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by Prof. Asoka Bandarage

(Text of a Talk given at the Conference of the National Advisory Council on South Asian Affairs, The Cosmos Club, Washington D.C. in May 2004)

Mass discontent with the handling of the peace process led to the defeat of the UNP (United National Party) led government in Sri Lanka at the snap elections held on April 2 this year. Appeasement of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), the partiality of the Norwegian facilitators towards the LTTE and the threats to the country's sovereignty were some of the reasons for the opposition to the UNP. The current SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) led government came into power promising to make substantial changes in the peace negotiations. It promised to make the peace process inclusive and transparent and to fine-tune the role of the facilitator.  

Since the elections, however, the Sri Lankan political situation seems to be even more chaotic and fragile than it was previously. The SLFP led coalition does not have a clear majority of votes in the parliament. Like its predecessor, the UNP led coalition, the current government may become dependent on the votes of the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) for its political survival. As the TNA is a proxy of the LTTE, it allows the latter to exercise undue pressure on the ruling coalition. The new government has accepted the LTTE as 'the sole representative of Tamils'. It has also allowed the Norwegian facilitators to return and be involved in the affairs of the country, seemingly without new conditions and guidelines. 

The LTTE has warned that the war could resume if its conditions are not met. An LTTE spokesman has told Japan, the biggest donor, that all international aid to Sri Lanka must be stopped if the LTTE proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) in the North and the East of the island is not accepted. The LTTE has also made overtures to India asking for 'better understanding' from Congress Party leader, Sonia Gandhi. The ISGA proposal presented last year is a blue print for a separate state. It does not come within the framework of the cease fire which began in December 2001 and the MOU signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE in February 2002.  

During the course of the cease fire, the LTTE has been politically and militarily strengthened while the government of Sri Lanka has been weakened. The LTTE is said to have killed 44 intelligence operatives of the Sri Lankan government during this period. The LTTE has brought in illegal ship loads of weapons and built up its arms base, continued forcible recruitment of child soldiers, engaged in extortion, abductions, silencing and killing of political dissidents. Relatives of Tamil victims have attributed 38 political killings to the LTTE during the cease fire up to September 2003. These are documented, for example, in the recently published Report of the Human Rights Commission which is represented by legal experts from the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities.

The April 2004 elections in Sri Lanka were exceptionally peaceful, but, the elections in the Northern and Eastern Provinces dominated by the LTTE were ridden with violence and fraud. It is reported that even the head of the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) did not cast his vote due to threats on his life. There are several pending court cases calling for the annulment of the elections in the north and the east. Despite widespread intimidation, killings and rigging, the TNA got only 41.4% of the votes in the Eastern Province.

Not all Tamil political parties and organizations accept the LTTE as the 'sole representative of Tamils'. The emergence of a break-away LTTE organization in the Eastern Province, under the renegade leader Karuna, further challenges the LTTE's claim to sole representation. Apparently, a pamphlet being distributed in the Batticola-Ampara region in the East blames the 'autocratic and dictatorial tendencies' of the LTTE leader in the North for the killing of LTTE cadres in the East in the on-going battle between the two factions. The pamphlet warns the public to refrain from upholding the LTTE leader Prabahkaran as the 'Tamil national leader'.        
The discontent is not limited to dissident Tamils. Muslims, especially those in the East who have suffered human rights violations under the LTTE may get drawn into violence and may intensify demand for a separate administrative unit of their own in the East. The Sinhalese who hold 50% of the land in the East have also experienced massive human rights violations and ethnic cleansing. Neither the Muslims nor the Sinhalese, who, together constitute over two thirds of the population in the contentious Eastern Province, have representation in the peace process, as it is currently conceived. There is a growing concern among the majority population that successive Sri Lankan governments' dependence on minority electoral blocs has led to the neglect of Sinhala Buddhist rights throughout the country. This concern was reflected in the loss of votes by both the UNP and the SLFP at the last elections and the massive expansion of the electoral strength of the leftist JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) and the emergence of the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya).

The JVP, a member of the ruling coalition government, opposed the MOU, the ISGA proposal of the LTTE and Norwegian facilitation of the peace process. Perhaps, even more importantly, the JVP promised to attend to the much neglected economic concerns of the masses. The JHU came into being just one week prior to the April elections as the first-ever party of Buddhist monks and it brought nine saffron-robed monks into the Parliament. The JHU represents a desperate move on the part of Buddhists who have felt marginalized by the peace process, the international NGOs and widespread Christian evangelical conversions to bring attention to their survival.

Violence and threats to peace are on the increase in Sri Lanka. Fighting between the LTTE northern and eastern wings and skirmishes between Tamils and Muslims continue in the Eastern Province. In addition, there have been disturbances in the plantation areas in the Central Province recently. If opportunistic Tamil and Sinhala politicians are allowed to mobilize discontent along ethnic lines, there could be massive upheavals in that region in the future. Large caches of arms have been found in the capital, Colombo, and the Norwegian ambassador's residence was stone-pelted during the Norwegian independence celebrations recently. Unless, the underlying grievances of all communities are addressed, new forms of political extremism are likely to emerge aggravating the already unstable political situation.

Practically everyone in Sri Lanka desires peace and wants the cease fire to hold. There is a consensus that the solution does not lie in a return to armed conflict. There is also a common understanding that it is necessary to work with the LTTE in order to avert war. Yet, at the same time, the vast majority of people in the country, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims do not want appeasement of terrorism in the name of peace. They want a sustainable peace, a peace that upholds human rights, political pluralism and democracy.  

The United States has maintained a consistent policy condemning LTTE human rights violations and upholding the ban on the LTTE as an international terrorist organization. Recently, the United States also called the LTTE to give up arms. The new government in India has also taken a firm stand to continue the proscription of the LTTE. Pressure must also be put on the LTTE by other members of the international donor community, Japan, Europe and Australia, to respect democratic norms, human rights and political and cultural pluralism. Sri Lanka stands to lose not only her sovereignty but her heritage of ethnic pluralism and democracy. If a mono-ethnic, totalitarian regime is installed in the north and the east and if Sri Lanka descends into anarchy and becomes another 'failed state', the loss will not be hers alone. It will have significant regional and international repercussions.
(Asoka Bandarage, (Yale, Ph.D.) is a professor of Asian Studies at Mount Holyoke College and Visiting Scholar at the Elliott School for International Affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of Colonialism in Sri Lanka (Mouton) and many other publication on Sri Lanka and global peace and development. She is currently writing a book on the conflict and the peace process in Sri Lanka.) 

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