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When Bob Rae worked for peace in Sri Lanka

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It was weird hearing Conservative MPs, during the debate on C-38, attacking Bob Rae for the so-called social contract of his 1990s NDP government.

That was the measure by which the Rae government tried to reduce its spending on the public service without lay-offs.

Instead of the kind of massive downsizing of the current Harper and the Chrétien-Martin governments, Rae imposed unpaid days off on public sector workers - Rae Days - rather than engaging in lay-offs.

Rae Days were not very popular, but may not look so bad in retrospect, especially compared to the alternatives.

At any rate, when Harper Conservatives jump on the still-Interim Liberal Leader for having been "tough on unions" there is an Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass feel to it.

On the other side, on the progressive side, many have never forgiven Bob Rae for the social contract. You just don't unilaterally break collective agreements, they say, especially when you are the party of labour.

They may have a point.

But it may come as a surprise to those folks that in other circumstances Bob Rae has been a skilled and effective conciliator.

A peace process ushered in by 9/11

About a decade ago, the Canadian government called on the Forum of Federations to get involved in the Sri Lankan peace negotiations. The Forum is an international network on federalism that the Canadian government launched in 1999.

There was real hope for a negotiated settlement in war-wracked Sri Lanka, a decade ago.

The events of September 11, 2001 and world reaction to them had a chastening effect on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE). That group had invented the art of suicide bombing, but realized they would find scant sympathy on the world stage for that sort of thing after the shock of 9/11.

At the same time, Sri Lankans had elected a moderate, non-nationalist, government that was intent on ending the costly conflict, and had the support of the business community.

The moderate government's Achilles Heel was its doctrinaire commitment to neo-conservative economic policies (heartily encouraged by the World Bank), which ultimately caused it to lose power to socialists who were also, sadly, strident Sinhalese nationalists.

All of that is another story.

Back in 2002 -2003 the Sinhalese majority government was actively and, it seems, sincerely, negotiating with the LTTE, meeting in such neutral venues as Thailand, Japan and Norway.
The Norwegians were brokering the whole process and had called on Canada to assist in developing an ultimate political solution.

The Norwegian and Canadian view was that some sort of federal system would, at one and the same time, satisfy the Tamil demand for self-government and the Sinhalese insistence that the country not be dismembered.

A therapeutic role

The Canadian government had engaged the Forum to take the lead in this political consensus building activity. Bob Rae (at that point out of active politics) and the University of Toronto's David Cameron were key players in this effort.

As a member of the Forum's executive team, I had a small part in all of this, and I got to see Bob Rae in action at negotiating sessions at a resort a few hours from Bangkok and in Oslo. 

These negotiations were delicate and difficult situations. The stakes were very high (as subsequent tragic events proved) and one did not want to say the wrong thing.

For instance, while waiting for a recalcitrant and badly behaving elevator in the Oslo hotel where talks were being held, it probably was not too wise for me to blurt out: "Is this a terrorist elevator?"

Rae called on all of his patience and humour in the sessions he and David Cameron had with each negotiating team.

His and Cameron's role was to advise on federal-type political and constitutional options, but the discussions ranged far and wide.

The Sri Lankan government team seemed, at times, to need a sounding board for the multiple frustrations and distractions that cropped up. Rae's and Cameron's role could become almost therapeutic.

Speaking truth to both sides of an armed conflict

The LTTE negotiators were led by the late Anton Balasingham, who was living in exile in the London suburb of Croydon (hometown of Amy Winehouse and other British pop music luminaries). Balasingham was anxious that Rae and Cameron should understand fully the Tamil point of view.

He talked insistently and at great length about the long history of injustices that the Sinhalese majority had inflicted on the Tamil minority.

His people, Balasingham kept saying, would never accept a majoritarian, unitary state. The Sinhalese majority had proven it could not be trusted, Balasingham wanted Rae and Cameron to know, and the Tamils needed more than paper guarantees of their rights. They needed genuine institutional guarantees.

Everything the LTTE said made sense and was largely based on an accurate portrayal of the post colonial history of the island.

But Rae was painfully aware that there was another LTTE, a military LTTE based in the jungles of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

That other LTTE was led by a shadowy "supreme leader," Velupillai Prabhakaran. It recruited child soldiers, brutally punished dissenters, and abused the Muslim minority community in its midst.

Rae was not reluctant to remind Balasingham and his team that a peaceful settlement would mean the LTTE would have to accept political pluralism, minority rights, free elections and all the other trappings of democracy.

There would be no more "supreme leader" in military fatigues, he said, and power in the region now held by the LTTE would have to be shared and not confined to a small cadre of quasi-Maoist guerrillas.

Nobody flinched or resisted when Rae talked this way.

He had the capacity to wrap the necessarily tough message in pithy tales about how federal systems really work, based on his own considerable experience.

And Rae did not spare the other side either. 

He repeatedly reminded Sri Lankan government officials that adopting a federal system would entail according considerable autonomy and power to the constituent units (the states or provinces).

A federal Sri Lanka, he said, bluntly, would look very different from the then-current highly centralized Sri Lankan model.

It all came to naught, in the end.

Balasingham died of cancer in London and the jungle-based LTTE people tried to exploit the peace process to gain military advantage.

At the same time, the governing moderates in Colombo shot themselves in the foot with harsh market-oriented "adjustment" policies that engendered unemployment and high prices for basic food stuffs.

The coalition of ultra-Sinhalese nationalists and socialists that replaced the moderates had only lukewarm commitment to the negotiations. Eventually, even they were supplanted by folks who had decided that they could win a final military showdown, however destructive that would be and whatever the cost in human suffering.

Both sides counted on the world community to be distracted by conflagrations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both perversely, but accurately, calculated that nobody would expend much effort to hold the two sides in the out-of-sight out-of-mind Sri Lankan conflict to account.

The result was a bloodbath and massive human rights abuses that continue to this day. And yet peace had seemed so near at hand ten years ago.

But the ultimate Sri Lankan debacle does not diminish the value of Bob Rae's and his colleagues' contribution.

One the day Rae has announced he no longer aspires to higher office than he now holds, it seems somehow fitting to remember that Sri Lankan adventure in peacemaking.

Bob Rae will be busy in the House until the Liberal Leadership Convention next April. After that, maybe he will find some occasion to use his highly sophisticated skills at sweet talking "terrorists" and militarized governments alike. It would be too bad if those skills were to go to waste.

One can only wish him, his wife Arlene, and his whole family, well.


Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.

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