A Reflection on Sri Lankan Peace Process: Why the Peace Negotiators Failed?

On the basis of the text The Straight Talkers , I would like comment on the role of Norwegian peace negotiators in Sri Lanka in this essay.

Opening paragraph of the text suggests that the Peace Negotiators (PN) did not involve the civil society organization, NGO, opposition politicians, religious communities, and business organizations into the peace process. Both the warring parties—Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam(LTTE)—had taken the peace process as proxy war, and were preparing for the war during the cease fire period, but PN ignored this fact and proceeded unilaterally. One of the reason they overlooked this fact could be the bureaucratic professional orientation of the PN staff. They were neither social scientists nor cultural experts; rather they were engaged in government office with definite roles and responsibilities. Therefore they understood peace process as it was described in the paper, but failed to understand the underlying realities that contributed to the making of that peace statement. This did not help either party, rather provided a space to prepare for ‘war by other means’ during the peace talk, which was seriously eroding the faith and confidence of the communities concerned. Initially the PN accepted the fact that the both parties want peace in absolute term, but as the situation changed the PN did not change their ideas to bridge the gap between dogmatic absolutism and solipsism relativism is an appeal to pragmatism and solidarity. This shortcoming could be the result of their previous experiences in peace talk elsewhere. As in the case of the Middle East peace talk, they had accepted the words of the conflicting parties at par value, but there was a strong presence of regional and international powers like the U.S.A. to make the agreement an obligation to the signatory parties, but that was not the case with the Sri Lankan peace talk. Moreover, there was a serious lack of backup system, therefore when the situation became worse; there was nothing to turn about. Excluding the communities other than GOSL and LTTE from the peace process was a blunder made my PN.

That PN was not sufficiently prepared to take this job before, as it is learned that they got this peace job by watching TV. The Norwegians were interested to upgrade their profile in the international area as ‘peace brokers’. They did not have any idea about the causes of conflict, its socio-cultural implications and respective motivations of the warring parties particularly from Sri Lankan perspective. Once they learned that the both the parties want peace then they jump into the peace business with a hope to build up their image as peace broker in international community. In fact, PN underestimated the complexity of Sri Lankan issue and were illusioned by their former successes in the Middle East . They failed to notice the difference of the nature of conflict, and jumped into the peace negotiating process as expert. PN did not have any defined role nor had any strategic plan to resolve the conflict permanently, moreover, they did not have any influence on the parties of the war, as PN affirms, “we do not have any meaningful way of putting pressure on them. We can only assist them if they wish.” This statement clearly shows that PN did not have any specific plan in this involvement which ultimately led them to failure.

The political development after the cease fire shows that none of the parties were willing to resolve the conflict peacefully. They were not addressing the norms and values of the cease fire; rather they were inclined to manage the violence in peaceful way, which is not a part of peacebuilding. The idea of forgiveness and reconciliation and reparation was absent in the peace process, rather both the parties were demanding more and more whenever they met which was sure to ruin the process. PN did not acknowledge this fact. The failure to acknowledge this situation on the part of the PN could be lack of their ability to ground objectivity on solidarity. They should have applied contingency model of talk process to mainstream the deviations during the peace talk. In fact the PN staffs were not experienced to handle such minority-majority conflicts within a nation state, rather they were trained to handle conflicts between nation states where international rules and regulations are enforceable, but such ethnic conflicts have different characters which need to be resolved on the ground of cultural, social and economic value systems of the local communities. Because of their Nordic culture and past experiences they relied more upon the objectivity of the peace talk than on the solidarity of a community. As the text says, “Once the ceasefire was signed, the LTTE took a step towards the prospect of political acceptability in the most flamboyant way it could”, and they were found to be engaged in affairs that are not in any way supporting to the peace agreement. The LTTE tried their best to use this opportunity to get some political benefit, and the Sinhalese faction led by Kumaratunga was also preparing a ground for final sweep. Further, the public appearance of the LTTE chief, Prabhakaran, after the peace process, gave negative message to the non LTTE community of Sri Lanka, and regional powers like India and China. The LTTE did not take any steps to wash out negative traits associated with Prabhakaran.Therefore, it was not accepted by the Sinhalese community at face value, and rather this event aroused a feeling of revenge in those communities. It was because they have lost their families and dear ones in the war, and the trauma and suffering was not easily forgettable. The PN should have advised the LTTE to refrain from such image building campaigns, but that could not happen. The PN might have thought that their suggestion could be counterproductive, because they were used to deal officially with their clients with a definite set of beliefs and expectations, but the situation in Sri Lanka was quite different. The motive of the warring parties was not exactly peace, but to procrastinate the peace process and to explore opportunity to put their agendas influentially. Furthermore, PN understood peace talk as the ultimate concern of the both parties and expected them to be serious about the same, and did not want to intervene into the affairs unofficially. This approach of the PN was based on their value system and working experiences of the West which could not be instrumentally supportive to resolve the issue in the East.

The war of identities between the President Kumaratunga and her Prime Minister Wickramasinge was another reason that impacted the peace process. PN was aware of this fact, but did nothing to iron out this enmity in a meaningful way. According to their Western value system, the ego clash between two personality has nothing to do with greater national interest—the peace, but their assumption was not equally true in Sri Lankan soil. Here again, the PN made a mistake. They took the desire of peace expressed by the warring parties as reality or truth, and they did not bother to reexamine the truth periodically, and accepted the impact of personality clash between two individuals on their own Western term, but the significance of the same in Eastern term was much more influential than elsewhere. The success of the peace talk would have politically benefitted Wickramasinge than Kumaratunga, which played as a negative motivator for Kumaratunga to think otherwise. The PN should have broadened the space where both the rival parties of the GOSL could find their space in the peace process and contribute to it meaningfully, but unfortunately PN wished to follow rigid task of peacebuilding by involving the GOSL led by Wickremasinge. Here, the right wing of the Sri Lankan community thought that the peace process is not their concern, and just waited for an opportunity to derail the process, and similarly the LTTE had other important agendas than peace, and they too, procrastinated the process in order to gain some political and military advantage.PN should have avoided this situation by engaging all the parties into the peace process.
The cultural difference between Nordic state and Sri Lankan community was overlooked by PN. Nordic culture tends to prioritize objectivity on solidarity whereas Sri Lankan culture tends to uplift solidarity on objectivity. As the text says about Nordic culture as, “it is as cosy as it is consensual” which is not the case with Sri Lanka. In fact, Sri Lankan community is based on the Buddhist-Hindu and Islam ideas and structurally it is a top-down model, whereas Norwegian model of civil society is bottom-up. The difference of cultural orientation has its impact on the learning and value system of the community and the individuals. The meaning and ideas of Nordic communities will have different meaning and ideas in Sri Lankan community, the PN failed to understand this fact and try to define or evaluate the things from their own perspective which led them misunderstand the real conditions of the communities in Sri Lanka.
Erik Solheim—one of the PN—had good relationship with LTTE, but he never tried to channelize this relation towards a concrete achievement. According to him, it was better to understand the parties for negotiation, but developing understanding is one issue and creating intimacy was another issue. Particularly in this context friendship with a conflicting party puts suspicion on the other. Further such relationship turns out to be counterproductive if the PN cannot build an environment of trust and confidence in the both conflicting factions. Intimacy between the PN and the LTTE was looked suspiciously by the non-LTTE parties in Sri Lanka; it was not acceptable to GOSL and other non LTTE communities. As text notes, . . . [Kumaratunga] considered him[ Solheim] too close to the Tigers”. Lack of confidence and trust on PN was surfaced when Solheim was not invited to an official dinner with Sri Lankan President during the visit of Norwegian Foreign Minister in Sri Lanka. During this dinner Kumaratunga expressed her dissatisfaction over the progress of PN. It was a diplomatic signal to PN and the Norwegian government that GOSL was not happy with them, but PN ignored it. Meanwhile community leaders and ultra nationalist along with Buddhist monk publicly expressed their discontent with PN. And, at the same time; the LTTE expressed its concern over the “shabby, unfair and insulting’ treatment to the envoy. These both reactions supported the partiality of PN and the situation deteriorated further. The deteriorating situation could have been restored by demonstrating impartiality and clear guidelines of the peace talk, but unfortunately PN did not bother to do so, they perceived the situation from their own perspective which has little importance to the peace process as a whole.

Initially The conflict in the North was understood as a local ethnic conflict at the beginning, but when other key national and international players were found to be involved in this conflict resolution process, it was necessary to redefine the conflict from a new paradigm, but at this very crucial phase the negotiators could not stimulate this new type of discourse in the peace talk which led them to believe that there are only two parties in the conflict and resolving the differences between these two parties would lead to the solution. But the actual situation was not what they understood earlier. Therefore the negotiator’s failure to understand the conflict from a different perspective is, to a great extent, attributable to the violent situation thereafter.
The Norwegian negotiators were also lacking the assessment and evaluation mechanism through which the progress and direction of the peace process could be understood in the light of emerging social and political phenomenon of the country and of the region. The ceasefire was treated as proxy peace by the majority and it was lethargic in nature, therefore, it did not demand any specific attention of the conflicting parties, and thus eventually became a way of life. Therefore, theoretically the negotiators could not problematize the issue and thus were unable to bring any discourse in the public about the significance of the peace process. Moreover, their sole dependence on the LTTE and Wickremesinge passed a negative message to the public and to the regional communities from where they could not get any support for their peace enterprises in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the LTTE was not strong as earlier after Karuna’s split (one of the influential commander of LTTE in the East) from the LTTE in March 2004 and the negotiators did not bother to reexamine the situation in a new paradigm which ultimately reinforced the idea of the non-LTTE community to isolate the LTTE from the national politics.
The will to peace is inherent in human beings genetically, but the PN never tried to address this common human nature through their peace negotiation programs. Their action plans were more oriented towards the bureaucratic need of the peace process than socio-cultural realities. They did not have any issue that could establish the common minimum agenda about peace in Sri Lankan society. As for example, they did not utilize the religious sentiments of the people that could have positive impact on the peace process, similarly, after tsunami, there was some chance to bring the people to the common humanitarian ground, as it was conducted in resolving the Aceh conflict in Indonesia, but the PN did not bother to utilize such issues in peacebuilding process in Sri Lanka.

The WIN- LOSE model of the peace process was another factor attributable to the failure of the peace talk. The national players like Internally Displaced People(IDP), ultranationalist Sinhalese, the Buddhist monks, Muslim minorities, neutral Tamil communities, and regional players like India, China, Russia would have been at the losing end had the peace talk been a success story. As for example, the other communities except LTTE has nothing at stock in this peace process at national level, and similar types of sectarian violence were also existed in India and China. Moreover, LTTE chief, Prabhakaran was amongst the most wanted in India and legitimization of Prabhakaran in Sri Lanka would have very negative implication in Indian politics. Since no one is interested to play a losing game, therefore the influential social and political player paid little attention towards this game destined to be lost, and together they invented another game where they could find their share. In this regard, they could capitalize the personal relationship of the Norwegian negotiators with the LTTE leaders for their communication agenda and use the idea of regionalism against the internationalism for their respective benefit. The very idea of regionalism was later supplemented by regional forces like China, India and Russia with a view to counter the hegemonic internationalism sponsored by the West. At this critical juncture the Norwegian negotiators did not have any convincing or practical approach to convince the parties that their agenda embodies the welfare of the entire community including the regional stability and national prosperity by restoring peace and harmony in Sri Lanka. It is (1) because the PN staffs were from the State Department who were unfamiliar to the working principles based on culture and social interests (2) because of their perceived “high profile” in peace industry they undermined the role of regional powers like India and China, and (3) because of the lack of reinforcement system locally and internationally that could safeguard the interest of the all the parties involved in this conflict.

The role ambiguity on the part of the PN is responsible for the malfunctioning of peace process. PN acted with various roles like “facilitator”, “negotiator”, “advisor”, and sometimes as “assistant” which deliberately invited a situation of chaos and misunderstanding. The inconsistency of their role in the peace process made the entire process uncertain and untrustworthy. In this regard, PN should have definite agenda to promote during the peace talk, and they should have guided the whole process towards a definite logical conclusion. The confusion of the PN over the agenda fueled the press which later publicized the issue from personal ground. The PN could not handle the criticism made by the media properly, which is one of the reasons why majority of the Sri Lankan communities found the role of PN as “foreign interfere” and were ready to take the failure of peace process as a normal phenomenon. In this situation the PN should have taken measures to justify how their effort is important to the peaceful resolution of the Sri Lankan conflict from local perspective.

In summary, the PN failed to understand the issues from Sri Lankan perspectives. They understood the expression of peace in absolute term and displayed objectivity in their leadership style on the ground of their cultural orientation, and thus ignored pragmatism in peace process. As both the parties—the GOSL and the LTTE-- were reluctant to carry out the peace process genuinely, but the PN were involved to work out the situation trying with different roles. Similarly they did not engage the broader communities into the peace process and solely depended upon the GOSL and the LTTE because of their professional characters as officials from State Departments, and when the government changed, they had little space to work with, since the new government was not thought to be important earlier, therefore their inability to redefine the peace process from a new paradigm invited the failure. Moreover, the inter personal relationship between PN staff and the LTTE was publicly criticized by the press which generated more confusion than clarity in the peace process, and at this issue PN failed to harmonize the situation by utilizing the inherent desire for peace in the people. Side by side, the PN understood this conflict as an ethnic violence and could not understand the size and implication of this conflict from a broader regional and international perspective, because they were not used to work with such complex socio-cultural dimension, which finally proved the peace process a failure story.

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