What Killed The Consensual Agreements In The Past? How Not To Kill Our Political Dialogues?

The end of war did not envelope the country in peace nor is it practical to expect this to happen so soon after the termination of hostilities.  Yet the expectation that the termination of hostilities will bring about energized and speedy attempts to bring about conditions that spell normalcy for the people.  To make it operative political processes that restore civilian administration has to be revived, new or old institutions have to be set up to help people to rebuild their lives. Focus has to be placed on urgent psychological  needs of a disoriented society of dismembered families, on children whose life experience have been only war, youth intoxicated with ethnic based hate and violence, women who have suffered on any basis of reckoning, be it loss of a husband, of children, of security of person as a woman, or just the simple factor of the inability to provide a home to one’s family and more importantly the general fear syndrome of  having lived through the war for three decades.  To apportion responsibility for the war is of secondary importance although the reconciliation process must necessarily take cognizance of this aspect, objectively, in order to build the necessary bridges for reconciliation through restorative justice and avoid being retributive.

While the measures referred to above focusses on the North- East, it would be amiss if the trauma faced by rest ofthecountry,particularly those living in the villages bordering the North and East.  The ordeal of speculating about an unseen enemy with the power to subject a population en masse toterror attacks was immense.  By the end of the war it became possible to distinguishbetween the terrorist and the Tamil people, who themselves were for most of the time victims of an extraordinary situation, has created an unimaginable amount of empathy for the ethnic minority communities.  The information that gradually seeped in about the untold suffering that the minorities had faced had such an impact on the rest of the country that a spontaneous peace constituency has sprung up without the need for initiating any awareness programs.  Many polls conducted to assess the mood of the South towards reconciliation and cohabitation support this assumption.

The President’s Address at the UN

The President, in his speech at the General Assembly on the 23rd of September 2010 stated, “The entire focus of the nation is now on building a lasting peace, healing wounds, ensuring economic prosperity and guaranteeing the rights of the whole nation to live in harmony… fulfill these aspirations economic development and political reconciliation must go hand in hand.  Towards this end, constitutional mine which appropriately reflect the aspirations of our people will be evolved with full participation of all stakeholders…..the challenges we face, among them the greatest of which is healing the wounds of the recent past”.   (The highlights are mine)This statement reflects the ideology as well as intent of the President to address the reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction processes comprehensively using a multi- pronged approach not only in the North and the East but in the entirety of the country.

Why then are we not hearing the bells of joy ringing in the North and East?  Where have the missteps been? Many reasons are available, a few are discussed below.

Past Experiments at Resolution of the Ethnic Conflict – A Saga of Failure

The conventional strategy to heal ‘the wounds of the past’ and establish healthy trends in interpersonal relationships would be to adopt well tested techniques of negotiation used in conflict resolution.  Direct negotiation or the use of independent intermediary or intermediaries has been the options used in situations similar to the Sri Lankan case.To make the process acceptable negotiations cannot be entirely a government initiative but must be a multi- pronged one with a well -structured format arrived at by consensual agreement by all the participating parties.

Sri Lanka has experimented at resolution of the nation’s long standing ethnic conflict through many avenues -direct negotiations between the government and the political parties representing nonminority interests, through international mediation as in the case of the Thimpu talks, through external facilitators as with the Norwegians, through the process of Parliamentary Select Committee, All Party Conference,(used twice), and lastly the LLRC Commission, the last two specially mandated by the governments of the time, the past and the present.

While awaiting the publication by the government of the LLRC Report submitted to the President, the political decision makers are once again experimenting with the process of using a Parliamentary Select Committee to search for ways and means of achieving peaceful cohabitation within a plural society.

So far, the processes that have been experimented with have failed for several reasons.  Primarily, because the political will to settle the problem, has never been unequivocally conveyed to the public to ensure the creation of an appropriate environment for confidence and consensus building measures to take root.  The premise for the resolution of the problem has been an ever shifting platform, consistency in attitudes and approach being volatile from the beginning, post ’56 to date. Within this confusing paradigm, the overall approach becomes most controversial when the question is posed as to whether there is an ethnic problem at all now that the war is over; sometimes the subject of discrimination as a major contributing factor to the ethnic problem is considered merely as perceptions and not as a fundamental concern.  Yet another hurdle continues to be the persistent dilemma as to how much to concede for devolution, raising once again the question of the inherent rights of minorities,citizens of the country.

In the past experiments in negotiations for resolution of the ethnic problem what made matters more complex was the failure by all the negotiating parties to understand the basic principles of compromise, of give and take in a negotiation process.  It is a given factor, that in a shared responsibility to find solutions, no one party can expect to secure 100% of their demands, and concessions are a must if the process is to work.   It is simply a question of ‘take some, give some’.  Another drawback has been that once decisions were arrived at, it should have been understood that all participating persons– equals in decision making – were jointly bound to uphold the decisions taken.However, many times in the past, the governments have time and again rescinded from implementing successfully concluded agreements under various pressures- political and religious.  This is only possible when the concept of equal partners is merely a theoretical position and the government takes shelter within its authoritative role, taking the mantle as the only effective decision maker.  This failure to abide by the concept of equal partners as well as the obligation to uphold negotiated agreements have been a constant feature in all the past and present attempts at resolving the ethnic problem.

Recognition of Ground Reality in Sri Lanka

Conflict resolution is not just about problem solving alone. It is essentially about acceding that grounds for conflict existed and continues to exist, and that to deny this reality will not get anyone anywhere. If peace making is to be successful the grounds for conflict has to be confronted and challenged.  Negotiating teams have to become partners with equal weightage given to its members as well as to their contributions to the dialogue.The ‘power base’ for the interactive meetings should not be the government holding absolute authority in the decision making continuum.  This has to be strictly upheld to prevent the rise of adversarial vibes within the groups, which will not help in the negotiations.  These are important issues necessary to be taken serious note of to make a success of the Parliamentary Select Committeethat the government intends to set up for the resolution of the long standing  majority/minority configuration which also happens to be ethno centric.   The composition of the members to the committee must be equally divided between the government and the other parties to the negotiation to prevent another stalemate.  The different points of view must be respected, to pick on the common strands on the basis of which agreement can be worked out.Individuals to the negotiating table must put aside their hidden agendas and the tendency to manipulate the process to play to their different constituencies.

Compromise Is The Mood Of The People

The mood of the people in the country is such today that any decision acceptable to the Presidentcan be carried through without difficulty in Parliament and will have the backing of the people.  The question then is, why is it not happening? It will not happen until all the interested parties understand the need for greater discipline in considering options if a final settlement is to be reached.A few simple matters that surfaced within the last week or two, that must be considered fundamental for rapproachment, trust and confidence building..

Reconciliation And Reconstruction

Highlighting some of the problems should not take attention away from the constructive work carried out in reconciliation and reconstruction.In an address on ‘Reconciliation Work’ Hon.Prof.Rajiva Wijesinghe said commented on the successful settlement of 200,000 IDPs and the completion of the integrating program of the former LTTE cadres except for a very  few who  are kept behind at the rehabilitation centres.  He acknowledged that information of the work done is not reaching the public – “positive actions should be communicated and transferred”, he said. There is a lot of misinformation while there is no way of checking on authentic information on for example on the criticism that there is an over-play in administrative matters, by non -civilian personnel.  Such attributions require swift and valid response if the ongoing dialogue is to be successful.  The lack of information causes misgivings and detracts from some of the constructive work that is being done especially in removing language as a barrier and infrastructure work.  Information on ongoing activities in the north and the East must form a part of the on going dialogue to present a complete picture of the ground situation. In the absence of authentic news misunderstandings and misapprehensions will continue to circulate, putting a break to the movement forward in the reconciliation process.  It must not become a situation of one step forward, two steps backward.

Constructive Move Forward?

Almost as a relief to the agitation among several persons interested in the progress towards resolution, Sunday Leader of the 11thDecember, quoted Hon. M. A. Sumanthiran MP’s positive perspective on the ongoing discussions under the caption “TNA Proposals not completely rejected”.  He had reported that the Government has not completely rejected the discussion papers put forward by the TNA but haspointed out three matters on which they have certain problems. One was the North East merger;and two, regarding the devolution of police powers,‘community policing’ has been offered as an alternative, which matter Mr. Sumanthiran has said required more clarification; three,regarding the devolution of land the government had said that they had a problem with vesting of land in the provincial councils.  At least now it would appear that the issues are up for discussion which is a positive movement.  What was even more encouraging was what followed in the quote from the MP:  “We may be able to resolve the issues based on the reasons given and formulate methods that will satisfy both the parties’ interests”.  He also added that there were possibilities for extension of the discussions to resolve these matters within the month.  This is the first intimation that one has had for a long time of a conciliatory note between the parties to the dialogue.  On the basis of the reported information there appears to be a desire to listen to different points of views and to search for compromise solutions as alternative possibilities.  This is what all Sri Lankans wishing for reconciliation and peace want to hear- the possibility of looking for not just one way but different ways to work out solutions to the long standing problems.   If this tempo can be maintained regardless of disgruntled chauvinistic elements on both sides, peace and reconciliation, understanding and co-habitation will be possible in this country.

In this context a brief sketch written by Paul Coelho in “Prague 1981” in the book ‘Like the river flowing’,is worth the reference.  On a visit to Prague Paul Coelho refers to a conversation he had with an artist on the street.  While waiting for the artist to finish a portrait of his wife free of charge by the artist, PaulCohelo realized that ‘something strange had happened” for theartist and he had been in conversation for over five minutes although neither of them could speak the other’s language.“ They had made themselves understood by gestures, smiles, facial expressions and the desire to share something”.

“That simple desire to share something meant that we could enter the world of language without words…”. Paul Coelho

All that is necessary is to want to speak to each other.  It sounds wonderful and possible if the desire exists!