By Pratnashree Basu.
Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s recent reminder that the Sri Lankan Government of the day alone had invited India to facilitate the peace process in the eighties should clarify a few points for Sri Lankans who harbour other views in the matter. This is not to leave out the earlier Indian ‘mis-adventure’ in arming and training Sri Lankan Tamil youth, with the fond and misplaced hope that the then-emerging and mostly untested western classroom models of creating a ‘level-playing ground’ for conflict-resolution alone would help under the circumstances.
In turn, the latter has to be contextualised to the anti-Tamil pogrom, in which the Sri Lankan Government played a significant part, and the political opposition too looked the other way. The Indian experimentation of the time may have flowed from the pages of emerging yet mostly unproven western classroom, template models of conflict-resolution, which had placed a high premium on creating an all-round ‘level-playing field’ for conflict-resolution, for any peace negotiations to succeed.
The irony is that even after the failure of the model, India allowed testing it again and again, with worse results than earlier, in terms of human, political and military losses, until the roles got reversed for a new-generation’s leadership to take the decisive plunge. In the process, successive Governments of the day also allowed more soldiers and weapons sacrificed at the altar of such experimentation without any explanations or answers.
If the popular frustration and consequent political desperation fuelled the continuance of the failed experimentation without much alteration, the fact was also that tools and equipment available to the Sri Lankan Government and its diverse and divided political leaderships were inadequate for undertaking an evaluation of the kind. It was the case with India a decade and more earlier, to be able to predict the consequences of what was a genuine attempt at peace-making in Sri Lanka that was at the core of stability in the nation’s immediate neighbourhood.
Where criticism of external facilitation at peace-making was there, it was in political terms and was excessively politicised, too. The Sri Lankan Government would have to await help from the US Pacific Command around the time of the Norwegian facilitation, and other externally-sourced ‘Net Assessments’ to conclude that it had a war that could be won, after all. President Mahinda Rajapaksa later became the benefactor, and consequent beneficiary of a tough political decision, from which his successive predecessors excepting JRJ had shied away from.
Mutual suspicion still
Today, the continuing mutual suspicion between the Government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the latter the polls-proven representative of the larger Tamil community in the country, post-war, has delayed, and denied, meaningful and conclusive bilateral talks for a ‘home-grown solution’ to the ethnic issue. But that is the truth.
It is sad that the TNA trusts the international community more than the Government nearer home, as used to be the wont with generations of moderate Tamil leadership, pre-war. The Sri Lankan State and Government too cannot escape its share of the blame for creating such a psyche, for ‘Tamil separatists’ to live on and live off.
Through acts of commissions and omissions, the Government allowed the TNA to seek comfort in external forces. Slowly but steadily, the TNA has given the impression that it relies more on the non-regional powers more than the Indian neighbour to fight the Tamil cause. The West’s efforts do not augur well for the prospects of a political solution, which still seems to be the TNA’s (sole?) priority.
Against this, the Indian vote against Sri Lanka on two successive US-sponsored resolutions at the UNHRC, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s staying away from Colombo CHOGM has denied India the traditional role and leverage on the other side. For India to play its due role in the immediate neighbourhood, which has been its ‘traditional sphere of influence’ and concern at the same time, it has to walk half-way back, to re-assume the neutral position intended under the India-Sri Lanka Accord.
Widening the ethnic chasm
‘Accountability issues’ of the kind that the West is now flagging and fanning in forums such as UNHRC can only help widen the ethnic chasm in Sri Lanka – and the TNA could be expected to be aware of that as well. Better or worse still, it would not require great efforts on the part of friends of Sri Lanka, starting with China and Russia, to take it all back to the UN parent, and have the western initiatives torpedoed at the Security Council.
The situation needs to be reversed if Sri Lanka has to remain stable, and the Tamils (in Sri Lanka) has to feel secure. The world can only punish the guilty, or those that it perceives as guilty and proves as one. It could not have prevented the guilt from happening under the circumstances it may have happened. Whatever the western initiative, the Tamils would still be where they had begun – battling for their lives and livelihoods, if not with their lives and livelihoods.
The problem with the post-war political negotiations is that both stake-holders want external guarantees of one kind or the other. The Tamils acknowledge their predicament. The Sri Lankan State cannot, and will not. Yet, to ensure that the TNA, or its successor(s) nearer home do not breach a political contract, the way the LTTE did continually before it, and allow pan-Tamil militancy to be revived all over again, Sri Lanka will need the world with its Diaspora Tamils spread all over, to stand by it. As the world had stood by it at the height of the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’.
Given the current and continuing priority of the West in la affaire Sri Lanka, the latter too is not in the prospect of happening in the foreseeable future. Instead, it needs the intercession of a ‘powerful’ neighbour like India, with the political leverage and security concerns, for the world to listen, and the TNA to stand committed. The TNA too would require a similar guarantee, which in the case of the Government has to come from an external player that it could trust. India, if at all, fits the bill, despite Tamil separatists’ propaganda since the IPKF era.
This is not to say, India can facilitate daily negotiations as it had done in the past, or Norway did it, face-to-face, later. Japan’s off-again, on-again attempts at peace-making, if any, have remained just as much. The recent talk of South African assistance in peace-building will end up as Sri Lankans taking their problem to South Africa, but not returning home with a workable model.
Anyway, at the centre of all talks on this score are limited to the setting up of a ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ on the South African model. Which is what the LLRC is supposed to have addressed. Which is also what the UNHRC, in turn, had acknowledged – but seems wanting another commission of another hue. No one, nearer home or otherwise, is talking about a South African model or help at finding a permanent political solution to the ‘ethnic issue’.
Nor can India end up as being a signatory to any stake-holder in Sri Lanka. Which is where India’s naiveté at conflict-resolution exposed its limitation and inadequacies — and still proved its sincerity of purpose and commitment to the cause. Apart from the text-book model India had adopted at the time to the ethnic issue, the Indian success-rate in similar attempts within the country may have confused its clarity of vision and thought in applying the same yardstick to external players, both State and non-State, without comprehensively understanding the problem and appreciating mind-sets. Such problems and consequent mind-sets had dated back not to decades but centuries.
Sovereign State, home-grown solution
It is Sri Lanka’s problem, which Sri Lankans – Sinhalas and Tamils, Muslims and the rest – alone understand, and will understand. The people and the problem have always been a step or two ahead of the comprehension of external players, however much they have tried. India as the elder brother can keep a watch. It cannot be perceived as a ‘big brother’.
Minister Khurshid’s recent reference to Sri Lanka being a ‘sovereign country’ and has to decide for itself, should be understood in this context. Learning from experience, India too should stay clear of any controversial role in Sri Lanka, and not stray onto negotiating for one or the other of the Sri Lankan stake-holders, or signing for one or other of those stake-holders.
India’s role, if at all any, could and would commence only if the Sri Lankans have a ‘home-grown’ solution, signed sealed. Such a role, if at all again, too would (have to) be fiduciary in nature, not to be operationalised one way or the other. Definitely, it cannot and should not be an operational role, given the complexity of the factors and players, and the inter-dependability or otherwise of these players and their priorities at any given point.
The India-Sri Lanka Accord and 13-A links India still to the Sri Lankan situation. The Accord will remain even if 13-A were to be altered, one way or the other. India thus has greater legitimacy in continuing to help Sri Lankans of all ethnic hues to try and resolve their internal problems through ‘home-grown solution(s)’. It cannot be the ‘Indian model’ under the changed circumstances. It can be more – or, less – or, more of the less, or less of the more. It can still be the ‘Indian experience’ of the time, when the Government resolved domestic conflicts with non-State actors, moderates and militants, through a carrot-and-stick policy.
In contrast, the rest of the world has been imposing relatively extraneous concerns, erroneously, on Sri Lanka. The latter only has consequences for ethnic peace, political stability and strategic security in and for Sri Lanka! They are however not accountable for any or all of these probabilities, over which Indian concerns alone are equally significant and serious, as well. (Observer Research Foundation)