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Sri Lanka: between peace and war

About the author
Alan Keenan is a visiting scholar at the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, University of Pennsylvania.

The return to war in Sri Lanka makes it essential that the international community helps create a new peace process from the ashes of the old, writes Alan Keenan.

Sri Lanka has returned to a state of war, albeit as yet undeclared. The 25 April attack in Colombo by a female Tamil Tiger suicide-bomber – which badly wounded the Sri Lankan army commander, killed a dozen soldiers, and wounded many others – ratified with a jolt what many had begun to fear: that the four-year old ceasefire had run its course. When the Sri Lankan military responded with two days of bombing of Tiger positions in the northeast of the island – killing or wounding dozens, at least some of them civilians, and displacing thousands – it seemed full-scale warfare might be imminent.

After a brief respite from serious incidents, the attack on 11 May off the northeast coast by LTTE gunboats on a Sri Lankan navy ship carrying more than 700 unarmed troops threatened further disaster. The troop-carrier, apparently with some help from the Indian navy, managed to escape into international waters, though at least one Sri Lankan navy vessel was destroyed (as well, it seems, as at least one LTTE craft). The Sri Lankan air force retaliated with another round of bombing of LTTE positions. The LTTE attack triggered universal condemnation from the international community, including the Scandinavian-staffed ceasefire monitoring mission, one of whose monitors was onboard the targeted troop-carrier.

Overall, more than 250 people have been killed in various forms of political violence over the last six weeks: daily mine and grenade attacks by the LTTE on Sri Lankan troops stationed in the north and east of the island; retaliatory killings by the military, often targeting Tamil civilians and politicians seen as sympathetic to the Tigers; back-and-forth attacks between the LTTE and forces loyal to the former Tiger eastern military commander Colonel Karuna, with support from the Sri Lankan military; and abductions and disappearances from all sides.

The peace process that began in December 2001 and led to the ceasefire agreement of February 2002 seems well and truly dead. Only a new process, built on different foundations, has any chance of eventually bringing sustainable peace to Sri Lanka.


Alan Keenan is a visiting scholar at the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Democracy in Question: Democratic Openness in a Time of Political Closure (Stanford University Press, 2003)
Also by Alan Keenan in openDemocracy:
"Sri Lanka’s election choice"
(17 November 2005)

The Karuna factor

The Sri Lankan peace process has, from its beginning, been a violent affair, especially in the areas in the north and the east that the Tamil Tigers either control or lay claim to as part of their Tamil homeland, Tamil Eelam. Soon after signing the ceasefire agreement, the Tigers took advantage of the access it granted them to government-controlled areas and proceeded to forcibly recruit thousands of children, murder hundreds of their Tamil political rivals, intimidate the Tamil-speaking Muslim minority in the eastern province, and generally clamp down on all forms of independent political activity. Despite the literally thousands of violations recorded by the ceasefire monitors, the Tigers were able with impunity to continue their violent quest for complete political domination of the north and east.

Political violence began to grow more complicated, and ultimately much worse, after Colonel Karuna broke with the Tigers in March 2004. Karuna was soon defeated in a three-day military campaign by the main northern faction of the LTTE, but escaped with many of his fighters and gradually regrouped. With the increasingly obvious support of the Sri Lankan military, Karuna's forces have established camps in or on the edges of government-controlled territory, from which they have been able to launch sporadic but effective attacks on the Tigers. All the main sides – the Tigers, the government and Karuna's men – protest their innocence of political killings, but the UN's special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, Philip Alston, has documented these in an incisive and devastating report dated 27 March 2006.

The LTTE's assassination in August 2005 of Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar – himself a Tamil but one of the fiercest and most effective critics of the Tigers – was in part meant as payback for the government's support of Karuna. Perhaps intentionally, it also had the effect of strengthening the hardline Sinhalese parties that had been arguing that the Tigers could not be trusted and that the peace process was merely the latest means by which the Tigers were working to establish their separate state.

The road back

These sentiments, together with an LTTE-imposed boycott on Tamil voters, led to the election in November 2005 of President Mahinda Rajapakse. Running on a platform critical of the ceasefire agreement and the Norwegian role in facilitating the peace process, Rajapakse also promised to defend the "unitary" state against proposals for a federal solution to the conflict that would grant significant autonomy to the predominantly Tamil north and east.

Soon after Rajapakse's election, the Tigers began their first frontal attacks on the Sri Lankan military in the form of repeated claymore mine and grenade attacks. Nearly a hundred soldiers were killed in December and January alone. It was at this point, too, that the military began to sanction a range of retaliatory attacks on the LTTE and those seen as their supporters and operatives, sometimes acting with the assistance of former members of various Tamil militant groups now opposed to the Tigers.

After the government and the LTTE, both under intense international pressure, agreed to meet for talks in Geneva, political violence came to a temporary halt in late January and February. The cautious hopes of progress were further raised when the mid-February meetings produced an agreement by both sides to respect the ceasefire and prevent attacks on the other side.

But when it became apparent to the Tigers that the government was not, as they had hoped, committed to disarming Karuna's fighters (the Geneva agreement is itself ambiguous on this point), the Tiger assaults on Sri Lankan troops resumed. Today, both sides profess a desire to return to Geneva for more talks, though the Tigers have repeatedly placed obstacles to their return, apparently not convinced that there is much to be gained from talking.

The Tigers clearly intend their current wave of violence to raise the cost to the government and military of their support for Karuna. The attacks on government troops also seem designed to provoke the military and their supporters in Sinhala supremacist groups to lash out at Tamil civilians, thus solidifying Tamil support and lending credence to Tiger claims that Tamils can only be safe with their own state.

Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan military seems content to play according to the Tiger script. The past few months have seen rising numbers of political killings that have almost certainly been carried out by the military or their Tamil operatives. Most shocking was the violence unleashed in April against Tamil civilians in the multi-ethnic northeastern town of Trincomalee.

There, after a deadly Tiger bomb blast in a Sinhala market area on 12 April, the military and police stood by and watched as truckloads of Sinhalese thugs and nationalist hooligans were brought in to rampage through Tamil sections of town. It was only a call from the Indian prime minister to President Rajapakse that finally got the Sri Lankan security forces to halt the violence. In the end, thirty-five people lay dead, scores of Tamil shops and houses had been burnt out, and hundreds had been displaced. The dreadful ghosts of the anti-Tamil violence in July 1983, which was directly responsible for turning Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict into a war, were reawakened (see the Human Rights Watch report, and another independent report).

For much of the peace process, as the Tigers acted against their opponents and their "own" people with impunity, the fundamental challenge has seemed to be how to influence them to moderate their predatory and anti-democratic practices. So far, several initiatives have been tried without success:

  • the $4.5 billion in reconstruction aid promised by international donors to be shared between the government and Tigers should they be able to make progress towards a negotiated settlement
  • the many forms of "constructive engagement" whereby the international community sought to train the Tigers in more peaceful and liberal ways
  • more recently, the increased sanctions on the Tigers – the ban on travel to the European Union imposed after the assassination of Kadirgamar, or the recent decision by Canada to ban the Tigers as a terrorist group. The Sri Lankan government is now calling for additional countries to ban the Tigers and to help disrupt their lucrative international financial networks.

The way forward

The paradox that recent events suggests, however, is that effective pressure on the Tigers is possible only if and when the international community first steps in and demands that the Colombo government respect the basic rights of its Tamil citizens. This will require the government to rein in its death squads and actively prevent reprisal attacks on Tamil civilians. Such attacks, by conflating all Tamils with Tigers, effectively do the Tigers' work for them. Justice, and pragmatism, will also require the government to abandon their attachment to the "unitary" state and to develop a package of constitutional reforms that will offer Tamils real rights and an effective share in power. The rights of Tamils can no longer be held hostage to the Tigers' quest for power.

Pressuring the government to enact such reforms will amount to a fundamental shift in how the road to peace in Sri Lanka has been conceptualised. It means abandoning the idea that peace will come from a sequence of confidence-building measures limited to, and working within the comfort zone of, the government and the LTTE. It requires, instead, challenging the government to begin its long-overdue transformation in more plural and democratic ways, even as it is clear that this isn't what the Tigers themselves want. This in turn requires that the government and their international donors engage constituencies well beyond the Tigers: that is, the many Muslim, non-Tiger Tamil, and Sinhalese points of view that have been largely excluded from the failed peace process of 2002-2006.

All this amounts to the need for a new peace process – not the mere resuscitation of the old one, which is now (at best) on life-support. Sadly, due to the combination of militarism and failure of imagination of its political elites on all sides, Sri Lanka may well be forced to go through a period of devastation before a refashioned peace process becomes possible. In the meantime, international actors of all sorts must start making the paradigm shift necessary for a new peace to be possible, even as they pressure the two sides to minimise the cost of fighting on the hundreds of thousands of civilians who will be caught in the middle.

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