A long term view for peace

In an insightful article, Kethesh Loganathan, writing in the Daily News of 27th February 2006, calls for a holistic approach to the problems facing the full implementation of the CFA. He places the CFA within the larger peace process in Sri Lanka and highlights the need to urgently look at the “humanitarian and existential problems of the People of the North-East (i.e Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese), the root causes of the ethnic conflict and the just and equitable resolution of the National Question”.

My fear is that Kethesh’s emphasis on the long term imperatives of the peace peace process animating the issues discussed at the peace talks is lost in negotiations between the successive governments and the LTTE. On the one hand, there is the brevity of governments in the South. A long term vision requires strategy. Strategy in turn requires stability within the political architectures that support a peace process. While elections are good for democracy, Sri Lanka’s interpretation of democracy is that with victory come the spoils of unbridled power. So with each election, with each change of party, we literally start everything anew. This is manifest in the lack of institutional memory. Governmental bodies experience sweeping changes in staffing with each change of government in large displays of favouritism and nepotism that make mockery of our avowed status as a democracy.

Thus, along with the conflict in the North and East, the disintegrating structures of governance and democracy in the South demand immediate attention. Addressing the root causes of the ethnic conflict and exploring a just and equitable resolution of the National Question requires Sri Lanka to revamp its rotting democratic architectures with those that are much more resilient to changes in government and stand in opposition to nepotism, corruption and political influence.

Imagining solutions to the complex problems of a crumbling State architecture requires more than the charisma of a single leader, or the leadership of a single political party. Both help, but fall short of the long term and inclusive processes necessary to revitalize good governance and democracy in Sri Lanka. The federal idea is one such mechanism. Seen as a construct in support of democracy and democratic governance and not just as a solution to a futile war, the federal idea suggests that holding political authority accountable to even the lowest tiers of society makes the entire democratic process accountable, transparent and responsive to the aspirations of all peoples. Call it power sharing or federalism, the future of Sri Lanka resides in idea that wrestle away power from the centre and create avenues through which citizens influence legislation and policy. No democratic party can take a stand against such a measure. To do so is hypocritical, since you can’t be in favour of democratic governance and at the same be opposed to taking power to where it rightfully resides – in the hands of the people.

However, part of the inability to create a national vision for long term strategic engagements with the LTTE and the challenges of state reform is the myopia of political parties. Unable to see beyond their years in government or political office and resistant to collaboration on matters of national importance – such as the peace process – all key political parties fall prey to the same desire to hold on to power at all costs. The Liam Fox Agreement between the then President and the Leader of the Opposition is instructive in this regard stating that “The development of a genuinely bi-partisan approach to the resolution of the ethnic conflict is vital to the achievement of a permanent solution to the conflict.” It goes on to highlight the importance of consultations and an institutional memory that transcends the lifespan of the party in power.

As we know, this agreement didn’t result in anything too constructive or progressive – the bickering continued, the vitriol between the President and the Leader of the Opposition increased leading to the tragic inability of the two most influential figures in Sri Lankan politics to construct and sustain a common principled approach to the peace process.

This then is our sad fate – that despite public commitments, our democracy is unable to give birth to and sustain a political vision that maintains differences of opinion, but isn’t blindly destructive of progressive initiatives taken by rival political parties.

Whether it is a question of governance, democracy or the peace process, we need to ensure that a strategic long term plan underpins efforts to address all three of these issues central to Sri Lanka’s stability and growth. A report released recently by a group of donors gave birth to a new phrase that’s helpful in this regard – “strategic complementarity”. Simply put, this concept calls for convergence within and between various governmental and non-governmental actors, including donors, to bring about the changes in Sri Lanka’s political and social architecture in support of democratic governance and sustainable peace.

Such a strategic vision or strategic complementarity requires four key elements –coordination, at all levels and between all actors, a comprehensive cartography of peacebuilding initiatives that goes well beyond mapping actors and factors of conflict, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms with which to assess the long term socio-political impact of projects and initiatives and support frameworks that enable communication within and between actors in a peace process even when there is no progress of peace talks and in conditions of low intensity conflict.

Coordination within and between various agencies, line ministries, NGOs and donors, among others, ensures projects and initiatives that complement each other, address existing gaps, build local capacities and collectively contribute towards long term requirements. The need to map a peace process is erroneously conflated with mapping the factors and social dynamics that give rise to violent conflict. The key emphasis of mapping a peace process is on ascertaining the progress in the process itself – for instance, qualitatively determining the public confidence in a set of options for an interim agreement or various manifestations of the federal idea, a qualitative audit of initiatives that build grassroots capacities for non-violent conflict transformation, patterns of information consumption on politics through media etc. For those involved in peacebuilding, reconciliation and governance, such a process ensures windows through which snapshots of public opinion regarding peace and the general health of the peace process is ascertained. Monitoring and evaluation of projects needs to include the public – the ultimate recipients of all projects and initiatives. Encouraging public participation from the community level monitoring of projects to national report card surveys on the delivery of goods and services is an essential component of any initiative that seeks to build ownership amongst the masses for peace initiatives. Finally, frameworks for communication between various actors in a peace process need to be designed so as to mitigate the impact of localised violence or low intensity conflict on the larger peace process. Such frameworks can be based on a combination of physical meetings and virtual interactions through the increasing prevalence of the web and internet in Sri Lanka to promote cohesive dialogues in support of peace.

A long term strategic vision for peace and governance in Sri Lanka is imperative for the country’s development in the future. The issue at stake is more than the peace process. If the vital concerns articulated by Kethesh Loganathan are the central pillars of a peace process, attention on the strategic design of solutions that respond to these needs that go beyond the boundaries of party politics or the tenure of a single government is of great consequence to our future.

Key to making this vision reality is the role of the incumbent government and all political parties. These political actors need to re-affirm their commitment to a principled approach to the peace process and a process of negotiations informed by a long-term and holistic view of what needs to do be done. Donors need to follow suit. Reports in support of greater collaboration are useful in so far as they become documents that guide concrete actions on the ground. Reciprocally, NGOs also need to transcend their own parochialism and create knowledge and information sharing frameworks that strengthen democracy and peace. Entities such as the LTTE, though more difficult to engage, need to be encouraged to transform maximalist demands into mutually acceptable options for peace and democracy – in other words, to be seen as contributing towards the reform of the Sri Lankan state to accommodate the aspirations of all peoples marginalised by decades of myopic legislation.

Above all, long term strategies in support of restructuring state power and enabling sustainable peace processes reflect the hopes of ordinary people – who look towards those in power to deliver the promise of peace and democratic governance that for so long has eluded Sri Lanka. Realising the futility of stop gap measures and short term solutions, it’s time for all the actors in the peace process to work together against the resumption of violent conflict and towards a shared vision of peace.

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