Recent events in Sri Lanka suggest that government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leaders are discovering the complexity of their evolving roles and slowing adjusting to them. President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s formation of the National Consultation on Ethnic Reconciliation, for example, could have been motivated by several factors. During the previous government, Kumaratunga had virtually single-handedly took the country in the direction of a peace process that envisaged fundamental constitutional reform. She also brought in Norwegian facilitation, which has become the greatest asset to the peace process despite the strong objections of Sinhala nationalists. However, the president’s image on peace issues took a beating during the election campaigns of August 2000 and December 2001. She campaigned on a strategy of militarily weakening the LTTE as a precursor to peace. She was reported to have made chilling predictions about the fate of the Sinhala people in the aftermath of a peace process initiated by the United National Party (UNP). After the UNP’s decisive victory in the general elections, and its equally decisive revival of the peace process, the president has clearly been on the defensive vis-à-vis Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
During the past five months of ceasefire the president has been seen more as a potential spoiler of the peace process than as a positive contributor to it. In this context, it is likely that the primary purpose of the National Consultation is to improve the president’s image, especially regarding her commitment to negotiations with the LITE. Concurrently, the consultation also provides a mechanism through which Kumaratunga can participate in the peace process and make genuine contributions to it. Although she is president, and constitutionally the head of state and government, she is only one of 32 in the cabinet, as she herself has admitted, and the consultation provides an avenue for the exercise of power.
A legitimate and necessary role for the president could be upholding the people’s right to be informed participants in the peace process. No doubt since the general election of December 2001, the new government’s handling of the peace process has surpassed reasonable expectations. But it is also the case that the government’s approach to the peace process stresses technical and non-transparent issues, as a result of which few in civil society and the political sphere are aware as to what is actually happening. Kumaratunga could help fill this void.
On and off track
In the language of conflict resolution theory there are three tracks in any peace process. Track I refers to the direct relationships between the conflicting parties, which in Sri Lanka means the interactions between the government and the LTTE, facilitated by the Norwegian-staffed Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM). The remarkable success of the Sri Lankan peace process to date is confined to this track. Track II refers to the interaction of parties who are in close relationship with the main conflicting parties. Track III refers to civil society involvement in the peace process.
At present the government’s success at the Track I level has not been matched by equivalent successes in the other two. One reason could be the absence of external third party facilitation which has been so vital to Track I. There appears to be a failure on the part of the leaderships of both the government and LTTE to educate their lower-level cadre about what the peace process entails and their obligations in terms of the ceasefire agreement. Among others, these include reports of continuing child recruitment and extortion by the LTTE at the local level and the apparent reluctance of the Sri Lankan security forces and police to deal in an effective manner with law and order problems in the north and east.
In this context recent media reports that the LTTE has requested direct talks with Colombo through the by-passing of Norwegian facilitators cannot be welcomed. Much of the credit for the success of the ongoing peace process needs to be given to the Norwegians, whose quiet diplomacy has been competent and balanced. The importance of an impartial umpire was underscored in the recent confrontations between government forces and the LTTE. One of the key reasons why these incidents did not escalate into violence was undoubtedly the presence of the Norwegian monitors whose impartiality could not be reasonably challenged by either of the two main parties.
At the Track III level it is clear that the government has failed to engage with civil society organisations in a systematic manner since the inception of the peace process. The Norwegian facilitators have been careful to regularly consult with civil society leaders regarding the latter’s observations about both the ongoing peace process and social attitudes toward it. But the same cannot be said about the government leadership, which appears disinterested in what civil society has to offer. Ironically, the national consultation organised by President Kumaratunga was the first major public meeting convened by a government leader to discuss the peace process.
“While the Track I and possibly Track II processes can benefit from foreign expertise and impartiality, the third track is a purely Sri Lankan matter. Explaining the compromises and complexities of the peace process has to be done by Sri Lankans with public credibility. The national consultation on ethnic relations organised by the Presidential Secretariat could therefore serve as the framework of a new effort by the country’s political and civil leaders to make the general population informed participants in the peace process.
To make this initiative credible, the president will have to ensure that the consultation is perceived to be a nonpartisan forum drawn equitably from all sectors of society. The challenge to the president is to transcend her partisanship and resist her political instincts to seek unilateral advantage over opponents. The president’s role in the Track III process will need to be a non-partisan one, requiring considerable statesmanship. Kumaratunga has an unparalleled ability to reach out to people and make the case for political compromise and constitutional change for the sake of ethnic peace, and hopefully she will put these skills to good use.
Leadership challenges are not the exclusive purview of Colombo, as the recent incident at sea involving the SLMM, the LITE and the Sri Lanka navy demonstrates. The dispute arose after two fishing trawlers spotted off the northern coast refused to halt at naval ships’ command. Eventually one of the vessels was stopped, and SLMM representatives were called to board the ship. However, once on board, LTTE crewmembers prevented a complete inspection and moved the trawler to land, taking the monitors with them.
The LTTE’s initial reaction to the strong protest by the SLMM was characteristic of its old habits. Instead of admitting fault or being contrite for violating the ceasefire agreement, the LTTE attempted to take the moral high ground. Their leadership issued a statement accusing the navy of firing at the LTTE vessels, and claimed that the LTTE had taken the international monitors to land for their own safety. Most of the Tamil media gave wide publicity to the LTTE’s version of the incident, and some civic and religious leaders tried to extend credibility to the LTTE story, despite the fact that it was totally contrary to the version of events given by the international monitors themselves.
The LTTE’s response and the supportive environment provided by sections of the media and civil society were replays of what has often happened in the past. When the LITE engaged in some act that would earn it condemnation, it would justify that act as being in the interests of the Tamil cause. It would take the position that it was right in what it did, and it would expect its supporters to follow the same line. An example of this was the assassination of Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam, the internationally respected constitutional law expert and human rights activist whose death the LTTE and its allies claimed to be justified because Tiruchelvam was a ‘collaborator’ with the government.
The LTTE’s accustomed ability to get away with even facile stories of events may explain its unconvincing justification that its cadre sailed away with the international monitors for their own protection. In its dealings with the SLMM, however, the LTTE seems to have overlooked one crucial factor. Unlike as in previous contests with Colombo or other Tamil political parties, the LTTE could not contest the version of events put out by the SLMM, which enjoys independent credibility. Consequently, the LTTE had to back down to the SLMM and express regret over the way it had treated the monitors. Despite its initial intransigence, the LTTE demonstrated that it can quickly adjust to new realities and apparently has succeeded in patching up its relationship with the SLMM.
In the past few months of ceasefire, the SLMM has been playing a vitally important role in preserving peace between the government and LTTE. The physical presence of the SLMM and the ability of the two sides to complain to it, and to have an impartial third party take down grievances, has helped defuse tensions.
The new challenge for the LTTE’s leadership is dealing with an impartial facilitator whose word will be taken as the final one by the international community and also by most Sri Lankans. It is no longer a question of having to choose between the LTTE’s version of events and the government’s and doing independent research to find out who is saying the truth. The presence of the SLMM has made an objective assessment of the situation in the north and east possible in a way that was not practically possible prior to its entry into the Sri Lankan peace process. Hopefully the LTTE will learn a lesson that its interpretation of future events, and of the ceasefire agreement, will not be the only valid one amongst both northeastern Tamils and all Sri Lankans.