SRI LANKA PEACE PROCESS: ROLE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY: CONGRESSIONAL BRIEFING
RESPONSE TO THE STATEMENT OF AMBASSADOR JAYANTHA DHANAPALA AND COMMENTS
BY
JOHN RICHARDSON
PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND
DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR TEACHING EXCELLENCE
AMERICAN UNIVERSITY

It is an honor to join in this panel with three such distinguished members of the diplomatic community. In particular, it is always a privilege to see Ambassador Dhanapala whom I came to know well during his tour in Washington and who, incidentally, is a graduate of American University. I was gratified to learn that he is the nominee of Sri Lanka’s government for the United Nations Secretary Generalship, supported by all major parties.

Nor long ago, Ambassador Dhanapala delivered the Mohammed Sahabadeen Memorial Address in Colombo. ‘Dr. Sahabadeen reminds us,’ he said ‘of the basic moral decency that continues to be the cohesive moral glue in our country and the heights of cultured living and selfless philanthropy that we as Sri Lankans, of all ethnic and religious groups are capable of..’ In addition to diplomatic experience, leadership skills, managerial abilities and a considerable intellect, Ambassador Dhanapala, too, exemplifies these qualities. It is my hope that they will be recognized and affirmed by those responsible for choosing a new United Nations leader at a most critical juncture and in particular, by the leaders of my own country.

Why does Sri Lanka deserve international community support?

Ambassador Dhanapala has called for an increased international community role in Sri Lanka following the tragic assassination of another outstanding Sri Lankan leader and friend, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Before commenting on some of his specific proposals, however, it may be useful to remind Americans, including those in this room, why Sri Lanka is a nation that is eminently deserving of international and especially of U.S. support. I believe my more than eighteen years of visiting studying and writing about this beautiful island nation qualifies me to do so.

Sri Lanka is the oldest and most resilient democracy in the Global South, with an uninterrupted record of contested elections and peaceful transfers of power dating from 1935. It has provided leadership in advocating international disarmament regimes. Among development practitioners like myself, it is known for its exemplary record in achieving high levels of literacy, life expectancy and infant mortality. It has sustained these levels, for the most part, despite more than 20 years of protracted conflict. It is one of very few nations, long before the end of the Soviet empire, to voluntarily transition from a state controlled economy to a free market economy. Most remarkable, it is a nation where, despite years of protracted conflict between the government and an armed Tamil militant group, relatively high levels of comity between diverse ethnic communities - Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims have been sustained. Tamils live in Colombo and many other parts of Sri Lanka. They serve in the government at high levels and, more rarely, even in the security forces. Foreign Minister Kadirgamar was a Tamil citizen of Sri Lanka, which, of course, was a prime motive for his assassination.

What can international community pressure accomplish and not accomplish?

I fully endorse Ambassador Dhanapala’s proposals for involvement by the international community. It is possible that international pressure can help revitalize the peace process, reduce external flows of funds to the LTTE, and help minimize military violations of the Cease Fire Agreement. Aggressive monitoring of the Sri Lanka peace process by the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo donor conference may also be a point of leverage. I am less optimistic about leveraging international pressure to effect change within LTTE controlled areas, for example reducing human rights violations, repression of opposition groups and recruitment of child soldiers. However that does not mean that reiteration of principles and agreements that militate against such behaviors should not only be continued, but become more forceful. Reinforcing regimes founded on such principles benefits the entire international community, not only Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict will only be resolved by Sri Lankans.

Sri Lanka’s government is to be commended, in my opinion, for not acceding to the demands of more extremist groups who have called for the replacement of Norway as a facilitator. In meetings with the facilitators on several occasions, I have been impressed with their depth of knowledge, experience and commitment to evenhandedness. That factions, probably on both sides, question this commitment is not unusual in such facilitations. In the end, however, it is representatives of Sri Lanka’s government and of the LTTE that will have to resolve their differences. Neither the Norwegians, nor any other group of facilitators can do this for them.

What is needed? - four generalizations that take a longer term view

As participant in a panel that includes Ambassadors Dhanapala and Schaefer, it would be presumptuous for me to offer opinions on nuanced diplomatic initiatives, on the part of the US and other international actors that might move the peace process forward. Probably more useful will be for me offer four generalizations on Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict and the peace process that take a longer term view. These are derived, for the most part, from eighteen years of research and writing that recently culminated in my new book. Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars. Generalizations such as these describe the context within which a peacebuilding scenario must inevitably unfold, whether this be sooner or later.

1. There will be no military solution.

First, there needs to be a candid acknowledgment, hopefully by all political parties and groups within Sri Lanka, that military subjection of the LTTE is highly improbable. Experiences of the IPKF, plus Sri Lankan governments that tried this option - the names Jayewardene, Athulathmudali, Premadasa, Wijeratne, Wickremanayake and Ratwatte come to mind - must not be repeated to provide further evidence. It is this reality, above all, that mandates continued political engagement and will mandate, ultimately, some sort of political solution. Arriving at this solution will, of necessity, involve negotiations with an organization that has been labeled ‘terrorist’ and continues to include some terrorist elements. The LTTE’s abandonment of terrorism will, at best, occur in parallel with the unfolding of some peacebuilding scenario. Many, on both sides, will view this scenario as falling far short of optimal.

2. There must be realistic expectations about the international community’s role.

Second, international community leaders at both multilateral and national levels should be realistic about their promises to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s political leaders should be realistic about their expectations that ‘international pressure’ will be of much help in solving their problems. Many of us in this room, including myself, love Sri Lanka and it looms large in our thoughts and feelings. But friends of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans themselves must recognize that in an international system shaped, increasingly, by the politics of ‘realism, Sri Lanka is a relatively small, economically marginal, geostrategically insignificant nation. Sri Lanka’s current leaders would do well to heed the experience of J. R. Jayewardene and not rely overmuch on Western - especially American - intervention to solve their problems. When Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict is ultimately resolved - I pray this will come sooner rather than later - it will be Sri Lankans who have been the prime movers in crafting that resolution.

3. Peacebuilding must be the overriding national priority.

Third, conflict management and peacebuilding should be overriding national priorities, superceding all other national priorities for all of Sri Lanka’s mainstream political leaders. I have long believed - and said publicly - that there will be no peace with the LTTE until Sri Lanka’s leaders first make peace with themselves. I am not alone in holding this view, either within or outside Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s leaders should seriously consider a broadly constituted national government, with conflict management and peacebuilding as overriding national priorities. Since the days of the Bandaranaike Chelvanayakam pact, conflict in Sri Lanka has been characterized by what James Manor characterized as a poisonous cycle. The party in power, whichever party, proposes reasonable accommodations. The party out of power, whichever party attacks those accommodations to achieve short term political gains. This must change if there is to be peace. UNP support of the P-TOMS agreement is a step in the right direction but only a baby step. There must be giant steps and the sooner, the better.

4. Problems faced by Sri Lanka’s youth cannot be ignored.

Fourth, there will be no lasting peace in Sri Lanka until solving the problems of unemployment and lack of economic opportunity faced by Sri Lanka’s youth, especially young men, in both the north and the south are elevated as a national priority. In the concluding chapter of Paradise Poisoned I pointed to a reality that seems obvious to me, but has, for all practical purposes, been ignored by Sri Lanka’s political leaders, their contemporaries in other global south nations, and leaders of the international development community. The circumstances faced by Sri Lanka’s young men were powerfully described in perhaps the best report of its kind ever written, the Report of the Presidential Commission on Youth. It described their needs, aspirations and the bleak future they saw for themselves in eloquent detail. Young men were the prime recruits of both the LTTE and the JVP and remain so to this day. I concluded: That the segment of society with the greatest power to disrupt should be also be among the most disadvantaged seems paradoxical. The political consequences of failing to change this are perilous.

Interlinked priorities: development, security and human rights.

Let me conclude by returning to Ambassador Dhanapala’s Sahabadeen address with a quotation he offered from the March 21 report of the Secretary General, entitled In Larger Freedom. We will not enjoy development without security,’ the report emphasized, ‘and we will not enjoy security without development, we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights. Unless all these causes are advanced, none will succeed.’

Ambassador Dhanapala is an able, gifted, experienced political leader and there are others like him, mature and younger, among the leadership of all Sri Lanka’s major parties, the business community and a vibrant civil society. The skills necessary for peacebuilding exist in Sri Lanka if they can be mobilized and focused on national priorities that matter most. The first of these, as I have said, must be peacebuilding.

There is important work to be done by Sri Lanka’s political leaders and by leaders of the international community who care about one of the Global South’s most resilient democracies and, still, one of its success stories. It is time to get on with it.

 

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