1. On Saturday, 20th July 2002 the Government of Sudan and the secessionist groups from the south which have been fighting for independence for the last 19 years signed an agreement in Nairobi which unflinchingly addresses all the crucial issues between the two sides. As such it opens a window of hope for the ravaged population of one of the poorest countries of Africa. Strangely enough there are vital parallels between the conflict in The Sudan and the one in Sri Lanka. The Sudan Accord comes at a critical moment in Sri Lanka’s Peace Process so the lessons of the Accord could help in a just and lasting resolution of the Sri Lankan conflict.
2. The parallels are very intriguing. In both countries the war of secession broke out in the same year – 1983. In both countries the underlying schism is the same – ethno-territorial, linguo-cultural and religious.
3. The first of the fault-lines is ethno-territorial. The northern Sudan is populated by an Afro-Arabic ethnic people. The southern Sudan is populated by Afro-Nubian peoples who are strikingly distinct from the northerners. Both populations are the majority in their respective areas of domicile. In Sri Lanka too the ethnic divide is territorially located i.e. the seven southern provinces mostly Sinhala and the northeast province mostly Tamil. Each population has the physical footing for autonomy and eventual independence.
4. The second of the fault-lines is linguo-cultural. In The Sudan the northern population speaks, reads and writes Arabic and uses the Arabic script. Their cultural background is entirely Arabic and they consider themselves with pardonable pride as an integral part of the Arab World. On the other hand, the population of the southern Sudan uses a variety of African tribal languages only recently reduced to writing using the Roman script. They adhere to traditional African tribal culture and have resisted Arabic influence. The linguo-cultural divide between the two sides is a yawning chasm. In Sri Lanka the linguo-cultural divide if not quite so wide is nevertheless very considerable. The Sinhala and Tamil peoples have their own ancient and well developed languages written in different scripts and boasting long and illustrious literatures which constitute a deeply ingrained part of their cultural heritage. So here too the divide is very real and no less real than in The Sudan.
5. The final fault-line is religion. In The Sudan the north is overwhelmingly Islamic. Islam is much more than a religion and it dominates all aspects of personal conduct. It imposes the Sharia legal system which is intended to unify the Islamic world. The southern Sudan, on the other hand, is either Christian or animistic and has resisted with much success the encroachment of Islam. There has been fierce resistance to the imposition of the Sharia laws and a preference for the personal and public law of the Judaeo-Christian world. In Sri Lanka the divide is between two ancient religions – Hinduism and Buddhism. The Tamil people of the northeast are overwhelmingly adherents of the Hindu religion while the Sinhala population of the seven southern provinces is equally preponderantly Buddhist. Neither of these religions imposes a system of personal law as does Islam and there are more syncretic links between Hinduism and Buddhism than there are between Christianity and Islam despite their related origins in the Middle East. Before leaving the matter of personal law, however, it is relevant to know that the Tamil people have a personal law that is different from that of the Sinhala people. The Tamil peoples’ Thesavalamai (tradition of the country) is different from the English common law based personal law of the Sinhala people.
6. In both countries it has proved impossible to weld into a single nation populations riven by such extensive and deep-going fault lines. Forcing them into the straitjacket of a single constitution has produced the tensions and stresses in the body politic which erupted into wars of secession in both countries. The state in each case has stigmatised the secessionist forces as “terrorists” and sought to defeat them militarily and impose constitutional reforms which in the state’s opinion should suffice to assuage the secessionist aspiration and reconcile the secessionists to life within the single undivided state. In both countries the military effort of the state has failed and the secessioniast forces have grown from strength to strength. Consequently, both countries now face the abyss of break-up into smaller states controlled by the parties to the war. For each state it is a bewildering and traumatic prospect but the compelling logic of military failure is inescapable.
The Sudan Accord
7. The first, and most important, element of the Sudan Accord is the acknowledgement by the state of the southern peoples’ right to self determination. It had already been enshrined in a new constitution three years ago but its implications had proved too much for the state to bear. These reservations have been abandoned now and the southern peoples are to have autonomous government of their choice and exemption from the Sharia law of the northern Islamic state.
8. Secondly, the state at the centre is to be composed for a transitional period of six years of the representatives of both sides i.e. the present Islamic government and the secessionist forces.
9. Finally, at the end of six years of autonomous government in the south, the population of that region will be consulted at a referendum on the issue of outright secession from the present state or continuance within it.
10. These three elements deal unambiguously with the issues that have divided the two sides during the long and inconclusive conflict, namely, the right to self determination of the population that demands it, freedom from a legal system repugnant to them, the actual implementation of the right to self determination by autonomous government for a transitional period and the right to complete secession from the state if so decided at a referendum at the end of that period. The fact that the Accord addresses these fundamental issues forthrightly, unambiguously and without a semblance of evasion or reserve seems to offer hope of a peaceful future of good neighbourly relations inter se even if total separation were to take place at the end of the transitional period.
11. The sequence of the peacemaking effort in The Sudan has been the opposite of that in Sri Lanka for a settlement of the fundamental issues in contention has preceded a ceasefire on the ground. The next step is the negotiation of a ceasefire based upon the Accord already signed. It is interesting that the both sides envisage international monitoring of the ceasefire when it becomes a reality with the monitors being provided by Norway, Britain and the USA.
The lessons for Sri Lanka
12. The lessons for Sri Lanka are all too clear. Deal first with the fundamental issues forthrightly, unambiguously and without evasion or reservation. Do not attempt to put them on the back burner in a vain hope that they will somehow disappear and deliver us from the dilemma of hard and painful decisions. All three earlier peace talks with the LTTE failed for lack of such courage. The principal lesson of the Sudan Accord is the selfsame lesson of our own three earlier failures, namely, do not indulge in a futile effort to duck the issue. Face up to it and get it out of the way at the outset itself for it will build the platform for success on all the other issues. Most importantly it will establish the bona fides so absolutely vital for peace either in a single all-island state or in a two state island.
13. Make transitional arrangements within the existing state which will be shielded from disruption by power sharing at the centre of the existing state. It is such power sharing at the centre that will reinforce the bona fides which are the very essence of peace. Give such transitional arrangements a sufficiently long period in which to work themselves out and establish the necessarily fragile bona fides with which a start has to be made in living together.
14. Finally, acknowledge unreservedly the right to secession if, at the end of the transitional period that is the vox populi of the Tamil nation expressed at an internationally conducted referendum in the area of its domicile. The Good Friday Peace Agreement of April 1998 provides for a referendum in Northern Ireland every seven years on the issue of secession from the United Kingdom
15. The inestimable prize of peace for all time is within our grasp. Many others have shown us the way not least our brethren in The Sudan whose long travail has been no less arduous than ours. What we need now is courage, courage to shake off the ‘dead hand of the past’ which has brought us so low, courage to build an entirely new future of lasting peace.