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Finding The Road To Peace In Sri Lanka


“The idea that government should be brought closer to the people has also been opposed by Sinhala nationalists, who cannot reconcile themselves to the idea that people in provinces where the majority are Tamil-speaking should control government powers over the police and land. This is why they insist on an authoritarian unitary state, where the central government would be able to wield these powers throughout the country. Their argument that devolution of power to the provincial level would lead to the triumph of separatism is contradicted by historical experience, which shows, on the contrary, that excessive concentration of power in a mono-ethnic centre leads to separatism in a multi-ethnic country.”
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by Rohini Hensman

(July 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) For the overwhelming majority of people in Sri Lanka, the civil war has been a disaster. Those in the war zones of the North and East have been worst affected, suffering death, displacement, and destruction of their livelihoods. But the lives of many in other parts of the country have been devastated too. Numerous soldiers as well as civilians have been killed and maimed; their families have suffered bereavement and loss of breadwinners. Terrorist attacks create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, because anyone could be a victim of the next one. Government efforts to fund the war by printing money has led to hyperinflation far worse than that occurring in other Asian countries affected by spiralling oil prices; foreign borrowings are creating a debt trap.

Finally, precious democratic rights and freedoms are under attack, not only in areas dominated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), where they were destroyed long ago, but also in government-controlled areas. A symptom of this is the numerous assaults on journalists whose only crime is that they have tried to report the truth. This is not just a denial of the journalists’ right to freedom of expression, but also a denial of the public’s right to information about issues that are of vital importance to them; both are indispensable pillars of democracy.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that all but a tiny minority are sick and tired of the war, ready to do or endure anything to end it. Why, then, has it not been ended so far? One major reason is that there is so much confusion about the question of HOW to end it. The other is that the war enables a small oligarchy to monopolise power, and they have no interest in ending it because their power might be curtailed if that happens.

Negotiations with the LTTE

One road that appeared to promise peace was a ceasefire and negotiations with the Tigers. The longest journey down this road followed the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) of 2002, but there were other attempts earlier. Why did they all fail?

A dispassionate look at the evidence leads us to conclude that the primary reason was that the LTTE under Prabakaran DOES NOT WANT a democratic settlement of the conflict. He is not willing to settle for anything less than a separate, exclusively Tamil state under his totalitarian control. This is why he has used every ceasefire – above all the last one – to prepare for war and eliminate Tamil critics and opponents. He even tried to kill his own lieutenant Karuna Amman when the latter expressed doubts about the goal of Tamil Eelam, thus driving him out along with the bulk of the LTTE’s Eastern cadre.

The logical conclusion is that negotiations with the LTTE cannot, by themselves, bring peace. No one should foster illusions that they can, because that makes disillusionment and the turn to war all the more extreme when the talks break down. That does not mean there should never be negotiations with the Tigers; but in future, any ceasefire agreement leading to talks should be accompanied by a human rights agreement monitored by an independent party, preferably the UN. If that had been the case in 2002, hundreds of Tamil critics of the LTTE would not have lost their lives, and thousands of children would not have been conscripted. Even if and when the war broke out again, it would not have been possible for either side to attack civilians with impunity, as they have been doing. Without this condition, a ceasefire and peace talks could actually prolong the war, by decimating the peace constituency among Tamils and by allowing both sides to rearm.

A Military Solution

When negotiations with the LTTE turned out to be a dead end, various governments backtracked and pursued what appeared to be another path to peace: a military victory over the LTTE. That is the current situation, and there have been similar attempts before. In all cases in the past, they failed to end the war by defeating the LTTE. The same thing seems to be happening today. The government victory in the East was a result of the split in the LTTE and the defection of the breakaway Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). But now a stalemate seems to have been reached, with neither the government nor the LTTE making any headway.

A purely military strategy cannot possibly bring peace, because the war is a result of long-standing and absolutely justifiable grievances among Tamils, who have suffered discrimination, persecution and violence in Sri Lanka for decades. Like pus oozing from an infected wound, the LTTE is a product of those grievances. The organisation was formed in 1976, and had only 30 members – 7 of them part-timers – by July 1983. If it has grown to be a formidable military and terrorist outfit, it is thanks to the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983 and the subsequent violence against Tamils, which have fed its recruiting and fund-raising drives. To try to defeat it without a political settlement providing justice to Tamils is like trying to mop up the pus without healing the infected wound. The process could go on for ever. Like negotiations with the LTTE, this road leads to a dead end.

Again, this doesn’t mean that military action by the state should be ruled out in all circumstances. But where it becomes necessary, it should be carried out strictly in accordance with international law, taking all precautions to avoid civilian casualties and harm to non-combatants. Otherwise it, too, will end up prolonging the war by stirring up Sinhala extremism and helping to send recruits and supporters into the arms of the LTTE.

The Third Alternative

If neither peace talks with the LTTE nor a military offensive to wipe it out can end the war, what is the alternative? The third road to peace is a political solution which protects the human and democratic rights of all members of all communities in all parts of the island, and it has hardly been explored. Such a solution, if accepted, would convince the overwhelming majority of Tamils that they would have a far brighter future in a united democratic Sri Lanka than in a fascist Tamil Eelam. Support for the LTTE would vanish rapidly, leaving only fanatical hardliners who would not be able to hold out for long.

The key requirement of a political solution that satisfies all communities is that it should be democratic through and through. This means, first and foremost, abolishing the Executive Presidency, which negates the rule of the people by concentrating dictatorial power in the hands of one person. The attempt to curtail the powers of the president by passing the 17th Amendment failed because, ironically, the president has the power to override it. It is therefore clear that there is no point trying to tinker with the system: the Executive Presidency has to go. Secondly, all the rights that have been taken away from the people should be restored, starting with the right to life. Thirdly, the principle of equal rights for all, special privileges for none, should be adhered to. And lastly, government should be brought closer to the people.

It is the third requirement that seems to cause most problems. On the one hand, Sinhala nationalists feel that Sinhalese Buddhists should have special privileges, while everyone else should only be allowed to live in Sri Lanka on sufferance, or, perhaps, be driven out altogether. Tamil nationalists feel the same about the territory they claim as their own: Tamils should have special privileges in the Northeast, while non-Tamils should only be allowed to live there on sufferance, or be driven out altogether, like the Muslims and Sinhalese of the North. A democratic political solution must ensure that all people in all parts of the island have equal rights, including the right to communicate with the state in their own language.

The idea that government should be brought closer to the people has also been opposed by Sinhala nationalists, who cannot reconcile themselves to the idea that people in provinces where the majority are Tamil-speaking should control government powers over the police and land. This is why they insist on an authoritarian unitary state, where the central government would be able to wield these powers throughout the country. Their argument that devolution of power to the provincial level would lead to the triumph of separatism is contradicted by historical experience, which shows, on the contrary, that excessive concentration of power in a mono-ethnic centre leads to separatism in a multi-ethnic country. Their unitary formula also deprives people from poorer provinces with a Sinhala-speaking majority from controlling their own lives and resources.

A new, democratic constitution would, if implemented, not only lead to the end of the war but also empower the vast majority of people of all communities. The most serious move in this direction occurred from 1995 to 2000, during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency. It was scuttled largely due to the intransigence of the opposition United National Party (UNP), although the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leadership was also to blame for failing to pursue it with sufficient persistence, and for putting too much emphasis on negotiations with the LTTE. Under the Rajapakse presidency, hopes for a political solution were revived by the creation of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), charged with the mission of working out such a solution, and at first, those hopes appeared to be justified. The talks were incomparably more inclusive than previous talks between the government and LTTE, and a proposal that would satisfy the democratic majority of all communities was well on the way to being crafted.

Yet in a bizarre twist, the ruling party and president put one obstacle after another in the way of the APRC process, finally consigning the whole exercise to the dustbin when the president proclaimed that a ‘solution’ would have to be found within the present constitution: a constitution that has not only been a major cause of the war, but has also been responsible for a conflict in which tens of thousands of Sinhalese were killed by Sinhalese! The UNP, which could have put the president and his party on the spot by proclaiming their support for the APRC process, instead helped to sabotage it. It looks less and less likely that a political solution can emerge during the term of the present government, but that does not change the fact that there is no other way of healing the wound that exudes war and terrorism. This is therefore a road that leads to peace, unlike the dead-ends of a purely military solution and peace talks with the LTTE.

Eliminating Obstacles on the Road to Peace

Having identified the road to peace, the next task is to eliminate the obstacles blocking the way to our destination. One is undoubtedly the LTTE, and we have already said that the best way to remove this obstacle is to propose a political solution that drains away its support base. The other obstacle is the government. The experience of the last sixty years tells us that the two parties which have been in power during this period are not capable of the task. Both have pandered to totalitarian Sinhala nationalism, and the SLFP, whose human rights record was not as bad as that of the UNP, is catching up rapidly. In other words, their commitment to democracy is very much in doubt.

Yet various parties representing minority communities have gravitated towards one or the other, or to one at one time and the other at another time. It is understandable that the leaders of parties which are being targeted by the LTTE might want the security of being protected by the state, but supporting a corrupt and brutal Sinhala chauvinist government in order to obtain a share in the spoils, as the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and TMVP have been doing, is surely a betrayal of their constituency.

If minority parties can be criticized for supporting parties following undemocratic Sinhala nationalist agendas, it is even more condemnable that Left parties have done the same. It is a supreme irony that today, ‘the Left’ and ‘Marxists’ in Sri Lanka have been identified with the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), whose ‘Leftism’ is drowned out by its Sinhala nationalism. But there is a very good reason why this has happened: the JVP has retained its independence and separate identity, whereas the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) have submerged their identities in various Popular Fronts with the SLFP, even at times when it has had a rabidly Sinhala nationalist agenda. Some of the smaller breakaway Left parties, on the other hand, have in the past been in favour of appeasing the LTTE, in the mistaken belief that it was fighting for self-determination for Tamils.

Pandering to Sinhala nationalism on one side and Tamil nationalism on the other, Left parties have lost their support amongst working people of all communities. Rebuilding that support would entail asserting their independence in no uncertain terms. Having a separate May Day rally was an encouraging gesture, but it needs to be followed up with much stronger action, above all dissociation from a government which was condemned by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other prominent human rights defenders for horrific crimes against its own civilian population, and consequently lost its seat on the UN Human Rights Council. At the same time, Left parties need to make it clear that they do not support the LTTE, but stand for a just and democratic political solution to the civil war. If they do this, they could form a pole of attraction for progressive minority parties, and rally the overwhelming majority of working people behind them. Together, they could constitute a force capable of sweeping aside the biggest obstacle on the road to peace, and replacing it with a government genuinely committed to human rights and democracy.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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