TamilWeek, Oct 16 - 22, 2005
Political rhetoric and responsible decision-making needed

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse's decision to sign agreements with the JVP and
JHU who take a hardline nationalist position on the peace process was viewed with
dismay by those who believe in the necessity of the peace process. The Prime
Minister's allies from the JVP and JHU have been breathing fire from their political
platforms on issues concerning the peace process. Fiery and articulate speakers from
the JVP and JHU have roundly denounced the ceasefire agreement, Norwegian
facilitation and the concepts of federal power sharing, joint tsunami relief mechanism
and an interim administration for the north east. This makes them seem to be a recipe
for confrontation and conflict with the LTTE if they come to power.

By Jehan Perera

With the presidential election looming there is an impression of a pitched battle
between the political forces supporting and opposing the peace process and the
compromises it entails.

The impression created by the media is that the general public is also a part of this
great debate.

The vehemence of those espousing nationalist positions tends to give the impression
that they have the upper hand. But this is largely a media generated phenomenon, or
illusion, in which politicians who are dramatic in their turn of speech get more than
their fair share of publicity in the media.

This past week I had the opportunity to interact closely with two very different groups
of people.

The first were students taking a diploma course in conflict resolution and security
studies offered in Colombo by Bradford University which is based in the UK. The
students were mostly drawn from the security forces, both military and police, with
some representation by local and international NGOs. The second was a group of
youth leaders in Matara affiliated to the National Youth Services Council, which is a
state institution. They were taking part in a seminar on pre-election issues in the area
of peace building.

In both these educational programmes many of the questions that were asked by the
participants after the lectures were critical of the peace process. However, when the
participants were asked to form small working groups of between 6 to 8 participants
and to report back to the whole group, their attitudes seemed to change.

For instance, each working group was asked to discuss and report back on topics
such as assessing the positives and negatives in the ceasefire agreement and in the
P-TOMS tsunami joint mechanism.

What was significant in the reports that emerged was the sense of moderation and
responsibility of the participants. The flamboyant _expression of opinion that existed
when it was question time was gone. Instead there was a constructive approach to
problem solving.

One reason for this may have been that the participants were asked to read through
the contents of the ceasefire and P-TOMS agreements before passing judgment on
them. It is often those who are ignorant who oppose what they do not understand.

But the second reason for the moderation and responsibility with which the
participants approached their task was different. It had little or nothing to do with the
amount of learning or knowledge that they had.

Instead it had to do with the shift in roles. The right of self determination is not only a
right of communities, it is also a right of individuals. Those individuals who are
entrusted with responsibilities in an ongoing process would prefer to be constructive
rather than destructive.

Positive lessons

This was the case in the educational programmes that were held in Colombo and
Matara and in which I participated as a resource person. Security forces personnel
who had once fought the LTTE and young school leavers from the supposed
strongholds of Sinhalese nationalism saw more that was positive than negative in the
peace process. There has clearly been an attitudinal shift in the general population
over the past decade, at least, which was reflected in the opinions expressed at these
seminars.

For instance, the members of the Bradford University course who had been assigned
the task of coming up with a roadmap for peace came up with proposals that sought to
build on what already existed.

They focused on the immediate term, and advocated providing for the basic needs of
the people and implementing the agreements already reached. Then they proposed
to build on the new level of confidence to make political reforms possible on both sides.


The youthful participants in the National Youth Services Council's programme,
accepted the ceasefire and P-TOMS agreements as a basic architecture that was to
be built upon. They did come up with critical observations. But their views of the
strengths of these agreements far outweighed the weaknesses. None of the groups
rejected these landmark agreements between the government and LTTE.

There was no _expression of hate or suspicion of the Tamil people at all. Surely this is
an encouraging sign of hope for the future when it comes from the southernmost part
of the country.

There are two positive lessons that can be taken from the experience at the
educational programmes outlined above. The first is that even those sections of the
population who are generally deemed to be hardline on the issue of peace with the
LTTE may not be so. Both the security forces personnel in the Bradford programme
and those youth in the NYSC programme wished to see the government's political
engagement with the LTTE work itself through to a positive conclusion.

The second lesson is that hardline views are more easily expressed when there is no
responsibility placed upon the proponents of those views to thereafter act on their
views.

However if these very same people are given a position of responsibility, they may try
to come up with responsible and moderate positions. When those who asked hard
questions from their lecturers were asked to come up with a roadmap to peace, they
tried to be constructive, and not to be destructive.

Parallel analysis
The parallel is not too far to be seen in this time of elections. Prime Minister Mahinda
Rajapakse's decision to sign agreements with the JVP and JHU who take a hardline
nationalist position on the peace process was viewed with dismay by those who
believe in the necessity of the peace process.

The Prime Minister's allies from the JVP and JHU have been breathing fire from their
political platforms on issues concerning the peace process.

Fiery and articulate speakers from the JVP and JHU have roundly denounced the
ceasefire agreement, Norwegian facilitation and the concepts of federal power
sharing, joint tsunami relief mechanism and an interim administration for the north
east. This makes them seem to be a recipe for confrontation and conflict with the
LTTE if they come to power. But this was also the case at the last general election of
April 2004.

In the election campaign that preceded the general election of April 2004, ruling party
candidates, including JVP and JHU speakers, and also President Chandrika
Kumaratunga herself, were severely critical of the ceasefire agreement and the UNP
government's handling of the peace process.

They pledged to take tough action against the LTTE, especially when they violated
the ceasefire agreement, by setting up unauthorized armed LTTE camps in
government-controlled areas.

However, after winning the election and getting into the seats of power, they all,
including the JVP, moderated their language and were responsible in their actions.
They did not go to confront the LTTE and remove those unauthorized LTTE camps
that had been put up in government-controlled areas.

In the event of a victory by the Prime Minister it is likely to be the same this time
around too. But the people want peace, and positive actions that will break the
stalemate in the peace process and thereby bring peace nearer.

So far, unfortunately, there is little sign of concrete plans for that from the Prime
Minister's camp.

[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]
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