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Frontier brokers, political settlements and post-war politics in Nepal and Sri Lanka

26 August 2022

In post-war politics, individuals with the connections and motivation to bring different groups together help to shape political settlements. Here, we bring you a guest blog from Jonathan Goodhand and Oliver Walton on post-war frontier brokers.

Political settlements analysis has been increasingly deployed to better understand and respond to post-war transitions, with its focus on how political coalitions and the distribution of power across society can shape post-war orders.

Our article on post-war politics in Nepal and Sri Lanka builds on this work but draws attention to two factors that are underplayed:

  1. The centrality of frontier regions in shaping post-war orders.
  2. The role of ‘frontier brokers’ who mediate and negotiate between actors and groups at the national and local levels of the political system.

The lives of frontier brokers help illuminate radical shifts or moments of rupture in political settlements and the changing relationship between national and subnational politics in post-war transitions. Studying brokers helps us to understand the role of human agency in political settlements and how and why settlements change over time.

Sri Lanka and Nepal both experienced long-running conflicts ending in 2009 and 2006 respectively. In both countries frontier regions were important incubators of grievances, where state rule was violently contested. In Nepal, a legitimacy crisis at the centre opened space for negotiating a more inclusive political settlement between the Maoists and mainstream political parties. In Sri Lanka, war ended partly because of the fragmentation and subsequent defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by a nationalist government that relied mostly on support from the majority Sinhalese community, resulting in an exclusive, Sinhala-dominated political settlement.

The careers of two frontier brokers – Pillayan (Sri Lanka) and Tula Narayan Shah (Nepal) – show how individuals can play a role in shaping and responding to unfolding post-war political settlements. These two figures are very different – Pillayan is a coercive broker who used muscle and intelligence to help the state pacify an unruly post-war frontier. Tula is a public intellectual and media voice who generally preferred to keep a safe distance from politics.

Pillayan – From paramilitary leader to politician

Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (known as Pillayan) from Sri Lanka is a former LTTE cadre, and paramilitary leader turned politician. He joined the LTTE at 15 and rose to prominence as the deputy of Colonel Karuna Amman, the Eastern commander of the LTTE. He eventually assumed the leadership of the new political party of the Karuna faction, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).

After the war ended, the Sri Lankan government needed coercive brokers like Pillayan who could navigate the formerly LTTE-controlled areas in the East. He brought disparate Tamil groups together with the promise of development in the East to consolidate the emerging political settlement.

However, Pillayan’s power rapidly drained away, particularly after the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the dominant Tamil political party, returned to contest elections in 2010. Pillayan had limited political networks to draw on and couldn’t compete with the more deeply embedded political network and ideological force of the TNA.

After the government was defeated in the 2015 election, Pillayan’s fall from grace accelerated and he was jailed in connection with the murder of a TNA MP in 2005. The continued success of his party even while he was in prison, however, demonstrated his enduring skills as an organizer. As one interviewee said in 2017:

‘Pillayan was more rooted than Karuna and he really worked with people…people still support him…When he was Chief Minister he tried to understand people’s needs. Karuna didn’t have this kind of character’.

In 2020, he was elected MP for Batticaloa District and a year later acquitted and released from prison.

Tula – Bridging gaps as a public intellectual

Tula Narayan Shah is a Madhesi from the Tarai region of Nepal, a region that borders India and has been economically and politically marginalized by the ruling elite in Kathmandu. Tula’s career has been varied. He was the National Students Union President for his college whilst a student in Kathmandu and during the war he worked as a journalist. In the post-war period, Tula became a prominent public intellectual and media voice talking about Madhesi interests and making recommendations to the government. This was less part of a conscious strategy than a series of reactions to what emerged in a volatile post-war context.

Later, Tula surprised many by joining a leading Madhesi-based party. As Tula explained, ‘at this time I came to the realization that social transformation via NGOs is not easy. It is more effective to set the agenda through a political party’. However, after a year Tula resigned. He was disappointed by the posts he was offered and the limited commitment to his goals. He seemed to have less influence on politicians than had been the case when he was an activist and felt increasingly side-lined.

For Tula, much of his initial influence was built around a research and advocacy NGO he established in the aftermath of the Madhesi uprising of 2007. Through his NGO role, Tula positioned himself between mainstream parties, constituencies in the Tarai, and international donors, bridging the gap between Madhesi communities and political elites. His work helped shape the emerging political settlement and contributed to the federal constitution established in 2015.

However, he found it difficult to occupy this space for long, partly because he lacked the resources and clout needed to assert himself in an increasingly competitive and fragmented post-war political landscape. Tula’s legitimacy was based on keeping a distance from established parties and the violence of some Madhesi groups, while avoiding being typecast as dependent on international funders.

The importance of brokers

The scope for brokers to influence or shape political settlements expands during moments of rupture, such as the signing of a peace agreement, a military victory, or the emergence of new movements such as the Madhesi uprising. These moments of change are partly caused by, and partly signify, shifts in the political settlement that create new coalitions and alliances and new openings for brokerage. Successful brokers continually adapt to shifting conditions. ‘Invited spaces’ and ‘negotiated’ spaces provide different opportunities for brokerage to either reinforce or challenge marginality.

Post-war development and peacebuilding policies need to recognize the roles played by brokers as mediators and translators in post-war reconstruction and peacebuilding programmes. Those supporting these policies need to do so in ways that support brokers who can amplify the political voice of frontier communities and help support the emergence of more inclusive and stable political settlements.

You can read the open access article this blog is based on, ‘Fixes and Flux: Frontier Brokers, Political Settlements and Post-War Politics in Nepal and Sri Lanka’ by Jonathan Goodhand and Oliver Walton, in The Journal of Development Studies.

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