SRI LANKA PEACE PROCESS: WHAT LIES AHEAD IN SRI LANKA?

November 4, 2005 at 5:05 pm

Presentation by
His Excellency Bernard A. B. Goonetilleke
Ambassador of Sri Lanka

I. The current Sri Lanka peace process commenced with the change of administration in December 2001. However, it is important to note that in essence it was built upon the foundation laid by the Kumaratunga administration, most importantly- the recognition of the importance of the LTTE to such a process and the involvement of third party facilitation by Norway.

We must also remain conscious of the fact that the peace process took place in the backdrop of particularly two dramatic events. These were the July 2001 attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the international airport and the adjacent Air Force Base and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA six weeks later. If the attack on the airport created a realization for the Government of Sri Lanka of the limits of ‘the military option’, the mood of the international community against international terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 was an equally forceful reminder to the LTTE of the limits of international tolerance.

Thus, by December that year both sides were ready for a respite, and when the LTTE offered a unilateral ceasefire on December 23, the new government responded swiftly, which led to a formal CFA in February 2002.

A year later, the Sri Lanka peace process was touted by the international community as the most successful peace process against the backdrop of the simmering middle-east conflict and other conflicts such as those in Southern Sudan and Aceh, Indonesia. However, it was a short-lived euphoria as in April 2003, after going through six rounds of negotiations, the LTTE unilaterally withdrew from the peace talks. Not being satisfied with that step, the LTTE suspended other mechanisms painstakingly put together during the negotiating process, including the Sub-Committee on Immediate Humanitarian Rehabilitation Needs in the North and the East (SIHRN). This abrupt change of mind was characteristic of the Organization’s previous terminations of negotiating processes viz. the 1987 round of negotiations involving India, 1990 round with the late President Premadasa and the termination of the talks during President Kumaratunga’s first administration in April 1995. Those who have witnessed the erratic behaviour of the LTTE since mid 1980s cannot be faulted for believing that the peace process had indeed reached a dead-end by April 2003. But the reality is that notwithstanding its limitations and possibly being one of the ceasefires that might have had the largest violations, three and a half years later, it continues to survive with neither party willing to abandon it.

II. Learning Lessons from the Past

If we are genuinely interested in the future progress of the peace process, it is necessary to examine how and why we reached a dead end in April 2003, when the going was so promising at the beginning. Unless we identify the errors we have made and the wrong turns taken, which took the parties to the conflict in a direction away from the target, we will not make use of new opportunities, when we come across them. In the time allocated to me, I can allude to four factors that brought us to a dead end.

(i) Limitations in the CFA

Mr. Anton Balasingham, the chief negotiator of the LTTE has gone on record by pointing out that “the only substantial achievement of the entire peace process was the Ceasefire Agreement….” However, in my opinion, one of the first judgemental errors made by both parties was the undue haste in which the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was negotiated leading to expectations that cannot be implemented.

Having been associated with the peace process from the inception, I vividly recall the initial discussion on the first draft with the Norwegian facilitators. Their priority was to sign the formal agreement by February 2002, before the end of the third monthly extension of the informal ceasefire. In that process, the swift signing of the CFA was given the priority over the substance of the agreement. The armed forces were not given an opportunity to study the text fully and come up with their observations. Moreover, the Norwegian side insisted that their text, which had the benefit of inputs from the LTTE, had the best chances of being accepted by that organisation, meaning that they did not wish to see any tinkering with the text. Consequently, the Government and the armed forces had to accept conditions and targets, such as vacating places of religious worship, public buildings occupied by the armed forces etc., within the given time frames, which were difficult to implement. This not only caught the armed forces unprepared to meet the time frames, but also gave an opportunity for the LTTE to complain against non implementation of commitments made by the government incessantly. In my opinion, both sides could have taken little a more time to scrutinize the draft and come up with a more realistic text acceptable. But that was not to be.

(ii) Shifting of goal posts by the LTTE

From the very beginning, the primary motive of the LTTE was expansion of their domination over the areas in the north and the east controlled by the government, and in that process to get rid of the government forces from the Jaffna peninsula and elsewhere, well in advance of a negotiated settlement. The rationale advanced to achieve this objective was to highlight the need to address “existential problems” faced by the Tamil people and to demand the removal of restrictions imposed by the government in the movement of certain strategic goods to the North and the East that could have been used by the LTTE to strengthen their position. As the new administration kept removing those restrictions, like Oliver Twist, the LTTE made additional demands such as that the armed forces should vacate the HSZ on the ground that those lands were needed to resettle the displaced persons, ignoring the fact that until there was an understanding with regard to the security of the armed forces, total dismantling of the HSZ was not a tenable proposition.

However, when a plan was drawn up jointly by the representatives of the Government, LTTE and the UNHCR, to release the lands occupied by the armed forces stage by stage, the LTTE insisted that unless the lands within the were HSZ also included for resettlement, they could not allow that process to begin. When the LTTE realised that, that demand could not be met due to justifiable security concerns, they mobilised civilians to demonstrate in front of the army camps and even enter some camps forcibly. The entire exercise was a political manoeuvre designed to move the armed forces out of the Jaffna peninsula, without first reaching an agreement on the final solution to the conflict, and not with a view to addressing the “existential problems” of the civilian population.

(iii) Limitations in monitoring the breaches of the ceasefire

From the outset, the LTTE paid scant regard to the authority and the impartiality of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) consisting of approximately 50 representatives, as well as there rulings, at the time the peace process reached the dead-end. The SLMM was a monitoring body, and it had no mandate or capacity to enforce implementation of its decisions on either party. That was good so long as both parties were ready to abide by the rulings of the SLMM. However, from day one, the LTTE paid scant regard to the rulings of the monitors and in one instance, when one of their boats, while allegedly transporting weapons in contravention of the CFA, was boarded by the SLMM for inspection, the LTTE cadres on board forcibly restrained a male and a female monitor from leaving the boat and using them as human shields, and sped away to safety thus avoiding retaliatory action by the Navy.

To this day, the LTTE continues with child abductions, ignoring the agreement reached with the UNICEF, thereby earning the ire of the UN Security Council. They abduct civilians for ransom and assassinate political opponents and civilians in utter disregard of the prevailing ceasefire. Consequently, by 30 September 2005, the LTTE had amassed 3186 ceasefire violations, whereas the violations on the part of the armed forces were a mere 144 for the same period. The most high profile of these violations, no doubt, has been the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on August 12, 2005.

(iv) Policy of appeasement adopted by sections of the international community

Notwithstanding the CFA and the peace process, there appears to have been no corresponding qualitative shift in the outlook and psyche on the part of the LTTE. The policy of appeasement adopted by sections of the international community since 2002, including rewarding the organization in expectation of good behaviour in the future, did not persuade the LTTE to sufficiently feel that such a change was necessary. In fact, such a policy seems to have emboldened the LTTE to continue on with its policies and practices.

As they had done in the case of previous assassinations including that of Rajiv Gandhi, the LTTE denied their involvement in the Kadirgamar assassination, which act shocked the international community. This appears to have led to a re-evaluation of the policy of many governments toward the organisation.

- On September 19, 2005 the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference in support of the Peace Process in Sri Lanka, unequivocally condemned the assassination of the Foreign Minister and noted that “this unconscionable act of terrorism casts profound doubt on the commitment of those responsible to a peaceful and political resolution of the conflict”. They “called on the LTTE to take immediate public steps to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process and their willingness to change”, and pointed out that “an immediate end to political assassinations by the LTTE and an end to LTTE recruitment of child soldiers are two such steps.”

- On September 26, the EU in an extraordinary statement said “the European Union is actively considering the formal listing of the LTTE as a terrorist organization” and that “in the meantime, the European Union has agreed that with immediate effect, delegations from the LTTE will no longer be received in any of the EU Member States until further notice”. The statement repeats “it’s serious concern at the continuing recruitment and retention of child soldier cadres by the LTTE and reminds them that there can be no excuse whatsoever for this abhorrent practice to continue”.

III. The future

Whether there is hope for the future, will depend mainly on the capacity and the willingness of the respective actors to respond to these and other challenges, that emanate from both the domestic and international circumstances we are placed in. One thing is crystal clear. That is, if the parties to the conflict are to move in the direction of peace and avoid once again ending at a dead-end, there will have to be new thinking on the part of both parties, particularly the LTTE.

Domestic circumstances

Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic, multi-religious and a multi-cultural society. People of Sri Lanka, irrespective of their individual uniqueness, have coexisted peacefully for over two thousand years except for brief periods of conflict, imposed upon them by those driven by political compulsions. Consequently, the yearning of the people of Sri Lanka, irrespective of their differences, would be to live peacefully, in security and pursue their individual goals, whether they are economic, cultural, or religious, without let or hindrance by others. This yearning of the populace will be the driving force that would encourage all political parties concerned to seek a negotiated solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka.

It is clear that both main candidates in the forthcoming presidential election recognize this imperative. Notwithstanding the variations and the emphasis they each lay, concerning the modus operandi they propose to adopt in resolving the conflict, both are of the view that arriving at a peaceful political settlement is a necessity. They also agree that arriving at a bi-partisan agreement is a pre-requisite towards a settlement. Both candidates are also aware that whatever settlement reached, to have legitimacy, must be ratified through a referendum by the people of Sri Lanka.

As for the LTTE, for the peace process to succeed, there are several important steps that need to be taken by them. There should be a clear understanding that they will strictly abide by the rulings of the SLMM. They should adopt a more principled approach toward the peace process this time around and allow the negotiators to address both humanitarian as well as core issues without avoiding the latter, as they did earlier. There should be a genuine effort “to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination” based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka in keeping with the decision reached in Oslo in December 2002. More importantly, the LTTE has to accept the fact that such a solution should be an inclusive one acceptable to all communities, particularly the Muslims. The organisation has to come to terms with the evolving situation in the Eastern theatre and find a solution to the issues confronting the Eastern Province, without passing on the blame to the Government.

Equally important is the human rights issues of the people living in the areas under their domination, which the LTTE has failed to address, even after the visit of Mr. Ian Martin, the international Advisor on Human Rights to Sri Lanka, last month. Space should be provided for political parties to function without hindrance or intimidation, so that democracy would take root in the LTTE dominated areas in the North and the East. The LTTE has to acknowledge the fact that the interests of the Muslim and Sinhala communities living in the North and the East should not be overlooked and they should not be oppressed.

International circumstances

The world has changed considerably since the mid 1970s, when the LTTE decided to engage in an armed conflict for the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Consequently, the organization has to go through an internal change in the policies, practices and tactics they deploy to achieve their objectives. Such measures will have to be in keeping with the changed international circumstances.

The LTTE has to acknowledge the fact that several countries have already proscribed the organization, and others are threatening to do so with good reason. The fact that in the past two and a half months since the Kadirgamar assassination, despite the many strictures and sanctions against them, there have been 44 further killings by the LTTE, does not help the LTTE’s quest to seek respectability in the eyes of the world. These actions of the LTTE clearly runs counter to the spirit of the Tokyo Declaration on Sri Lanka, endorsed by some 51 countries in June 2003 that pledged assistance to the reconstruction of the country, particularly the North and the East, which insisted that the LTTE remain committed to the bench marks enunciated in that document, among which was the adherence to the ceasefire, to permit democratic dissent, prevent violation of human rights, ensure the interests of the Muslims and eventual disarmament.

It is ironic that at a time when militant separatist groups such as those in Sudan, Northern Ireland and Banda Aceh have willingly sought to give up terrorism and separatism and to resort to political means to achieve their goals, the LTTE stubbornly seeks to deceive the international community. Given its significant capacity for terrorism, including having conducted the largest number of suicide bombing operations in recent times, the LTTE also continues to pose a serious threat to international security in the post 9/11 era.

It has been a long road for both parties to the conflict, and indeed a difficult road for the people of Sri Lanka, across the ethnic divide. The country has a vast potential as demonstrated by the economic growth each year, despite the destructive conflict. A negotiated settlement would unleash the full potential of all people of the country and permit all to live in peace, harmony and prosperity. And it is our hope that, that day will dawn upon us sooner than later. (end)