Feature Article

Fostering political transformation, key to peace - Norwegian Don

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 25 October 2005, 08:48 GMT]
Transformation of the Sri Lankan democracy into one that is capable of handling conflicts is essential in addition to the political transformation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for Sri Lanka to resolve its pressing ethnic struggle, notes Kristian Stokke, a Professor of Human Geography at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo, Norway. Pointing to the post-tsunami period which has witnessed divisive politicization of both peace and development due to the intra-elite fragmentation and rivalry in Sri Lankan polity, Prof Stokke argues that international community can only act as an enabler to stimulate the needed transformation.

Prof Kristian Stokke
Prof Kristian Stokke
As a practical step for the peace process to make progress, southern polity should mature to provide "political space" for the Sri Lankan government to conduct substantive peace negotiations. This is essential in addition to the most basic precondition that the protagonists be seriously committed to peace and perceive each other as being fully dedicated to resolving the conflict, he says.

Professor Stokke has been studying the conflict in Sri Lanka since the early 90s. He has also researched local institutional reforms and political mobilization in South Africa, and local politics and democratization in developing countries.

TamilNet asked for his views on political developments in Sri Lanka:

TamilNet: Recently, the Norwegian Special Envoy and former Head of Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Trond Furuhovde, after visiting both the parties concluded that they are engaged in a "subversive war". What are the main causes for this negative development? Are parties losing confidence in negotiations?
Stokke: In my view the main cause lies in the lack of progress in the peace process itself. This creates a space for 'spoilers,' and renews faith in militaristic approach, with a resultant escalation of violence by both parties, each interpreting and responding to the activities of the opponent. Certainly the present hostilities are undermining the confidence in the negotiations. The best way to reverse the process is to revitalise the political process towards a peace agreement. Unfortunately, this has been very difficult to do so far.

TamilNet: The Tsunami-tragedy didn't bring the parties closely together. Do you blame both parties equally for this situation, or is there one party that should shoulder the blame?
Stokke: I place the main responsibility for this on the intra-elite fragmentation and rivalry in Sri Lankan politics, leading to a divisive politicisation of both peace and development. In the Sri Lankan context, administration of relief, reconstruction and development is politically contentious because it impinges on the question of future arrangements for power sharing and spatial organisation of state power. Therefore, post-tsunami relief and reconstruction was politicised and hampered in a manner that resembled the earlier politicisation of the issue of interim administration for the Northeast.

TamilNet: Norway has been a facilitator in the conflict. It also took a mediator role, with regards to the P-TOMS, using shuttle diplomacy in trying to bring the parties together. How do you view the Norwegian role?
Stokke: I have no need to defend the role of my government in the peace process. It seems fair to raise critical questions about the autonomy and capacity of the SLMM, the inclusiveness of the peace process and the work of the facilitators. Nevertheless, the Norwegian facilitators cannot be held responsible for the stalling of the peace process or, in their limited role as facilitators, be asked to impose strong conditionalities on either of the two parties. That is a power that has not been vested in them by the protagonists to the conflict.

TamilNet: What are the basic principles that need to be safeguarded to ensure that parties engage in negotiations with a renewed and serious commitment?
Stokke: The most basic precondition is that the protagonists must be seriously committed, and see each other as being dedicated to resolving the conflict. At a more practical level, Sri Lankan polity must evolve to provide a political space for the government to conduct substantive peace negotiations. I also think that it is important to strengthen the implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement and to redesign the peace process to be more inclusive while being careful not to jeopardise the focus and progress of the negotiations.

TamilNet: Could you please elaborate? What you mean by a more inclusive peace process by the International Community?
Stokke: The current peace process was designed as rounds of negotiations between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, excluding other stakeholders from a formal role in the process. This design makes sense when the focus is on ending armed hostilities and establishing a ceasefire agreement, but it encounters problems when the focus shifts towards a broader agenda of rearranging state power and building peace. Stakeholders who are excluded from the formal peace process may, at that point, turn into 'spoilers', mobilising against the process for ideological or instrumental reasons. Given the political fragmentation in Sri Lanka, such spoilers can undermine peace negotiations, pacts and constitutional reforms, as has happened in the past. That is why it is important to construct an inclusive process and, in concrete terms, find ways to include the Sinhalese and Tamil opposition, the Muslim community, civil society movements and other stakeholders. However, it is also important to ensure that this broader participation does not jeopardise the focus and progress of the conflict resolution process. For these reasons it may make sense to think in terms of a two or three track strategy for the peace process, where the formal negotiations are complemented by institutionalised consultations and deliberations in political and civil society to provide a broader platform and ownership for the peace process. I know very well that this may seem overly idealistic in the context of Sri Lankan real politic, but it nevertheless seems like a necessity to overcome the problems of instrumental opposition to peace.

TamilNet: Does the facilitator enjoy necessary backing by the International Community in practice? Is there any power-politics complicating the process? What then, do you think makes it difficult for International actors to pass a clear and public message to the Southern polity?
Stokke: There are certainly divergent interests and strategies among the international actors, but my impression is that the facilitators have managed to maintain relative coherence and support for the peace process among the international actors. Clearly both sides to the conflict expect that the facilitators should exert stronger pressure on the other side, but this easily exceeds and politicises the role of the international facilitators, thereby undermining both the facilitators and the peace process. The hard work of building peace in Sri Lanka can be supported by international actors but must in the end be done by the protagonists themselves. This is a fact that will not be altered by a possible future change of facilitator.

TamilNet: When looking into the mode of engagement by the International Community, the "rights" framework applied is often individual based human rights. The mechanism is said to lack focus on collective rights of people and favours state actors. How do you observe the clash of concepts in the Tamil - Sri Lankan conflict? Does the Tamil concept clash with the western?
Stokke: I do not see this as a conflict between Tamil and western conceptions of human rights. The tension between group rights and individual rights exist in the general human rights agenda as well. Both kinds of rights need to be accommodated to create a lasting peace and a meaningful democracy in Sri Lanka, regardless of the spatial organisation of state power (unitary state, federal state, separate state). Given the long struggle for minority rights, it is hard to imagine a lasting peace without substantive group rights. On the other hand, there can be no meaningful peace and democracy without real individual civil and political freedoms. In Sri Lanka, given its post-colonial political history, group rights and individual rights are mutually constitutive: the extent and content of one set of rights are contingent on the existence and quality of the other. To enable both kinds of rights in tandem remain the main challenge for both majority and minority politics in Sri Lanka. If we for instance turn the focus to the Tamil side, it can be observed that important political transformations have taken place during the peace process, not the least in the form of an embryonic developmental state formation. But this emerging state-like formation carries distinct authoritarian traits which points to the continued challenge of accommodating individual human rights and human rights based democratisation. In my view, addressing this challenge should be seen as a means of furthering rather than undermining the struggle for group rights.

TamilNet: The Sri Lankan framework, the constitution itself, is viewed as a bottleneck to any real and honest implementation of agreement between the parties. What are the challenges concerning the framework and parameters in Sri Lankan style democracy?
Stokke: Sri Lanka's democratic system, like all actually existing democracies, contains a complex mix of democratic spaces and deficits that create both opportunities and obstacles for democratic politics. Although there is a well-established formal liberal democracy in place this is also a democracy with shortcomings both in terms of formal constitutional and institutional design and in terms of political practices. In general and oversimplified terms the contemporary Sri Lankan political system can be described as a majoritarian formal democracy within a unitary and centralised state, with extensive concentration of power and relatively weak de facto constitutional and institutional checks on the powers of the executive government. The stakes in the field of politics - in terms of political power, economic resources and social status - have become exceedingly high. This has given rise to political fragmentation and intense intra-elite rivalry, yielding instrumental constitutional reforms, populist politicisation of ethnicity, strategic coalitions and crossovers as well as political corruption and patronage. As the dynamics of this political field have been decisive in the making and continuation of conflicts, political transformations are crucial to achieving lasting peace.

In addition to the aforementioned need for political transformation of the LTTE, this also means a multifaceted transformation of the formal design and actual content of citizenship, the vertical accountability relations between government and citizens, and of the horizontal accountability between different branches of government. In Sri Lanka, like in all other 'real world democracies', the challenge is to work on these democratic deficits towards a more substantive form of democracy that is also more capable of handling conflicts.

TamilNet: What, in your view, need to be done by the International community formally represented by the Co-Chairs constructively to get the parties into a serious dialogue with commitment?
Stokke: The main challenge for lasting and just peace in Sri Lanka is to foster political transformations as both a precondition and an outcome of conflict resolution. This means a transformation of the LTTE from a military organisation to a political movement that accepts political pluralism and human rights based democracy. But it also means a political transformation of Sri Lankan politics from a formal democracy that is actually majoritarian, centralised, clientelistic and ethnicised to an inclusive substantial democracy.

Such transformations can only be enabled and not imposed by the international community. I have few advices to offer to the facilitators except to assist in designing an inclusive peace process, and by offering development assistance and monitoring. The main responsibility remains, however, with the protagonists to the conflict.

Professor Stokke was born in 1961 and completed his Ph.D in Geography at The Pennsylvania State University in 1992.


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