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Conflict Resolution and Peace Building – Lessons from Sri Lanka

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, President, The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

People's Voice for Peace (HumanityAshore.org/Flickr)

People's Voice for Peace (HumanityAshore.org/Flickr)

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, President, The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

New York
September 20, 2004

Madam President,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies & Gentlemen,

My present responsibilities permit me little time for such pleasurable activities as being amongst thinkers and intellectuals like you and the members of the Asia Society who are present here today. It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be here and I wish to express my appreciation to the President of the Asia Society, Madam Vishakha N.Desai, and its members for inviting me to speak to you this evening.

It has been proposed that I speak this evening on the subject - “Conflict Resolution and Peace Building – Lessons from Sri Lanka”. I will attempt to present to you some reflections on this subject, in the time available to me.

Conflict resolution has become today, a high profile subject taught in universities and lectured on, at many a seminar and conference. Experts in this field are held in awe in some circles in many countries. Yet, conflict resolution is not new. It has only been packaged differently in our age.

Conflict resolution has been an important part of human life since ancient times, when humans grouped together to form communities to live in co-operation with each other. We are also aware of nomadic communities that have fought against each other for domination over certain areas of land and thereafter arrived at resolutions of the problem through discussion and various arrangements.

From the time man evolved systems of fixed settlements situated in specific geographic areas, conflicts between these settlements, villages or cities whichever they were called, became intensified for the purpose of domination over ever larger areas of land for each settled community. History abounds with examples of resolution of these conflicts through dialogue.

Great philosophers of the classical age such as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero; or Machiavelli of the age of Renaissance; or philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant; thinkers such as Averroes, Maimonides and Al-Farabi of the Arab world and Asian philosophers like Kautilya, Confucius and Sun Tzu have given great treatises to the world on the genesis and causes of conflict and their resolution. Philosophers from Socrates to John Rawls dealt with the question of equal treatment of citizens and how equality and freedom could address conflict. Yet, we do not see sufficient efforts made at present to study seriously and draw effectively on the concepts so painstakingly formulated and given to us through the ages by these visionary thinkers.

There is yet another aspect of conflict resolution which we encounter daily as we move along life’s path. A mother who has to divide a pie among her young children; a teacher who has to keep young students from fighting with each other; a trade union leader who negotiates a contract for his members; a businessman who attempts to cut a better deal for his enterprises; they all practise conflict resolution continually.

The conflict resolution experts of our times do not seem to have come up with anything more effective nor attractive than the great thinkers of former times nor the mothers, teachers and trade union leaders of our day.

I would say that conflict resolution has taken center stage, perhaps since World War II, in an era where new nations have begun to deal with establishing national identities and operating within them, in the context of the potential conflicts that are inherent to such situations where smaller nations are carved out of larger entities, as well as nations attempting to emerge from the traumas – economic, social, cultural and emotional, of colonial domination and exploitation.

The resolution of intra-state or inter-state conflict, since the growth of the modern State has taken on a more complicated and certainly more challenging aspect. In ancient times what was a simple war between two nations or between two groups within a nation, has been transformed today into a multi-faceted conflict, which in addition to the immediate adversaries, involve numerous other states through the network of globalised economies and migratory populations, as much as the international organizations, that today play a most significant role in regulating relations between states.

When we take a look at the conflicts prevailing across the globe, a common denominator emerges into view. Often, the cause of all armed or violent conflicts appears to stem from demands by various communities living within states for the recognition of their own specific identities – ethnic, linguistic or religious. It is important to note that the neglect of the aspirations of different groups of peoples living within states, transform themselves into demands often expressed through violent means, which in the latter half of the 20th century developed into conflicts of a violence practised on a scale hitherto unknown in human history.

Historical wrongs have been exploited by self-seeking groups to create what we call “ terrorism” today. It is the most unnatural, dehumanizing and politically dangerous phenomenon of our times. It has established itself as a political strategy, increasingly used by groups seeking to establish their separate identities; by those who feel victims of a perceived injustice to which they respond by challenging the authority of the State - their own, or that of an outside State, which is perceived as the perpetrator of the injustice.

The vast majority of humans, like you and me, reject with total disgust the politics of terror. Whatever may be the perceived injustice the terrorist responds to, we know that this would in no way offer the slightest solution to any conflict and will exacerbate it to the point, sometimes of no return.

Our Experiences & Challenges

In Sri Lanka, my government is making serious efforts at resolving a conflict that has arisen from the demands of one ethnic community – the Tamils for equal rights and the continuous neglect of the frustrations of the Tamil people by all governments since Independence. The conflict worsened to the point of armed resistance to the State, since the organized attacks against innocent Tamil people and their property, executed by one particular government 21 years ago, in July 1983.

My governments have attempted since 1994 to adopt a new strategy and radically different attitudes in the resolution of this problem.

  • We studied and attempted to understand the root-causes of the conflict and the particular form it has taken in Sri Lanka, in a scientific and objective manner.
  • We arrived at the view that our conflict was engendered by the inability of our nation at the moment of decolonization, 56 years ago, to weld together the separate sets of aspirations of the three main communities living in Sri Lanka, into one collective national vision, in which each community could live freely and in dignity within its own separate identity, in order to comprise one harmonious and united whole - a strong, stable and united state.
  • We recognized that we had to build a new, pluralist, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state based on the cultural, religious and social identity of the majority Sinhala people who constitute around 75% of the population, as much as the two main smaller communities, the Tamils and the Muslims and the tiny groups of Malays and Burghers, who constitute the rest of the country. For this, we believe that we will have to evolve methods of managing the diversities between the different communities, whilst directing the richness of this diversity towards positive change, if we are to limit and finally eliminate the present conflict generated by that very diversity within our nation.

In this respect we keep in mind that the rational political, social and economic aspirations of groups of people within a state, when continuously frustrated, give rise to protest, leading to full-blown armed conflict and creating conditions that can give rise to terrorism. We have to sift the root-causes of frustration and despair out of the terrorist action and look at it separately and unemotionally. We believe that legitimate aspirations can be addressed objectively and honestly.

It has been said that “young hope betrayed, transforms itself into bombs”. It is also said that socio economic deprivation, political oppression and physical violence perpetrated by the state or agents of the state, against other states or its own peoples could be the womb of terrorism, while humiliation is its cradle and continued revenge by the State - the mother’s milk and nourishment of terrorism. Have we not seen these simple, yet most perceptive statements being borne out everyday in the conflict ridden places of the world and until some years ago, in my own country and our region?

Let us for a moment consider the case of Sri Lanka, in the background of the concept that poverty and ignorance invariably lead to frustration, humiliation and conflict. The “ divide and rule” policy of former colonial powers, dispossessed the vast majority of our population, of established and developed traditional means of livelihood, thereby marginalizing them, while privileges were accorded to a small and selected élite class who were willing to owe allegiance to the colonial rulers. In this process, the traditional economy which prospered on the foundations of an advanced technology was destroyed and torn asunder. The focus of development limited to only those areas identified for commercial agriculture for the benefit of the metropolis resulted in increasing poverty in the rest of the country.

We are of the view that the resolution of our conflict lies mainly within two areas.

  • Firstly, we recognize the need to build a pluralist, democratic State, where the human rights, freedom and equal opportunity for all will be guaranteed and practised.
  • Then we undertake the actions required to achieve this. We believe that the solution lies in seeking alternatives to the concept of a monolithic, unitary state - to blend power with principle, to reconcile authority with freedom. We are looking at an extensive form of devolution of power, with a high level of democratic participation in decision making, law making and governance by the regional authorities or the devolved units. We do not believe that the dismemberment of the Sri Lankan State, demanded by the LTTE through the employment of terrorist means, would in anyway be a solution to the Tamil peoples’ problems.

We are seeking a compromise that would satisfy the aspirations of all the communities of peoples living within our state - a compromise that would be democratic and pluralistic. The lack of democracy and the denial and violation of fundamental rights of the people living under the sway of the LTTE, adds substantially to fears that a separate state would not lead to a resolution of the problem.

But, this is not to deny the urgency of the need to resolve the contradictions that have arisen between the State and the nationalist consciousness of the Tamil community. We have to find means and procedures to accord expression of this consciousness and to give constitutional, legal and political authority.

So, our approach to resolving the conflict that has prevailed in Sri Lanka for well-nigh two decades is a negotiated, political solution to the problem, on the lines that I have enumerated here.

We do not believe in war

We have and we shall - do all that is required of a democratic and responsible government to ensure that we do not return to armed conflict.

But here I must reiterate - we believe that peace is more than the simple absence of war. It entails active engagement to identify and rectify the root causes of conflict.

On the one hand, we have to address the problems of socio-economic marginalization through an effective programme for poverty alleviation and development. On the other, we have to formulate, in discussion with the adversaries and representatives of our polity, new structures and systems to satisfactorily meet the shortcomings and problems faced by the Tamil community, whilst safeguarding the rights and interests of all other communities.

Whilst we believe that peace has to be negotiated, we do not believe in peace at any cost. We believe that the sovereignty, the territorial integrity and security of the state must be safeguarded. We believe in a just peace, which means not only the just rights of one community or one group within that community, but the just rights of all Tamil people, as much as all other citizens. We believe in a democratic and pluralist polity that rests on the bedrock of the Rule of Law and the guarantee of human rights in every corner of the country. We believe in a just peace with democracy.

In order to achieve this we have now embarked upon a bold experiment in Sri Lanka. We are engaging one of the world’s most ruthless and anti-democratic organizations which employs violent terrorist means, in a process of dialogue and negotiations in the search for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

We have chosen this path because we believe in life, because we believe in humanity; because we believe that even the most unreasonable terrorist group or at least some of them, must sometime reassume their humanity. We do not believe that any problem could be resolved through the destruction of life, the protection of which in the last count, is the only moral justification for the existence of all human institutions, including the state.

We remain firmly committed to our concept of resolving conflict, based on the assertion most socio-political conflicts (whether they be expressed in ethnic, religious or other demands) have their origins in some form of injustice and unequal treatment. In the Sri Lankan case, my government was the first to publicly accept that the Tamil people have undergone discriminatory and unjust treatment by consecutive governments, although we do not accept and cannot in anyway condone, the extreme responses of one group claiming to represent the Tamil people. If the government is to turn them away from this extremism, we believe that we must begin with finding solutions to the main reasons that generated the conflict.

Therefore, my government entered the process of negotiations 10 years ago, with a detailed proposal for extensive devolution of power. After the LTTE refused to discuss it and went back to war, we presented it to the Tamil people and the country in August 1995, then to a Select Committee of Parliament in 1997, where it was extensively discussed for two and a half years, after which the main opposition party refused to support it. The proposals for devolution of power were presented in parliament by me in August 2000 in the form of a new Constitution. We engage in a process of intense dialogue with all parties represented in Parliament and agreement reached on the text of the new constitution. The Constitution could not be adopted due to the lack of a mere 7 votes to complete the requirement of a two-thirds majority in Parliament. One opposition party once again refused to support it. I wish to underline here that my government undertook this arduous task as we are committed to the concept that the prime responsibility lies with the state, to correct historic injustices suffered by the Tamil minority community.

At every turn the LTTE has, refused to negotiate a lasting solution, other than a separate State. The government accords priority to negotiating a definitive solution first with the LTTE. But when the LTTE repeatedly refused to engage on this issue, even though they were ready sometimes to negotiate on others, the government’s strategy was to place before the country, the legal and constitutional framework of our proposals to resolve the conflict. This gives to the LTTE and the country the advantage of being fully informed of the government’s position with regard to the ultimate resolution of the conflict.

I also appointed a Truth Commission to hear grievances from the victims of the anti-Tamil attacks of 1983 and to recommend compensation for them. I am told that this is a rare instance of a Truth Commission being operative before a lasting solution is reached to a conflict.

As Head of State, I have also tendered a national apology for the violence carried out against the Tamil people, in Black July of 1983, by a small number of goons of the government of the day. This, whilst the Sinhala people rose to the occasion all over the country to protect their Tamil brethren.

As part of this strategy for peace building, we began 10 years ago to address the issues that obstructed the return to normalcy in the daily lives of the people in conflict areas, where the LTTE also live and operate.

  • The ban on the transport of certain essential goods was lifted and restrictions were relaxes on fishing and other forms of livelihood.
  • After a period of more than a decade, development of the North and East was recommenced and continued, even as the military conflict persisted.

Thus, as you may note, our strategy of conflict resolution is one which is rooted in the rational analysis and understanding of the reasons that caused the Tamil problem also requires the courage to declare honestly and clearly the acts of commission and omission of the state in contributing to the exacerbation of the problem, then employing the ultimate democratic means of dialogue and negotiations with the adversary.

In this process, my government invited the Royal Norwegian Government of Norway to act as facilitators of our peace efforts. Norway has worked hard to assist the Government of Sri Lanka for 5½ years, achieving considerable success. We have a ceasefire, which has lasted for 2½ years with some problems. It is the ceasefire arrangement that has lasted the longest since the armed conflict began 20 years ago.

We do not insist on prior disarmament. However, we do insist on the LTTE’s acceptance of a solution that is not the dismemberment of the State. In our scheme of things, disarmament must come when the agreed solution to the conflict begins to be implemented. The renunciation of violence is implicitly expressed in the Ceasefire Agreement, reached between the government and LTTE in some clauses of the Agreement. The renunciation of the demand for a separate state is implicit in the LTTE’s agreement to explore a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka. We would now like the LTTE to make more explicit their commitment to these principles to take the peace process forward.

  • It is of interest to note that the LTTE has accepted for the first time that government agencies undertake development programmes for poverty alleviation and provision of basic infrastructure.
  • A free movement of persons and goods is permitted for the first time in 20 years. There is a general opening up of the Northern Province, which operates at the physical as well as emotional levels.

These are the gains of the past few years in our process of conflict resolution, but, we have experienced several setbacks. The LTTE continues to eliminate all their democratic opponents. Child conscription and illegal collection of tax continues.

For the first time in the 20 year long conflict, the LTTE presented their demands formally 10 months ago – not for the definitive resolution of the problem, but as they state, for an interim one.

The global spread of the phenomenon of terrorism has at last sent a wake up call to the developed nations, to the problems that the third world faced alone for many years. Terrorism may outweigh nuclear proliferation as the most fundamentally dangerous political phenomenon of our age. The international community must continue to place the fight against terrorism and the resolution of its causes on the top of its agenda.

The most powerful nations will also have to recognize that pursuit of their interests – regional and international, will have to occupy a back seat when searching for solutions to the conflicts that are raging presently in some parts of the world. Conflict resolution requires more than anything else – first, a deep understanding of the causes of the conflict and then the political will of the state and its people if we are to effect positive change. Then we could persuade those who have taken up arms that they could achieve dialogue, more than they could through terror and violence.

I need hardly tell you that in today’s greatly integrated and globalized world, the policies and actions of one state, can have multiple effects and influence on the affairs of another. Our friends in the international community have played an important role in assisting us with political support and funds, to move forward the process of peace.

Our vision of Sri Lanka beyond conflict consists of addressing the problems of poverty and development with the objective of leading the country to become the growth centre of South Asia and the financial and services hub of the region. We are confident that we can achieve this objective when we consider the following aspects:

  • we have maintained an annual economic growth rate of around 6 percent even during the period of armed conflict
  • the advantages of our geo-strategic location vis-à-vis the vast South Asian market of nearly 1.6 billion people
  • the investment potential generated by the existing Free Trade Agreement between India and Sri Lanka and other Agreements under negotiation with several South Asian and South-east Asian countries
  • the high levels of human resource development in Sri Lanka, including our high literacy rate.

We have formulated a comprehensive development plan, an important part of which comprise the accelerated rehabilitation of the conflict affected North and East in order to bring the population of those areas into the economy as active partners in the development process.

In Sri Lanka we need strong and continued support from the International Community and especially from our friends in the USA in the great enterprise we have undertaken to graduate from poverty to development, from armed conflict to democratic negotiations, from violence and terrorism to mutual understanding, reconciliation leading to a lasting resolution of the conflict.