When Sri Lanka surfaces in the international media it is almost invariably in connection with ethnic violence. Such stories have been grim and arresting in the last two decades. There have been mob riots in which the government has been complicitous. There have been dramatic military encounters where on a single day major army bases have fallen and a thousand soldiers have been killed. There have been devastations in the heart of the capital, Colombo, including an attack on the airport that destroyed the country´s fleet of international carriers. The bulk, though not all, of the violence of the last 20 years is an outcome of the long war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighting for an independent Tamil homeland. In these two decades, the LTTE has emerged as a powerful, internationally active organisation claiming to be the sole representative of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Its leader has a cult status and he commands an army of over 10,000 soldiers, each of whom has sworn to commit suicide by swallowing a cyanide rather than surrender.
However, things are beginning to change after the dramatic ceasefire agreement between Sri Lankan government and LTTE in February 2002 that followed nearly three months of unofficial ceasefire. Increasingly media coverage has focused on Sri Lanka as a possible model for peace making in a conflict-ridden region. South Asia, with its nuclear arsenals, geopolitical rivalries, ethnic conflicts and insurgencies, is regarded as being amongst the most unstable regions in the world. Consequently, there are many who see the recent developments in Sri Lanka as a possible indication that textbooks approaches to peace making, with third party mediation, can be successful.
All this optimism notwithstanding, it will be premature to regard the Sri Lankan conflict as a closed chapter. The question still remains whether a stable, negotiated peace that entails mutual compromise is possible in Sri Lanka. There are several reasons why this must still be treated as an open question despite the peace talks progressing to the fourth round. On the one hand, the LTTE´s highly military character, the deep division in the Sinhalese polity on several curcial issues, and the presence of economic vested interests who profit from conflict are serious obstacles to political reforms and compromise that induce a sense of prudent pessimism. On the other hand, a general weariness with war among the public at large, economic debilitation, financial exhaustion on both sides and the threat of the US-led war against terrorism inviting itself over to the island, puts pressure on the conflicting parties to compromise and resolve their disputes through political negotiations. Given these two conflicting sets of forces at work, the February 2002 ceasefire agreement, brokered under Norwegian diplomatic auspices, must be seen as a pragmatic response to one set of realities on the ground and in the environment, which has to contend with another set of realities that militate against peace. The negotiations, therefore, still hang in delicate balance, and there are good reasons to avoid the belief that peace will be the necessary outcome of the process.
At different points in the last year there have been occasions when the durability of ceasefire looked to be in some doubt. Demonstrating the fragility of the ceasefire at the initial and hence critical stage, the US embassy in Sri Lanka circulated a statement by its ambassador, Ashley Wills, just a month after hostilities had been officially and mutually called to a halt. Issued on 11 March 2002 the statement said, We have heard credible reports that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are engaged in activities that could jeopardise the recent indefinite ceasefire accord reached with the Sri Lankan government. These reports recount increased LTTE recruitment in Sri Lanka´s north and east, including of children, as well as kidnapping and extortion, especially of Muslims. To be fair, we understand that incidents of recruitment, kidnapping and extortion have apparently decreased in recent days, a trend that we hope will continue. There also have been credible reports of LTTE resupply operations since the ceasefire. Continued smuggling of weapons by the LTTE could undermine the trust needed to move from a cessation of hostilities to a lasting peace.
While Tamil politicians and media reacted negatively to the US statement, it is likely that sections among the Tamil community felt otherwise. There is no doubt that the offences identified by the US ambassador have been taking place, with even independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International calling on the LTTE to refrain from such activities. It is not only the Muslims who have been feeling the burden of the LTTE’s heavy taxation, but also Tamils in areas newly accessible to the LTTE on account of the ceasefire agreement. Despite the hostile reaction of a section of the mainstream Tamil public, the LTTE itself was very moderate in its immediate response. The LTTE´s chief negotiator Dr Anton Balasingham pledged that the LTTE was committed to the peace process. Subsequently it was reported that the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran was himself very concerned about the allegations and would take action against any LTTE violations of the ceasefire agreement. These are promising signs that the LTTE is making the transition to a political organisation that is prepared to deal with the rest of the world on the basis of give and take and accountability in accordance with international norms of human rights.
But setting aside such grounds for a cautious optimism, there are still pending issues that provoke concern. The reference in the US statement to the Muslims brings to the fore a submerged aspect of Sri Lanka´s ethnic conflict, which represents just one of the many unresolved issues that will entail a great deal of effort in ensuring a dispensation that not only satisfies the Sinhala and the Tamil leaderships, but at the same time does not compromise the interests of other minorities in the country. The Muslims, despite being mainly Tamil speaking, nevertheless consider themselves to be a distinct ethnic community. Although they constitute a significant portion of the Sri Lankan population, they are thinly dispersed throughout the country, which has weakened their bargaining strength for regional autonomy, unlike the Tamils who are regionally concentrated in the north and east. But the Muslims are a majority in significant pockets of the east. Along with the Tamils, they have been victims of governments-sponsored land settlement schemes that brought in Sinhalese into areas of the east where they once dominated.
However, they have also suffered grievously at the hands of the LTTE, the most striking occasion being when nearly 100,000 Muslims were expelled from Jaffna and other parts of the north in 1990 with just two hours’ notice. They were forced to leave without times to pick up their belongings, even jewelry. During the period of armed conflict they were reluctant to voice their sentiments, but now with the advent of the ceasefire and increased international attention, they have been demanding the same rights and privileges that are to be accorded to the Tamils. To what extent the peace process succeeds will depend on its capacity to withstand and substantively accommodate such entirely justified demands that deviate from the original disputes at stake.
Clearly, there is more to the solution than just the interests of the two parties who are negotiating. Therefore, the negotiation parties will actually need to address issues much wider in scope than merely a Sinhala-Tamil agreement. Since the issue will ultimately be multipartite and the negotiations are for all practical purposes bipartite, the credibility of the peace process presupposes the need to forge a minimum consensual agreement between the constituencies whose interests are explicitly or by default being represented and bargained at the negotiations. This is manifestly not the case on either side of the negotiating fence and this puts pressure on the negotiators from the respective ethnic constituencies that they claim to represent.
Part of the problem of working out a ‘clean’ ethnic solution is that the ethnic constituencies are themselves not always tidily demarcated. To compound matters, there have been changes in the pattern of ethnic demographics during the period of conflict. In terms of aggregative statistics, Sri Lanka’s ethnic plurality has the appearance of a neat configuration into which the country’s 18 million people are arranged. The Sinhalese form the main ethnic group with 74 percent of the population. The majority of the Sinhalese are Buddhists by religion and is mainly concentrated in the south, west and central parts of the country. At the start of the conflict, the Sri Lankan Tamils made up 12 percent of the population and made up the second largest ethnic group. They are in a majority in the north-east of the country. The Muslims form the third major ethnic group with eight percent of the population and a relative concentration in the east. The Up Country Tamils, who are of recent Indian origins, form the fourth major community with about five percent of the population. They live in the central hills of the country and have not been involved in the separatist conflict. Most of the Tamils are Hindu by religion. While a minority of both Sinhalese and Tamils, together making up about 7 percent of are Christians, they are not considered to be a separate ethnic group.
Externalities of war
No census was conducted for a 20-year period, owing to the conflict in the country. The census count that was eventually carried out in 2001 did not cover most of the northeast province, which is contested territory and claimed by Tamil nationalists as the “traditional Tamil homeland”. The new census and estimates for the northeast suggest that spatially the ethnic distribution is more complex than often presumed. For one, the estimates indicate that the Tamil population has dropped to a little under 11 percent of the population in the intervening period since the last census in 1981. But, by far the most striking point highlighted by the census is the ethnic intermingling that has been going on among the Sri Lankan population. Colombo city, located in the southwest, registered a Sinhalese population of only 41 percent in the 2001 census. In the country’s capital, Tamil speakers constitute the ethnic majority.
It is not difficult to see how a long drawn out conflict can bring about significant changes in ethnic demographics, both over time and across regions. The war that began in 1983 has caused around 65,000 deaths and major damage to personal and public property with the total economic loss between 1983-98 estimated at 1.27 times the GDP as at 1998. Destruction on such a scale inevitably sparks of major changes in population patterns. Over the last two decades a total of some one million persons have been uprooted and displaced internally. In the corresponding period, another half a million people have left the country to claim refugee status abroad. The resultant demographic variation represents one of the paradoxes of ethnic conflict. War introduces externalities over the long run that change some of the objective co-ordinates of the original situation.
Such changes in the demographic co-ordinates pose two related problems. On the one hand they scramble the issue of ethnic homelands based on demographic majority. On the other hand they unleash renewed disputes between sections on both sides about the relative changes in ethnic compositions and the presumed causes thereof. That the demographic issue continues to fester in the political sphere is evident from the four-party Tamil Alliance manifesto of late 2001. The manifesto made a reference to the discrepancies in the “natural increase of Sinhala population country-wide” and in the eastern province, which attracted a forceful response by commentators in the Sri Lankan media. Disputes on the politics of ethnic profiles and data could provide ammunition to conflict enthusiasts to erode support for a peace process that is ultimately hostage to the ethnic question.
Ethnic war based on foundational objectives and counter-objectives has its own self-driven logic, and once it has begun can scarcely be arrested by citing changing population statistics that can undermine at least some of the original rationale of the conflict. Because such conflicts are almost entirely absorbed in a contested history of ethnic rights and wrongs, evolving census figures are not particularly relevant to the war. But they could become extremely important in peace. When the guns go silent, unstated and disregarded premises of ethnic pluralism usually come to the surface to demand their share of attention. As a result, if the question of a durable peace is to be addressed an environment of accommodation will be necessary in order to resolve the ethnic anomalies to general satisfaction.
It is unfortunate that such an environment does not seem to be emerging. If anything, a persistence of the historical attitudes that gave rise to the original problem can be detected among crucial segments of the body politic, even as a demonstrably growing sentiment for a just peace is becoming evident in civil society. A comparison between the political attitudes prevalent before the war began and those that are also being voiced today shows just how the persistence of unyielding ethnic nationalism poses a threat to peace.
Sri Lanka has had a relatively long tradition of the modern system of political participation, stretching back to the British colonial period. The country was one of the first in the world to enjoy universal suffrage in 1931. But the inability of the political elites belonging to the different ethnic groups to share power equitably among themselves led to a series of broken agreements and to acute mistrust between leaders of these communities. The difficulty of protecting minority interests in a parliamentary system in which majority-minority relations are strained is exemplified by Sri Lanka´s modern political history.
In Sri Lanka, the centralised state inherited by the newly independent country in 1948 effectively transferred political power into the hands of the Sinhalese majority. This power was immediately used to restrict the membership of the polity by denying citizenship rights to the “Indian Tamil” or Up Country Tamil population and by seeking to correct “historical wrongs” done to the majority. This followed a pattern in which the politicisation of ethnicity has occurred in contemporary plural societies, and the claims to group entitlements in current mass politics provide the initial basis for collective identity, mobilisation and action.
The skewed distribution of political power in parliament also led to the emergence and accentuation of economic disparities between the Sinhalese- and Tamil-majority parts of the country. While social welfare benefits such as health and education were relatively equitably distributed throughout the country, the same did not hold true for large-scale economic investments. With few exceptions, these prized projects, which provided opportunities for political patronage and development, were located in the Sinhalese majority parts of the country. Ruling party politicians were in constant tussle to secure these projects for their own electorates. As the Tamils from the north in particular were rarely represented in the higher rungs of the government, their case was lost by default. The deprivation of the Tamil majority areas has continued in aggravated form due to the war of the past 18 years. A recent National Peace Council study shows that the output of the northeast is a mere 60 percent of what it used to be in 1983, when the war commenced.
Several serious efforts made by government to work out a solution with the Tamil political leaderships failed due to the inability to obtain the support of the ruling party let alone the opposition. The most outstanding instance was the agreement reached in 1957 between the prime minister at that time, SWRD Bandaranaike, and the leader to the largest Tamil party SJV Chelvanayakan. The prime minister unilaterally abrogated the agreement when it proved generally unpopular among the Sinhalese. Buddhist monks even demonstrated in large numbers against the agreement, which offered autonomy to the Tamil areas. A similar agreement arrived at in 1965 by prime minister Dudley Senanayake suffered the same fate, this time due to strong internal divisions within the ruling party itself. The salient feature of both these agreements was the provision of a degree of autonomy to the northern and eastern provinces and to permit them to merge or work together if they so desired. The issue of self-rule, regional autonomy and merger of the two provinces remain the key issues dividing Sinhalese and Tamil sentiment to this day.
Efforts to arrive at a constitutional solution after the civil war commenced proved to be ineffective precisely because they were formulated without adequate heed to the roots of the problem. The 13th amendment to the constitution, which gave effect to the devolution provisions of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of July 1987, sought to devolve power to provincial councils throughout Sri Lanka. It contained three lists, which enumerated areas of power devolved to the provinces, retained at the centre, and those concurrently exercised but which were ultimately controlled by parliament at the centre. However, continued centralisation of power was represented by the executive presidency. According to the commentator Rohan Edrisinghe:
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to practical devolution was the first phrase of the Reserved List, which provided for ´National Policy on all Subjects and Functions´ to be determined by Parliament. This phrase completely undermined powers apparently devolved to the provinces. Since the inauguration of the 13th Amendment, Parliament has used this rubric often to encroach into the provincial sphere.
So far the most radical proposals for ending the ethnic conflict through a constitutional arrangement has been the “Devolution Package” of August 1995, proposed by the government as a draft document. This sought to redefine “the constitutional foundation of a plural society”. The draft proposed that the provincial councils of the 13th Amendment be renamed as regional councils with added powers. According to Edrisinghe,
…the deletion of Articles 2 and 76 of the constitution, which entrenched the unitary character of Sri Lanka, removed an unnecessary obstacle to substantial devolution. The abolition of the Concurrent List was another positive feature, as were other attempts to remove ambiguity in the division of powers. These included the clarification of the role of provincial governors and the awarding of greater revenue raising powers to the regional council.
However, a major weakness in the proposed regional councils was the power of the executive president to dissolve a council in case of emergency. Further, its framers failed to respond to the larger issues, such as those of self-determination and nationhood, and obtaining the concurrence of the LTTE, which predictably rejected the devolution package as being insufficient.
People and parties
The unwillingness to part with the surplus of power at the center continues to be a problem. Consequently, despite the progress in the negotiations since the election of a new government, in December 2001, there remain concerns about the sustainability of the peace process. Sections of the opposition are vigorously opposing the ceasefire agreement on various grounds. Among others, it is seen as an unconstitutional measure, as a “sell-out” by the government and as the prelude to a renewed LTTE military campaign for separation. Spearheading the opposition to the ceasefire agreement is the Janata Vimukthi Peramunna (JVP), a Marxist-oriented political party that attempted to violently overthrow the government in 1971 and again in 1988-89. On both occasions the JVP was militarily suppressed at the cost of enormous loss of lives, estimated at around 15,000 and 30,000 respectively.
The JVP´s position draws upon a perception shared by many Sinhalese that the devolution of power is a means of dividing the country along ethnic lines. The fears of the division of the country in the minds of a sizeable proportion of the Sinhalese constitute a major obstacle to a negotiated solution with the LTTE. Clearly the preferred option for this section of the population is a military solution that will completely eliminate the LTTE and thereby end the threat to the country´s unity.
If the fear of ethnic erosion of national unity is an ideological impediment to a solution, the use of ethnic conflict as an element in political competition between mainstream political parties constitutes a more myopic instrumental obstacle to peace. As a result the country has witnessed constant rivalry between the government and opposition parties on the issue of ethnic concessions. As the commentator Godfrey Goonatilleke points out,
A clear lesson emerging from past failures is that no effort at resolving the conflict will succeed unless there is a broad-based consensus within each community, Sinhala and Tamil, around a solution that is perceived by both as equitable. The internal power struggles within both the communities – Sinhala and Tamil – have continuously thwarted such a process of consensus building. The negotiations took place in a changing configuration of political power with the constant prospect of changes of government, in which the ethnic issue was perceived as being a crucial factor. The history of negotiations up to 1990 show that each of the two major Sinhala-dominated political parties, SLFP and UNP, have endeavoured to reach a political settlement when they have been in power and have opposed or thwarted a settlement when are in opposition. The party in power then opts for an easy way out of the dilemma by withdrawing its proposal. It justifies its action on the ground that they cannot obtain the support of the people. (Negotiations for the Resolution of the Ethnic Conflict).
Gunatilleke continues, “The other feature in the Sinhala-Tamil relations was the incapacity or unwillingness of the Sinhala leadership to resist the well organised, highly vocal pressure groups within their own constituency. This became a recurring characteristic of Sinhala-Tamil negotiations.” Commenting on SWRD Bandaranaike’s early and aborted attempt at reconciliation, the same author observes,
…his convictions were not deep enough to oppose the Sinhala leaders who would not concede that the Tamils had genuine grievances or that their aspirations for a share of power were reasonable. Above all, the Tamil issue seemed to be at the periphery of the political agenda, and largely for demographic reasons the dissatisfaction of the Tamils seemed manageable. What pre-occupied Bandaranaike and other Sinhala leaders was the socio-economic socialist agenda and its impact upon the population as a whole.
For many years now, community leaders and political analysts have been calling for a consensus between the two major political parties for a solution to the long drawn out ethnic conflict to emerge. But in doing so, they may have glossed over the political realities that have kept the two dominant parties apart on the issue. The hard fact is that the Sinhalese community, which by far forms the largest segment of the electorate, is still more or less evenly divided on the question of political reforms that could lead to a political settlement of the ethnic conflict. It is a justifiable surmise that the perceived sentiment of a significant section of the electorate enables parties to adopt it as a platform for mutual recrimination and political jostling. Conversely, the hardline rhetoric of party politics reproduces and crystalises ethnic antipathies and dilutes the national capacity for conceding regional autonomy by creating sharply divided opinion among the Sinhala majority.
A public opinion poll commissioned by the National Peace Council in 1999 and carried out by Research International showed that up to 48 percent of the Sinhalese polled did not favour using the government´s devolution package in negotiations with the LTTE, with only 41 percent in favour. Although 48 percent of Sinhalese were in favour of government-LTTE negotiations, another 48 percent were not in favour. As many as 37 percent favoured an outright military solution. (National Peace Council, What the People think about the Ethnic Conflict-Results of Opinion Polls, Colombo, 2000). Some changes in favour of peace are discernible at the popular level. More recent opinion polls carried out show that upwards of 80 percent of those surveyed approve of the present ceasefire and believe that peace talks are the way to resolve the conflict (Social Indicator, 2002). However, there does not seem to be a corresponding change of attitude among the parliamentary opposition in the country. To the extent that they have the capacity to influence the general public, particularly at difficult points that inevitably must arise in the negotiation process, not all of those who support the ceasefire need necessarily remain loyal to the ideals of a negotiated settlement involving significant concessions. In fact, a sizeable proportion of those polled have also expressed their disquiet about the concessions being made on the ground. At the present moment, those who are willing to accept a political solution and compromise enjoy the upper hand. And this only demonstrates that the hard reality of a Sinhalese population that is not united in meeting Tamil negotiating positions cannot be glossed over.
Against this uncertain and contingent nature of popular support for negotiations, there has been one heartening trend. It has long been believed that at various levels the defence establishment has been a beneficiary of the ethnic conflict and the associated war. A very noticeable aspect of the present situation is that these vested interests have not been able to pose any sort of open challenge to the ongoing ceasefire agreement. The military appears, for the present, to be cooperating with the government in an arrangement that could partially undermine the expanded role it had come to acquire in national life. This would suggest that the strength of its vested interest in the continuation of the war has been over-estimated. Certainly the conditions of war have permitted rent-seeking behaviour at all levels of the military, such as at checkpoints where an unofficial tax can be extracted from traders and civilians. Massive military procurements have led to allegations of the role of commissions in determining the type and quantum of such purchases. The potential for economically profiting from the war will be affected by a return to normalcy. Yet the military has been cooperating with the new government. It would appear that the military is unable to resist the political will and determination on the part of the government to engage in non-violent conflict resolution.
But if the military’s conduct so far has been a positive factor there remain other problems, particularly on the other side of the battlefield. From its inception the LTTE has had an ideological commitment to an independent state of Tamil Eelam. As the organisation’s letterhead unequivocally asserts, “The thirst of the Tigers is Tamil Eelam”. Motivated by this vision of independence, several thousand Tamil youths have joined the LTTE cadre and have died in combat or as suicide bombers participating in assassination attempts. Every LTTE cadre has a cyanide capsule around his or her neck, which he or she is expected to swallow if captured. The LTTE has killed the leadership of every other Tamil political party, including other guerilla groups, and many leading members of the Sri Lankan government. For such an autocratic, ruthless and committed organisation to join the democratic mainstream within the framework of a united Sri Lanka, in which there is a Sinhalese majority, and be subjected to the checks and balances of democracy is difficult to envisage at this time.
The LTTE has had only one leader, Velupillai Prabakaran, who enjoys a cult status within the organisation and is believed by many to be a virtual superman. Since its inception in the early 1970s, the LTTE has been a highly centralised and militarised organisation without an effective political wing. There are fears about the capacity of the LTTE to demobilise itself and of the difficulties that its cadres are likely to encounter in adjusting to a non-military lifestyle in conformity with democratic practices. At present, due to the Norwegian-facilitated peace process, an LTTE political wing appears to be emerging, but unlike the Sinn Fein-IRA arrangement in Northern Ireland, the LTTE´s political wing is completely under the domination of the military leadership, and the LTTE´s undisputed leader is Velupillai Prabakaran. Further, the LTTE leader has an Indian arrest warrant against him due the Indian judiciary´s ruling that his organisation was responsible for the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. These circumstances will make it more difficult for the LTTE to enter the mainstream of civil and political life.
Despite such daunting obstacles, the two parties to the negotiations have gone ahead with the peace agenda, establishing new precedents and introducing new principles of conflict resolution compared to what the island has witnessed in the past. The current government´s strategy is a complete shift from that of the previous government´s stance, which was to confront the LTTE at every level. The Wickremesinghe administration’s strategy appears to be based on an assessment of the Chandrika Kumaratunga government´s failure to make any headway through confrontation. After the collapse of the peace talks with the LTTE at the very beginning of its term of office in April 1995, Kumaratunga declared a full scale war for peace. The two-pronged military and political strategy was intended to weaken and sideline the LTTE. But both types of confrontation failed, as the military and political stalemate continued, broken by occasional advances and reverses, even as the government’s financial position reached critical levels.
Initially, the retaking of Jaffna by the Sri Lanka Army through Operation Riviresa in November 1995 seemed to indicate that the military strategy of full scale confrontation would succeed. But thereafter poorly executed military campaigns, such as the two and a half year Operation Jayasikuru to retake the A9 main road to Jaffna failed at very high cost. Instead of being militarily weakened, the LTTE emerged militarily energised from these major confrontations. The former government´s political initiative against the LTTE in the form of the devolution package, which offered much hope in its initial manifestation of August 1995, could also not be sustained. The government had to confront continuous political opposition to its devolution package, even incurring the wrath of religious prelates. Ultimately, the government´s bid to transmute the devolution package into constitutional law proved unsuccessful. In a replay of the partisan politics that have dogged all political efforts down the decades to end the ethnic conflict through negotiations, the opposition led by Ranil Wickremesinghe simply refused to cooperate.
The pattern reversed when Wickremesinghe assumed prime ministerial office, with the difference that his government has gone further down the road of negotiations and concessions than all previous governments. It would appear that his government has absorbed two important lessons from the failure of the former government´s methods. The first is that high profile head-on confrontation will not bring a solution to the ethnic conflict. There is not much going for this strategy since the LTTE thrives on such confrontation. The rebel group is astute enough to ensure that the costs of any confrontational situation are piled onto the Tamil civilian population, thereby reinforcing in them the already deep-seated alienation from the Sri Lankan government, which is made to appear to be the source of their problems. The government has now evolved new methods of political and conflict management. Thus, the government has decided that political and structural reforms might have to be ushered in de facto rather than de jure, to be acquiesced in by the general population with whom as little information as possible is shared. The alternative of explaining everything in detail to the people in order to get them to vote in favour of the settlement is likely to be muddied in too much controversy. There is deep-rooted resistance in the Sinhalese community to fundamental constitutional reform that would lead to power sharing across the ethnic and regional lines.
The second lesson evidently learnt by the Wickremesinghe government is that all outstanding problems cannot be resolved in one go, but require a stage by stage approach. The two-pronged approach of the former government aimed at knock-out victories, such as the military reconquest of Jaffna, and the devolution package aimed at winning over the Tamil constituency. But even when government made limited military advances, the LTTE’s resilience of the LTTE ensured that the government could not convert its military advances, as in Jaffna into comprehensive victory. It is likely that even if the devolution package had been passed with the bipartisan support of the opposition, its implementation would have been impossible due to LTTE resistance. The successful introduction, let alone implementation of the political package, required as a precondition the military defeat of the organisation. Having witnessed, and contributed to, the failure of the former government´s confrontational strategy, the new government appears to have opted for a non-confrontational strategy for the time being at least.
Another year of ceasefire
The inability of the Sri Lankan state to wrest back control over considerable areas of the country over the past 15 years is a key feature of the current situation. A viable strategy for the government would be to accept the situation of dual military power, so long as there is no major fighting between the two armies. However, recognising the fact that the LTTE is unlikely to be content with having its political power restricted to the areas currently under its direct military control, the organisation will have to be given a greater scope for such power in northeast areas under government control as well.
It is likely that both the government and LTTE will see this arrangement as one that can be extended indefinitely. In such a situation, major military contests between the two sides will come to an end. With the onset of peace there is likely to be enhanced economic growth and activity leading to incremental political changes that introduce more democratic practices as business prospers. But such as arrangement, however pragmatic it might seem at present, raises its own set of problems. One question is whether the LTTE will be satisfied with ruling the north-east by proxy. The other is the uncertainty about how long the Sri Lankan government will wish to continue a dispensation in which it effectively cedes sovereignty over a part of its territory.
The alternative course of straightforward political negotiations between the government and LTTE leading to a new constitutional order and permanent political settlement is superficially more attractive, but is unlikely to be feasible for some key reasons. The first is the dim likelihood of the government being able to obtain the unified support of the opposition for this purpose. The Sri Lankan constitution requires a parliamentary majority of two third for any constitutional amendment to be passed. This must then be followed by a referendum in which the people have to give their consent to changes in any entrenched constitutional provision.
Changes in the political structure that satisfy the LTTE and Tamil aspirations will undoubtedly require the abrogation of Article 2 of the constitution, which specifies that the state shall be unitary. This automatically implies that, constitutionally at least, far reaching devolution of powers is not possible so long as this provision is in existence. Article 2, being an entrenched provision, requires mandatory popular ratification through a referendum. However, the unvarying pattern of the past is that the political parties in opposition do not lend their support to the parties in government when it comes to addressing the ethnic conflict. Instead they use the platform of anticipated political reform to oppose the government on the ground that the country’s unity is being endangered.
For its part, the LTTE at present appears to be satisfied with the government´s willingness not to push them too soon into discussing the political issues and appears to be cooperating with the government. However, the danger exists of the government permitting the ceasefire to continue indefinitely without addressing the hard political issues that underlie the ethnic conflict. The government must be prepared to acknowledge these hard issues and make a commitment that it is prepared to deal with them after a stable ceasefire has been reached. Clearly, what is appropriate at this time is not a full-fledged negotiation on political issues. The time is still premature for such a political solution. What the LTTE wants, and will ask for, at this time is too much for the government to concede. These would include an autonomous arrangement that includes the Thimpu principles of Tamil nationhood, self-determination and homelands. Likewise what the government will want of the LTTE is too much for the LTTE concede at this time, particularly the renunciation of a separate state and the decommissioning of arms.
While the gap between the government and the LTTE on the political issues is too wide to be bridged in the immediate time frame, there is a likelihood that a successful ceasefire that lasts a further year, and is accompanied by rapid economic growth, would serve as a confidence-building measure. It could make the gap between the government’s position and that of the LTTE more bridgeable in the years ahead. The prospect of resolving the hard political issues by negotiating a durable and just political solution could also become the motivation to maintain the ceasefire.
The building blocks of a negotiated solution would be certain non-negotiables of the two sides. On the government side, it would be the unity and territorial integrity of the country. On the LTTE side it would be the Thimpu principles, which lay claim to the Tamils being a nation, with a homeland and the right of self-determination. The LTTE would also wish to keep their arms for the foreseeable future. The constitutional and political arrangements suggested by these determinants would be a variant of federalism and confederalism. Asymmetric federalism, which provides the Tamil-dominated region more powers than are given to other regions of the country, was suggested by Ranil Wickremesinghe when he was leader of the opposition. It is likely that the devolution of powers to the Tamil-dominated region would be more substantial in areas that have been contested ones. These include education, land, industry and security. Provision will also have to be made for the protection of the rights of the Tamil-speaking Muslim minority and Sinhalese in the north and east that will come under Tamil majority rule. Further, given the ethnic mix outside of the north-east, and the large numbers of Tamils and Muslims outside of the north and east, mechanisms to ensure powersharing at the centre and the rights of ethnic minorities countrywide would also need to be evolved and put in place.
Where questions of political power and constitutional reform are concerned, there is likely to be a high degree of divergence dispute and regarding the way forward to a mutually acceptable solution. There will undoubtedly be differences between the government, the opposition and the LTTE. These differences pertaining to issues of governance will be reflected among the people at large. A more democratic and consultative type of decision-making will be required at this later stage than the new government presently appears to be contemplating. Civil society organisations need to be preparing the people for the restructuring of the polity in the longer term. The international community will have to play an important and effective role. The past experience with the LTTE has been one of disengagement once discussions reach substantive issues. This is on account of the wide gap between the LTTE demands and what Sri Lankan governments have hitherto been prepared to offer. The success of the peace talks would depend largely on international pressure that would keep the government and the LTTE at the negotiating table, and compel them towards compromise.
The breakthrough in Oslo in November 2002 was in keeping with the record set by the government and the LTTE following the general election of December 2001. The statement issued by the Norwegian facilitators at the close of the third session of peace talks in Oslo said,
Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking people based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities.
Just as the lifting of the security barriers in Colombo in February caught most people by surprise, so was the latest announcement regarding the acceptability of a federal model of government by the two parties. Until that announcement the LTTE had never categorically stated what type of concrete political solution it would be prepared to accept.
The table’s same side
For the past several years the LTTE had been saying it was prepared to accept a viable alternative to Tamil Eelam. However, the precise nature of the alternative was left unstated. The furthest it would go was to say that this viable alternative should be in accordance with the principles worked out jointly by all Tamil parties participating at the Thimpu peace talks in 1985. Since the relevant principles pertained to nationhood, self-determination and traditional homelands, successive governments and Sinhalese nationalists in general construed it to mean nothing short of independence. However, in the context of the mutual inability of the government and the LTTE to militarily defeat each other in the territory demarcated as the traditional homeland, some analysts believed that the LTTE would settle for nothing less than confederation. In broad terms a confederation is a political system in which two or more separate states, with their own prime ministers, parliaments and armies, are loosely tied to each other for specific purposes. The Commonwealth of Independent States, which was formed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, would be one example.
During the years of war, sections of Tamil opinion held fast to the confederal model. This may have included the LTTE as well, to the extent that those who were fighting a war could think in terms of constitutional concepts. But inasmuch as the present peace process has opened the closed roads of the north and east, so has it opened the Tamil nationalist movement to the mainstream currents of international thinking on governance in multi-ethnic societies. It is likely that in the engagement and dialogue taking place due to the peace process, the reality of federalism as the only viable alternative made its presence felt. However, the difficulties likely to be faced by the LTTE leadership in accepting a federal model need to be appreciated. After all, federalism was the slogan of half a century ago. In a sense the acceptance of a federal model is to go back in order to go forward to the future. Sections of Tamil nationalist opinion residing abroad and in Colombo, away from the battlegrounds of the northeast may prefer a harder bargaining position. This is in addition to the fact the LTTE military cadre, inculcated with a deep yearning for an independent state of Tamil Eelam will have to reorient themselves to accept the lesser objective of federalism.
In such circumstances, it is possible that the LTTE negotiators will be charged with not bargaining hard enough in much the same way that the government negotiators are being criticised by sections of the political opposition. In effect, both sides may end up being accused, by their respective constituencies, of conceding too much. The answer to the charge is that the two sides are not negotiating in a spirit of bargaining. Those who pride themselves on being hard bargainers are often too insensitive to realise that their so-called success is at the cost of long-term relationship building. They might get themselves a good bargain on one occasion, but the relationship is unlikely to survive. Usually hard bargaining is most effective in a one-off negotiation, such as when bargaining on the street with a pavement hawker. However, when it comes to long-term relationships, those who engage in hard bargaining are likely to fail. Sustaining durable relationships requires a different type of negotiations in which the interests of each side are met in a fair and reasonable manner. It seems that the government and the LTTE negotiators have engaged in such interest-based negotiations with one another. They have not tried to defeat each other at the negotiating table, but have instead sought to engage in joint problem solving. In short, they appear to have sat together on the same side of the table to solve a common problem that was ruining the country and its entire people.
Federalism is a standard constitutional system that exists in many countries of the world. It is particularly effective in permitting power sharing between ethnic communities in multi-ethnic societies. Federalism permits national minorities who are regional majorities to enjoy the right of self-determination and thereby wield political power at the regional level. But fifty years ago when the Tamil-dominated Federal Party launched its campaign for a federal state in the north and east of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese nationalists opposed it as a stepping stone to a separate state.
Federalism was so bitterly opposed by Sinhalese nationalists that it became a pejorative term in mainstream politics. But after two decades of war, the reality of virtual separation has dawned upon many people. Federalism has now become a stepping-stone to reuniting a divided country and opening up the possibility of bringing long term peace to all. Shortly before the Oslo peace talks in October 2002 the Presidential Secretariat issued a statement in which President Chandrika Kumaratunga said that “the PA was the only political party to spell out its devolution of power proposal as a draft constitution in 1997 and still upheld the devolution of power along a federalist or Indian model within a united Sri Lanka”. (Daily Mirror, 30 October 2002). If this statement is to be taken at face value, it points to a welcome departure from the past, since the three major political formations connected with the Sri Lankan conflict are all agreed on the same issue. What is more important, the term ‘federalism’ will have lost its derogatory meaning in the heart of the Sinhala political mainstream. But if this is to be more than a fond delusion, political parties will need to set aside their personal and programmatic rivalries on this issue and find a means to collaborate to make a permanent and a just peace a reality for all communities of Sri Lanka.