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Sri Lanka needs a new peace process

Rasheeda Bhagat

"India wants the continuation of Norwegian role in Sri Lanka and even wants the US to get involved, and is saying so, both in private and public."


Political analysts in Sri Lanka have little hope that the peace process in its present form can be revived. There will, they feel, have to be a new peace initiative based on a realignment of political forces in the island-state, even if this means sacrificing some of the gains of the last few years.


PROF JAYADEVA Uyangoda, Head of the Department of Political Science, Colombo University.

Recently in Colombo

As the battle between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE intensifies in the eastern parts of Trincomalee district, particularly in the Muslim-majority Muttur town, and charges and counter-charges are traded, one thing is certain: The three years of peace are over and the key players in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict seem to be spoiling for war yet again.

The rhetoric is getting sharper even as the Norway-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has got whittled down. Following the European Union ban on the Tigers, the LTTE asked EU nations to leave the Mission, and Denmark, Finland and Sweden quit the body.

The Government, led by the President, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, squarely blames the Tigers for denying water to 15,000 families by closing the sluice gates at Mavil Aaru, and both sides are accusing each other of "massacring innocent civilians." Tamil Net has the story of how the SLMM head, Mr Ulf Henricsson, "narrowly escaped from artillery attacks" launched by the Sri Lankan armed forces even as he was inspecting the latest conflict point. The LTTE said it considers the "bombardment" of Tiger-controlled territories a "declaration of war."

CFA on paper

So, it looks as though the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed in 2001 by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government remains in force only on paper.

As the very continuance of the SLMM in its present form is at risk, there is growing hope in the island-nation that India will "shed its indifference" and take on a much larger role in steering the troubled country back to peaceful times — an objective that can be achieved only though a negotiated settlement of the ethnic problem.

As Dr P. Saravanamuttu, Exeutive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, puts it: "Whenever we talk of major international action in the Sri Lankan context, we only talk about your country, which is not particularly interested in intervening at this point of time, and rightly so; once bitten, twice shy after the IPKF experience. At the end of the day the main parties in the Sri Lankan conflict have to demonstrate the political commitment and will to resolve this issue rather than pretend they are interested in negotiations while in fact playing for time."

He says there have always been "elements within the Sri Lankan polity who look to India to occupy a space of one kind or the other." The expectation, even while the Norwegian peace process was active, was that "once we got down to talking about hard-core political questions pertaining to a peace settlement, India would come in and play a much more proactive role." And India had always been kept in the loop of the entire peace process, he adds.

The JVP factor

On the other hand, as Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda, Head of the Department of Political Science at the Colombo University, points out, it is to prevent India from playing a major role that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) had urged the Rajapaksa Government to punish the LTTE "severely" by launching a military offensive to "decisively weaken the LTTE militarily. The JVP thinks this is the best time to do that. It not only wants to assume the ideological leadership for such an offensive, it also wants to prevent the new Indian initiative to reopen the political process by playing an active diplomatic role."

Prof Uyangoda points out that the Indian Foreign Secretary, Mr Shyam Saran, during a recent visit to Sri Lanka, had urged the Rajapaksa Government to resume the peace process and political engagement with the Tigers. This was, of course, before the outbreak of hostilities in Trincomalee district.

Prof Uyangoda says the talk in Colombo is that New Delhi wants Mr Rajapaksa to join forces with Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe to build an all-party, or national, consensus, to which the JVP is opposed. And the JVP thinks that by launching a military operation against the LTTE it can prevent the Indian plan from taking shape.

New peace process

Asked what kind of role political strategists like him want Indian to play in a scenario where the Norwegian-led peace process is almost dead, Prof Uyangoda said: "Sri Lanka needs a new peace process. What India is trying to do is not to replace Norway; India wants the continuation of Norwegian role in Sri Lanka and even wants the US to get involved, and is saying so, both in private and public."

But the problem, he points out, is that the Indian initiative is based on the wrong assumption that it can persuade Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe to work together. That is not possible because the Sinhala politics is too fragmented and the JVP will not allow that, and would be willing to even join the Sri Lankan Government to prevent a Mahinda-Ranil alliance.

Dr Saravanamuttu, too, agrees with this perception and says this is nothing new; the two main parties of Sri Lanka had historically played an "adversarial role" and it would now be difficult for them to get together. Neither trusted the other, and this was evident from a recent incident when "the President and the Leader of Opposition (Wickremesinghe) met and during the meeting the President said they should work together." But media reports said that barely 30 minutes before the event "a crossover had been sworn in as a deputy minister! Now such things hardly inspire trust and confidence," he told Business Line.

Asked what role India could ideally play and whether it was capable of preventing the outbreak of a full-scale war in Sri Lanka, Prof Uyangoda said India was the only country capable of doing this.

"Because even though it maintains links with the Government in Colombo, it has to somehow or the other establish communication with the Tigers, because the Tigers are also very keen to normalise relations with India." He believes ultimately New Delhi will have to do it, but the Manmohan Singh Government appears in no great hurry to act.

But how do Sri Lankans expect Sonia Gandhi's Congress (I), the party leading the UPA coalition, to forget and forgive the LTTE for the Rajiv assassination?

"I don't know and can't comment on that because this is part of India's domestic politics, but I think the Indian ruling class is very pragmatic and not emotional. I do believe the Indian ruling class has the capacity to separate emotions from pragmatic politics. And India has to play a role."

On the LTTE wanting a negotiated, peaceful settlement to the conflict, he says, "My understanding of the Tigers, contrary to what a lot of people believe, is that they know very well that a separate state through war is not feasible. They will accept regional autonomy in a framework of what we call advanced federalism."

But the bad news for Sri Lanka is that political analysts like Uyangoda don't think that the peace process, in its present form, can be revived. He thinks Sri Lanka will need a new peace process, which is not discernible on the horizon yet.

Political realignment

"A new peace process can take shape only under a new balance of power between the state and the LTTE. That balance might emerge either after a major military confrontation between the two sides or after a series of military confrontations because the Sri Lankan conflict has shifted away from the phase of political engagement to that of military engagement."

Till another military stalemate is reached, and this might take a few years, the launching of a new peace process is not possible. "On that score, India is right, in a way, because it has realised that without a new political balance of forces in Colombo there cannot be a new political initiative.

There will have to be a reconfiguration of political forces in the government in the South; that is why India is trying for a Ranil-Mahinda consensus, something the JVP is trying to prevent by pressing for reopening of the military front."

Such a military engagement will take the country backward, but that cannot be escaped in a "small island country, where the ruling class is politically immature and isolationist, with a small island mentality, wanting to isolate itself not only from South Asia, but the world at large," he adds.

(Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

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