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Who let the lions in?

It was clear, even as it was being read out by the Norwegian facilitators, that the joint statement by the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government following two acrimonious days of talks in Geneva, was going to ignite a crisis in Colombo. Seasoned observers knew that any optimism that a deal struck in Geneva presaged a more peaceful short term was misplaced. And it took just two days for it to erupt. At the heart of the ongoing furore is the status of the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA): was it amended or not?

On the one hand, the bickering over whether the CFA was amended or not (and despite the government delegation’s clumsy posturing, it was not) and, now, on whether it should have been amended or not, might seem puerile, even incredulously dangerous. Almost forgotten, it seems, is the near daily violence on both sides that in December and January killed two hundred people and seemed to herald a new eruption of Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict.

But for both the Sinhala and Tamil polities, the CFA is at the heart of the contest between two antithetical visions of what Sri Lanka should be.

As far as the LTTE is concerned, the CFA is an internationally recognised agreement that is key to the alleviation of the hardships that a million Tamils are still – four years after it was signed – enduring.

For the Sinhala nationalist phalanx in Colombo - and, despite the best will in the world, this is certainly now the driving force behind the state – the CFA is a mistake (committed by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP government) that President Rajapakse is duty bound to rectify (both because he said he would and because that is the right thing to do).

To begin with, for the LTTE (and as Wickremesinghe himself publicly stated at the time), the CFA recognises the prevailing ground reality: two separate military formations controlling two separate controlled areas. This separation – concretised in a minimum distance to be maintained between opposing personnel – is arguably the first plank on which the prevailing cessation of hostilities rests.

The LTTE has argued that the CFA is bedrock on which the peace process must be built. For the Tigers, this is less an ideational position, than a manifestation (albeit an unpalatable one for the Sinhala nationalists) of ground reality.

But for the Sinhala far right, it is the CFA itself that recognises – and thus gives life to – what they consider an aberration: the repudiation of the Sri Lankan state’s practical (even if not theoretical) sovereignty over an estimated 70% of the Tamil-dominated Northeast.

Other joint concepts like the P-TOMS and ISGA also had the same intolerable logic, concretising a rupture of Sinhala hegemony, and they too drew the wrath of the Sinhala far right (even before they were inked).

But unlike those structures, whose abrogation or rejection has had little or no impact on the Sinhala polity (particularly given donors’ collective failure to follow through on their conditionality), the collapse of the CFA has far reaching implications. War would be inevitable, for a start, and it is hard to see how a new truce could subsequently be agreed upon without much blood flowing first.

Nevertheless, the angst the CFA stirs amongst Sinhala nationalists frequently manifests in vehement paroxysms such as the sentiments expressed by the JVP and JHU at the All Party Conference (APC) held in Colombo this Monday.

The international community’s staunch support for the CFA and the pressure being brought on both protagonists to abide by it also fuel Sinhala nationalists’ hostility. Despite the strong, sometimes blistering, criticism levelled against the LTTE by some international backers of the Norwegian peace process, there is a gnawing concern that the de facto state in the north has become a routine facet of international engagement in Sri Lanka.

Which is why the Sinhala right is more prepared to risk a war than leave the CFA unchallenged. Its vocal challenge is not simply, as those with indefatigable faith in a liberal polity emerging in Sri Lanka through the peace process are sometimes wont to argue, merely posturing for the voters (though the JVP – unlike the JHU - uses nationalist rhetoric with considerable more precision than an initial glance might suggest).

In fact, the Sinhala nationalist phalanx – and that includes, by virtue of their tendency to engage in anti-LTTE, even anti-Tamil ‘outbidding’, the two main parties - sees a strategic slippage in its ability to secure international support for its political vision: a unitary state subordinate to majoritarian whim.

For a considerable period, particularly during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s appallingly destructive and ultimately abortive ‘war for peace’, tacit international approval for a military solution to the Tamil question and repeated international assertions of support for Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity fuelled Sinhala nationalists’ confidence in international sympathy for their core position.

Little wonder, also, that international advocacy of concepts such as ‘pluralism’ or ‘a multi-ethnic state’ were interpreted by the Sinhala polity as support for their vision of Sri Lanka as a single majoritarian state, posited as these notions seemed to be, against those of ‘homeland’ or even ‘self-determination’ as argued by the other side.

The battlefield stalemate – and that doesn’t mean strategic or ideological exhaustion – of 2001 resulted in the CFA. For both protagonists and all communities, the truce produced welcome relief, which even President Kumaratunga’s vehement opposition to the truce failed to blight.

Four convoluted years later, some observers have argued that the peace process – conducted by leaderships on both sides with international diplomatic support – has generated anxieties and suspicions because of the concomitant failure to include a wider range of actors. In the face of powerful onslaughts against the peace process by the JVP et al, this argument has gained credence.

A quick glance at other successful peace processes suggest the jury is still out on the efficacy of inclusiveness. But in Sri Lanka, as recent developments underline, this notion has allowed powerful spoilers to gain better purchase.

Press reports have suggested that during the Geneva talks, for example, JVP leaders were in constant touch, if not in the same room as President Rajapakse as he was managing his delegation’s performance. Whatever the truth of that, there is no doubt that the JVP and JHU are kept closely informed by the President and have a strong influence over affairs of state, far exceeding even those of the main opposition UNP.

The point is this: if it was the exclusion of powerful players in the margin which is to be blamed for the failures of the peace process so far, then last month a very different dynamic manifested itself. The massive delegation that President Rajapakse despatched to Geneva had a number of Sinhala nationalists, including the constitutional lawyer H. L. De Silva, in its ranks. In Colombo, the same forces were kept permanently in the loop.

And the result was a near total collapse of the talks. Standing on a manifestly public stage – at least in terms of the Sinhala right’s supervision - and, no doubt, working to a specific mandate from the President, the government delegation engaged not in negotiation, but in grandstanding. Acrimony inevitably followed the accusations and counter-accusations.

Progress, limited as it was, was only possible when stripped down, skeletal delegations on both sides (and on the government’s part, without nationalist elements) huddled in a smaller room to thrash out the finer points of the joint statement.

Even then, at one stage, according to press reports, the government delegation flatly refused to accept the title ‘Ceasefire Agreement’ being included in the joint statement, thereby precipitating a crisis that was only averted by robust Norwegian advocacy of international law.

In the wake of subsequent developments in Colombo, that crisis has now returned. The elevated supervisory position President Rajapakse has extended actors like the JVP and JHU cannot easily be withdrawn – even should he want to, and there is no sign he does.

But withdrawn it must be if progress is to be made at the negotiating table. Else, as one LTTE negotiator pithily stated, ‘the next round will [still] be the first round.’

Inclusiveness has thus, since being promoted as a panacea for the ills afflicting Sri Lanka’s peace process, paved the way for a series of impasses. The major failures to advance the peace process – including the scuttling of P-TOMS and talks on ISGA – are linked back to the growing influence of the Sinhala right wing.

Indeed, President Kumaratunga signed the P-TOMS and confronted the JHU and JVP, only under severe international pressure. Last month, President Rajapakse’s delegation reaffirmed its commitment to the CFA, again only under international pressure. On the opposite side to this pressure was Sinhala nationalist resistance.

Ironically, whilst much is made of the role of international pressure on getting the LTTE to the table – and a close examination of the ground dynamics of the last few months does not entirely accord with that claim – there is no sign the Sinhala right will be subject to the same pressures (and if it was, whether it will simply acquiesce and play ball is another matter, of course).

The point here is that the peace process – indeed any peace process – with the LTTE is an anathema for the ever-growing Sinhala nationalist bloc. Efforts to skirt this contradiction in peacemaking and recent attempts to induct the JVP et al into the peace process under the banner of ‘inclusivity’ have only worsened things.

Whilst for many advocates of the peace process, stabilising the badly frayed ceasefire is indubitably the first step to turning around Sri Lanka’s slide towards the abyss, for the Sinhala nationalists this is the first point of resistance to a what they consider a fundamental challenge to their vision of a unitary majoritarian state.

It is in this context that the JVP leader’s declaration on Monday should be seen: ‘We firmly believe that it is better to walk away from the negotiation table without any progress being made, rather than agreeing to any conditions detrimental to the sovereignty of the country.’