1. On Saturday, 20th July 2002
the Government of Sudan and the secessionist groups from the south which
have been fighting for independence for the last 19 years signed an agreement in
Nairobi which unflinchingly addresses all the crucial issues between the two
sides. As such it opens a window of hope for the ravaged population of one of
the poorest countries of Africa. Strangely enough there are vital parallels
between the conflict in The Sudan and the one in Sri Lanka. The Sudan Accord
comes at a critical moment in Sri Lanka’s Peace Process so the lessons of the
Accord could help in a just and lasting resolution of the Sri Lankan conflict.
2. The parallels are very intriguing. In both countries the war
of secession broke out in the same year – 1983. In both countries the underlying
schism is the same – ethno-territorial, linguo-cultural and religious.
3. The first of the fault-lines is ethno-territorial. The northern Sudan is
populated by an Afro-Arabic ethnic people. The southern Sudan is populated by
Afro-Nubian peoples who are strikingly distinct from the northerners. Both
populations are the majority in their respective areas of domicile. In Sri Lanka
too the ethnic divide is territorially located i.e. the seven southern provinces
mostly Sinhala and the northeast province mostly Tamil. Each population has the
physical footing for autonomy and eventual independence.
4. The second of the fault-lines is linguo-cultural. In The Sudan the northern
population speaks, reads and writes Arabic and uses the Arabic script. Their
cultural background is entirely Arabic and they consider themselves with
pardonable pride as an integral part of the Arab World. On the other hand, the
population of the southern Sudan uses a variety of African tribal languages only
recently reduced to writing using the Roman script. They adhere to traditional
African tribal culture and have resisted Arabic influence. The linguo-cultural
divide between the two sides is a yawning chasm. In Sri Lanka the
linguo-cultural divide if not quite so wide is nevertheless very considerable.
The Sinhala and Tamil peoples have their own ancient and well developed
languages written in different scripts and boasting long and illustrious
literatures which constitute a deeply ingrained part of their cultural heritage.
So here too the divide is very real and no less real than in The Sudan.
5. The final fault-line is religion. In The Sudan the north is overwhelmingly
Islamic. Islam is much more than a religion and it dominates all aspects of
personal conduct. It imposes the Sharia legal system which is intended to unify
the Islamic world. The southern Sudan, on the other hand, is either Christian or
animistic and has resisted with much success the encroachment of Islam. There
has been fierce resistance to the imposition of the Sharia laws and a preference
for the personal and public law of the Judaeo-Christian world. In Sri Lanka the
divide is between two ancient religions – Hinduism and Buddhism. The Tamil
people of the northeast are overwhelmingly adherents of the Hindu religion while
the Sinhala population of the seven southern provinces is equally preponderantly
Buddhist. Neither of these religions imposes a system of personal law as does
Islam and there are more syncretic links between Hinduism and Buddhism than
there are between Christianity and Islam despite their related origins in the
Middle East. Before leaving the matter of personal law, however, it is relevant
to know that the Tamil people have a personal law that is different from that of
the Sinhala people. The Tamil peoples’ Thesavalamai (tradition of the country)
is different from the English common law based personal law of the Sinhala
6. In both countries it has proved impossible to weld into a single nation
populations riven by such extensive and deep-going fault lines. Forcing them
into the straitjacket of a single constitution has produced the tensions and
stresses in the body politic which erupted into wars of secession in both
countries. The state in each case has stigmatised the secessionist forces as
“terrorists” and sought to defeat them militarily and impose constitutional
reforms which in the state’s opinion should suffice to assuage the secessionist
aspiration and reconcile the secessionists to life within the single undivided
state. In both countries the military effort of the state has failed and the
secessioniast forces have grown from strength to strength. Consequently, both
countries now face the abyss of break-up into smaller states controlled by the
parties to the war. For each state it is a bewildering and traumatic prospect
but the compelling logic of military failure is inescapable.
The Sudan Accord
7. The first, and most important, element of the Sudan Accord is
the acknowledgement by the state of the southern peoples’ right to self
determination. It had already been enshrined in a new constitution three years
ago but its implications had proved too much for the state to bear. These
reservations have been abandoned now and the southern peoples are to have
autonomous government of their choice and exemption from the Sharia law of the
northern Islamic state.
8. Secondly, the state at the centre is to be composed for a transitional period
of six years of the representatives of both sides i.e. the present Islamic
government and the secessionist forces.
9. Finally, at the end of six years of autonomous government in the south, the
population of that region will be consulted at a referendum on the issue of
outright secession from the present state or continuance within it.
10. These three elements deal unambiguously with the issues that have divided
the two sides during the long and inconclusive conflict, namely, the right to
self determination of the population that demands it, freedom from a legal
system repugnant to them, the actual implementation of the right to self
determination by autonomous government for a transitional period and the right
to complete secession from the state if so decided at a referendum at the end of
that period. The fact that the Accord addresses these fundamental issues
forthrightly, unambiguously and without a semblance of evasion or reserve seems
to offer hope of a peaceful future of good neighbourly relations inter se even
if total separation were to take place at the end of the transitional period.
11. The sequence of the peacemaking effort in The Sudan has been the opposite of
that in Sri Lanka for a settlement of the fundamental issues in contention has
preceded a ceasefire on the ground. The next step is the negotiation of a
ceasefire based upon the Accord already signed. It is interesting that the both
sides envisage international monitoring of the ceasefire when it becomes a
reality with the monitors being provided by Norway, Britain and the USA.
The lessons for Sri Lanka
12. The lessons for Sri Lanka are all too clear. Deal first with
the fundamental issues forthrightly, unambiguously and without evasion or
reservation. Do not attempt to put them on the back burner in a vain hope that
they will somehow disappear and deliver us from the dilemma of hard and painful
decisions. All three earlier peace talks with the LTTE failed for lack of such
courage. The principal lesson of the Sudan Accord is the selfsame lesson of our
own three earlier failures, namely, do not indulge in a futile effort to duck
the issue. Face up to it and get it out of the way at the outset itself for it
will build the platform for success on all the other issues. Most importantly it
will establish the bona fides so absolutely vital for peace either in a single
all-island state or in a two state island.
13. Make transitional arrangements within the existing state which will be
shielded from disruption by power sharing at the centre of the existing state.
It is such power sharing at the centre that will reinforce the bona fides which
are the very essence of peace. Give such transitional arrangements a
sufficiently long period in which to work themselves out and establish the
necessarily fragile bona fides with which a start has to be made in living
14. Finally, acknowledge unreservedly the right to secession if, at the end of
the transitional period that is the vox populi of the Tamil nation expressed at
an internationally conducted referendum in the area of its domicile. The Good
Friday Peace Agreement of April 1998 provides for a referendum in Northern
Ireland every seven years on the issue of secession from the United Kingdom
15. The inestimable prize of peace for all time is within our grasp. Many others
have shown us the way not least our brethren in The Sudan whose long travail has
been no less arduous than ours. What we need now is courage, courage to shake
off the ‘dead hand of the past’ which has brought us so low, courage to build an
entirely new future of lasting peace.