Talking process

Why do we need a peace process?

On the verge of peace talks, the first after a hiatus of over a year, we must ask ourselves whether we are prepared for the process of hard negotiations that lie ahead. On the one hand, it is needless to ascertain whether there still exists the desire for peace. Taken just after the assassination of Hon. Lakshman Kadirgama, the Peace Confidence Index conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives in September 2005 shows 87.1% of Sri Lankans believe that the Government and the LTTE should go for a permanent solution through negotiations. Indicative, however, of a large measure of suspicion of the LTTE’s bona fides in the peace process, 62.6% believe the LTTE is not committed to the peace talks. Particularly damning is Sinhala opinion, showing a marked increase in the skepticism of the LTTE.

These statistics coupled with a change of President, a new negotiations team against and until the announcement of peace talks, a backdrop of violence, lay a very different foundation for peace talks in comparison to the atmosphere that gave rise to the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002.

If the CFA was constructed on the partnership for peace strategy, it’s folly to believe that this partnership endures to date. The incumbent government and the LTTE go to peace talks as antagonists, fighting for the primacy of their own definitions of peace with much the same tenacity as the battles on the ground for geographical advantage. This essential antagonism colours the lead-up to the peace talks itself, with the understanding of federalism and power-sharing on the part of the government and the LTTE showing marked differences.

It’s inevitable that any partnership for peace between the Government and the LTTE will take time to build, if ever. Mitigating the potential for partnership are several problems. The constituent members of the coalition in government have yet to articulate a united stand for a common approach to the peace process. There are marked differences of opinion between what the President, the JVP and the JHU opine. How peace talks can be conducted in such an atmosphere of divergent views is an open question.

There is also the larger question of the peace process, not to be conflated with peace talks. If the incidents of over the past year are taken into consideration, there is the legitimate question as to whether the LTTE is sincerely willing and able to enter into a peace process. At the same time and with equal skepticism, we need to ask whether the continued collusion of the Army, the EPDP and the Karuna faction strengthen or weaken a peace process founded upon a document that does not recognize the existence or importance of any other stakeholder apart from the Government and the LTTE.
Keeping the suspect intentions of all parties in the peace process in mind, we must begin to vision the possibilities of an imaginative conflict transformation process that locks recalcitrant’s into a framework of dialogue at multiple levels. In other words, the attention on the peace talks itself needs to be counter-weighed against the construction of public opinion in favour of democracy, peace and justice that are key pillars in any long term process of peacebuilding.

This strengthening of public voices in support of peace is far from easy. Sri Lanka’s political architecture is inherently resistant to change. The LTTE military hierarchies are even less democratic. How then can one find the well-springs of opinion in support of peace and strengthen them so as to influence key decisions at the level of the peace talks?

One idea is to stop treating peace talks and the public displays peace support initiatives as events. A peace process is just that, a process. A process is more than the sum of events strung together. A central weakness in the government initiatives for peace to date lies in its inability to construct coherent public dialogues in support of peace. A peace process can be seen as a process that links different tiers of polity and society, as well as reconcile differences within sections of a community – a vertical and horizontal exercise. In this light, much of the criticism of the process between the UNF and LTTE centred on its lack of vertical communication – the disconnect between the fears and concerns of the masses hungry for a peace dividend and the high sounding public statements from the government negotiation team.

The clear and present danger of the current peace process is the cacophony of statements from the government. Clearly, you cannot construct a peace process that is slavishly accepting of government initiatives. On the other hand, a single voice is needed from government on the range of initiatives that promote a process of peacebuilding, not least of which is unanimity in the choice of mediator. Schisms within government then lead to a breakdown of communications within communities. Divided on party lines, the parochialism of party supporters leads to a splintered constituency in the South, making it hard for the President to claim that, despite his best efforts, he commands a groundswell of opinion in favour of his peace initiatives.

On the other hand, the LTTE clearly has issues about transparency and accountability. Public statements meant to bolster its image in the local and international press speak of the intransigence of the Government to adhere to the stipulations of the CFA. What none of these statements address is the quantitative violations of the CFA which tell the story of a LTTE very different to the suave CFA-abiding entity that they seek to cultivate in the international community.

Efforts need to be made to map and understand the reasons why these two principal actors in the peace process behave in this manner. Congruent with these efforts, initiatives that strengthen the public voice and democracy need to go hand in hand with the peace process. If the Geneva Talks are to be about the CFA, the discussions necessarily need to address the urgent imperative of bolstering diminishing public trust in the peace process. A measure of support from the Geneva Talks is lent to bolstering this trust if discussions were to address qualitative improvements to the spirit of the CFA. These discussions will recognize the significant changes on the ground since February 2002 and acknowledge that it is no longer possible to talk about a process without the full participation of new factors such as Muslim representation and the Karuna faction.

Underpinning such discussions is, must at all times, be a view from the ground. The Geneva Talks are rendered meaningless if a long overdue emphasis on galvanizing public opinion for peace based on a rights discourse is not emphasized. Visible and sustainable efforts need to be envisioned in Geneva that look at rights violations on the ground – addressing head on the inability of both Government and LTTE in safeguarding them. Rights are the bedrock of public authenticity of a peace process, too often thought to reside in the pronouncements of progress that follow a round of peace talks. Far removed from Geneva, peace is judged and trust is built by actions on the ground.

Geneva needs to give the people a reason for hope.

This hope needs to give voice to concerns often hidden by the emphasis on peace talks. Central to a peace process is a process of state reform and democratization. In Sri Lanka, the ill-effects of a unitary state, majoritarian government, myopic language policies, among others, have resulted in the systemic rot we need to transcend for sustainable peace. This transcendence, in realpolitik terms, requires the re-organisation of State power – from centre to the periphery –to ensure democracy in the fullest sense. Such realignment of power centres are important to cultivate responsive governance frameworks to empower citizens and is a formidable bulwark against violence.

It is unclear whether the government or the LTTE are ready for such dialogue. However, high-level peace talks are only a shadow of a larger peace process. Geneva, looked this way, is an event that creates the historical condition to nurture peace between the Government and the LTTE. However, for peace processes on the ground, looking at ways through which citizens can participate in dialogues that define what peace means to them and how they wish to realize their aspirations, Geneva and all peace talks are a blip in a long term tryst with a dream to make Sri Lanka the peaceful country we all so desperately want it to be.

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