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Local efforts key to Lanka peace

Global interest notwithstanding, a lot of the thinking has to be done by the two parties, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Nov 01, 2005 01:18 IST

Internationalisation is thought to be a panacea for all difficult and longstanding political conflicts. But what is not realised is that internationalisation, by itself, does not solve conflicts. Most of the hard work and a lot of the thinking will have to be done by the two parties to the conflict. Outsiders can only give ideas, help, encourage, warn and admonish. Ultimately, it is the two parties which will have to come to an agreement which is stable and durable.

Foreign third parties could, in fact, complicate matters, bring new issues into conflict and lead to undesirable and unexpected consequences like the loss of independence for both the parties in conflict, as the histories of Sri Lanka and India clearly show.

A brief history of the internationalisation of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict will show that internationalisation has only helped partially. Sometimes, it has exacerbated matters. The two parties to the conflict, namely, the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE, have not done enough to bridge the gulf between them. They do not seem to think it is necessary to do so.

The state seems to have given up its responsibility for finding a solution. To it, the solution lies either in bringing new international players or increasing the number of international players. Even to bring the two main political parties, the ruling and the opposition, to agree on a common agenda on the peace process, foreign help has been sought. In 1997, President Kumaratunga sought the help of the British Minister Dr Liam Fox, and more recently, a former Additional Foreign Secretary suggested that India hold a Camp David to bring the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) to agree on the peace process.

Fed up of Norway, President Chandrika Kumaratunga has brought in a new player, the United Nations. And the Leader of the Opposition and Presidential hopeful, Ranil Wickremesinghe, wants more and more countries to participate in the peace process. But at least one Presidential aspirant, Mahinda Rajapaksa, wants direct dialogue with LTTE Supremo Prabhakaran sans brokers, facilitators and mediators. But it is not clear as to how committed he is to this line.

First instance of internationalisation

The Sri Lankan ethnic conflict was confined to the island till 1982. But in July 1983, a radical change took place. The anti-Tamil riots led to international indignation and a flow of lakhs of Tamil refugees into India and other parts of the Western world. Diplomatic and military intervention by India followed. India used sustained diplomatic pressure with covert support for Tamil militant activity for about four years before politically and military intervening to impose a "solution" through the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987.

But the "Accord" was basically flawed, and came unstuck. It did not have the full and willing approval of the two sides in the ethnic conflict, namely, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. It was not a deal between the two parties to the conflict but between the Sri Lankan and the Indian governments. It did not meet the requirements, aims and objectives of any of the two sides. While the LTTE wanted an independent Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan government and polity would not even countenance a federal structure to replace the existing unitary structure. India, on the other hand, tried to lay the foundation for a federal structure.

A frustrated LTTE began to wage war against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in October 1987. A year later, Sri Lanka's President R Premadasa, under pressure from Sinhala nationalists who detested foreign involvement and interference, entered into a deal with the LTTE and served an ultimatum to the Indian Army to quit the island. The Indian intervention eventually ended in March 1990, with the complete withdrawal of the IPKF.

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in May 1991 convinced India that it was time it kept off Sri Lanka and let the Sri Lankans sort out their problems themselves. The conflicting agendas of the two parties and the non-acceptability of India's recipe had made New Delhi's intervention futile. Thus ended the first episode of internationalisation of the Sri Lankan conflict.

But the camaraderie between the LTTE and President Premadasa's government witnessed in 1989-90 proved to be short lived. This was because the two had clashing agendas. The LTTE wanted an independent Eelam, while President Premadasa would not go beyond decentralisation to the district level. There was no question of his accepting the concept of a Tamil Homeland, in a unified North and East. Although the North and East were united to form a single province as a result of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, the North Eastern Provincial Council, a body which could have given it a political personality, was never revived after it was dissolved by Premadasa.

The LTTE resumed its armed struggle in June 1990. But in 1994-1995, there were direct peace talks. However, for the most part in the 1990s, the history of Sri Lanka was one of war, death, destruction and poor economic performance.

However, the government's military debacles in 2000, the LTTE attack on the only international airport in July 2001, and the 9/11 incident in the United States, forced the government and the LTTE to think of suspending warfare and resuming dialogue. After considering many options, the two sides agreed that Norway should be the facilitator.

But Sri Lanka wanted limits to be put on the foreign involvement. The then powerful Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, was very firm that Norway should "facilitate" and not "mediate". It should only be a postman, an arranger of venues and provider of facilities for dialogue between the main parties. Kadirgamar was a staunch votary of the sovereignty of Sri Lanka and he believed that no external force should be allowed to curb its freedom at the peace talks.

This suited the LTTE too, because it was also keen on preserving its freedom of action.

Second episode

But a change in the regime in Colombo, following the December 2001 parliamentary elections, brought about a significant alteration in the nature of international involvement in the peace process. Norway's role underwent a de facto transformation from being a mere facilitator to being an active participant playing a "critical role in the formulation and the promulgation" of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the MOU of February 2002, to use the words of the LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham.

Such a role had the tacit consent of both the new Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE. While the LTTE got quite a lot of what it wanted from the CFA and the MoU, the United National Front (UNF) government secured its primary objective, namely, a ceasefire, and the substitution of war and destruction by political activity and economic development in the North East. The government lifted the ban on the LTTE and also implicitly accepted it as the "sole" representative of the Tamils.

But despite the helpful role played by the Norwegians, the bonhomie between the government and the LTTE did not last very long. As before, their agendas clashed. For obvious reasons, the Wickremesinghe government wanted to move within the parameters of the existing Sri Lankan constitution. It also had the additional problem of tackling intense opposition from the all-powerful Executive President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was politically supported by the Sinhala-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a newly emerging force in South Sri Lanka.

At the peace talks which began in September 2002, the LTTE demanded an Interim Administrative Structure with wide politico-administrative powers for the LTTE to attend to the day to day, urgent, humanitarian problems of the people of the North East. But the government said that such a structure would be unconstitutional and that a system of Joint Committees would be more appropriate. The LTTE felt thwarted because it wanted to use the peace process to expand its political and administrative clout.

The other issue which sharply divided the two sides was the LTTE's demand that the armed forces fold up or roll back their High Security Zones (HSZs) in the Jaffna peninsula. Though the issue was couched in humanitarian terms, the reality was that the LTTE wanted the zones to go to enable it to take Jaffna militarily, if the need arose.

For the Wickremesinghe government giving in on these two issues would have been politically suicidal, especially with the President ready to use her power of dismissal, and with the opposition ready to take the issue to the people.

In these circumstances, the Norwegian facilitators could do little to help the two sides bridge the gap. The "international community" which was backing peace process, could only hope that the President would not take any precipitate step and upset the peace process. No action was possible or countenanced by the international community.

However, persuasiveness prevailed in the second round of talks. Thanks to the good relations between the Norwegian peace broker Erik Solheim, Balasingham and the head of the government delegation, GL Peiris, the LTTE agreed to the setting up of a Sub-committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs (SIHRN), though it was but a pale shadow of the Interim Administration that it was asking.

Feeling intimidated by internationalisation

It was at the Oslo donors' conference in November 2002, that the LTTE had its first brush with the "international community", which had, by then, been brought into the peace process by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. He was setting up an "International Safety Net" for Sri Lanka, to ensure its sovereignty, integrity and unity in the face of LTTE's separatism and violence.

At the Oslo conference, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, asked the LTTE to publicly renounce violence, terrorism and separatism. But Balasingham considered such a description of the " Tamil freedom struggle" as being " unwarranted and provocative."

Noticing a marked "internationalization" of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict at the Oslo Conference, Balasingham wrote as follows in his work "War and Peace" (Fairmax, UK, 2004):

"The Oslo Conference signaled a significant turning point in the Sri Lankan peace process. It created space and an opportunity for powerful international governments to become more involved in the process with divergent economic and geo-political interests. At the initial stages, the role of the international community was to encourage the protagonists to take the path of negotiated settlement with pledges to mobilize resources for reconstruction and development. Following the Oslo conference with America, the European Union and Japan playing dominant roles, development aid was tied to the progress of the talks; the peace dividend was pledged as reward for the renunciation of the armed struggle and the quest for secession."

"Encouraged by Wickremesinghe's grand strategy of mobilizing the international community as a safety net to contain the LTTE, international actors began to be more actively involved in imposing constraints and prescribing parameters on one party (the LTTE) that began to shift the strategic equilibrium in Sri Lanka's favour. Apprehensive about this development, the LTTE criticized excessive internationalisation as having a negative impact on the peace process."

International community sets parameters for settlement

Nevertheless, in the third session of the peace talks at the end of 2002, the government and the LTTE agreed to "explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities."

While the Sri Lankan state touted this as a "commitment" on the part of the LTTE to find a federal solution within Sri Lanka, the LTTE said that it had only agreed to "explore" such a solution and that if it failed to find a satisfactory one, it reserved the right to resume its separatist war.

In the subsequent three rounds of talks, the LTTE complained about the Joint Committee, SIHRN, being mired in bureaucracy, and not having enough powers and autonomy. It accused the Wickremesinghe government of using the International Safety Net to contain the LTTE; getting an Indian General to say that the High Security Zones could not be dismantled; and utilising the peace talks to get international aid for the development of the Sinhala dominated South Sri Lanka only.