The announcement by the International Committee of Red Cross that it had received over 600 dead bodies after the fighting at Killinochchi in December momentarily focussed the international community on the carnage in Sri Lanka. By January, their attention had passed to the violence in the northwestern provincial council elections and the threat this posed to Sri Lankan democracy in a year of at least four further elections.
Out of these two dark events came two potentially welcome outcomes: the horror of Killinochchi spurred the peace community to further highlight public demands for an end to the war, and a joint committee was formed by the opposition United National Party (UNP) with the ruling Peoples’ Alliance (PA) to limit election violence. With gritted teeth, the UNP’s Ranil Wickremasinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga appeared on the media shaking hands.
This is the first time the PA and the UNP have come together, despite considerable pressure from the international community that the two major parties develop a bipartisan approach to the war. But once the attention of the media, intelligentsia and politicians moves to the next crisis, it also moves away from the gains that have been forged. This switching on and off the spotlight is particularly damaging to Sri Lanka’s peacemaking initiatives.
The continuing cycles of ever-escalating violence punctuated by short rests of negotiation illustrate just how important and badly needed is a sustained, strategic approach to peacemaking. But let it be clear: peacemaking and negotiation is not a soft option. Conflict Resolution has become the new buzzword among international agencies, but it is hardly a technical skill. Conflict resolution is firmly located in the political arena. And though it is about developing new approaches to conflict and politics, it can still be top-down or bottom-up, pacifying or transformatory.
Transformatory conflict resolution is about Society establishing norms within which violent conflict can be minimised and conflict dealt with through established political structures in an inclusive way This is a tall order and for many people ending the violence is sufficient, though approaches based on simply ending violence are often too coercive or too superficial to deliver a lasting settlement.
In Sri Lanka, the 1998 National Peace Council survey revealed that, though a majority of all communities want the war to end, 92 percent of Tamils want immediate negotiations with the LTTE, while only 21 percent of Sinhalese take this view, and a significant minority of Sinhalese want the war to end only by a military defeat of the LTTE.
The LTTE leadership and the Sri Lankan gov ernment have both acknowledged that the military option alone cannot bring peace, yet they are both politically and militarily locked in war. The LTTE have entered into negotiations twice since they became the only group at war with the government, once in 1990/91 with President Ranasinghe Premadasa and in 1994/5 with President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Those negotiations demonstrated that not only did the two parties have a completely different mindset, their understanding of the other was poor and often mistaken. They paid little heed to the preparation of the process, so ‘process issues’ interfered with progress on political issues. Mistrust mounted on both sides and each began to ‘test’ the other, thus further undermining any confidence in the negotiations.
These problems will be encountered again unless there is a deeper understanding and a more strategic approach by all parties. So the objective is not to move from a situation of hot war and a total breakdown of relations straight into negotiations—however desirable that may seem from a humanitarian perspective. It is most important to first generate the political will for negotiation at all levels of Sri Lankan society, a will strong enough to overcome the inevitable hurdles that will follow. Both negotiating parties need to develop confidence in alternative approaches and the leaders need the freedom to act, which may be much easier for Prabhakaran than for Kumaratunga, with her slender majority.
In the preparation process, as the conflict moves towards pre-negotiation, issues of legitimacy and developing trust come to the fore. But parties who have been fighting each other for years cannot develop trust and confidence overnight. The first step towards building confidence is self-confidence. Each party therefore needs a political analysis of the situation and their opponents and a carefully developed strategy. The negotiation process thus gradually builds confidence and builds the recognition of legitimacy.
The pre-negotiations period will deal with ‘talks about talks’, agree on procedures and mechanisms for including other parties, agree upon agendas, deal with pre-conditions to settlement, and other administrative matters. Ideally, it is only after this that negotiations around substantive issues should begin—though of course, every step of the preparation has been crafted with full knowledge of what the key substantive issues are and which are the most difficult.
All said and done, however, there is no blueprint for peace. In Sri Lanka, the conflict has come from within the communities, and so it is only those communities that can forge new political and social structures that can meet their needs. Insights from conflict resolution literature and from other societies in conflict are useful, but it is the politics within Sri Lanka that will decide for war or for peace. Nevertheless, international pressure can assist in persuading both parties to move along this road. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government have in deed indicated that they will need external assistance to move towards negotiation. The government favours a more limited facilitation, and the ltte mediation. The difference between these roles seems to be based on less or more foreign involvement but the debate within Sri Lanka has so far largely concerned itself with identifying a country to do the job. Other factors have been ignored.
In fact, a successful external mediator or facilitator will need to know more about the conflict than the parties themselves and their attributes, requirements, resources and knowledge will be crucial. Any external attempt to assist in finding a settlement will need to incorporate the perspectives of all parties on all major issues into their analysis of this stubbornly intractable conflict.
The issues of skill, knowledge, creativity and risk-taking are similar for negotiators, mediators or facilitators, though they may represent different interests. It is solely upon this point, interests, that the current debate regarding external assistance begins and ends. Though it is important to clarify interests, successful facilitation and/or mediation requires a dedicated team, each with different roles, and they need to be built up outside and inside Sri Lanka.
The non-strategic location of Sri Lanka and the discouragement of India have kept the international community largely at a distance, although it has been broadly supportive of the Kumaratunga administration. There are two reasons this may change. Firstly, if it is decided that the Sri Lankan conflict is now threatening the stability of a nuclear region; and, secondly, if the Sri Lankan economic growth of 5.2 percent between 1994-1998 proves more attractive following the collapse of the East Asian economies, the rather half-hearted offers of assistance “if we are asked to give it” from many countries, may become more tangible.
The next 12 months could be very productive if a gradual and incremental process was followed by those offering external assistance and by the parties in the conflict. Unfortunately, it is likely that a much more dangerous course will be followed. The ltte is aware that the Tamil people need a rest from war and their own cadres probably do too. The Sri Lankan government is facing a year of electoral difficulties, and may feel that to move towards negotiations could reestablish its rather lacklustre international democratic image after the recent provincial elections. So they will end up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time and without adequate preparation and it is unlikely that any serious third party assistance can be offered in those circumstances. If that happens, it may take another five or 10 years to move back towards negotiations from the explosion of violence that will follow the inevitable breakdown.