Walton, Oliver and Saravanamuttu, Pakiasothy (2011) In the balance? Civil society and the peace process 2002-2008. In: Conflict and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka. Caught in the Peace Trap. Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series (38). Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, pp. 183-200. ISBN 978-0-415-46604-2
As Sri Lanka slid back towards open hostilities in 2006, existing patterns of civil society engagement in peace negotiations came under widespread criticism on the grounds that they had failed to broaden participation and that they had largely excluded civil society organisations (CSOs) that were critical of peace efforts. As peace talks broke down, the need to move beyond a ‘charmed circle’ of Colombo-based peace NGOs and to engage with a ‘broader civil society’ became a perennial refrain from funding agencies. This period was also marked by an increasingly visible confrontation between pro-peace civil society and patriotic nationalist groups mobilising against peace negotiations and international engagement expressed through growing attacks on NGOs in the media and at a number of public events.
This chapter explores this complex predicament facing civil society as Sri Lanka returned to war. First, it presents a brief summary of donors’ engagements with civil society during the ceasefire period and describes how the nature and scope of civil society peace work was shaped by the shifting political context. Second, it contrasts donor-backed peace efforts with the more robust campaigns of nationalist civil society groups after 2005. Third, it examines how the changing political climate impacted upon civil society peacebuilding efforts focusing in particular on the way in which pro-peace civil society actors managed the increasingly critical impressions of their work stemming from the domestic political arena.
Drawing these strands together, the chapter concludes by reflecting on the collective timidity of civil society actors during the ceasefire period and argues that this was an outcome of two interconnecting sets of factors. On the one hand, civil society’s capacity to contribute to political transformation was constrained by its historical relations with the state. These patterns of interaction drove the dynamic relationship between two conflicting civil society arenas – patriotic groups fed off weaknesses in pro-peace civil society while the position of peace groups was further undermined by the success of these nationalist organizations. On the other hand, the approaches to peacebuilding pursued by donors during the ceasefire period encouraged a growing depoliticization and technicalization of civil society peace work which privileged a consensual rather than a politically engaged role for civil society actors. This analysis sees civil society organisations as confronted with a fundamental tension between a cosmopolitan view of politics that saw political change as the outcome of processes of governance reform prompted by extra-governmental actors and a local perception of politics that viewed political progress as a product of changes in government and debates conducted in an arena inhabited exclusively by political parties. Civil society’s efforts to build peace during the ceasefire period involved a perpetual balancing act between asserting liberal models of bottom-up change and reconciling these with an increasingly predominant and countervailing domestic vision of politics.
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