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India and the Sri Lankan Peace Process

Most political groups and leaders in Sri Lanka have sought an Indian role in the ongoing peace process.

india Updated: Apr 29, 2006 17:07 IST

Introduction

The centrality of India in the outcome of  the peace process in Sri Lanka is widely acknowledged. 

Most political groups and  leaders in Sri Lanka  have sought an Indian role in the ongoing peace process. The nature and scope of that role has however not been defined.

There are also differing and often conflicting views on what India is expected to do. The peace process has stalled and even the human tragedy of  tsunami affected consequences has not provided the much needed kick start to the peace process.

The no-war-no-peace state in Sri Lanka continues to cause concern internationally and  in India. The Indian role cannot be either conclusive or  deterministic.

The conceptual and operational contents of India's role will continue to evolve.  Indian security concerns and political dilemmas in the uncertain scenario in Sri Lanka will determine its role in the peace process. The limits and potential of that role are examined in this paper.

Role Perspectives

The ongoing peace process has a number of role players participating in it. Some are involved in facilitating negotiations, while others play a role as  donors in the relief and reconstruction arrangements in peace process.

Others have been prominent in placing the LTTE in the category of  terrorist organisations. Some have played a role only to realise that deep pockets do not  help obtain influence with the adversaries to the conflict. 

Others have found  that assumptions based on past experience in conflict resolution in one part of the globe does not apply in Sri Lanka. There are different opinions in Sri Lanka on the success or failure of such role players, as well as on the agendas they are attempting to obtain.

There is however a widespread consensus on the need for an Indian role in the peace process in Sri Lanka.  Prime Minister Rajapakse stated on taking office, " We want India involved as soon as possible. I have always wanted India to play a role in Sri Lanka."

Anton Balasingham is quoted as saying, "LTTE favors India promoting the peace process." Mr. Kadirgamar is on record as wanting India to play a  direct role. Mr. Douglas Devananda  has asked for an  active role from India. There have been calls for use of Indian influence in the peace process. The Buddhist religious party, Jathiya Hela Urumaya has called for an Indian involvement in the peace process.

Another analyst has called for a positive role for India in the peace process.  All this would convey the impression that  India is both the indispensable and missing element, in what is ultimately an internal political-ethnic-military dynamic of  Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, there are opinions critical of India's highhanded approach to Sri Lanka's problem. "The charge of hegemonism has been labeled against India in Sri Lanka since long. It is also surprising therefore that in the face of a careful Indian response on demands for its role in the peace process; it is now being called a 'reluctant hegemon.'

The nature and scope of an Indian role in the peace process is an articulation significantly absent from the Sri Lankan discourse. As the distinguished diplomat and Secretary General of the Peace Process Secretariat Jayantha Dhanapala said recently, " If you wish to get a feel of Sri Lankan public opinion, sadly the local press presents  a cacophony of views."  

The Indian role in Sri Lanka has for fifty years straddled a range of activities. These included military equipment aid, disaster relief, political counsel, military involvement  at Sri Lanka's invitation, incurring large numbers of casualties to its armed forces, economic assistance, and non interference in Sri Lanka's turbulent politics.

The role expected from India in the peace process would  be determined primarily by its interest in the security of Sri Lanka and itself. This could not have been better expressed than by Mr.Kadirgamar.

He stated during the time of fierce battles around Jaffna in the year 2000, " Indian policy on such a sensitive issue as the current situation in Sri Lanka, would have to take into account the complex issues of domestic and international concern to India and her interests regarding its role in Sri Lanka." That wise judgment applies equally to the role India would play in the peace process.

The Peace Process

The dynamics of peace processes in divided societies is a subject that has been analysed and studied  in  some considerable detail  in recent decades. The proliferation of intra- state conflicts has emphasized the necessity for such examination. 

The examples of  peace processes in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel/ Palestine and Sri Lanka have been examined amongst others as models. The conclusions of such studies confirm that,  "there has been a paradigm shift toward a new way of making peace, which increasingly involves internal partners more than outsiders."  

Such studies have shown that peace dividends and  popular movements generally play a minor role in the process but that symbols and rituals may play a  more significant role than often recognised.

The South African model of Truth & Reconciliation process is cited as a symbol that may activate and propel peace processes towards constructive outcomes.  These studies have also highlighted several obstacles to peace processes. These are in the form of escalation traps, the desire of elites to stay in power, and the profitability of war. Lack of international community support to peace agreements is cited as another obstacle to peace process.

Amongst the theorists of conflict resolution  there are the emerging  schools of believers and skeptics, or, optimists and pessimists. This is not unlike similar groups looking at nuclear deterrence theories which have been studied for over fifty years. The questions being asked are do peace processes push parties and situations toward an eventual peace?

Or do successful initiatives only causally correlate with the cessation of violence by parties too broke and exhausted to continue fighting? It has been said that " there is no such thing as a typical peace process."

There is a belief in some circles that there must be a 'ripe moment' for the peace process to deliver. That ripe moment may come from a 'hurting stalemate' where unilateral solutions are blocked. Is it possible for third parties or outsiders facilitating the peace process to induce a 'hurting stalemate'?

This can about through aid providing donors controlling the pace of the peace process. Consequently, it is believed a conflict resolving formula might emerge from a readjustment of the belligerents' power relations and elimination of alternate strategies through coercive efforts of third parties. 

All the above factors that influence peace processes are or have been present in Sri Lanka. The peace process in Sri Lanka thus offers both the basis for a theoretical analysis and  its implementation.

The question is whether conduct of the peace process can benefit from the theoretical  studies. It is apparent that as the Sri Lankan peace process remains stalled, the LTTE continues to build its military capabilities and the Sri Lankan political impasse remains frozen, risks of military and social conflicts remain potent. The Indian role in the peace process would need to evolve taking  into account the realities of the situation.

Reality of the Peace Process

 

 

The reality of the peace process in 2005 is  more than the sum of  negative factors in play in Sri Lanka. There is the reality of serious differences in the majority Sinhala polity on the final political outcome being sought through the peace process. While the two major political parties both seek an Indian involvement in the peace process, their perceptions and policies on the process demonstrate a wide gap. Both political parties have raised objections and placed obstacles in the process moving forward. Each side blames the other of conceding too much to the LTTE. The Buddhist clergy which exercised and continues to exercise a near veto power over political outcomes, and by implication on the peace process, has recently gained a political presence after the last elections. It will be a major determinant of the process. Constitutional reform has been identified as a key component of a political solution. The need to restructure the Sri Lankan state and redefine the nation to meet the twin demands of democratic conflict resolution and governance is widely accepted.   This notwithstanding, the political costs of  ensuring constitutional change are apparently seen as too high by both major political parties.

The LTTE has certainly lost strategic and political space after the acts of 9/11 catastrophic terrorism. It understands the limits and constraints placed by the changed situation on its powerful tools of terror, ie; suicide bombers and  major attacks through explosives on national infrastructure. LTTE leadership does not trust the current and future Sinhala leadership in a post conflict scenario and seeks to retain a military capability. Its aversion to  political  liberalism is well known and is to be witnessed in its demand for full and unlimited powers in the post conflict scene.

A peace process by its very nature is dependent on the military equation between the adversaries. The Sri Lankan reality in military terms is even more starkly unfavorable. A territorial imperative operates wherein neither the Sri Lankan state nor the LTTE is in a position to gain any more territory. A decisive military victory is unavailable as a choice to either side. A stalemate with both sides continuing to keep their military formations deployed is likely to continue. This is a costly and debilitating exercise which does little to reduce suspicions or build confidence. It  nevertheless creates a false and therefore dangerous impression of  military security, which in turn reduces  the motivation to push the peace process towards a mutually acceptable outcome.

There is in addition the reality of  the economy of conflict entrepreneurship, which is defined as a set of conditions which permit one or the other adversary to hold out indefinitely, even while engaging in a peace process.  There are studies,  conducted under the aegis of  the World Bank that point towards this phenomena. This involves a separatist  leadership acting no differently than a business entrepreneur. A business entrepreneur needs infrastructure, capital and resources for the success of his enterprise.  He first creates the enterprise and then defends his interests by corporate fighting or negotiating with the state. A separatist leader does the same through other means. He obtains capital by raids, loot or narcotics and arms smuggling.  He seizes territory to gain infrastructure  and resources including human resources. He  realizes in time that he cannot defeat the state and settles down to negotiate the continuance of his enterprise. A similar situation prevails with the LTTE negotiating its future with the Sri Lankan state. There appears little urgency on its part to work the peace process, since what it has is not very far removed from what the LTTE leadership wants. The peace process therefore is heavily dependent on  stimuli which neither the two sides, nor the donors, nor the facilitating role players from outside are  able to provide.

Outside players play both a positive and negative role in peace processes. The positive element relates to providing international legitimacy to the peace process. It also brings funds to smoothen the wheels that move the process. On the other hand, the same elements also create political divisions, provide legitimacy to an otherwise ostracized adversary, and constrain the state's strategic and operational space in managing its security needs. We see both these factors at play in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has obtained substantial international aid based on the prospects of a successful peace process. There are also increased divisions in the Sinhala polity with major protagonists claiming the spoils of the peace process. On the LTTE side there is a split and factional killings, with accusations of  dominance by one group over another. These developments have led to all stake holders adopting and defending their maximalist positions, that can only have a negative impact on the peace process.   

There is in fact a paradox operating in the peace process with a convergence of approaches to peace between the LTTE and the government.  The two seem to have a shared understanding of peace as de-escalation of war.  This  notion can be explained as 'negative peace' meaning the absence of war. This falls short of 'positive peace' which alone can remove the structural causes of war, help community reconciliation and peace building and a host of other related initiatives. 

The reality of the Sri Lankan peace process is viewed, not surprisingly, in terms of  having reached a state of  "as good as it gets," with No-Peace, No-War being  better than the alternative. The reality has consequently been described as one of 'incredible complacency which masks a melting at the edges of the frozen war.' 

The Indian Role

Indian governments have over the decades continued to reassert their commitment to the well being of the Sri Lankan state and its people. India's Minister of External  Affairs, Mr.Natwar Singh has very recently repeated what his predecessors have been asserting. He said, " The Government and people of India remain firmly committed in their support for efforts being made by the government and people of Sri Lanka to consolidate the process of peace and to promote development in their country." Indian governments have also supported  an outcome that accommodates the concerns and aspirations of all groups that constitute Sri Lanka's multi ethnic and  pluralistic society. India's commitment to  upholding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka remains undiluted. 

Indian involvement in Sri Lanka has covered a wide range of activities in support of government and its peoples. It has included disaster relief, economic assistance, military training assistance, direct military involvement at heavy cost in the lives of Indian soldiers, political counsel and trade and tariff facilities. Successive governments in Colombo have also demonstrated their commitment to sustain a strong relationship with Delhi and the Indian people. Policy makers in Colombo have been seeking globalised economic security arrangements rather than a limited regional arrangement. As  former Minister GL Peiris had stated," Sri Lanka must not be merely seen as a market of  18.5 million people. On the contrary Sri Lanka must be seen as a point of entry to the entirety of markets of the sub continent."   India and Sri Lanka have viewed their trade and economic relations through the prism of 'shared prosperity.'  The two countries are partners in many international forums with shared ideals.

It has been said that the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is a quagmire that India once got into directly, caused a lot of problems for Sri Lanka and from which it withdrew. This simplistic formulation overlooks the fact that India sent a Peacekeeping Force and withdrew it at the request of the elected government in Colombo. It is now recommended that India needs to find a way to contribute positively to the Sri Lanka peace process. One crucial way in which India can strengthen Sri Lanka to arrive at a stable solution is to assist the Sri Lankan government and opposition to arrive at a bipartisan approach to resolve the ethnic conflict. Such sweeping recommendations fail to see the reality listed in preceding paragraphs.

India sees its role as a significant contributor to peace and stability in Sri Lanka. That has in the past  and will continue in future to involve  India in Sri Lanka's economic growth, political stability, and security.  The challenge before Indian policy makers is not of participation in Sri Lanka's peace process but of restraint in its involvement. Sri Lanka responds - at the peoples and political levels - like other smaller neighbors of India. Indian actions are constantly viewed through the haze of fears of domination by a very large and powerful state. New Delhi needs also to be vigilant about the political fallout in its Tamil population of events, policies and consequences of  policies pursued by Colombo. New Delhi's  need to be even handed  in the support it offers to the government in Colombo and to the aspirations of Tamils in Sri Lanka  places discrete limits on its role in Sri Lanka. The peace process is a bold strategic initiative from the leadership of Sri Lanka. While there are nuanced differences in the operational approaches of the two main parties, Sri Lanka's leadership has developed a consensus on the validity and necessity of the process. Indian restraint amounting to 'no direct involvement' in the peace process is therefore a product of  enlightened restraint rather than deliberate disinterest.


The Sri Lankan discourse on constitutional structures are indicative of the complexities involved in India playing a direct and intrusive role. The debate on federalism has gone on in Sri Lanka for quite some time. It still creates strong responses in the Sri Lankan polity. These responses are not unrelated to the peace process' ultimate objectives of shared powers between the LTTE and the rest of Sri Lanka. As Minister DEW Gunasekara said, " federalism is an anathema to some, foreign to some others and allergic to  many."  The political divisions in Sri Lanka on the issue of federalism cannot be filled by an Indian role. The Indian constitutional structures of power sharing are to be judged by Sri Lankan political leaders in whom substantial constitutional expertise is available.  

 A similar difficulty faces India on what has been termed by Sri Lankan analysts as the Southern Consensus. The postures adopted by the JVP on the question of federalism, on  post tsunami mechanisms, on the give and take needed in the peace process  and  the alliance partnership in governance are a complex web of ethnic beliefs, history and political jousting. Indian can hardly be expected to drive any elements in the Sri Lankan political arithmetic towards an outcome on which there is a serious internal divide within Sri Lanka.     

Ambassador Jayanta Dhanapala has aptly pointed out; "there is a complex symbiotic relationship between peace and development." He goes on to state that the process is one of broad continuum where lessons are to be learnt from each chapter of the process as it unfolds. furthermore, the peace process and peace negotiations are not one and the same. Negotiation is only one component of the peace process."  In the maze of twist and turns and political turnabouts, an Indian involvement will not only run the risks of being viewed as interference but can also cause a set back to the peace process itself. India's interest in the process nevertheless remains critical. It has therefore, not surprisingly, chosen a role of observing, remaining in touch with all stakeholders, and making its views known to all sides of the equation.

India has chosen to involve itself in Sri Lanka through trade, handsome economic aid allocations and  assistance in security management. In keeping with the understanding of  peace and development  linkages, the Indian focus has remained on the developmental needs of Sri Lanka. This need not be taken as a lack of concern in New Delhi on the stalled peace process. If anything, it demonstrates New Delhi's confidence in its ability to play a direct role, when needed, at short notice. The disagreements on managing the Post Tsunami relief  arrangements are but one sign of the serious political dissonance regarding the peace process in Sri Lanka. At the same time, President Kumaratunga's determination and skills to overcome obstacles are highly regarded, admired and are a cause for confidence in the future. New Delhi's role in the peace process is determined by a holistic approach. It does not view the peace process only as a foreign policy matter but as part of a larger picture, to achieve the objectives of stability and security  in the region. In the interim every one awaits the 'ripe moment' in the peace process when things will hopefully really begin to move.    

Conclusion

India has a major stake in the security and political stability of Sri Lanka. It is committed to Sri Lanka's territorial integrity and sovereignty. It is equally supportive of the legitimate political aspirations of all segments of Sri Lankan society. Since the ethnic conflict in the island state is linked to the Tamil population of the country, its peaceful resolution is both a political and security requirement of the Indian state. New Delhi needs always to be conscious of the impact of the Sri Lankan conflict on the Tamils in India. That political necessity and the security risks of Tamil separatist military capabilities impacting on Indian interests is one dimension of  India's policy choices. The political impasse in Sri Lanka on the Tamil question is another dimension. These two combine to lead New Delhi in choosing to play a carefully calibrated and restrained role in the Sri Lanka peace process.