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A Last Chance For Peace in Sri Lanka

by Rohini Hensman

[Published earlier in The Island, 21 January 2005]

On 25 December 2004, Sri Lanka was on the verge of a disaster. Not a natural disaster, but a man-made one. War fever in the LTTE-controlled areas of the North and East, which had been whipped up from Prabakaran's Heroes Day speech on 26 November onwards, reached a peak on Christmas Day. There were clear indications from the LTTE leadership that it was about to end the ceasefire agreement and resume the decades-long civil war which is estimated to have killed over 60,000 and displaced more than one-and-a-half million. Most people in Sri Lanka viewed such a prospect with apprehension, even despair, but thought there was no power on earth which could avert it.

They were wrong, of course. The tsunami of 26 December killed over 30,000 in Sri Lanka and displaced around a million, but it also averted the immediate threat of war. It is not an underestimation of the tragedy of this disaster but merely a recognition of the even greater tragedy of the war to say that victims of the former are lucky by comparison with victims of the latter. Sinhalese, Muslim, and above all Tamil refugees in camps in 1990, especially in the North and East, were subjected to deprivation, fear, and all too often violence. Tamil refugees in the East lived in daily terror of the Armed Forces, and with good reason: gross abuses of human rights which were taking place all around them reached into the refugee camps too, mocking their status as places of refuge. Hostility between communities was the norm rather than the exception.

By contrast, the tsunami disaster brought to the fore the traditional Sri Lankan culture of kindness and generosity, warmth and love. The BBC reported that Buddhist monks and Sinhalese villagers from Polonnaruwa District going to the LTTE-controlled Vaharai area with truckloads of food and urgent relief were received warmly by the local LTTE commander and cadres. Trincomalee's Tamil National Alliance MP, Mr Sampanthan, was quoted by the Asian Tribune as saying," Not only the government but even the Sinhalese people are rushing to help us". The Colombo-based Tamil paper Thinakkural reported a moving example of Sinhalese compassion on December 30: 50 trucks loaded with rice, sugar and cooked food arrived from Uhana, Amparai, Kandy, Mahiyanga and Polonnaruwa with relief for the Tamil coastal villages north of Kalmunai. Owing to bridges and roads being damaged, some villages were inaccessible by truck, so these Sinhalese donors carried relief supplies on their heads and shoulders for distances of up to five miles to reach them. Saddest of all was the story witnessed by a toddy tapper in Trincomalee from his perch up in a coconut tree. He saw a navy man braving the flood to rescue two children, then saw all three swept away by the second wave. Later, the corpse of a naval man clutching that of a child he was trying to save was recovered, his shoelace caught in a fence. Many witnesses reported members of the Sri Lankan armed forces putting aside their weapons and throwing themselves into the dangerous waters to rescue civilians, sometimes losing their lives in the effort.

What these incidents bear witness to is a transformation in the attitude of the government,armed forces and most Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka since 1994. Despite changes of government since then, the majority of Sinhalese people have voted for peace in every election. Hill-country Tamils who were disenfranchised and made stateless by the Citizenship Acts of 1948 and 1949 were granted citizenship. The rejection of Tamil as an official language in 1956, which resulted in injustice and discrimination against Tamil-speaking people, was reversed, with Tamil now being accepted as an official language. Sinhalese children in state schools are learning Tamil, an option that would have been unthinkable earlier. Violence against Tamils by the armed forces, which was encouraged by previous governments, has been reined in. While Sinhala nationalism is still very much alive, even among some elements who are in the UPFA government, it no longer has legitimacy or majority support. Some of the grievances of Tamils which led to the civil war have been addressed, and a climate exists where others can be addressed too.

Paradoxically, the hundreds of Tamils who have been killed since the current ceasefire began have been killed by Tamils. Hunting down and killing Tamils who criticise them or attempt to organize independently was and is the main way in which the LTTE has established itself as the åsole representativeÇ of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Internal dissension has been dealt with in the same way, so that when the Eastern leader Karuna articulated the grievances of Eastern Tamils in March 2004, he was expelled and only escaped death by going underground. The consequent war between Eastern and Northern LTTE forces resulted in child conscripts on both sides being killed. When Karuna was defeated, children in the Eastern LTTE armed forces were released, only to be subjected once again to forced conscription by the Northern forces. The so-called peace process did not bring peace to the North and East, and the drift towards total war continued.

In this context, it is almost as if the ocean said, "You foolish people! For thousands of years I brought settlers to your beautiful island, from India, East and Southeast Asia, Arabia, Europe and Africa. In the past, you accepted my gifts gratefully, and every one of them made your culture richer. But recently you have been throwing them back in my face, trying to create sterile Sinhala and Tamil states that never existed in the past. So you were planning to send your children to kill each other again, were you? In that case, you don't deserve to have them! Let me take them -- they will sleep more peacefully in my arms."

The behaviour of the LTTE since the tsunami gives us a good idea what Eelam is all about. While members of the government visited the tsunami-affected people of the North and East despite security risks (President Chandrika Kumaratunga had lost an eye and almost lost her life in an LTTE assassination attempt), Prabakaran was conspicuous by his absence. His insistence that all aid to LTTE-controlled areas should be given to the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) which they control, even while they prevented refugees from leaving uncleared areas and compelled others to move into them, demonstrates that his primary objective is to rebuild his war machine and reassert control over the Tamil people of the North and East. Canadian intelligence reports and Karuna agree on one thing: funds donated to the TRO have been used to buy arms. And people whose lives depend on LTTE handouts will not be able to protest against the forcible conscription of their children, which Human Rights Watch and UNICEF have reported is taking place in the LTTE-controlled refugee camps--a despicable example of thugs preying on tsunami-stricken people.

Prabakaran's lack of concern for the suffering and loss of life caused by the tsunami is no surprise, given his routine infliction of death and suffering on the people of the North and East at other times. But his cowardly preoccupation with personal security at a time when decisive leadership was required is more puzzling. Apparently every other Tamil must be ready to sacrifice his or her life for Eelam, but not he. This only makes sense if Prabakaran IS Eelam, and Eelam is Prabakaran. The trajectory of the LTTE becomes clear in the light of this. They can justify the killing of Tamils working for the human rights and civil liberties of Tamils (like Rajani Thiranagama, Neelan Thiruchelvam) by saying that they are not working for Eelam. But what about the killings of cadres of other militant groups working for Eelam, which has been taking place from 1986 onwards? What about the murder and attempted murder of some of Prabakaran's closest associates in the LTTE itself, like Mahatthaya, Kittu and Karuna? How can Eelam survive this systematic decimation unless it is identified solely with the LTTE, and the LTTE is identified with the absolute power of Prabakaran as an individual?

New possibilities for peace will not be realised unless there is rapid movement towards a permanent settlement of the residual issues which led to the civil war. An interim settlement may be as hard to achieve and would inevitably be fragile and short-lived; moreover, the only proposal currently on offer à the LTTE's Interim Self-Governing Authority -- has been described by TULF President V.Anandasangaree in an open letter to Prabakaran as one which "will not be accepted by anyone as a reasonable one. The Tamils themselves will not accept it; neither the Sinhalese nor the Muslims". Rather than wasting time negotiating an interim agreement which is acceptable to no one, not even Tamils, it would be better to go for a permanent settlement which is acceptable to the majority in all communities.

The first condition for a process that will lead to a permanent solution is that the fiction that the LTTE is the 'sole representative' of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, or of the people of the North and East, must be discarded. Firstly, it is patently untrue: the LTTE would not have killed thousands of Tamils if it truly represented them. But secondly, the whole notion of 'sole representation' is that of a totalitarian dictatorship. In a democracy, even a government elected by free and fair elections cannot claim to be sole representative of the electorate, because there will always be electoral minorities -- hence the importance of an opposition. Those who support the LTTE's claim should therefore be aware that implicitly they support the killings that must be carried out to silence all opposition. Thirdly, the North and East are not ethnically homogeneous. They have a Muslim population which has been subjected to massacres and ethnic cleansing by the LTTE, and the idea that they should be represented by those who have massacred and ethnically cleansed them is bizarre indeed. There is also a Sinhalese minority, and ignoring the need for their protection plays rght into the hands of Sinhala nationalists in the South. The LTTE represents neither all the Tamils of Sri Lanka nor all the people of the North and East; negotiations towards a permanent settlement must include opposition parties and civil society groups in all parts of the island.

The most critical requirement for a durable peace is that the government must play a proactive role rather than passively allowing the situation to drift yet again towards war. They should present their proposals for a settlement which combines regional autonomy with protection for the human rights and civil liberties of all people in all parts of Sri Lanka, and invite other political parties and civil society groups to propose amendments or concrete alternatives. All these proposals should be publicised and discussed as widely as possible in all three languages in all parts of the island: a democratic solution can only emerge from a democratic process. And while this process is going on, they can take other other confidence-building measures, such as (1) ensuring that all government offices, police stations, army posts, etc., have people who speak and understand Tamil, and other measures to concretise the parity of Tamil; (2) passing and implementing comprehensive non-discrimination and equal opportunities legislation; and (3) signing and ratifying the Rome Treaty of the International Criminal Court, which would bind themselves and all future governments to avoid the crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated against Tamil people in the past. It is important to emphasise that none of this -- for example, recognising representatives of the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the people of the North and East other than the LTTE, or negotiating a new Constitution with them -- is precluded by the Cease-fire Agreement, and therefore cannot be interpreted by anyone as a violation of it.

Legal obstacles to the enactment of constitutional changes, even if these changes have overwhelming support from all communities, require creative thinking if they are to be overcome. What is the rationale for the two-thirds majority requirement? Under the first-past-the-post system, if there are three or more parties contesting an election, a party can form a government with one-third of the votes or less. It therefore makes sense to stipulate that a two-thirds majority is required to change the Constitution, since this is the only guarantee that a majority of the electorate supports such a change. With Proportional Representation, however, a simple majority in parliament guarantees the support of the majority of the electorate. The drawback of putting constitutional changes to the vote in parliament in the present situation is that it effectively disenfranchises the people of the North and East, since reports, by the European Union and Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, of massive electoral violence and fraud in the North and East during the last elections suggests that most MPs from this region do not represent the people. A preferable option is to call on the UN to conduct a free and fair referendum (including a period of campaigning where campaigners will be protected from assassination) once a Constitution which appears to have majority support from all communities has been drafted. This will also give legitimacy to the results, and make them easier to implement.

It is crucially important that these measures should be supported internationally. While some international organisations, foreign governments and foreign reporters (e.g. Human Rights Watch, Annieke Kranenberg of Volkskrant) have produced excellent reports on the basis of serious investigation, others, perhaps ignorant of the background to the conflict and influenced by a racist assumption that Sri Lankans are not 'ready' for democracy, have supported the LTTE's totalitarian claims. Their support facilitates the transfer of funds to the LTTE-controlled TRO, and makes them accomplices in the war crimes (targetting of civilians, child conscription and use of children in combat) of the LTTE. The role of the Norwegian government is especially reprehensible. Their assistance to Prabakaran's hardline faction in the war to crush the faction headed by Karuna, who was more amenable to peace, casts doubt on their impartiality, commitment to peace and concern for the human rights of Tamils. These people must do their homework and understand that the conflict originated in the denial of human and democratic rights to Tamils in Sri Lanka. A separate state where everyone's human rights are respected might have made sense in a context where Sri Lanka was ruled by a dictatorship that violated these rights; but a separate state where no one's rights are respected in a context where it is possible to work for recognition of everyone's rights in Sri Lanka as a whole makes no sense at all.

A section of Sinhalese liberals, including some who call themselves socialists and feminists, also bolster the LTTE's claim to be 'sole representative' of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Of course they would hit the ceiling if anyone suggested that they themselves were adequately represented by Sinhalese politicians in the government and therefore should be silenced or killed; yet they provide passive support to such measures being taken against their Tamil counterparts. It is hard to explain these double standards, which are also demonstrated by their hue and cry over election irregularities in Sinhala-majority areas but total silence about the same irregularities in Tamil-majority areas. Perhaps they are evidence of deep-seated, unconscious Sinhala chauvinism. Unless these people recognise that Tamils are entitled to the same human and democratic rights as they demand for themselves, there will not be sufficient support for permanent peace in Sri Lanka.

As V.Anandasangaree, who has amply demonstrated his integrity and determination to fight for the rights of Tamils even at the risk of his life, says in his open letter to Prabakaran, "Everyone in this country is keen on finding a solution to the ethnic problem. I am personally of the opinion that this is the best time for it." The tsunami has given us a last chance for peace. If we fail to grasp it, we really do deserve to be swallowed up by the ocean!

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