the kind practised by most journalists covering conflict situations worldwide, there are two important questions: who did it, and who is winning and losing? War journalism tends to focus on what is negative and what causes hatred. As a counterpoint, Galtung discussed peace journalism, which is based on two different questions: what is this problem about, and how can it best be resolved? Good journalistic practice, he said, combines both types of reporting.

Considerable journalistic energy has been expended in recent weeks over the shipment of radio equipment to the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) in Wanni by the Norwegian embassy in Colombo. The discovery of the shipment, and the appearance of Norwegian partisanship colouring it, have led to calls for the expulsion of the Norwegian ambassador by extremist Sinhala parties. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, has also been the subject of opposition party anger, which has included allegations of treason. Despite being a Norwegian himself, Galtung was very critical of the Norwegian embassy's role in the radio transmitter affair.

No clarification

Undoubtedly, it would be a great improvement if the LTTE engaged in a dialogue with Sinhalas through radio waves rather than in military assaults of the kind that have caused large-scale loss of life affecting families in both the north and south. Strengthening the LTTE's radio transmission capabilities at this time would help it in political, not military, work. This would help the LTTE to strengthen itself politically at a time when it is expected to make the difficult transition from a military organisation to a political one.

From the viewpoint of peace journalism, the controversy over the radio equipment is an opportunity to understand the complex set of issues inherent in the peace process. The circumstances under which the Norwegians came to be involved in the import of the radio transmitters and their clearance past customs authorities have not yet been clarified by either the Sri Lankan government or the Norwegian embassy. This needs to be done without further delay – people have a right to know what has actually happened. Until such time, speculation can be expected to take the place of facts.

Some background information, however, is available at this time. Even before signing the ceasefire agreement and especially since, the LTTE has been trying to get its point of view across to Sinhalas. The LTTE feels that at present only part of its message reaches the Sinhala public, and even that is filtered through the perception of Sinhala-owned media. In recent months, the LTTE has made an attempt to address this problem by publishing a monthly newspaper in Sinhala called Dedunna (rainbow).

Another potential LTTE strategy to reach the Sinhala people was the use of the radio waves. A few months ago, there was some informal discussion about the possibility of the LTTE getting time on SLBC state radio to broadcast its message to the whole of Sri Lanka. Obviously, these broadcasts would have been within the framework of the ceasefire agreement and the larger peace process. Southern-based development NGOs, ruling party officials and media personnel with government links participated in these preliminary discussions.

Providing the LTTE with a programme on the SLBC channel would have enabled it to reach a much larger audience than setting up its own radio channel to broadcast to Sinhalas. A radio programme on SLBC would have permitted interaction with Sinhala audiences through a question-and-answer format in which Sinhala listeners could have voiced their concerns to the LTTE and received responses. The LTTE's current effort to publish a Sinhala newspaper has not been very successful, given that it reaches very few people. A similar investment in an advertising supplement in a large circulation Sinhala newspaper would garner a much larger readership.

At a subsequent stage in the discussions, it is likely that higher-level government contacts were made. It is probably at this later stage that the prospect of providing the LTTE with radio transmitters capable of reaching beyond Wanni was broached. In its election manifesto, the ruling party promised to establish an interim administration headed by the LTTE in the north and east, which is similar to what its predecessor in office, the People's Alliance (PA), was contemplating before losing power in 2001. The ultimate aim of both parties has been to transform the LTTE into a political organisation with Norwegian facilitation.

Bad timing

However, there is valid cause for concern over the undemocratic way in which the government and the Norwegian embassy are assisting the LTTE's bid to strengthen itself politically. The LTTE is currently making a major effort to suppress the political activities of its Tamil rivals in the north and east. The LTTE-backed campaigns of intimidation against the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), and its insistence that the EPDP should vacate the north and east, cannot be justified by the criteria of democracy and justice that the peace process is meant to restore. Further, the murder, torture and disappearance of Tamil political activists in the north and east are reprehensible and should be stopped immediately.

One of the opposition's main charges against the peace process is that it is based on a one-sided compromise and appeasement in which the LTTE prevails at the cost of the government. The PA, now in opposition, has called for the government to engage in harder bargaining with the LTTE. Certainly, where it concerns human rights, and the freedom to live without fear of being picked up and disappearing, there can be no compromise. It is clear that the present mechanism is inadequate in this respect. A human rights monitoring mechanism needs to be put in place that can name, shame and put a stop to such abuses.

A further problem concerns the involvement of the Norwegian embassy in securing the radio transmitters for the LTTE. As the facilitator, it is important that the Norwegians maintain an image of neutrality in the eyes of the general public. Even if the Norwegians were requested by the Sri Lankan government to facilitate the provision of the radio transmitters, the mere fact of such assistance without an explanation damages their image of neutrality in the eyes of the people.

Conflict resolution theorists have developed a concept of 'insider partial' mediation. This concept seeks to explain situations where a third party mediator is partial to the parties whose conflict it is trying to resolve, even at the expense of others, such as the EPDP and other Tamil parties, who are outside that process. In this instance, however, there is a danger that the general public will see the Norwegians as having acted in a way that is partial only to the LTTE, which is not the complete picture.

The Norwegian government is a major source of developmental and technical assistance to Sri Lanka, regardless of whether the island is headed by the United National Party or the PA. It is not as if it is helping only the LTTE. Both the government and the LTTE have repeatedly expressed their gratitude for the Norwegian role in bringing about the ceasefire and taking the peace process forward. But there are other parties that need to be brought on board, the most important of which being the general public.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian