Conflict and peace in Sri Lanka

Conflict and peace in Sri Lanka

It is not difficult to imagine Sri Lanka.

It is a tropical country – green rice fields interspaced with cancerous urban growth, the monsoon giving life to a parched earth twice a year, an agrarian way of life in the villages jostling with globalisation and Western market driven neo-liberalism in the cities.

It is an island, a small one at that. Surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is a mere 65,610km2 – dwarfed by India to our immediate North. A vital sea-trading post, Sri Lanka’s natural harbours made it attractive to sea-farers at the height of the colonisation of the East by Western powers. The Dutch, the Portugese and the British in turn colonised Sri Lanka, with British rule lasting the longest. Our language, music, infrastructure, politics, imagination and life are all coloured by this history of colonisation. Our cities are littered with buildings from the British, Portuguese and Dutch – some derelict, others such as the old Parliament building in Fort, Colombo (now housing a Ministry) standing as living monuments to our history as a colonised peoples.

Sri Lanka’s peoples are friendly – our smiles are always larger than our economic woes, our hospitality renowned for centuries, our cuisine a mix of flavourful spices that leave those unused to such a feast of taste reaching frequently for water to cool their burning tongues. As a tropical island, we don’t have seasonal variations of weather save for the monsoon. The year is quite simply divided into monsoon and draught, both intense in their fury to either rid the earth of all water or flood it with more than it can bear. The monsoon is generally welcomed more than the oppressive heat – that lasts from the end of March to around July. The topography of Sri Lanka is basically flat apart from the mountainous regions towards the centre, home to some of the best tea in the world and until recently, one of Sri Lanka’s primary exports. Sri Lanka has never seen snow, but the altitude offers a refreshing respite from the torpid heat of Colombo in the driest months, one reason why so many use the Sinhala and Tamil New Year falling in April (essentially, a harvest festival) to escape into the milder climate of the hill country.

Our economy is small – from primary exports (rubber, coconut and tea) we have now an agrarian sector that accounts for a large percentage of domestic agricultural produce, but exports now the domain of garments and service industries such as Business Process Outsourcing (BPOs) commonly known as “call-centres” or “off-shore data centres”. Tea remains an important export commodity, with the best produce destined for the global market as opposed to the local connoisseur. With no significant natural resources of any kind, save for an abundance of rivers, Sri Lanka imports everything from oil to paper – a primary reason for high inflation rates on essential consumer goods, such as fuel, gas and news print. The abundance of rivers makes hydro-electric power generation our primary source of electricity, though in recent times, energy demands have far outstripped production, leading to thermal power generation at huge cost to the country. Plans for coal power generation are continually shelved, like progress in general in Sri Lanka, on account of narrow political agendas that strangle development.

The people – communities caught in the cross-fire of partisan agendas of those in power – continue to suffer. Suffering and anxiety are in fact the cruel flipside to this hospitable and friendly country. It is everywhere – 25 years of violent secessionist conflict in the North and the East of Sri Lanka and a Marxist insurrection in the South have traumatized the majority of the population. Suicide bombings are literally written into the fabric of life even in Colombo. 65,000 deaths on account of the conflict, over 40,000 deaths on account of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka on Boxing Day 2004, thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and thousands of those who disappeared (largely on account of extra-judicial killings by the State) are cancerous wounds that refuse to heal in a country that is often described as a tourist heaven. Our pristine beaches and picturesque countryside often hide the ill-effects of the myopia of successive governments since our independence from the British in 1948.

Peace, after over 25 years of brutal conflict, remains elusive.

Geography and Demography

Sri Lanka is composed of half-a-dozen ethnic groups with diverse historical backgrounds, distinct languages and religion, and separate areas of settlement. A very high literacy (over 95% and one of the highest in South Asia) complements a relatively well developed State education and healthcare system.

The Sinhalese are the dominant community. They account for about 74 % of the country’s total population of around 20 million. They speak Sinhalese and a majority of them practice Theravada Buddhism. The Sri Lankan Tamils constitute about 12.6 % of the population and are seen as the early migrants from Southern India. They speak Tamil and majority of them are Hindus. The predominantly bi-lingual (Tamil and Sinhalese-speaking) Muslims are the third ethnic group (7.4 %) who are internally divided into three groups according to their historical backgrounds: the Sri Lankan Moors’ ancestors came from the migrational wave of Arab traders; the Malays are the descendants of East Asian traders; and the Indian Moors are the migrants from India. The Indian Tamils are the other ethnic group (5.5 %) who went to Sri Lanka in the late 19th century A.D. as indentured labour, to work in the British colonial government-managed tea plantations. Other ethnic groups (the Burghers and the Eurasians, descendents of inter-marriage with the Portuguese and the Dutch) are insignificant in number (many of them having left Sri Lanka after the Sinhala Only Language Act in 1956) and do not count as significant actors in the present ethnic conflict and politics of the island.

Of the 9 provinces in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese are in the majority in all but two – the North and the East. In the East, the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims each constitute 1/3 of the social make-up, while in the North, Tamils are in the clear majority. The Tamils have a long history of settlement in the North and East – the basis of their claims for a “traditional homeland”.

This claim is rejected by the State, the raison d’etre of the conflict.

A history of violence

Any concise history is caricature.

The difficulty of capturing concisely the complex social and political relations in Sri Lanka makes what follows, at best, a rough guide to some defining moments in Sri Lanka’s history.

1948, thus, is a year as good as any to begin – when we achieved independence from the British. British colonialism is often cited by many scholars to be the root cause of conflict. This however is simplistic, as it abdicates the responsibility of decisions made by our own governments that sowed the seeds of conflict in Sri Lanka. As they did throughout their empire, the British ruled Ceylon by creating English-speaking elite from amongst the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Their favouritism engendered an opposition which took racial and religious overtones. The majority of those who had been left out of the elite spoke Sinhalese and were Buddhists, and they began to promote a racist notion of Sinhalese superiority as an ‘Aryan race’. After independence it was this Sinhalese-speaking group that gained control of the new state of Sri Lanka, and began to exclude Tamils from higher education, jobs and land mainly by making Sinhala the only official language. Not surprisingly, Tamils resented this discrimination. As the anthropologist Stanley Tambiah has argued, the island’s violence is a late-twentieth-century response to colonial and postcolonial policies that relied on a hardened and artificial notion of ethnic boundaries .

The beginnings of terrorism in Sri Lanka are inextricably entwined with the activities of the State. In the 30 years from the mid-1940s, successive governments took measures to reduce the number of Tamils in the professions and the public sector. These measures interacted in diverse and complex ways with a potent Sinhala Buddhist exclusivism which gradually became the animating ideology of the Sri Lankan state. Particularly amongst the arriviste, lower caste Sinhalese, the spread of anti-Tamil chauvinism was soon perceived as a promising means of increasing economic opportunity. As time passed, the electoral promise of pandering to this chauvinism tempted even the most cosmopolitan of Sinhalese politicians.

Arguably, the most adverse legislation for Tamils came from the language policy of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike’s government. The introduction of the 1956 ‘Sinhala Only’ Act, which replaced English with Sinhala as the language of official government business, clearly disadvantaged large numbers of Tamils. Its effect was compounded by widespread protests in Tamil areas in which school principals would not allow the teaching of Sinhala while school children refused to study the language. This was the rise of Sinhala – Buddhist nationalism and the ideological precursors to the likes of the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP), Sihala Urumaya (SU) and Patriotic National Movement (PNM) – extremist political parties who espouse core principles – such as the a military solution to an ethnic question – that are inimical for reconciliation and conflict transformation in Sri Lanka.

The final straw for Tamils, however, was the introduction in the early 1970s of communal quotas for university entrance. This led to the exclusion of merit-worthy Tamil students and it was this that set the ethnic powder keg alight. With ‘standardisation’, it became clear that the Tamils had lost the education and employment opportunities which had conditioned their commitment to a unitary Ceylon in the first place. As Sunil Bastian notes “This constitution ended the dominion status of Sri Lanka. It created a political structure that ensured the superiority of the legislature. Framers of this constitution had little regard for minority demands. They removed the safeguards in the previous constitution, gave a pre-eminent position to Buddhism in addition to the Sinhala language and, most importantly, concentrated all power in the Sinhala-dominated legislature. The ethnic polarisation at this time was such that scant attention was given to any demand for regional autonomy.”

Large numbers of young Tamils came to the conclusion that their socio-economic aspirations could only be fulfilled within a separate Tamil state. The bloody terrorism that has ravaged Sri Lanka since 1983 is fuelled by the refusal of many Tamils to operate within a state system which denies them political power, employment and educational opportunities whilst engendering socio-economic disparity.

1983 was Sri Lanka’s annus horrbilis – our darkest hour. The islandwide pogrom against Tamils and State complicity in fuelling the actions of violent Sinhala mobs resulted in the death of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians. Many escaped the violence, never to return. Countries such as Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and France opened their doors to the influx of Tamils fleeing persecution and death in Sri Lanka. Many Sinhala families, appalled by the violence, gave refuge to Tamil neighbours – but these were isolated acts of kindness in a tsunami of violence.

1983 was also the year in which the secessionist conflict escalated several notches. By this time, many militant Tamil groups opined that the only way Tamils could be safe in Sri Lanka was by establishing a separate State in what they identified as their traditional homeland – the North and the East of Sri Lanka. And so the war began – for the next 25 years, it would eat into every sinew of life in Sri Lanka, result in the economic devastation of the country, the assassination of Presidents, senior politicians, intellectuals, thinkers, academics and artistes and countless thousands of ordinary citizens caught in the cross-currents of ethno-political violence.

The Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) is today the dominant secessionist guerrilla fighting force in Sri Lanka. Proscribed by many countries as terrorists, the LTTE are ruthless, brutal and highly efficient at eliminating permanently all opposition to its avowed ideals and goal of a separate state of Eelam in the North – East of Sri Lanka. The LTTE was not the only secessionist guerrilla force in the history of the war for Eelam, but through systematic elimination of rivals, they now address themselves as the sole representatives of the Tamil speaking peoples of the North and the East of Sri Lanka. Today, it runs a parallel government in many areas of the North and the East is directly controls or controls by proxy. It has extensive international linkages and has created a worldwide business empire. For example, the LTTE has extensive shipping interests that are used for the delivery of weapons to the LTTE in Sri Lanka. It has an effective publicity and propaganda program, which can rapidly mobilize political, economic, and financial support of many from the Tamil diaspora (willingly or through threats and intimidation ).

The LTTE is, in sum, a formidable force – in some ways stronger than the Sri Lankan State in its ability to mobilise a guerrilla or conventional army, collect taxes from communities in the North and the East and a history of terrorism coupled with on-going acts of intimidation and violence that bedevil efforts to bring it into peace talks and enter into a gradual process of democratisation.

The Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) insurrection
There have been two JVP led insurrections in Sri Lanka.

Apart from the secessionist war in the North and the East, these two insurrections (the second in particular) contributed much to a landscape of violence and trauma in the South. The inescapable and visceral nature of the violence was evidence of the brutality of the State, the JVP, the police and armed forces and their utter disregard for human rights.

In 1971, the JVP inspired by a Marxist ideology, organised its first insurrection. The armed insurgence aimed at overthrowing the leftist government of the United Front under the leadership of the SLFP through a “one-day revolution”. In 1987, the armed rebellion of the JVP was inspired by a nationalist Buddhist ideology. After the rebellion was brutally crushed in 1989, resulting in the death of Rohana Wijeweera, the Leader of the JVP at the time, the party entered the democratic political mainstream during the 1990s. In a series of elections held over the 90’s, the JVP soon became the ‘third force’ in Sri Lankan politics, a position that belies its significant power in making and breaking coalition governments and its continuing extremist nationalist ideology that stifles progress in the peace process.

The late 80s, the height of the insurrection, was a time of bloodshed and unbridled violence in the South. State armed forces and police justified vigilante justice by pointing to the violence of the JVP itself.

JVP supporters are largely drawn from the ranks of frustrated university graduates and unemployed youth from neglected rural regions, mainly in the South. Both rebellions of the JVP display its willingness armed struggle against what it identifies as elitist networks of the leading families who dominate mainstream politics and business in Sri Lanka. Results of recent elections evidence a shifting JVP vote base, from the rural poor to a new suburban middle-class. However as Asanga Welikala and David Rampton point out, “while the JVP and the JHU can be viewed as the most significant potential obstacles to the peace process and political reform, we must be wary of treating Sinhala nationalism as the sole domain of any political party. Nationalism in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, is far too diffuse and volatile for such an analysis.”

The point the authors try to make here is that while the JVP and similar parties oftentimes become the scapegoat for regressive extremist nationalism, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the two dominant political parties in Sri Lanka, can rightly be identified as having started the ethno-nationalist tendency in politics in the first place, in the initial decades just after Sri Lanka’s independence.

A violent Peace Process
Despite two previous attempts at a ceasefire in 1989 and 1994, the war dragged on until the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the Government and the LTTE in February 2002.

In 1999, the then President invited Norway to facilitate talks between the Government and the LTTE. Norway’s role over time has become one of a mediator, having established their good offices as an important player in the peace process. In the process, however, Norway’s style of mediation over time raised the ire political parties such as the JVP and even on occasion the very President who invited them to facilitate the process in the first place. While its clear that without Norway, the Government and the LTTE would not have been able to enter into a peace process and begin peace talks, it’s fairly obvious that a more holistic, less secretive and more inclusive process that served to annul the voice of extremism by greater participation of the masses would have served the peace process and Norway’s image better.

After the Ceasefire, the Government embarked on a number of confidence building measures intended to strengthen public support in the peace process and CFA. In and around Colombo and the rest of the south of the island they have removed many military checkpoints. Two key roads leading to the North (A9) and the East (A5) were opened after decades of closure on account of the war.

The North and the East of Sri Lanka, for so many a land further away and more alien that many countries outside of Sri Lanka’s border, were open for travel. The resulting influx of people from the South to the war torn regions, opened their eyes to the true devastation of the war and how markedly cocooned the rest of Sri Lanka was from the total destruction of property and infrastructure in the North and the East.

However, the peace process and the CFA, while achieving one intended aim of stopping all out war, is yet to deliver any meaningful and sustainable peace to Sri Lanka. After the LTTE unilaterally pulled out of peace talks in 2003, the process all but collapsed. The wretched politics in the South, forever combative and zero-sum, overtook the emphasis of the peace talks and instead concentrated on General Elections that resulted in a change of government and even further stasis.

This stasis led to the rise of opposition against the peace process, in the form of the JVP itself, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU – an extremist Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist political party formed by Buddhist monks, wholly opposed to Norwegian mediation and the peace process in general) and the Patriotic National Movement (PNM), to argue in support of a return to war and the simplicity associated with a clear enemy to fight. The lack of a tangible peace dividend, the increasing inflation and the continued assassinations (including that of the Foreign Minister) and grave ceasefire violations by the LTTE contributed to a mood of despair and hopelessness in the population at large regarding the peace process.

In the meanwhile, in early 2004, Colonel V. Muralitharan, alias Karuna, broke away from the LTTE thereby making even more complex the conflict dynamics in the North and the East. Now perceived widely to receive the patronage and protection of State armed forces, the Karuna faction has emerged as an important stakeholder in the peace process – largely on account of its usefulness in ascertaining and thus nullifying the LTTE’s subversive and terrorist strategies. At present, the Karuna faction remains powerful in the East, but it is unclear whether their effectiveness in thwarting LTTE operations would extend to the Jaffna peninsula as well in the possible resumption of war.

Politically, the electoral pacts with the extremist JVP and JHU seem to have seems to have paid rich dividends for the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. When entered to in the run-up to the Presidential Elections in November 2005, the pacts with the JVP and JHU were seen as mechanisms through which the President could guarantee the votes of the Sinhala Buddhist majority in the South. Coupled with the enforced boycott of voters in the North and East by the LTTE in the Presidential elections, these pacts ensured Mr. Rakapaksa victory even though there was a clear difference of opinion between the SLFP, which was in support of the Norwegian brokered CFA and peace process, and that of the JVP and JHU, which are opposed to Norwegian mediation and peace talks with the LTTE.

The negative influence of these two coalition partners was annulled by results of the Local Government elections in March 2006. The JVP and JHU contested independently, and also succeeded in getting a fraction of the votes the SLFP and the UNP were able to gather. The SLFP, with an indisputable majority, trounced the UNP and decimated the JVP and JVP, giving rise to speculation of new General Elections this year. While this remains unlikely, the President’s grip of power it at its zenith since his election late last year – unshackling him from the extremist Sinhala-Buddhist parochialism of the JVP and JHU and giving him free reign to carry on with the peace process as he sees fit.

The backdrop to the Local Government elections was the 1st round of negotiations between the newly elected government and the LTTE in February 2006. Called Ceasefire Talks instead of Peace Talks, held in Geneva, the meeting centred around the implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement signed in February 2002. In a surprise and controversial agreement at the end of the talk, the Government agreed to disarm all paramilitary groups in the North and the East of Sri Lanka before the 2nd Round of talks slated for late April 2006. To date, the abysmal progress made to implement this agreement raises the possibility of the non-participation of the LTTE at the second round of talks.

Prospects for a sustained peace talks is dimmed in light of the LTTE’s own insistence that the agreements entered to by the Government in February form the basis of their participation in future talks. This, coupled with differences between the GoSL and LTTE on issues of safe passage through Colombo for the peace talks, an increase in violence, the blowing up of a naval vessel by suspected LTTE terrorists resulting in deaths of 8 navy personnel and the continuing assassinations of political figures in the North and the East all contribute to what some journalists already speculate as the inevitability of war in the coming months.

This fear is reminiscent of that which the country experience towards the end of 2005, when many analysts foretold the onset of war early in 2006. At the time, Sri Lanka’s fragile No War / No Peace situation deteriorated into a Low Intensity Conflict. Obviously, numbers alone don’t capture adequately the crash of the stock market, the psychological impact of increased security in Colombo, the travel restrictions imposed on travel to the North and East by civilians and NGO / INGO workers and the palpable and dramatic shift away from peacebuilding to an emphasis on state security and re-armament of the security forces in readiness for an LTTE offensive.

Full circle
Coming full circle, the second round of peace talks to be held in Geneva in late April have not been put on hold on account of the severely deteriorating ground situation in the East of the country. The implementation of what was agreed to by the Government in the 1st round of peace talks in February 2006, also in Switzerland, remains suspect. Even though the President’s hand is stronger than ever, the pressure upon him to ensure the continuity of the peace talks is a challenge that all Sri Lankans hope he manages to overcome, for the sake of peace.

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