Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2735

Sri Lanka has not understood the problem its facing – Palihakkara, former Foreign Secretary

H. M. G. S. Palihakkara, former Foreign Secretary, surveyed the current scene in Sri Lanka when he launched the book of his colleague, John Gooneratne, titled Negotiating with the Tigers. In his speech he asked:

“Have we come to at least a general understanding of the nature of the problem we face after all these years and all these and other tragedies? No we have not. We cannot even define or describe the problem, or in some cases even agree that a problem exists. This book alone uses more than 8 terms to describe the problem as different people see it. In our daily discourse on the issue various terms are used ranging from ethnic conflict, North East conflict, civil war, war, armed struggle, liberation struggle for self-determination armed conflict, terrorist problem, minority question and the list goes on.”

Here is the edited version of his speech:

Book Launch: Negotiating with the Tigers – John Gooneratne; Remarks by HMGS Palihakkara

As I see it, the book deals with a subject which can surely be characterised as both the cause and effect of what the author describes as ‘ blood sport politics’ of Sri Lanka where no quarter is given -- the total anti thesis of what is celebrated today. Secondly, it is also a sobering coincidence given the intense blood letting that has been going on in this once peaceful land of ours. These reflections bring forth troubling questions about our national ‘troubles’. Have the principal root causes of our troubles to do with brutal ethnic terrorism of the LTTE, or terrorism spawned by social injustice or the uncompromising nature of our political culture where no quarter is given or asked. Or is the source of our troubles the sum total of all these.

John Gooneratne’s book therefore comes to us at a significant juncture of our national affairs.

It represents a long overdue professional (not political) stock taking about a process so closely intertwined with almost all facets of our national life in recent times. As things are, it is quite certain that this process will continue to play a central role in our national life in the foreseeable future as well. The stretch of the Govt-Tiger ‘talks marathon’ if I may call it so, John G covers (i.e. 2000-2005) is in a sense a defining period of this ‘Talks effort’ mounted by successive Govts. of Sri Lanka.

(I am hesitant to use many terminological choices available to describe the process but let us leave the semantics aside for the moment).

During this period, the initial euphoria of the ceasefire got progressively tempered by some sobering reality checks on the ground. The justifiable but perhaps unreal, optimism harboured at the outset of the process gradually gave way to the harsh realities of ‘talking to the Tiger’. The familiar comfort zone notions like ‘ ‘constructive engagement, CBMs, terror to politics transformation, mainstreaming and many other fine sounding ideals and projects got regularly shot up in the painfully predictable battlefield encounters; got undermined in the steady inflow of illicit money and materiel from abroad and here; and got obfuscated at the negotiating table at different exotic venues abroad (ranging from Sattahip in southern Siam to Hakone in Japan and from the Rose garden of Nakom Pathom to Bellevue of Genève). Even as the facilitator, Dy. FM of Norway Vidar Helgassen was describing as early as July 2004, the evolving situation as one in which “the frozen peace has begun to melt at the edges”, yet the ‘process’ continued. The book seeks, in somewhat cryptic manner, to capture the ups and downs of this process. The author also seeks to make us understand a more complicated facet of this exercise as well. This relates to the difficulties faced by a State practising cohabitation (or should I say experimenting with co-habitation), trying to have good faith negotiations with a State aspirant practising state of the art terrorism- the latter was not certainly experimenting!

No student of Sri Lanka political developments can ignore the fact that the print being launched today is concurrent (no motives imputed of course) with the onset of a particularly hot political summer for us in Sri Lanka. It is characterised by political turbulence, flaring fires of terrorism and robust counter measures by the State, some related and unrelated governance mal-functions; and some HR and humanitarian problems. What is particularly unusual about this incoming hot summer is that it is marked by a pronounced xenophobic humidity that is slowly but surely enveloping us in a manner hitherto unfamiliar to Sri Lanka. This makes us quite uncomfortable. This discomfiture arises because as a small but open and civil country which used to have a relatively big diplomatic radar signature on the world scene, we don’t like to be put in the Frog Basket...

John Gooneratne has given us a clinical analysis and calculated comment on the ‘Talks with the Tiger process’ and of course on the inseparable ceasefire and its implementation, both of which will continue to dictate the atmospherics of this looming summer. This will certainly provide a most welcome spur for a long overdue dispassionate discussion about our ‘troubles’ if I may borrow the Irish phrase once more.

Why would I give such credit to this work?

Firstly, I don’t believe it was the customary Rukmalgama modesty that impelled John to title his work as ‘a second row view’. I believe John wanted to value add by emphasising the professional sanctity and neutrality of the ‘second row’ where participants in talks are not burdened with political baggage of the first row and the reader is therefore not burdened with the inevitable spin of the first row version. (For obvious reasons John of course absolves all past Secretaries General of SCOPP on this score). This ‘second row view’ therefore is not only the first, firsthand account of the post-ceasefire Talks process, or the lack of it, but also the first “interest-free’’ account given by a direct participant – a participant who actually was in situ witnessing and experiencing the ‘room temperatures’ and the body language of “the State and non-State players’ at various different Talks venues. (in Sattahip, Oslo, Hakone, Berlin, Geneva as well as Colombo and the Wanni).

2 It contains a wealth of information hitherto unpublished on both the form and content of Talks, sequentially and thematically, and on the institutions and the documents that grew out of the process.

3. It is the first apolitical analysis, at least the first I have seen, of this foreign facilitated process of peace making in Sri Lanka, - a process which has been variously debated, praised, and even maligned and subverted , some times fairly and at times quite unfairly, by so many for so long, including the parties themselves. Accounts published so far are by and large second hand in nature, except the late Mr. Balasingham’s volumes on ‘Politics of Duplicity.’ and ‘War and Peace.’ However as the titles themselves suggest, these are intensely political documents inevitably suffering from the ‘first row syndrome” and, in this case, tailor made to launder the Eelam agenda.. Consequently, facts are packed with curvy political corrugations and arguments are embellished with political spin of high propaganda quality.

4. Last but not least the messenger – John Gooneratne himself., in fact when I was asked to speak here I wondered whether I should speak about the author first and the book second as John has a special and perhaps unique vantage point on this subject. I must admit here that I was not unmindful of the fact that in doing so I would be earning some bonus points by being compliant with the now popular practice of handling the messenger before dealing with the message. But I decided against it fearing a public protest from Dr. John. This notwithstanding, I hope you will permit some words about the author as one cannot appreciate or critique a creation without having regard to the creator.

Gooneratne has a unique perspective on this subject for several different reasons. John is an intensely apolitical man. Perhaps he has inherited genetic resistance to politics, especially the type in Sri Lanka. He calls this a ‘blood sport’ in his book. This is also the consistent flavour you will find running throughout the book.

He is a bit of a contradiction in terms, a cold-blooded analyst who needs a warm working environment to survive. It was therefore no surprise that he retired to enjoy the bliss of Rukmalgama vacating the tent before the camels came charging in. Perhaps he perfected this fine art with technical assistance from the Bedouins of the Arabian desert while serving as our Ambassador to Iraq just before the still on-going operation began to induct externally facilitated democracy to that country. That is by the way, but what is important is that the de-politicised knowledge and experience Gooneratne brings to bear and the unique vantage point he has had on a broad spectrum of issues relevant to peace making and defending our country’s national interests will have only a few parallels, if at all.

John Gooneratne is among the few, or may be the only person who saw and participated in the entire (post-CFA) process of the “Talks with the Tiger” up to the last walk out by the Wanni supremo. Gooneratne probably did not realise this, (and he certainly did not write about it like some others who generate Pavlovian reflexes whenever and wherever they see a video tube or a microphone or a note pad), but he provided institutional continuity to Sri Lanka’s peace building effort. This he did in the midst of frequent regime changes both within and between the (political) party fault lines. And mind you, in Sri Lanka they are as frequent as pot holes you find in the Nagalagam Street. He continued to play this role even as the process itself evolved from a highly controversial appeasement strategy of the early 2000s to an equally controversial bombardment strategy of the current phase. That is until he took refuge in Rukmalgama! Having had what I would call some ancillary association with this effort myself from the early 2000s and having made some productive and unproductive attempts, together with Gooneratne, to shape and influence the process, I know he represents the best institutional memory and continuity of this exercise. I also know that Johns Toshiba Lap Top contains many more untold stories about the exercise, some humorous, and some serious.

As a more senior (and therefore naturally wiser!) colleague of mine in the much maligned and politically whipped Foreign Service of Sri Lanka, the in depth appreciation Gooneratne had of the foreign affairs dimension of our highly internationalised and unwisely publicised peace effort, was indispensable to the day to day work of my former office , the Foreign Ministry. It was also invaluable I believe to the Peace Secretariat in handling of the multitude of issues and personalities that impacted upon and pontificated on everything SL did on this subject. The ‘view from the second row’ has obviously benefited from all this

I must now leave the messenger and get back to the message .I said all of the above because, I am certain this wide ranging experience contributed to the author’s success in bringing forth some fundamental issues and soul searching questions all of us must ask ourselves and ask our political leadership, past and present, about the current quagmire of parliamentary politics, election politics, ethno politics, governance mal-functions induced or otherwise, democracy, accountability etc. In the final analysis, there are questions to be asked about the rapid erosion of the good natured Sri Lankan way of life that we enjoyed and admired as we grew up. We used to be an easy going happy bunch of people who went about our day to day business without worrying about tiger terror, gangland terror, political terror, neighbourhood terror or even international terror. This is no longer possible. There are leads in the book to elicit and discuss these troubling questions.

I will not attempt to paraphrase the author or provide an executive summary of this work. In his well crafted piece last week, Earnest Corea succinctly outlined the factual kernel of the book – Besides it would be wholly inappropriate for me to burden the reader with my prejudices about the well considered ‘view from the second row’ bearing in mind the sacrosanct principle of ‘we report you decide’.

Instead it would be more appropriate and useful to look at some home truths brought out by the book - an interesting combination of text economy and cleverly loaded comment that prompts us do some ‘back to basics’ soul searching. Often we tend to overlook the obvious and the basics owing to the passage of time, conflict fatigue, or peace making fatigue or the combination of all these. After all it is nearly 25 years since the black July of 1983, over 22 years since Thimpu, 10 years or so since the Dalada maligawa and Dehiwala train outrages (to name only a few) and we are into the 6th year of this tormented and gasping ceasefire !

What are the questions we face?

(a) Have we come to at least a general understanding of the nature of the problem we face after all these years and all these and other tragedies? – No we have not. We cannot even define or describe the problem, or in some cases even agree that a problem exists – This book alone uses more than 8 terms to describe the problem as different people see it. In our daily discourse on the issue various terms are used ranging from ethnic conflict, North East conflict, civil war, war, armed struggle, liberation struggle for self-determination armed conflict, terrorist problem, minority question and the list goes on. And some of us endeavour to have definition by denial e.g.: there is no ethnic problem but a terrorist problem or vice versa. As the author observes, these complexities grow over time and polarisation intensifies due to actions/reactions of the involved parties as well as those of the interested parties. In Northern Ireland, long before solving the underlying problems everyone at least agreed to call their problem “the Troubles”!

(b) Usually ceasefire agreements promote peace building and support a negotiating process to make it sustainable. While everyone in Sri Lanka welcomed and they still do, the ceasefire per se, certain provisions of that Agreement, as it turned out, added to our Troubles, to say the least. Clearly, a hastily crafted and clumsily implemented Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) generated an acrimonious debate which is still on-going. It eventually acted as an impediment to the very process it was intended to support. This was due to the conceptual and process flaws of the agreement and diametrically opposed intent of the parties themselves. Author recounts the ‘creeping expansion’ policy of the LTTE while the Government negotiators were seeking to rush towards substantive negotiations without having a reasonable bipartisan devolution document in their pockets. The simplistic score card approach of the SLMM for monitoring the ceasefire has progressively aggravated antagonism all round in the absence of a credible mechanism to enforce or verify compliance.

(c) Why do we need such a highly externalised peace process and a third party involvement? Simply because we have ourselves brought about that situation by failing to agree among us an appropriate governance system for this little island. This is despite many well meaning prescriptions for this very purpose mooted from 1957 to 2006. We cannot ask foreigners to make peace for us. We have to learn to be at peace with each other.

I have not seen any negotiating process that has been publicised and commented upon so much by so many, as that of Sri Lanka. The claimed rationale that international publicity would keep the LTTE engaged or ‘trapped’ as the author puts it, has brought legitimacy to LTTE, while allowing them to retain their military capability intact. The considerable foreign policy achievement of getting the LTTE banned in almost all diaspora countries was not matched by corresponding domestic action to de-legitimize LTTE’s mono - party dictatorial rule through a serious non-separatist devolution offers to Tamil people. Without properly guarding our porous ports/customs/shores and skies we blame others for illicit arms and other offensive hardware. We ask foreign forces to come here (rightly or wrongly) and arm the LTTE against them and ask the same forces to come back to neutralize the enemy again. We absolve ourselves from all and any wrong doing and blame foreigners for many of our LTTE related ills.

Is there a way forward ?

- Yes.

- The considerations I tried to enumerate and the experience documented in “A view from the Second Row” are a stark reminder, if one is needed, that the brave foot soldiers engaged in battlefield must be supported by a solid bipartisan political platform constructed in the form of an equitable governance structure – The LTTE’s separatist agenda can only be dislodged through a genuine devolution agenda offered to all our people especially to minorities. We must not forget that all communities in Sri Lanka constitute minority communities in different parts of the country.

All over the world, the die hard separatists fear devolution more than the armies of a unitary state. Sri Lankan separatists are no exception – that is why they eliminated devolutionists like Thiruchelvam, Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran and Kadirgamar. That is why they are waiting to pounce on remaining devolutionists like Anandasangaree. Had there been a bipartisan visionary agenda for devolution in Sri Lanka, in the form of the Good Friday agreement where Labour and Conservative leaders of England appeared on the same platform discarding their parochial political baggage, those brave devolutionist would have been alive today and those remaining devolutionists will not be at risk today. Our brave sons and daughters in our armed forces would be fighting backed by a strong political agenda of devolution—the ultimate apprehension of the dictatorial apparatus in Wanni.

The secessionist agenda would have been dead or dying and democracy alive in the North and the East today. It is a monumental failure on the part of our political leadership from all parties and successive Govts, that they were either unable or unwilling to do this obvious thing of which they were perfectly aware. What is more bewildering is that they still shy away from this responsibility and indeed the mandated obligation which is the essence of their job description as the elected representatives of people. Instead they prevaricate in parochial polemics eyeing the next election – a clear case of terminally ill cancer patient making a big fuss about the best dandruff shampoo !, as one of my colleagues often put it. John Gooneratne’s comment is even more sobering and I quote: “The main enemy of the two major Sinhala parties is each other, and the LTTE comes in a poor second.” Indeed, the LTTE must be the happiest friend among enemies. Whose enemy is the question to ponder.

Where have we gone wrong? Again one can only ask some more questions!

Do we not have enough substantive material and expertise on which to build this common ground for a politically desirable and economically productive governance structure for this little country that will safeguard our values, our independence and territorial integrity? I believe we have that in abundance. From the BC and DC pacts of the 1950s to the 2000 constitutional proposals, we have an enormous amount of high quality political and legal material to draw on. And we came closest to agreeing on a workable synthesis of all this material in the form of the outcome of the Legal Expert Group mandated by President Rajapaksa to develop proposals, following the ban slapped on the LTTE by the EU.** The so-called Majority Report of this exercise contained some excellent substance on devolution while the so-called Minority Report contained equally valuable safeguards against secession. A creative political fusion of these two elements, produced by the most broad-based multi-ethnic committee ever established, would have taken the winds off the separatist sails of the LTTE, had it been so fused and endorsed by the two major parties. But unfortunately for Sri Lanka and fortunately for a LTTE already weakened by the EU ban and the military losses inflicted by our brave soldiers, it was never attempted, let alone concluded. The valuable work of the authors of Majority and Minority reports was obliterated in the ‘dandruff’ polemics and ‘blood sport’ politics of Sri Lanka.

So a short answer to the question is we have the substance but we don’t have the political will.

Where do we go from here ?

After 75 years of Universal Adult Franchise and nearly 6 decades of self-government as an independent nation, are we to concede that we are either incapable or unwilling to practice mature democratic governance ? Do we see democracy only as an adversarial interaction or zero sum equation between contending parties? Is it beyond our intellectual faculties or political will to practice consensual democracy? Or is there no space for it in our Proportional Representation based electoral gridlock? Unlike in many other less mature democracies, do we not have things we consider national issues or are all our issues mere election issues? Do we not appreciate that there is no such thing called “text book compromise” as JG puts it that will give perfect happiness in full measure to all the parties? Must we not appreciate that the very basis of compromise is equitable distribution of unhappiness among parties mounting a common platform for a national cause ? Compromise does not live in an environment of perfect or absolute happiness.

President Rajapaksa speaking to an international and national audience at the Asia Society in New York last fall touched on some of these soul searching questions in the most eloquent manner :

I quote :

“There are those people who think that peace making in Sri Lanka can be reduced to a deal between the Government and the LTTE at a cost yet undefined to many ideals that we have cherished for a long time. Sustainable peace has to be much more inclusive and deliverable.”

“There are those who think that we must first agree on a solution in the form of constitutional reforms that should carry a label whether unitary, federal or other. There are those people who have the luxury of debating a label before manufacturing the product. I do not have that luxury. Once we have the product we will label it.”

“I cannot compromise on fundamentals. No peace making effort has any value if it has to sacrifice basic human freedoms. I will also not compromise national integrity and the security of our citizens. I am however ready to make the necessary political compromises to achieve consensus if the LTTE leadership can show tangible evidence that they too are willing to practice the art of compromise and take the political process forward. I have already stated that the government will seriously consider a comprehensive and verifiable cessation of all hostilities especially the terrorist attacks and the breaches of the positions established by the 2002 cease fire.”

“I am deeply committed to redressing the legitimate concerns of the Tamil people as much as I am committed to the concerns of all other communities. whether Sinhala Tamil Muslim or other. They are all my people… I am not interested in engaging in esoteric debates about federal constitution or unitary constitution. I am interested in a good constitution that will ensure the well being of all my people, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim burgher or other.”

The President acknowledged that this is a formidable agenda but was confident that it is doable. President must be supported of course to bring this pragmatic agenda to fruition.

To do this however it is not enough that the art of compromise be practised in Govt –Tiger equation. That particular art form should be practised in equal or even greater measure between what the author calls two main Sinhala parties who dominate the so-called democratic mainstream. They should have the political will and only a bit of humanity an ordinary blood donor has so that they can together mount a common platform to announce the ‘product and the label’ ,the President referred to. That is what the British Labour and Conservative party leaders (otherwise sworn enemies on election issues) did to get rid of the long festering IRA menace , on that Good Friday—that is to jointly announce the product and the label. They did not devalue the IRA issue to a parochial election issue.

If the two major parties don’t do that even at this late stage and continue business as usual, we can continue to talk and the Tiger will be happy to negotiate until cows came home or more appropriately perhaps until Dinosaurs reappeared in Wilpattu!.

To go back to where I started, the blood donors, there are hundreds of thousand of them in this little country. Our family has been a happy donor. Last year on an average 21000 of these folks voluntarily went to blood banks every month and gave blood in a humble display of this noble act of accommodation. We certainly will not ask the politicos to donate blood. That could be a life threatening prospect for poor patients!. But we can take a cue from those simple blood donors not from ‘blood sport’ stroke players. All that is asked of our political leaders is to practise a little of the pragmatism demonstrated by those simple folks to give life support to others in your own interest. So if those leaders don’t accommodate each other before they accommodate Mr. Prabhakaran to the detriment of the Tamil people, and continue business as usual then John Gooneratne’s grand children can write a few more books with the same Title with the necessary date changes,-- how many years from now only time will tell.

I am certain John Gooneratme’s meticulous work and his first hand “view from the second row” as he put it, will energise a public discussion of these fundamental issues. I congratulate John for his valuable contribution and encourage him to do more of the same. I commend the view from the 2nd row, for your careful reading. When you have finished you may want to read between the lines. It is that good.

Thank you

- Asian Tribune -

Share this


.