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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam Conflict Resolution - Sri Lanka - Tamil Eelam: Getting to Yes  > Negotiating Peace - Lessons from Sri Lanka Peace Process, 1997 > Major General Dipankar Banerjee - Prospects for a Negotiated Solution, Future Perspectives - An Indian View

International Alert Conference, Luzern, Switzerland, 28-30 July 1997
Negotiating Peace - Lessons from Sri Lanka Peace Process,

Prospects for a Negotiated Solution, Future Perspectives - An Indian View
Major General Dipankar Banerjee,

Prospects for a Negotiated Solution,
Future Perspectives - An Indian View

The Backdrop

1. The conflict in Sri Lanka has gone on for far too long. All sides probably agree at least on that. But the conflict has a long history. Its seeds were sown at the nation's independence. Search for nationalism in a newly independent post-colonial country has proved difficult everywhere and it has not been different in Sri Lanka. Here it led to serious differences between two major components of its society, the majority Sinhala and the Tamil population. Many attempts were made to resolve this through negotiations and agreements, but few were implemented and none were successful. This in turn has left behind scars and mistrust. Serious divergence of opinion between different ethnic peoples within a nation is not new. The process of nation building attempts to harmonise this, but it is a long and painstaking process often taking centuries. In other states long under colonial rule, adjustments to new independence has been long and difficult. Some nations have dealt with this problem successfully. Many others have kept it under wraps. In certain others, it led to violent conflict but were later resolved. In Sri Lanka it is an ongoing tragedy of immense proportions which still defy a settlement. Is the time opportune now? The question assumes an urgency, both because conditions perhaps do appear somewhat favourable and also because the suffering has gone on for far too long.

2. Serious armed  fighting has been going on now for more than sixteen years. This makes it among the longest conflicts of this century. There are a few of a longer duration, but not many that can match the severity and intensity of combat in northern and eastern Sri Lanka that has lasted for Such a long period. It may also have the dubious distinction of assassinating the largest number of national leaders. The tragedy is that a nation that in the mid 1970's appeared ready to take off economically and become a South Asian Tiger, is today riven apart by violence. Even though violence also came from other sources such as the JVP movement, it is the urge of the ethnic Tamils for a greater say in their own affairs and their confrontation with the Sri Lankan Government that have held the nation's development and progress to ransom. Today the State stands highly militarised with no end in sight to the ongoing turmoil.

Conditions for a Negotiated Settlement

3. Is time ripe for a negotiated solution to this conflict`? It is a question of more than rhetorical significance. For, not only peace and stability of South Asia, but also its future prosperity may be hostage to this. Nations in the region then have more than a passing interest in its resolution. On the surface at least it would appear that conditions today are indeed more propitious than they have been for a very long time. In the post Cold War era; the international dimension to this problem has largely vanished. There is no zero-sum game to be played out by the superpowers. The outside world has no vested interest in perpetuating this conflict or to see it resolved in a particular manner that will further their own interests. Within the region there is much less need to worry of foreign military presence and their adverse fall outs in the sub-continent. Resolution of the conflict then is mainly an internal matter for Sri Lanka. It is here that major problems remain. at least the following four conditions will determine whether it is time for a negotiated settlement:

Both or all sides to a conflict must accept the need for a negotiated settlement. If one or more party do not, and feel that it has more to gain through continuation of the conflict, then that is likely to be the case. There has to be also confidence in the negotiating process and faith that a settlement once achieved will be implemented.

There has to be an acceptance also that a military solution is not possible. Only when there is a clear realisation of this by all sides that negotiation becomes an option.

That there is adequate political space within which the situation may be addressed. All sides will need to show flexibility with their initial positions in order to reach a compromise. For that to be possible there has to be room for manoeuvre.

Finally, the time must be right.

4. Need for a Solution. Do all sides in Sri Lanka accept the need for a negotiated solution? There are still many doubts. The LTTE it appears is determined to continue the fight. It is hardly likely to negotiate from a position of military inferiority and recent heavy losses. But then it is  not likely to negotiate when it is doing well in the battlefield either. (_)(,course some have even questioned the LTTE's desire to accept a negotiated solution at all, unless it is one of Eelam. The Sri Lankan armed forces flush with recent victories, are also not likely to be enthusiastic about a negotiated settlement at present. Finally, it appears from a distance that a sufficient degree of weariness has yet to set in. This is a powerful force that impels negotiation and it appears that the situation Is perhaps not yet quite conducive.

5. Military Solution. As a general principle, there can be no military solution to an essentially political problem. When the movement is one for greater political rights of a large group of people sharing a common ideology, the solution is not likely to be found in one or more military victories. Even a total military victory, inconceivable under present conditions for either side, will not lead to a solution unless the basic political conditions have been met. Too many Tamils have given their lives in the conflict and even if a few are alive, the cause will remain with them. It may only postpone the next round. In this case, there is no possibility even of that. The LTTE has lost many battles, but they still remain a strong force with no shortage of recruits. Even though the Sri Lankan armed forces seem to be winning at present, their weaknesses too have been highlighted in recent months. For Government forces winning has to be measured, not through favourable body counts, but whether normalcy is returning to the area. Any definition of victory for them will at least mean a secure corridor to Jaffna. Can this be achieved in the near future and maintained for a length of time?

The odds are against them. Too many youth are disillusioned with the war. There have been very heavy casualties. Desertion rate continues to be alarming and new recruits are not easy to find. The role of the military ultimately under such conditions is at best to create an environment that will facilitate negotiations. Has that situation been reached? It would not seem so. The LTTE have agreed to negotiate in the past when under pressure, but only to buy time for regenerating their fighting capabilities. It is true that it is in serious difficulties today, but nothing suggests that the situation as yet is such that it will compel them to negotiate seriously. It is not easy for the military mind to accept a stalemate. Victory is considered a function of' more troops, greater (ire power and better tactics. If victory has not been possible earlier then these were not adequate. Surely more will assure success. Only when battle fatigue compels an acceptance that a military solution is not realistic, is there a likelihood that the military option would be given up. Sadly that does not yet appear to be the case.

6. Political Space. Is there sufficient political space for negotiations to be meaningful? It would appear so on the surface. The devolution package that the Sri Lankan minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs released on 26 March 1997 provides the best set of proposals so far. There is great possibility that this will be officially accepted by September by the Government. Both leading Sinhala political parties have agreed to monitor the outcome of negotiations. Even though it does not satisfy the LTTE demand for Eelam, there is enough political devolution in this package to meet most of its basic aspirations. Yet, doubts remain. Would the Government honour its pledges and not go back when under pressure from rightist and religious groups? Would the Tamils, once they have received greater autonomy, not attempt to secede from the Republic? There is not sufficient confidence on either side.

7. Is Time Opportune? The Sri Lankan Government may consider it to be so. The President has an agenda for the nation which lie hostage to the ongoing crisis. For any democracy popular support is determined by the success achieved by the Government and it often lasts only for a limited time. Favourable moments need to be exploited. One such is probably now. The same is not the case with the LTTE. Prabhakaran has waited many years and is likely to wait longer for a solution of his choice. He cannot afford to respond under pressure from without. Are there pressures within'? "1'hcre does not seem to be any signs. Tile degree of wariness that compel negotiation does not seem to have developed in the Tamil people as yet.

8. Finally, a minimum degree of trust, faith and confidence is necessary for a negotiating process to take place. Ofcourse it is true that these qualities develop over time and gathers momentum as the process gets under way. Can negotiations themselves be a process? Given conditions today, governmental efforts may not be the option now. Would outside agencies, Non-Governmental organisations or others have a chance? This has not been tried in the sub-continent. Is it time for a beginning?

The Indian Experience

9. It is perhaps appropriate at this stage to refer briefly to the Indian experience in resolving the several internal insurgencies that developed within the country after independence. For, this has shaped Indian thinking and in turn determines Indian policy. By and large the Indian example has been remarkably successful in countering disruptive forces within, if not in preventing their occurrence. There has not been one situation where the Indian Government has had to compromise on fundamental issues. The strategy adopted has been consistent. The initial response by the State has always been military. But, it has been one of minimum force, restricted to compelling the hostiles to accept that a military solution is not possible. After a certain wariness and fatigue this then compelled the hostiles to negotiate. Many approaches were adopted in the negotiating process, but the broad framework remained the same. Resolution of the issues had to be within the Constitutional -framework and through the democratic process. Everything else was negotiable.

10. In most cases new political structures were created to accommodate the people's desire for greater political autonomy. Often the leaders of insurgent groups became the political leaders and Chief Ministers of newly created provinces. Usually dealings were direct with insurgent groups. Sometimes there were facilitators or mediators. Persistent negotiations were needed. Many accords fell through. Eventually something worked. The military was an important player, but never n deciding factor. The Government accommodated all legitimate demands of the insurgents within the accord.

Indian Interests and Policy

11. India's interests lie in a peaceful and stable environment with its neighbours and particularly within the SAARC countries. It is Important for this that each country is prosperous and can interact and co-operate with others for mutual benefit. Early realisation of SAPTA and SAFTA will greatly facilitate this process. But this also needs a peaceful and stable environment in the region. Conflict within and inter-state in the region will be severe detriment. The development of close and friendly relations with India's immediate neighbours commands the highest priority in New Delhi's foreign policy today. Both in pronouncements and actions India has demonstrated the primacy it attaches to relations with its neighbours.

12. This has been spelt out at some length by the Indian Government in recent months and has been termed as the Gujral Doctrine. This merits a mention here, if only to put in perspective India's policy towards Sri Lanka:-

With neighbours like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity, but gives and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust.

India believes that no South Asian country should allow its territory to be used against the interests of another country of the region.

That none should interfere in the internal affairs of another.

All South Asian countries must respect each other's territorial integrity and-sovereignty.

Settle all disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations.

13. In line with this foreign policy parameter India would like to extend maximum possible co-operation to Sri Lanka as a good friend and neighbour. India has watched with great interest the initiatives taken by Sri Lanka and its President Chandrika Kumaratunga to work for a political resolution of the conflict in Jaffna within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. India believes that the devolution proposals put terwnrd hv the Government of Sri Lanka are a reasonable basis for negotiations towards a political solution. India also believes that peace and stability can be restored only through a negotiated settlement of the problem. In this India would like to be helpful but not obtrusive. For the time being this must be interpreted as one of benign neglect. Any direct involvement of the Government of India, it is believed will affect the process adversely and cannot be carried forward.

14. As a close neighbour, India cannot but be affected by conflict in Sri Lanka. Sixty million Tamils in Tamil Nadu are concerned about the fate of their ethnic brothers in Sri Lanka. Refugees coming north across the Palk Strait to Tamil Nadu cause enormous strains on the State and on the Nation's peoples and resources. But, these concerns, important though they may be, are not sufficient to warrant further action. Certainly the mood today in India will not permit any interference.

15. Quite clearly India does not owe anything to anyone in Sri Lanka. n nation's policies are determined by its interests as they appear at a given moment in history. Indeed, most will argue that nothing else should matter. But conditions now are different. Today we are at a stage where co-operation between our two countries and others can make a difference in the Indian Ocean and change it into a prosperous growth area. Friendship and good relations between our two countries can provide an anchor for security and prosperity of the Indian Ocean region. This will not be possible if India attempts to play a role other than a good neighbour. In the mood today in India no other option is available.

16. We expect the Sri Lankan Government will pursue the end of this conflict through negotiation and not military conflict. In our experience, military options solve no internal situation. They only aggravate it. Time to negotiate may be when one has the stronger militarily position. For, then one's generosity has real meaning. This ofcourse in no way should mean Sri Lanka compromising on what it considers its own national interests. But, the process will not be easy. Patience and perseverance over a long period will be needed.

.We hope the Tamil people will appreciate the offer of devolution that the Sri Lankan Government has made. This indeed provides the best framework till now for a meaningful negotiation. Continually seeking a military option has only led to a decimation of the Tamil youth. The price has been too high and the goal of Eelam has proved to be illusory. India has consistently supported the unity of Sri Lanka and nothing 'Will change this position in the future. Any expectation of help will be unrealistic. At the same time Indian experience shows that a great deal of compromise is needed to make a solution work. When that time comes India on its part will not be found wanting.


18. The situation in Sri Lanka may indeed not be ideal for a negotiated peace. It may even not be very favourable. Neither side feels that it cannot win its case militarily. Enough military capability continues with both sides even though the costs are enormous. There is no sense of wariness even after protracted and prolonged conflict. There is little trust and faith between different groups.

Yet, there are favourable trends as well. The devolution package is substantial and practical. It meets most Tamil aspirations. There is a common agenda emerging among the opposing Sinhala political parties and these are positive. President Chandrika Kumaratunge is determined to bring peace to the Island. Many Tamil groups are today beginning to accept that peace is possible. They are asking what they have got from this long conflict.

20. The answer lies in a negotiated settlement. Even if the moment does not seem opportune now, it may well be worthwhile to explore opportunities. To that limited extent an effort may be warranted. When time is more opportune then at least a beginning would have been made that can be built upon. The moment may be right to initiate that process.

* The views expressed in the article is entirely that of the Author and not that of the Government of India or any of its institutions.



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