Transformation, not just reform of the state, is the need of the hour
Foundation for Co-existence (FCE) Symposium
© Rohan Canagasabey 2006.
Permission is granted for republication and distribution,
provided name of author is retained.
First published in The Morning Leader, 8 March 2006.
Transformation, not just reform of the state is the means to
find a solution to the ethnic conflict, said a delegate at a Symposium on Peace
Processes organised by the Foundation for Co-existence (FCE) on (22nd and 23rd
of February 2006) at the Ceylon Intercontinental Hotel. It was attended by
distinguished Sri Lankan academics and others concerned in conflict resolution
in Sri Lanka and foreign academics involved in, or with knowledge of, peace
processes in other countries, hoping that their experiences and/or knowledge
will be of positive benefit to those commenting and involved in the Sri Lankan
The welcoming address to the symposium was given by the Hon Minister for Public
Administration and Home Affairs, Mr Sarath Amunugama. The symposium in Colombo
was co-incidentally - or not as the case may be - beginning a few hours before
the GoSL and LTTE delegations were
to meet each other for face-to-face discussion for the first time since the
LTTE broke off negotiations in April 2003.
Amunugama argued in his address that “the LTTE’s decision to enforce a Tamil
boycott of the Presidential election has freed the [GoSL] negotiators of a
southern political sub-text, as during the last decades the two main political
parties opposed each other’s efforts at a resolution to the ethnic conflict”.
However, the subsequent different interpretations on the GoSL - LTTE joint
statement issued at the end of the talks in Switzerland, is indicative of the
rivalry in the Sinhala polity taking precedence over focusing on achieving a
resolution to the ethnic conflict.
The former head of the UNF GoSL delegation, Prof. G L Peiris, during his
address, revealed that they had agreed with the LTTE not to reveal details of
their negotiations as it could damage the process, but Peiris pointed out that
had they done so, it would have illustrated that the previous UNF government was
not leaning over backwards to accommodate the LTTE’s wishes. A false perception
that contributed to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the Presidential election,
rather than the unitary / federal issue, irrespective of what those who insist
on the present centralized unitary State might say. Therefore, the issues raised
at the symposium are very relevant in taking forward the peace process.
“Peace Processes of the future will need to take account of past lessons and
develop a structure to provide a checklist to assist negotiators”, said Kumar
Rupesinghe, Chairman of FCE. To this end, FCE launched two volumes of a book
titled Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons Learnt, on
Tuesday 21st at the BMICH. The first volume deals with the period from the
Thimpu talks to the PA Government’s time, while the second volume deals with the
UNF Government – LTTE negotiations.
Rupesinghe added that, “Sri Lanka is fortunate that for a small country a lot of
international attention is directed towards assisting a resolution to the
Vasu Gounden, Founder and Chairman of the Africa Centre for the Constructive
Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) with an intimate knowledge of the peace process
in his home country of South Africa as well as in Sudan, cautioned that “this
international interest will not be indefinite, and therefore all Sri Lankans
will need to cast aside their narrow-mindedness, or else you will be left behind
as the world moves on”.
Adjunct Professor, John Hopkins University, Washington DC, Dayan Jayatilleke and
who has been involved in an academic manner in the Sri Lankan conflict for
decades, argued that there is a misunderstanding of the LTTE in media and
academic circles as the LTTE will accept nothing less that a separate Tamil
Eelam ruled by it, also highlighting that many Tamil parliamentarians had been
assassinated by the LTTE. In response, TNA MP Mr N Raviraj, countered that the
failure of the Sinhala polity to resolve the ethnic issue has resulted in the
birth of the LTTE.
“The Tamil politicians were politically killed by the Sinhala polity, before
they were physically killed by the LTTE” said Mr K Balakrishnan of the FCE,
during a brief conversation with this writer during lunch. Mr Balakrishnan who
has knowledge of all the Tamil players in the conflict, cited as an example the
complete frustration that Neelan Tiruchelvam - the architect of the severely
watered down “Union of Regions” proposals of a previous PA government - felt
towards the Sinhala polity, that led him to make arrangements to leave the
country for an academic post in the USA. Essentially that the watering down over
the years of his original proposals contributed to his death at the hands of the
LTTE, as well as Pirabaharan’s wish to ensure he remained the only point of
reference on the Tamil issue.
“We in the African National Congress (ANC) had the same staunch positions that
you now have”, said Vasu Gounden of ACCORD, glancing towards Dayan Jayatilleke,
adding, “but unless you understand the perspective of the other side you will
not be able to make the necessary compromises to achieve a solution”. This
included dealing “with everybody’s fears and not just your own” said Gounden.
Gounden highlighted that the solution was reached through transforming the state
structure rather than merely reforming it.
Reform of the state structure, and it must be remembered, one inherited from
British colonialism, is all that independent Ceylon / Sri Lanka has thus far
achieved with the 1972 and 1978 constitutions. These constitutions in turn
exacerbated the marginalization of the Tamil community.
Transformation of the state structure also enabled the transformation of the ANC
from being seen as a terrorist organization, to one that now governs South
Africa. In this regard, Head, Department of Political Science and History,
University of Colombo, Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda said he was of the school of
thought that felt the LTTE is ultimately capable of transforming itself and does
not subscribe to the view that it is a fascist organization and will always be
While structurally the South African situation was different, in that a white
settler minority was ruling over the majority native population, the issues of
understanding and compromise in achieving conflict resolution remain relevant,
argued Gounden, in his presentation that was commended by the symposium
convener, as being inspirational. Gounden also stressed the economic benefits
that emerged as result of peace in South Africa, such as a high GDP growth rate
with a strong and stable currency. A peace that was possible because the
solution enabled all South African to feel that they had a stake in the new
South Africa and an equal chance to make a better life. A new South Africa!
While President Mahinda Rajapakse promised a new Sri Lanka in his election
campaign, only radical transformation of the state structures combined with good
governance is likely deliver that. “The Sinhala people think that giving
self-rule to the Tamil majority areas would mean that the Sinhala people are
loosing something, which is an incorrect perception” said a well-known Sinhala
human rights activist at another forum held recently.
Professor Edmund Garcia first spoke on the experience of the Philippines in
dealing with the issue of the rebellion in the Muslim majority province of
Mindanao in a Catholic majority country. But the example of Aceh is probably
more relevant. The Indonesian province of Aceh, in northern Sumatra, was the
worst affected by the tsunami that struck on December 26th 2004, with over
100,000 lives lost. It also had a long-running conflict between the GAM rebels
seeking independence and troops brought in by the Indonesian State.
Peace talks arranged by Finland produced an agreement whereby all Indonesian
troops will withdraw in exchange for disarmament by the rebels, with only
Acehnese personnel in the local police and army units within Aceh. Subsequently
the constitution is expected to be changed to allow a regional political party
to form, contest elections and form a local government with Aceh given a great
deal of autonomy.
Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, the initial co-operation in the aftermath of the
tsunami evaporated over the haggling over control over the foreign
rehabilitation and reconstruction funds. “A historic opportunity for
co-operation between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE was lost when the
P-TOMS agreement was not implemented and with it a chance to progress towards an
interim structure in the North-east” said General Ashok K Mehta, former General
Officer Commanding the IPKF from 1988 until their departure in 1991, to this
“Any interim structures need to be clearly linked to a permanent solution and
there needs to be a logical and coherent trajectory from interim to final
settlement”, said G L Peiris, during a question and answer session. But with
priority given to politically driven posturing over the different
interpretations of the GoSL-LTTE joint statement at the conclusion of the talks
in Geneva, an interim structure or even serious discussions on a political
resolution to the ethnic conflict seem as difficult to reach as water in a
desert. But not impossible, if the lessons from South Africa and Aceh are kept