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Sri Lanka's Uncertain Future

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 27, 2006

    Sri Lanka, which seemed all set to move towards peace and ethnic reconciliation, teeters on the brink of a grim crisis today. In an almost incredible turn of events, the forces of peace and progressive change appear exhausted and there is a sharp rise in tensions and uncertainty. The nagging feeling is growing externally and among the Sri Lankan liberal intelligentsia that yet another round of ethnic confrontation may break out soon. If this happens, it would put the island nation onto the path of an uncertain future.

    The much acclaimed and hoped for peace process began with the February 2002 cease-fire, which created an overwhelming desire for peace among Sri Lanka's long-suffering people. External actors, particularly Norway, have played an important role in building the peace process in Sri Lanka so far. Besides, India and the international community's support have also added strength to the peace process and helped in sustaining peace. The current peace process is the most effective confidence building measure so far between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government in the almost two decade-long search for a solution to the island's protracted crisis. However, several developments and trends have led to the present dangerous conjuncture in Sri Lanka. Among them are: the recent killing of the Sri Lankan Army's Deputy Chief of Army, Maj. Gen. Parami Kulatunga; a powerful claymore explosion in north-central Anuradhapura district that killed sixty-four civilians and the consequent deterrent strike by the Sri Lankan security forces on Sampur and Mullaitivu; the failure of the proposed meeting between representatives of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE at Oslo; and increasing violence in the eastern province. In addition, the functioning of non-LTTE entities, with the alleged support of the Sri Lankan government, has led to growing uncertainty in the northeast.

    The continuing ethnic hostility between the Sinhalese and the Tamils over the last five decades continues to threaten all efforts for peace and social harmony in Sri Lanka. Clearly, the armed conflict since 1983 has proved socially destabilising, militarily crippling and economically ruinous for the island nation. Large-scale displacement, along with the crumbling of the economy, the social fabric and culture has weakened the Sri Lankan state. The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an NGO, estimates that the approximate cost of the war is a staggering 2,451 billion Sri Lankan rupees, in addition to the approximately 65,000 people killed and about 1.2 million displaced. Yet, there are no positive signs that Sri Lanka is on the road to lasting peace and economic progress.

    The only way to arrest this deterioration is to seek a negotiated peace. If the government and the LTTE genuinely opt for peaceful negotiations, there is every chance that a worthwhile agreement, short of separation, could result. Norway is already engaged in preparatory work for further negotiations, in spite of the failure of the Oslo talks and the EU ban. But it has to be seen as to how the government and the Tigers utilise the mediation, in view of the lack of mutual trust and the LTTE's growing suspicions over the role of some EU members as ceasefire monitors. However, the general expectation is that the talks should resume without delay.

    In this regard, unless there is a constructive transformation of attitudes and approaches between the major protagonists, durable peace will remain elusive. Past events have demonstrated that the parties that can play a crucial role in resolving the conflict are the UNFA government, the UNP opposition and the LTTE. The political parties, especially SLFP and UNP, have to work unitedly to achieve a consensus political solution to the ethnic problem, but unfortunately have not yet been able to agree on a particular solution. Likewise, the government has to deal firmly with the Sinhala hardliners like the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), irrespective of its political alliance and support.

    While the Tigers may have the strength and stamina to continue the struggle, the ordinary people, especially in the northeast, have reached breaking point. Hence, the LTTE has to ensure that it adheres to the ceasefire agreement. Moreover, it has to show its commitment to the peace process in finding an amicable solution, while keeping the aspirations of Tamils in mind.

    Nevertheless, the big question centres on what President Mahinda Rajapakse proposes to do regarding the resolution of the ethnic crisis? Considering the past realities, the question arises whether the Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapakse is really interested in finding a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict. It remains to be seen whether the strong backing of the international community would push the government and the Sinhalese to enter into talks with the LTTE. Whatever be the government policy on the Tamil's question, concrete action on the ground is necessary to pursue the desired peace goals. Certain vital decisions have to be taken by both the parties. First and foremost, the government has to come out with its decision on the LTTE's proposal of Interim-Self Governing Administration (ISGA). Secondly, the LTTE has to decide whether to stick to its earlier ISGA proposal or to abandon or dilute it. Thirdly, President Rajapakse has to decide whether to disregard the Sinhala hardliners or seek to satisfy them.

    Whichever course the parties choose, one thing is certain. The phase of hope and change inaugurated in the stalled peace process is 'now past' and Sri Lanka has entered a contentious phase. If political polarisation accelerates and the ethnic conflict gets aggravated, Sri Lanka will plunge deeper into turmoil and strife.