The Norwegian facilitators’ late-June announcement that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was willing to re-enter peace talks with the government, which LTTE chief spokesman Dr Anton Balasingham confirmed in London, came as welcome news. The London meeting between the LTTE and the facilitators was the first in nearly a month, and the timing of the announcement, coming during a prime ministerial state visit to the United Kingdom, helped to bolster Ranil Wickremesinghe’s credibility.
As the LTTE’s chief political negotiator, it appears that Balasingham can act with relative authority to help or to hinder the peace process. On this occasion, as on several others, he chose to help. However, accompanying this softening of stance was a call from Balasingham to redefine the peace talk agenda. He would rather address crucial issues relating to the harsh realities of the people in the underdeveloped north and east than pursue guidelines, milestones and roadmaps for what he described as an imaginary solution. Balasingham’s statements since the LTTE suspended participation in peace talks on 21 April have uniformly called for a radically “new, innovative” approach to the peace process.
The demand for a radically new and innovative approach indicates uneasiness in the ranks of the LTTE with the manner in which the peace process has progressed. What seems to be most frustrating for the LTTE is its inability to administer the north and east in the manner promised by the federal system to which it publicly committed itself at the peace talks in Oslo last year. After a year and a half of ceasefire, the powers of governance remain legally vested with the Colombo government, making federal-based power sharing seem a distant dream. The LTTE’s ability to deliver material benefits to the north and east remains negligible due to a combination of factors.
When it signed the ceasefire agreement with the government in February 2002, the LTTE may have anticipated rapid progress toward its domination of life in the north and east, either by means of an interim administration or through the joint committees that were established at the peace talks. But this has not happened, and legally, the central government remains the mainstay of governance in that region.
Balasingham’s most recent insistence on a radically new and innovative approach to the peace process is an indication of the LTTE’s thinking on the problem. In rejecting the conflict-resolution mechanism of guidelines, milestones and roadmaps that pave the way for a future solution, the LTTE is insisting on an immediate handover of ground-level control. However, it is unlikely that the LTTE will succeed in altering the model of the peace process so long as the international community is actively involved. The guidelines, milestones and roadmaps procedure, which gained expression in the final statement issued at the LTTE-boycotted Tokyo donor conference on 10 June, is in fact being followed in the ongoing internationally mediated peace processes elsewhere, most prominently in West Asia. In insisting on a different route to peace, the LTTE may consciously be seeking to distance itself from the internationalisation of the peace process, in which not just Norway, but also the United States, Japan, India and the European Union have taken great interest.
There is no question that the ground situation in the north and east, and the improvement of people’s lives there, should take priority. But the ground situation comprises economic issues, as much as it does issues of security of life and other human rights. In this context, the recent spate of assassinations in the north and east, as well as in other parts of Sri Lanka, represents an abnormal situation and comes as a harsh reminder of the brutality of the as-yet unresolved conflict.
Resistance is futile
The desire of the LTTE to decelerate the internationalisation of the peace process stems from an apprehension that it is losing ground with the international community, which is an accurate assessment of the evolving situation. International players will naturally seek to ensure that democratic values, human rights and pluralism are contained in any solution, interim or otherwise. The international community, looking at local problems from afar, is less concerned with the particularities of a country’s history, and with the animosities and past practices of various parties, than with the generalities of human rights and good governance on the ground in the present.
The LTTE’s human rights violations, most notably those against its political opponents, but including taxation and its conscription of children, have cost it much international sympathy. The Norwegian facilitators are under pressure from the international community to find a way to stop human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The remedy for this is not to try to reduce the role of the international community in the peace process, but for the LTTE to adjust its own behaviour to be in conformity with acceptable standards. As an organisation that seeks politico-administrative power in the north and east, the LTTE needs to demonstrate that it can be trusted to govern in a manner that respects human rights and basic democratic freedoms, such as the right to life and expression of ethnic and political pluralism.
Taking the peace process forward is not simply a matter of talking about sharing the powers of governance. It is also about a discourse in which the use of coercion and violence is invalid and outlawed. There is no doubt that the rapid and positive progress in the peace process up to now has been, in large measure, due to the intervention of the international community. Indeed, resistance to the internationalisation of the peace process in the post-11 September world is likely to be both counterproductive and futile. When even Hamas in the Occupied Territories of West Asia has fallen in line with international desires and suspended attacks against Israel, it will be near impossible for Sri Lankans to resist the tide of the times.
On the positive side, there is an abundance of international goodwill and financial support for Sri Lanka’s peace process, as was manifest at the Tokyo donor conference. If this support is to be tapped constructively, the LTTE’s struggle for power has to be subordinated to the guidelines of human rights and milestones of good governance in the roadmap to a federal solution.