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Negotiating with the Tigers

"Negotiating with the Tigers (LTTE) (2002-2005): A View from the Second Row" by John Gooneratne is an account of Sri Lanka’s latest attempt at a negotiated settlement. There have been three attempts so far – four, if one includes the Thimpu talks in 1985 when the LTTE participated along with other Tamil militant groups as part of a Tamil delegation. The time period over which the book examines the peace process extends from when the United National Front (UNF) assumed office in December 2001 till the end of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency in November 2005. (Image: Dr. John Gooneratne at the official opening of a transit centre to accommodate and care for the under age cadres of the LTTE was opened in Killinochchi on 2003.)

Reviewed by Dr.Sudha Ramachandran

(May 09, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire agreement (CFA) in 2002, it was welcomed by war-weary Sri Lankans across the ethnic divide. There was deep scepticism, of course. Yet, the truce, the silencing of the guns – albeit temporarily - and the pace at which the negotiations proceeded did generate considerable excitement in Sri Lanka.

But that was not to last. Before long, the LTTE was accusing the government of not delivering on its pledges, ceasefire violations by both sides were reported and after six rounds of talks, the LTTE pulled out of the negotiations. By end 2005, the ceasefire was unravelling. Serious fighting broke out in the months that followed. The truce it seemed existed only on paper.

That farce ended on January 2 this year, when the Sri Lankan government announced its withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement.

"Negotiating with the Tigers (LTTE) (2002-2005): A View from the Second Row" by John Gooneratne is an account of Sri Lanka’s latest attempt at a negotiated settlement. There have been three attempts so far – four, if one includes the Thimpu talks in 1985 when the LTTE participated along with other Tamil militant groups as part of a Tamil delegation. The time period over which the book examines the peace process extends from when the United National Front (UNF) assumed office in December 2001 till the end of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency in November 2005.

In the preface, Gooneratne clarifies that his book is "not an ‘official’ account of the peace process" but an account of what he "saw from the ‘second row’ as an official."

A retired member of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service (1961-93), Gooneratne was part of the government team that negotiated with the Tigers. He was part of the Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) from its inception in January 2002 to May 2006. During this period, he says, he "witnessed or participated as official in the second row in the negotiation and implementation of the ceasefire agreement, the six rounds of talks between two sides, the negotiation of the P-TOMs [Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure] and the talks at Geneva in February 2006."

Broadly, the book can be divided into four sections. The first deals with the ceasefire agreement – its negotiation and contents; the second with the six rounds of talks between the Lankan government and the LTTE; the next with the post-talks phase during which the two sides stayed in touch through letters and finally, the negotiations over the P-TOMS.

Gooneratne’s discussion of the CFA – this is easily the book’s strongest section – draws attention to the unseemly haste of the Norwegian facilitators in finalising the agreement. The substance of the CFA was given less importance than the swift signing of an agreement. In the haste to finalise a deal, important actors such as the armed forces were not given adequate time to read the text fully or respond to it. The author points out that while the LTTE leadership with its vast experience in military matters was involved in providing input to the ceasefire agreement, on the government’s side it was officials with no military experience that were commenting on the agreement drafts. In the process, military-related deadlines in the CFA were unrealistic and hard to meet.

Gooneratne draws attention to the unfair advantage that the LTTE had in the process of drafting the ceasefire agreement. The drafts the Norwegian facilitators showed the government "seemed to have been first shown to the LTTE." Often, the government was only reacting to texts that already had the LTTE’s approval. According to the Norwegians consulting the LTTE’s London-based key negotiator, Anton Balasingham, first and getting his nod before putting it to the lankans was faster. The Norwegians apparently often came up with the excuse of "shortness of time" whenever the government side sought clarifications or changes in the text.

Gooneratne points out that the relative weight the Norwegians gave to suggestions from the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) will "never be known to us." While some suggestions made by the government’s side did find its way into the final draft, several important issues were not included. Among them was the question of disarming of ‘Tamil paramilitary groups.’ Apparently the government had suggested that the disbanding of the ‘Tamil paramilitary groups’ be enforced by both the government and the LTTE and in a transparent manner.

There was enough intelligence input on the existence of LTTE backed paramilitary groups like the Ellalan Group or the Sankiliyan Group that engaged in killing of Tiger critics. So it made sense to get both sides to rein in the paramilitaries. However, under the ceasefire agreement, the disarming of ‘Tamil paramilitary groups’ was a responsibility of the government alone. There were instances of the ceasefire agreement stressing reciprocal obligations on the part of both sides but these provisions were "in practice, implemented in an unbalanced way," the author argues.

It is evident from the author’s discussion that the Norwegian’s role in the drafting of the ceasefire agreement left much to be desired. Responding to an observation made by Bradman Weerakoon, then Secretary to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, that Norway’s special envoy Eric Solheim "was the brains behind the text of the Agreement," Gooneratne says: "The only comment one can make is that one would have hoped that the GoSL and the LTTE were the brains behind the CFA. While there is a role for the facilitator between two warring parties, the role of the GoSL seems to have been somewhat diminished as a result of the kind of role the facilitator had adopted. And some of the problems that later appeared could have been avoided if more time was taken and the more problematic areas covered in the text of the CFA."

With regard to the six rounds of negotiations between the government and the LTTE, the author summarizes what happened at each round and then goes on to analyse the issues that were discussed thematically.

One of the big achievements of the talks was that at the Oslo round (2-5 December 2002) the two sides expressed willingness to explore the federal option. The author notes, however, that neither side had in fact been mandated to accept a federal solution. Much discussion on federalism and federal structures seems to have taken place at the subsequent Hakone round (18-21 March 2003) but the two sides were really "playing along" with the idea.

Gooneratne’s account of what transpired in the Sub Committee on De-Escalation and Normalisation and the arguments that raged over the issue of High Security Zones provide useful insights into the LTTE’s thinking and its negotiation tactics.

However, the author fails to throw light on the individuals in the LTTE negotiating team. From his vantage point in the second row and in his interaction with the Tiger negotiators during the talks and the coffee breaks Gooneratne would certainly have assessed the depth of political knowledge, negotiating skills and so on of individual Tigers. Sadly, he does not share these assessments with the reader.

Following the LTTE’s withdrawal from the talks, the government put forward several proposals to the LTTE. Using the LTTE’s response to these proposals – they were all rejected - Gooneratne draws attention to an interesting aspect of Tiger negotiation strategy. "If one looks at the five proposals submitted [by the GOSL, one notes that it was designed to be discussed between the two sides. In some proposals alternatives are suggested. But the LTTE approach was for a proposal to be made to their complete satisfaction. This is not negotiating, but one-sided dictation of terms."

There were other actors besides the government, the LTTE and Norway that influenced the peace process. While India maintained an overt "hands-off approach" to the talks, it was very much in the loop. Norway is reported to have kept India informed at every step. But the book is silent on the role that India played or didn’t play in the CFA and the talks that followed.

Neither does it discuss the impact of the donor countries. It is well known that some of the donor countries were more interested in a ceasefire that would protect their investments in Sri Lanka rather than in a truce that would be conducive to finding a long-term solution to the conflict. The book is silent on the impact these donor countries might have had in shaping the UNF’s approach to the peace process.

Gooneratne rightly stresses the role that rivalry between Sri Lanka’s two main political parties played in undermining the peace process. Politics in Sri Lanka he describes as a "blood sport, where each political party gives no quarter to the other."

This conflictual pattern of interaction in a cohabitation arrangement, where the President (and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces) was from one party and the Prime Minister, whose administration spearheaded the CFA and the talks, from another party was far from helpful. The UNF government neither consulted the President nor kept her informed. The President, in turn, divested the UNF of key portfolios necessary to be in control of for the conduct of negotiations with the LTTE and eventually sacked the government.

Early in the book, the author points to the absence of records available of previous negotiations with the LTTE. He also points out that although several attempts have been made in finding a negotiated settlement to the conflict, each of these has been a separate effort, "not adding to the efforts preceding it." This is a serious shortcoming of Sri Lanka’s quest for peace.

Examples of successful negotiation of peace agreements from other parts of the world indicate that such agreements are possible because they build on gains made in earlier attempts at negotiating an end to conflict. In Northern Ireland, for instance, there were at least seven attempts at negotiating a settlement between 1974 and the ceasefires of 1994. The peace process that culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement drew on lessons from these previous attempts and built on gains made over the preceding two decades.

This is an important point that Sri Lankans need to bear in mind. Sri Lanka’s latest attempt at negotiating a settlement to the conflict might have failed in the short run but it holds lessons for the future and for this reason should be seen as an important building block in the peace process over the long term.

In recording what happened in the negotiations with the LTTE and providing an objective assessment of the process, Gooneratne has made a valuable contribution to Sri Lanka’s future attempts at resolving the conflict. Hopefully, future generations of Sri Lankans will draw from his experiences and insights.

(A review from the Second Row by John Gooneratne (Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka: Stamford Lake Publication, 2007, 250 pages, Sri Lankan Rs. 700). (Dr Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India.)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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