Japan's role in Sri Lanka's peace process

Asia Times, Hong Kong
March 19, 2003

By Sisira Edirippulige

(Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say)

The sixth round of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were due to begin in Hakone, a northern city of Japan, on Tuesday as the culmination of Japan's involvement in the Sri Lankan peace process over the past six months.

This round of talks has particular significance as the year-old ceasefire is under threat after the recent sinking of a rebel ship by the Sri Lankan navy, allegedly as it was smuggling military cargo. Moreover, the talks will have a strong impact on the forthcoming aid conference organized by Japan to be held in Tokyo in June. It is believed that the outcome of the latest talks will be keenly watched by the donor community.

Sri Lanka marked the first anniversary of a landmark ceasefire last month that has brought a degree of normalcy to the island after two decades of civil war. Regardless of the strains in the truce and uncertainty about the future of the peace process, the ceasefire brokered by the Norwegian government has held and the talks have progressed.

In his policy speech in January, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi emphasized Japan's determination to support the Sri Lankan peace process. The Japanese government appointed Yasushi Akashi, a former United Nations undersecretary general, as the special envoy for the peace process, and he has made four visits to the island since his appointment in September last year.

During his visits, Akashi met with President Chandrika Kumaratunga and senior political leaders, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinnghe and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksha. He also traveled to Kilinochchi in the LTTE-controlled areas of the north of the island and met with several senior Tamil rebel members.

The visit of the Japanese Foreign Minister Yuriko Kawaguchi in January gave further weight to Japan's commitment to the peace process. Kawaguchi visited the once war-torn north of the island and then met with Indian political leaders in New Delhi to discuss the peace process.

Japan has been active in holding extensive discussions with the US, Norwegian and Indian representatives as well as members of many international organizations, including the World Bank and the UN Children's Fund to garner their support to the peace process.

The emergence of Japan as a leading player in the negotiations to end nearly 20 years of civil war and in the post-war reconstruction plans is underscored by a decision by Tokyo last month to provide a aid package worth US$270 million.

Japan's rather sudden emergence as a leading player in the post-conflict peace building process has taken some observers by surprise. Regardless that Japan has been the largest aid donor for all seven South Asian countries, Tokyo traditionally kept a low key in region's intrastate conflicts and their conflict resolution processes.

The drastic change taken place in Japan's approach towards intrastate conflicts is reflected in recent comments made by Akashi, "Japan will no longer be satisfied with writing out checks. We wish to be involved in the action too." Proof for such a shift is Japan's recent involvement in conflicts, apart from Sri Lanka, in Afghanistan, East Timor, Aceh in Indonesia and southern Mindanao in the Philippines.

Undoubtedly, the cultural and historical affinities of two countries justify Japan's move to come forward in extending a helping hand to the predominantly Buddhist country of Sri Lanka. Japan and Sri Lanka celebrated their golden jubilee of diplomatic relations last year. The two countries have maintained warm and friendly relations over the past 50 years. Apart from that, Sri Lanka's (then Ceylon) appeal for the international community not to ask for war reparations from Japan at the San Francisco peace conference in 1951 has made Japan's relations with Sri Lanka special. This relationship has prompted Japan to be generous in aid to Sri Lanka and to maintain links in cultural, technical and educational fields.

However, some commentators see Japan's involvement in the Sri Lanka's peace process as something more than a desire to provide humanitarian assistance. For them it is the transforming economic and strategic interests in the new world order that has pushed Tokyo towards Colombo. As one observer wrote, "Behind the facade of conflict resolution and financial aid, Tokyo is seeking to carve out a larger role for Japan within the region. Since he came to office in 2001, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has sought to more aggressively assert Japan's economic and strategic interests."

In this view, acting a role in the peace process, Japan will gain easy access to natural resources in the region and to the fast-growing economies in South Asia. Particularly, Sri Lanka can be a possible stepping stone for Japan to access India.

It is also speculated that Tokyo's involvement in the Sri Lankan peace process, similar to other new engagements in Asia, has hidden strategic interests. While debate is still continuing at home on Japan's role in UN peacekeeping operations, self defense forces have been sent to East Timor.

The Japanese government's decision to dispatch its naval forces to support US and British warships in the Indian Ocean as a part of Washington's "war against terrorism" has provoked domestic and international criticism. In this light, some analysts seem to suspect that Japan's involvement in post-conflict peace building processes is a way to expand Tokyo's strategic interests in the region. In fact, Akashi's offer to deploy Japanese police for peace-monitoring duties was received with high skepticism in Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, some regard that Japan's involvement in Sri Lanka is a role that Japan play as Washington's proxy in the region. Although the US has praised the ceasefire agreement between Sri Lankan government and the Tamil rebels, Washington has shown no interest in playing a direct role in the peace process. Possible reason for this can be the India factor, as the US does not want to irritate New Delhi by involving in region that traditionally considered as India's sphere of influence. Moreover, direct involvement of the US may damage Indo-US relations that have seen a gradual improvement in recent times. Therefore, the US may have assigned Japan to look after its interests in South Asia - the region that has attracted much attention in a post-Cold War world.

Japan's posture towards the US-led war against Iraq has also weakened Tokyo's humanitarian motivations in post-conflict peace building. The Koizumi government has been supportive towards a US attack on Iraq. There is a heated debate in Japan about how Tokyo must contribute in the event of war. The possibility of Japan's military contribution is still to be seen, but Japan will undoubtedly take a leading role in post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation in Iraq. Therefore, some ask, "What is best for a peace-loving nation to do; to prevent a war from happening, or rebuild it after destruction?"

In Sri Lanka, Japan's involvement has also been received differently. While the ruling political party has extended gratitude to Tokyo, the opposition has been critical, saying that Japanese financial support has been biased towards Tamil rebels. In their opinion, Japanese aid will strengthen the military capabilities of the Tamil Tigers and enhance their separatist motives.

However, what is clear is that the Sri Lankan conflict has undoubtedly arrived at a critical juncture. There was a time when Sri Lanka was forgotten by the rest of the world, despite its devastating war and grave human rights violations.

It is only now that the international community has shown some interest in the island's conflict. Ending the decades-long war is a task that the parties involved in the talks have to undertake. Third parties can only help. Therefore, it is the responsibility of both the government and the Tamil rebels to use this opportunity to achieve lasting peace.

Sisira Edirippulige, PhD in political studies, University of Auckland, currently a lecturer at Kobe Gakuin University, Kobe, Japan, teaching international politics. He is currently working on a book on Sri Lankan peace process.


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