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Comment
Last Updated: 09/20/2004
Peace Process in Sri-Lanka Stalls
Ravi R Prasad

No war, no peace. This is how one can describe the current situation in the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka. The hostilities between the government troops and the armed separatist guerrillas ended in February 2002 with a Norwegian brokered cease-fire, but peace remains elusive.

Neither are there bloody clashes between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), nor is there any positive engagement between the government and the rebels towards finding a negotiated political solution to end the 20-year-long ethnic conflict, which has claimed some 70,000 lives so far.

The talks between the two protagonists ended over a year ago with the LTTE accusing the government of undermining its position and not providing the much needed relief and solving the existential problems of the minority Tamil community living in the war-ravaged north and east of the island.

Amidst growing mistrust between the two stakeholders, efforts to revive the talks have failed. The LTTE is threatening to go back to the battlefield to achieve its goal of carving out a separate state in the north and east for the Tamil community, which is some 17 per cent of Sri Lanka s population of 19.5 million.

The government and the LTTE are accusing each other of violating the cease-fire. The Norwegian special envoy to Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, shuttling between Oslo, Colombo and the northern Kilinochchi town, the headquarters of the LTTE, has not be able to break the ice.

In June this year (2004)  Solheim visited the LTTE leaders in the northern Wanni mainland to explore the possibility of restarting the peace talks. He returned without any concrete assurance from the Tigers. Instead, the Tigers told him that the cease-fire and the peace talks were in danger.

The political wing leader of the guerrillas, S. P. Tamilselvam, told Solheim that the future of the cease-fire and the peace talks was in the hands of the government. He said that government s support to renegade LTTE leader Karuna could jeopardize the peace process. Clearly it was a message from his master, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the elusive head of the LTTE, that now Karuna s issue takes precedence over existential problems and humanitarian issues.

The guerrillas want  the government to stop sheltering Karuna. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has already denied LTTE s allegation that the armed forces were helping Karuna, but the Tigers insist that they have evidence to prove their claim.

The mistrust between the two sides has been mounting and has reached a new height with the split in the LTTE and the suicide bombing in the capital.  The Tigers believe that the split was engineered by the government, while the government suspects the guerrillas commitment to the peace efforts.

On July 7, a woman suicide bomber detonated herself inside a police station adjoining the Prime Minister s official residence, killing four police personnel. The suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber was intercepted minutes before she could meet the agriculture marketing minister and leader of the Eelam People s Democratic Party, Douglas Devananda, in his office.

Devananda, a Tamil leader and vociferous adversary of the LTTE, has survived nearly half-a-dozen assassination attempts. The Tigers consider him a traitor. Devananda is once again on the top of their hit-list as he is openly supporting Karuna, the LTTE s special commander in the east, who rebelled against Velupillai Prabhakaran, the dreaded, elusive leader of the Tamil Tigers holed up in the northern jungles.

 

The bombing broke the fragile peace in the country. It was the first suicide attack after the government and the separatist guerrillas signed a Norwegian brokered cease-fire agreement in February 2002. The suicide attack violated the agreement in letter and spirit. The government protested through the Norwegian interlocutors, only to receive a denial from the LTTE. The rebels condemned the attack and claimed that this was carried out by elements that opposed the peace process and wanted to discredit the LTTE.

The LTTE s claim was disregarded by all. The US government issued a statement urging the Tamil Tigers to refrain from violence, while stating that the bombing bore all the hallmarks of the rebels.

The Tamil Tiger rebels have never claimed responsibility for any suicide bombing, though they honour their suicide bombers and pay homage to them on 25 June every year. According to the LTTE, some 260-suicide cadres have killed themselves so far. There is no other organization in Sri Lanka that has successfully brainwashed its cadres to blow themselves up or chew cyanide capsules when faced with an adverse situation.

The Sri Lankan government condemned the attack, but chose not to be hard towards the LTTE as the peace efforts are under a heavy strain. The government is keen on salvaging the peace process. The administration feared that accusing the LTTE could drive the rebels further away from the negotiating table.

The split in the LTTE has complicated the situation and made revival of peace efforts even more arduous. Karuna s revolt not only exposed the fissures within the LTTE, it also belied the claim of the Tigers that they were the sole representative of the Tamil community.

The LTTE has been trying hard to convince the international community that it is the only organization that can negotiate on behalf of the Tamil community. When all other Tamil militant groups laid down their weapons in 1987 and joined the political mainstream, the LTTE continued with the armed struggle.

Indeed, it was the military might of the LTTE, its success in attacking strategic targets and crippling the economy that brought the government to its knees. Major reverses in the battlefield, mounting casualty and a war crippled economy forced the government to seek the Norwegian intervention for negotiations with the guerrillas.

Karuna claimed in an interview with the BBC and other radio stations that Prabhakaran had given him a weapons shopping list to be passed on to KP or Kumar Pathmanathan, the head of LTTE s international arms procurement division. Karuna said he was given the list when he went to Thailand for the peace talks.

The split in the LTTE, the suicide bombing and Karuna s allegations have delivered a bow to the peace process. In fact, the government would is now faced much more opposition in starting the peace talks. The situation has provided enough ammunition to the hard line elements in the majority Sinhala community who are opposed to any kind of negotiations with the LTTE.

The Tigers want the administration of the north and east to be handed over to them until a long term political solution of the ethnic conflict is found. As such the LTTE has runs a parallel government in that region with its own police and judiciary and even a penal code.

The acceptance of the interim administration by the government and the international community would only confer legitimacy to the Tigers administrative set up and also rule out the involvement of other Tamil parties opposed to the LTTE in the affairs of the region. The Tigers would become the sole rulers of the north and east solely by the power of the bullet and not the ballot.

The Janatha Vimukti Perumuna (JVP), a crucial left-wing partner in the ruling coalition that was responsible for two armed insurgencies in the last two decades, has told its senior partner in the government coalition that it would not accept the LTTE s demand for an interim administration in the north and east. The JVP and other parties, including the powerful Buddhist clergy, claim that handing over the interim administration to the Tigers would lead to cessation and formation of Tamil Eelam, which the LTTE ultimately wants.

For the government to meet the Tigers at the negotiating table, it has to convince the majority community and the hard liners that it would not buckle under pressure and handover the north and east on a platter to the guerrillas. On the other hand, the government also has to convince the LTTE that it means business and would not use the peace talks as an effort to prolong no-war situation.   

 

Ravi R. Prasad is a South Asia Analyst based in Colombo. He has written on South Asia, Europe and Balkans. He can be contacted at ravirp@hotmail.com


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