Sri Lanka: Ethnic Conflict and A Fragile Peace Process

Ravi R. Prasad
September 30, 2004

“We have gone 75 per cent of the way... the Tigers are not willing to come the other 25 per cent and We are still hoping to persuade them to come … All I can say is that there is movement forward.” In an exclusive interview with this author, Sri Lanka’s President Chandrika Kumaratunga has showed optimism for lasting peace in dotted lines when her party came to power in April this year. Almost five months have passed since, but the proverbial ‘lasting peace’ remains elusive.

The hostilities between the government troops and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas ended in February 2002 with a Norwegian brokered ceasefire. Though there are no bloody clashes, there is no positive engagement between the government and the rebels towards finding a negotiated political solution to end the 20-year-long ethnic conflict. Unfortunately, the talks have 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 miserably failed. The government and the LTTE are accusing each other of violating the cease-fire. The Norwegian special envoy to Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim has been shuttling between Oslo, Colombo and the northern Kilinochchi town, the headquarters of the LTTE without any headway.

Earlier this month, 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. S. P. Tamilselvam, political wing leader of LTTE, told Solheim that the future of the cease-fire and the peace talks was in the hands of the government and emphasized that government’s support to renegade LTTE leader Karuna could jeopardize the peace process. Clearly it was a message from Prabhakaran, the head of the LTTE, that now Karuna issue takes precedence over existential problems and humanitarian issues. The tigers too had withdrawn from the ground level meetings they had with the Security Forces, accusing the Army of harbouring their breakaway leader Karuna and his supporters.

While President Kumaratunga has already denied the allegation, the Tigers insist that they have evidence to prove their claim. The mistrust between the two sides has been mounting and has plumbed new depths with the split in the LTTE and the suicide bombing in the capital. The Tigers believe that the government engineered the split, while the government suspects the guerrilla's commitment to the peace efforts. Nevertheless, Karuna’s revolt not only exposed the fissures within the LTTE, but it also belied the claim of the Tigers that they were the sole representatives of the Tamil community. The last nail in the coffin came on July 7, when a suicide attack was foiled and the bomber exploded inside a police station that killed four police personnel. This was targeted to kill the Agriculture Minister Douglas Devananda, a supporter of Karuna. It was the first suicide attack since February 2002. Eventually, it broke the fragile peace in the country by violating 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. This time, the government preferred a rather soft approach as the peace efforts are already under a heavy strain. The administration feared that accusing the LTTE could drive the rebels further away from the negotiating table.

Most recently, the internecine fight between LTTE cadres and Karuna faction again gained momentum after the killing of the brother of Karuna along with other three aides at the Illuppadichchenai area in Batticaloa district on September 23. The LTTE has claimed responsibility for the killing. The supporters of Karuna pledged to avenge the killings and to continue the ‘eastern resistance’.

For now, the government is facing 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. For the government to meet the Tigers at the negotiating table, it has to convince the majority community and the hardliners 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 the no-war situation.

Author Note
Ravi R. Prasad is a South Asia Analyst based in Colombo.