|Peace process: Need for awareness campaign
It must be realized that the cessation of hostilities is only the critical first step on the long and arduous journey towards a negotiated settlement. This is relatively the easier section on the road. Yet, we are witnessing resistance to even this not only from the fringes of southern politics but also from its very centre. This is not unexpected. This has transpired from the opposition each time the governing party has come up with peace proposals. All political parties, inclusive of the UNP are guilty of this. This time around, although on the surface, due mainly to "war fatigue," there seems to be support from a large section of the population to the ceasefire agreement, it will be imprudent to take this for granted. An Einstein is not needed to fathom that "all hell will break loose" when substantive issues are taken up for discussion.
Even prior to this, there are other contentious issues such as de-proscription although in reality meaningless at least from a Sri Lankan perspective, is bound to generate much controversy. Hence, the only option for a just and durable solution is by taking the people into confidence and explaining to them the realities of the conflict in terms of its causes, nature, implications and broad parameters of a negotiated solution within the unity of the country. This has never been done before and sadly is absent even today. The temporary breathing space available at present must be used precisely for this purpose.
It is critical that the team to handle all aspects of the peace process must comprise of experienced persons of integrity with superior negotiating skills supported by appropriate multi-disciplinary professionals of proven competence. It will be salutary, to obtain the services of Sri Lankans now domiciled overseas-possibly people of the calibre of Gananath Obeysekera, Stanley Tambiah, Valentine Daniel to name a few even on an advisory capacity. It will be suicidal to field a largely professionally weak and inexperienced team with the additional liability of questionable integrity. The negotiating team fielded by president Kumaratunge in 1995 was largely an irresponsible nomination based mainly on personal friendship. There was no way in which such a motley crew could ever deliver a lasting negotiated peace. From some of the current names mentioned, it would appear that a serious weakness in the present team, is the lack of experience and possibly competence of some key players. This could prove to be detrimental.
We can be certain that powerful vested interests which thrive on conflict such as some political forces both local and foreign, the arms industry and their agents, unscrupulous elements in the peace "industry" and others will try every trick in the book and outside it to keep the conflict simmering. It is heartening that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, irrespective of motive, seems at present to be single mindedly pursuing the peace process. Only time will tell whether he has the nerve, tenacity, wisdom and leadership skills to pilot the process to its logical conclusion. His task is an unenviable one. He will need the goodwill of everyone. Apart from the traditional hostility emanating from some opposition forces, he will also have to look over his shoulders to disgruntled elements not only within the ruling UNF coalition but also within his own party who could join hands with opposition groups.
The changed ball game in the aftermath of September 11th is a positive factor in his favour. It will be most unwise to take advantage of this to dilute the peace solution. It just will not work. The trillion dollar question is, at what point if at all, will he succumb to opportunist instigated forces when substantive issues are taken up. This is why it is critical that the present breathing space afforded by the relatively muted opposition to the ceasefire, is utilised to carry out a well planned and professionally executed multi-media awareness programme towards a negotiated solution. The importance of civil society support for this cannot be overemphasised.
This is a country blessed with many attributes of which its people are its greatest asset. Our people irrespective of their origin or persuasion are fair minded, kind and generous. They are also intrinsically intelligent. It is mainly large sections of our politicians of all descriptions that have misguided them to attain power, aided by a faulty educational system tailor made to promote an essentially malleable end product. This is not necessarily confined to the hoi polloi. This position continues to this very day with three ministers responsible for education, school education and tertiary education respectively.
A competent think tank should map out a plan and a strategy for implementation together with contingencies for every level of the peace process. A critical component of this plan is an appropriate educational/awareness programme to be implemented prior to and in tandem with negotiations on substantive issues. It will address issues such as the causes, nature and implications of the ethnic crisis together with the broad parameters of a solution within the unity of the country. Needless to state, it will have to be a very creative and specifically targeted exercise. The campaign will be a multi-media exercise with the use also of mediums such as street theatre.
Other issues to be clearly explained with a view to allaying phobias instilled over a considerable period of time include the concept and implications of devolution, sharing of power, nature of the state in terms of unitary/federal/confederation arrangements, unit of devolution-north-east linkage, the concerns also of the Muslims in the north/east and equity. At some point in the negotiations, it seems inevitable that very sensitive issues such as the national flag and national anthem will also be discussed with a view to fostering unity within a pluralistic setting. The benefits of a just solution to the country and its people should also be explained. Due to the emotions involved, special emphasis should be given to the guarantee of a solution also by the international community within the unity of the country. Examples should also be cited of the experiences of other countries which include the United States, Canada and Switzerland. It is felt that there is a lacuna on the awareness on at least some of these concepts even within sections of the more affluent and educated groups.
Human rights and democracy
While much euphoria is being generated by the cessation of hostilities, it must be emphasised that the benefits of the cessation must first flow to the hapless victims of the conflict the lakhs of refugees, displaced persons and others particularly in the Wanni and other areas eking out a most difficult living under most trying circumstances. Human rights and at least the basic necessities of life must be first ensured to them. Only then will the peace process be really meaningful and have a moral basis. It is seen that the cessation of hostilities agreement concentrates heavily on the "combatants" on both sides with less emphasis on the welfare of civilians. It is hoped that there will be a drastic improvement in the life of civilians particularly in the north and east of the country due to the ceasefire.
This is an area that must concern the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and the local monitoring committees. It should also be emphasised that human rights, good governance and democracy must also engage the attention of the negotiators when formulating the peace pact. Needless to state, this must also be a reality in the rest of the country as well! Under such a dispensation, there is no place for draconian legislation such as the PTA and certain provisions in the Public Security Act.
Role of civil society
It is heartening to note that influential sections of civil society who have been in deep slumber for the past two decades and more not only in relation to the ethnic conflict but also other national crises seem to at long last shaking off their stupor. It is hoped that their efforts will be meaningful and sustained to shepherd the peace process through both good times and more importantly through the inevitable difficult times that will surely arise. If indeed Sarvodaya as claimed was able to galvanise 500,000 people on March 15 for meditation in Anuradhapura for the cause of peace, it is a most commendable achievement. But the pertinent question is, what were they doing all these years when the country was literally burning and on the throes of anarchy? At present, due to the ceasefire agreement, there is only a respite from this state of affairs.
What were they doing when even the proposed Equal Opportunity Bill was thrown out without even a whimper of protest from any section? The same goes for the organised business and professional community and others with influence. Apart from the ethnic conflict, the other national crisis points too, long ignored should engage their urgent attention. Of course, some of them never tire of incessantly mouthing the word "peace" at every opportunity. They will have to transcend well beyond holding hands for five minutes on one day by a claimed one million persons, wearing white clothes, extravagant superficial media campaigns, a campaign to collect one million signatures or for that matter "meditation" by a claimed 500,000 persons on one day!
All these are stated to be in support of ethnic peace. Although these activities do have degrees of merit, they are only the initial first steps. The challenge is to sustain this over a period of time to achieve their objective. In the absence of this, they sadly become essentially mere gimmicks. It is also noted that nothing specific has ever been touched upon by these sections with reference to contentious substantive issues. On their stance, will depend to a large extent the possibility for ethnic peace and indeed the future of this country. The accountability of presumably huge sums of monies obtained mainly from foreign donors for many of these activities is also of relevance.
The government is virtually placing all its eggs in the peace basket in the hope that if this holds, the economy would take off and the other problems would become more manageable. Although at least to some extent, this thinking could have some basis, it would seem that this is a superficial understanding of what ails this country. In the event the peace process does work and peace becomes a reality, there is no question that it will have some all round tangible benefits for the country. The question is, can this be sustained in the absence of the much needed socio-economic and political reforms? The answer has to be in the negative. The point being made is that in tandem with the peace initiative, immediate steps must be taken to usher in these much needed reforms. It should be noted that this will also strengthen the hand of the government in negotiations. Although there are welcome positive moves in this direction, they seem unconvincing and inadequate for the task at hand. This is particularly so in the realm of correcting the glaring social inequity. As suggested by this writer in an earlier article, what is needed is an h onest social contract for this purpose.
It is hoped that the current euphoria due to the cessation of hostilities is supported by a genuine commitment to see the culmination of the process to its logical conclusion in terms of a just and durable negotiated settlement. The easiest thing in the world is to mouth the word "peace," as if this alone is the mantra that will resolve the ethnic crisis. This is what seems to be happening right now. The respite presented by the cessation of hostilities must be used to advantage by carrying out a professionally executed multi-media (inclusive of street theatre etc.) educational/awareness campaign towards preparing the people at least in terms of the broad parameters of a negotiated solution.
Leaders of influential sections of civil society such as the organised business and professional community, religious clergy, NGOs such as Sarvodaya and others should forge a broad coalition in support of the peace process. This support should not be confined to merely mouthing the word "peace" and activities that are not sustained. They should also indicate their specific stance on issues such as de-proscription, nature of the state, unit of devolution, scope of devolution and power sharing. They seem to fight shy of taking a stand on these crucial issues. They should also engage the government in constructive criticism. After all, they have access to the required resources. The critical aspect is to strongly support the peace process even through the inevitable difficult times when substantive and contentious issues are taken up. If such a commitment is made by leaders of civil society, there is real possibility of peace being achieved even if the process falters for whatever reason. This is the challenge for leaders of civil society.
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