In the resolution of a protracted conflict, it may sometimes be necessary to have visible breakthroughs in order to keep morale high, both of the negotiators themselves and also the interested public. Virtually all rounds of the peace talks that commenced with the first one in Sattahip, Thailand a year ago, had such moments of brilliance. These moments were accentuated by the flamboyance of the LTTE´s chief negotiator at those talks, Dr Anton Balasingham, who had a sure grasp of the Tamil cause and the LTTE´s history.
Whether it was the redefinition of the LTTE´s concept of Tamil Eelam in Sattahip in September, the Oslo declaration on federalism in December, or the acceptance of a human rights framework in Hakone in February, every round of the peace talks brought with it news of a positive breakthrough that the international media could carry to all parts of the world. But with the apparent withdrawal of Dr Balasingham from the scene, and his replacement by less autonomous negotiators, it is unlikely that visible breakthroughs of the same kind will take place at future talks.
It is therefore important that those who are following the Sri Lankan peace process should draw a distinction between visible breakthroughs at peace talks and the overall strengthening of the peace process that is taking place. There is a need to bear in mind that peace talks are, by and large, a matter between the government and LTTE. But the peace process is more than peace talks between the government and LTTE. The well-being of the people of Sri Lanka, north and south, should not be held hostage to the agendas of either the government or LTTE, or both of them together. The peace process includes the government and LTTE; but it also includes the other political forces in the country, not to mention the 18 million people who constitute the population of the country. The peace process should not be limited or equated only to the presence or absence of peace talks.
The difference between the peace process and peace talks can be seen most clearly in some of the events of these past five months. During this period there were no peace talks between the government and LTTE. But a strong case can be made that the peace process did not get weakened even though there was a hiatus in the peace talks. Instead, overall, the peace process seems to have got strengthened.
The past five months there has also been a great deal of constructive and positive work that has been done, both by the LTTE itself and also other parties, to take the peace process forward. A most valuable contribution in this regard was the LTTE´s highly publicised deliberations in Paris on an interim administrative framework to govern the North-East. The LTTE´s decision to include the diaspora community, and as well as leading academics and former senior government officials in a broad-based effort to come up with a concrete proposal, have served to strengthen confidence in their commitment to a negotiated settlement.
A further strengthening of the peace process has taken place with the increased interaction between the LTTE and international organisations. An example would be the action plan drawn up by UNICEF that the LTTE has endorsed, and is in the process of being implemented, under which the rebel leadership has agreed to an awareness programme on child rights to be carried out in the North-East within the next few months. The LTTE has also agreed to the publication by UNICEF of a monthly child situation report that would cover such areas as child recruitment and rehabilitation and child labour.
The challenge for UNICEF would be to ensure by non-confrontational and problem-solving methods that the LTTE honours the terms of the action plan for a restoration of the lost rights of children in the North-East. The LTTE would also be aware that an agreement with an internationally recognised organisation such as UNICEF has to be taken seriously if it is not to suffer serious erosion of credibility. In endorsing UNICEF´s action plan, the LTTE have gone beyond the verbal assurances that they once gave to the UN´s special envoy on child rights Olara Otunu, which they failed to honour. This shift of attitude on the part of the LTTE is evidence of how the peace process is continually being strengthened even in the absence of peace talks between the government and LTTE.
Yet another major contribution towards the strengthening of the peace process has been President Chandrika Kumaratunga´s rejection of a political alliance with the JVP. This political alliance would certainly have strengthened the political opposition to the government, both at the electoral and ideological levels. The President´s decision to forego this political advantage was due, in large measure, to her refusal to agree to the JVP´s demand that the new alliance should oppose the devolution of power as a solution to the ethnic conflict, and Norwegian facilitation in the present peace process.
Had the President agreed to the JVP´s terms, the peace process would undoubtedly have been seriously jeopardised. With the mass base of the PA behind it, the JVP would have organised mass events that had the potential of generating open confrontation with the government. In turn, the perception of a government on the defensive would have weakened the peace process. But due to the fact that the President publicly, and courageously, upheld her commitment to a negotiated political solution through the devolution of power and with Norwegian facilitation, she helped to consolidate public support for the present peace process and thereby served to strengthen it.
A final factor that has contributed to the strengthening of the peace process should also be noted. This is the ceaseless work being done by a multitude of civil society organisations to build bridges between the ethnic communities and to make them feel more comfortable about the political compromises necessary for a negotiated peace. Organisations such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives are developing cutting edge thinking on issues of federal power sharing and human rights protection. Others such as the Anti War Coalition recalled the events of July 1983 and called on political leaders to apologise to the victims. Through such activities the thinking of people about the ethnic conflict is in the process of transformation.
Overall, there has been a strengthening of the peace process, one that the suspension of peace talks has not stopped. So long as a return to war is kept at bay, the natural resilience of Sri Lankan society and its facility for multi-ethnic coexistence, so easily visible on the streets of any big city, whether Colombo or Jaffna, will ensure that the peace process grows from strength to strength. When assessing the situation in the country, therefore, it is only fair that the entirety of the peace process be evaluated rather than only harp on the suspension of peace talks.
The Peace Dividend and the Tigers
In recent weeks, the Colombo government has been announcing massive governmental investments to be made in rural infrastructure, such as roads and electricity. Not without reason, government politicians can claim that the employment and ripple effects generated will spark off an economic boom in the near future.
An element of potential instability in this optimistic scenario is the continued deprivation being suffered by the most severely war-affected parts of the country. These parts of the country are under LTTE control, and their continuing deprivation would put the LTTE leadership under pressure to show economic peace dividends to convince its cadre that the peace process is worth the silencing of their guns.
The problem for the LTTE is that they seek economic peace dividends that they alone should implement and distribute to the people of the North-East in the manner of sole benefactors. No doubt they feel that they are the ones who have single-mindedly fought for Tamil rights over the past two decades at tremendous cost. But economic peace dividends cannot be unilaterally obtained. They come from partnership, and by adhering to the rules of partnership with donors, such as transparency and accountability, and respect for human rights.
One has only to travel the length of the A 9 highway from south to north to see a different reality emerge when entering or leaving the LTTE controlled areas. Here, there is the shocking sight of the utter destruction of war and spartan conditions of living bereft of the basic amenities of motorable roads, electricity and telephone lines. A systematic effort to reconstruct public buildings, such as government offices and schools, is yet to commence.
There are two reasons for this unhappy state of affairs. One is the failure of the government and LTTE to develop an appropriate mechanism by which funds can be made available for the development of LTTE controlled areas. Prior to the suspension of peace talks in April 2003, the LTTE was on the verge of signing an agreement to establish the North East Reconstruction Fund (NERF). The government had already signed it and the World Bank had to sign it after the LTTE did so. The LTTE decided to suspend peace talks with the government and the signing of the NERF agreement was also suspended, presumably as they did not wish for any more partnership with the Sri Lankan government at that time.
A second reason for the neglect of LTTE controlled areas is the LTTE´s reluctance to permit foreign donors to come in directly to those areas. This is not a problem limited to donor agencies, but extends also to commercial ventures. For instance, an expatriate Tamil business venture, led by a person with sound Tamil nationalist credentials, was unable to make much headway for a project it had for the Wanni. The reason was the LTTE´s reluctance to provide statistical information and survey data that were needed for the feasibility study.