By Mark Salter –
Dayan Jayatilleka makes another stab at dismissing my approach to the dynamics of peace – and war – in Sri Lanka, this time primarily by riffing, and at some length, on the ‘real’ nature of the LTTE. Let me begin by reassuring him that however well-intentioned, the Tiger history lecture was unnecessary. Bar a few minor details, its contents were in fact entirely familiar.
He might better appreciate this if he were to return to my book, To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka, and check what I have to say on the subject. Having read, for example, MR Narayan’s seminal Inside An Elusive Mind: Prabhakaran and his other related works, as well as interviewing the author, I am already fully conversant with, for example, the history of the LTTE’s ruthless suppression – and in some cases wholesale elimination – of perceived opponents cum competitors among the ranks of Tamil militancy, the alleged ‘traitors’ among their own ranks, notably Mahattaya, included.
I am also painfully aware of later Tiger excesses, including loyal cadres’ murderous attempts to try and prevent Tamil civilians from escaping their control during the war’s final stages. Anyone who has, for example, read Jaffna Teachers for Human Rights’ harrowing reports at that time from inside the inexorably shrinking LTTE controlled zone of control will be fully conversant with quite how mercilessly destructive their modus operandi could be in practice.
Appalling as LTTE behaviour undoubtedly was, displaying a brutality and sheer disregard for civilian life that was more than matched by Sri Lankan Armed Forces’ merciless shelling, bombing and strafing of Tamil civilians trapped inside the ‘No Fire Zone’ in their final push to ‘defeat’ i.e. eliminate the remains of the LTTE, whatever the cost in lives, focusing on war crimes is to miss what I take to be the main point of contention here.
That point revolves around the attempt to end war and achieve peace via some form of negotiated settlement. That is what the Norwegians were asked, initially by Chandrika Kumaratunga and Lakshman Kadirgamar, subsequently by Ranil Wickremesinghe and – at least at first – by Mahinda Rajapaksa, to help try and achieve.
That effort ultimately failed. Starting from 2006 and the resumption of war, and consistent in intensity ever since, a common response is to lay the blame for failure not on the conflict’s key actors – the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE – but the messenger i.e. Norway in its agreed role as peace facilitator. This is as common a practice as it’s misguided, as expressed in the old aphorism ‘Don’t shoot the messenger!’ i.e. exactly the role the Norwegians had been asked to play.
In my experience, the Norwegians themselves are the first to accept that they made mistakes, for example in failing to appreciate the importance of ensuring that the CFA enjoyed bilateral, cross-party support, most critically within the majority Sinhalese community. (They might have ‘got’ this point more clearly if they’d listened to Tony Blair and his UK governmental colleagues, who had recently managed to steer the Northern Ireland Good Friday Peace Agreement through Parliament on the back of bipartisan (i.e. joint Labour-Tory) backing for it.)
There is of course no doubt that a Norwegian facilitation team that was habitually sotto voce in defending its actions provided a useful scapegoat for the peace process’ gradual breakdown from 2003 onwards, notably for domestic politicians of all stripes wishing to divert attention from their own contributions to the peace process’ inexorable decline and eventual total breakdown. That said, as my book argues clearly, it is not with the Norwegians but firmly within the Sri Lankan polity that the causes and consequences of that breakdown are located –some of them still as relevant, and concerning a political resolution to the eternal ‘national question’, as unresolved as ever.)
I don’t propose to rehearse that overall analysis, but rather to focus on Jayatilleka’s serial misunderstandings of the structure and nature of peace negotiations. First among these being the fact that generally speaking, in politics you make peace not with your friends but your enemies – whatever shape or form they assume, however reprehensible their behaviour may be. And as, for example, Talking To Terrorists: how to end armed conflicts, former Blair advisor and Northern Ireland peace negotiator Jonathan Powell’s recent book makes clear, more often than not that means talking to groups with the label ‘Terrorist’ plastered across their backs in bold letters.
In Sri Lanka as elsewhere around the world, the search to end armed conflict, stop bloodshed and achieve peace necessarily involved constructive engagement with one such organization, the LTTE. Only by doing so was there any prospect of achieving the stated goals. And in Sri Lanka as elsewhere pursuing this goal emphatically did not imply ‘appeasement’, selling out the country, defeatism and all the other brickbats typically thrown at peace negotiators, in Sri Lanka as elsewhere.
If it had, it would for example have been unlikely that Richard Armitage, the Bush Administration’s Deputy Secretary of State at the time of the CFA and ensuing talks would have been as openly supportive as he was of Norwegian efforts to facilitate peace in Sri Lanka, even going as far as to hold an informal meeting with chief LTTE negotiator Anton Balasingham on the sidelines of the Oslo November 2002 International Donor Conference.
As Powell argues, negotiating with the enemy rests on the simple proposition that minimally, an agreement to end the fighting and maximally, achieving a roadmap for addressing its root causes can be achieved in this manner. In the Sri Lankan case, at the very least this path was surely both worth a more sustained attempt and, unquestionably, a better strategy than returning to armed hostilities.
The relevance of this in the context of the Sri Lankan conflict, in particular the return to war in 2006 is, I think, crystal clear. While there’s little question the LTTE ignited the initial spark in autumn 2006, the government’s decision not just to retaliate in kind but subsequently to advance on an ever-widening front was just that: a decision to return to war. Emboldened, moreover, by the successes of their revamped, upgraded and well-supplied armed forces into 2007 and beyond, the lack of official interest in a genuine attempt to revive the peace option became increasingly evident.
Jayatilleka, as often, goes to great pains to underline the demonic, ‘fascist’ nature of the LTTE, proffering this as both justification for the return to war and an ‘appeasement’-tainted cudgel with which to beat politicians, notably CBK and Wickremesinghe, who attempted to pursue the negotiations route to dealing with the Tigers. In this context, I wonder if what’s happening in Afghanistan might give Jayatilleka pause for thought? Among contemporary political groupings that have earned themselves the moniker ‘demonic fascist theocratic monster’, the Taliban stand out as one of the nastiest. Yet what has been taking place in Afghanistan of late?
Answer: In late February the US and the Taliban signed an agreement intended to facilitate fresh talks between the latter and the Afghan government. And what did this chiefly involve for the prime mover in the global ‘War on Terror’? Answer: Talking To Terrorists. I think I’ll rest my chief case right there.
Before signing off – and this will be my last response to Jayatilleka– I can’t desist from noting that his depiction of post-Brexit Referendum dynamics in the UK, in particular of the disastrous role of the eternally Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn, is pure fantasyland stuff of the kind typically peddled by – thankfully minor – sections of the British Left. If Jayatilleka wants to mug up on what’s really been going on in my homeland, and since he also likes to include book title citations in articles, I’d suggest he could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of the inimitable Fintan O’Toole’s brilliant Heroic Failure: Brexit and Politics of Pain. And in conclusion, I’ll leave a response to Jayatilleka’s convoluted ruminations on How To Be A Proper Populist to someone else. The End.