The dates for the peace talks in Thailand between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been fixed for 16-18 September, according to a statement issued by the Norwegian facilitators. The prospective talks have attracted considerable international attention both in South Asia and overseas. US Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage’s late-August visit to Sri Lanka, and especially to Jaffna, is only the most recent indication of the importance that the international community attaches to the Sri Lankan peace process.
In South Asia alone there are at least a half-dozen major ethnic conflicts that could benefit from the example set by Sri Lanka. If Sri Lanka can find a peaceful solution to its longstanding ethnic conflict, it will be a powerful example to other countries facing internal strife, and a major victory in the US-backed war against terrorism. Irrespective of this external attention, however, much of the public attention within Sri Lanka itself has been devoted to the power struggle between the two major parliamentary groupings of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP)-led government and the People’s Alliance (PA)-led opposition of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
There are two reasons for this focus on politics in Colombo. One is that most Sri Lankans know very little about what is actually transpiring in the peace process. They know that it is happening, and that the ceasefire is holding, but little beyond that. Media commentators, civil society groups and even most government politicians (let alone opposition politicians) appear to be unaware of the details of the peace process. Only the Norwegian facilitators and those at the very highest rungs of the government and the LTTE are participating directly in the peace process. Given the success up to now, perhaps this is how it should be.
The second reason for the present public focus on the power struggle is that its outcome will determine whether the ongoing peace process moves forward or not. The success of the peace process up to now is owed in large part to the positive relationship between the top leaders of the government and the LTTE. It is notable, for instance, that there has not been even a single acrimonious vocal exchange between government and LTTE leaders since Wickremesinghe assumed office in December 2001. This is remarkable when compared to the frequent and bitter exchanges that used to take place between the leaders of President Kumaratunga’s former government and the LTTE. More remarkable still, the LTTE’s top leadership has gone out of its way to praise the leaders of the present government led by the prime minister.
Unfortunately, the parliamentary opposition is not part of this positive relationship. In particular, sections of the opposition persist in describing the LTTE as a fascist and terrorist organisation. While this rhetoric may please substantial sections of the population, such charges are not based on any principle of conflict resolution, a process which requires relationship-building between antagonists.
With the opposition’s present frame of mind it is difficult to imagine that it would be able to continue the peace process with the LITE if it were to manage to topple Wickremesinghe’s UNP from power. Therefore, the outcome of the present struggle between the government and the opposition is not simply one of Tweedledee or Tweedledum enjoying the seat of power, but rather an issue of considerable significance.
The success of the peace process is of the utmost importance to the country, and a responsible opposition should, give it constructive support. The opposition should acknowledge that the government has succeeded where it failed during its seven-year tenure in office. Moreover, the opposition has not shown that it has a better alternative to its failed conflict resolution methods of the past.
Leading opposition politicians have publicly stated that the primary task of an opposition party is to replace the sitting government as soon as possible. There is some truth to this assertion from the perspective of the competitive party political system. But it is also a half-truth. The opposition must not simply seek to replace a government, especially not an opposition the people soundly rejected in a general election just over nine months ago. A responsible opposition can seek to replace a government only when it has demonstrated an improvement on its failed policies of the past.
Opposition politicians have been threatening to bring people onto the streets to protest concessions that might be made to the LITE during the forthcoming Thailand talks. In the meantime, government spokespersons are cautioning the public against expecting too much from the initial phase of negotiations. Certainly it would be unrealistic to expect the LTTE to renounce its goal of Tamil Eelam or to agree to demobilise its military cadres at the initial phase of talks. It is important that people do not get carried away by unrealistic expectations about what peace talks will bring. At this initial phase what is possible for the government is to negotiate with the LTTE a political and legal framework to which they can jointly agree. An important step in this direction will be for the government to lift its legal ban on the LTTE, which Colombo has announced will be done on 6 September, 10 days before the commencement of peace talks.
At present, the LTTE operates outside the framework of Sri Lankan and international law. The lifting of the legal ban on the LTTE will make it more accountable to the legal system and to the people at-large. Legal rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. The opposition’s task is not to oppose the de-banning of the LTTE. By seeking to bring the people onto the streets in protest, the opposition will only be destablising the country and making it a less attractive place for investors.
All available evidence suggests that the government is fully committed to the present peace process and what it entails. Therefore, regardless of opposition protests the government is expected to lift the LTTE ban and engage in peace talks in Thailand. The opposition should not pose obstacles to this process, but should instead find ways to ensure that both the government and the LTTE are more transparent and accountable in what they do.
A recent social survey carried out by the National Peace Council in collaboration with local and international academics revealed that the vast majority of Sri Lankans support negotiations as the way forward to solve the ethnic conflict. However, an area of clear polarisation between the ethnic communities involves the prospective establishment of an interim administration in the North-East province.
It is generally believed that the Thailand talks will revolve around the setting up of an LTTE-dominated interim administration in the north and east. Most Sinhala and Muslim respondents in the recent survey were apprehensive about this, fearing that it would lead to more problems in the future. Most Tamils, on the other hand, expressed their belief that an interim administration would help to evolve a permanent solution. This finding suggests the need for a public education campaign about the benefits of an interim arrangement.
A key conclusion arising from the survey was that the ethnic conflict is less about cultural differences than it is about political power. Over the past few decades, the differences between ethnic groups have been politicised. Nevertheless, the survey points to the existence of, and the further potential for, positive relations between persons of different ethnic communities.
Peace-making is a long-term process. Another significant finding of the survey was that even in remote places people were keen to gather information about the peace process from newspapers, radio and television. Therefore interpretation, transparency and forthcoming explanations are needed not only from the Sri Lankan government but also from the LTTE.
Meanwhile, the opposition could help to assuage public concern about the prospective interim administration by insisting that both the government and the LTTE agree to uphold human rights. The survey revealed that people in the north and east were in favour of international monitoring, specifically concerning the protection of human rights. These are the issues that the opposition led by the president should be devoting its attention to, rather than engaging in a power struggle with the government at this crucial stage in the peace process.