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Crouching Tigers: pursuing elusive peace in Sri Lanka.

Long-standing conflict in Sri Lanka has claimed over 60,000 lives since 1983. Rebels from the Tamil minority demand substantial political autonomy for the primarily Tamil northern and eastern regions, creating tension with the Sinhalese-dominated government forces. In late 2007, Sri Lanka's military pushed into rebel-occupied territories, dealing multiple blows to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The army has recorded other recent victories, including clearing eastern territories on rebel-controlled islands, sinking rebel military supply ships, and killing the Tigers' long-time political representative and media liaison, Suppayya Paramu Thamilselvan, in an air strike. Many within Sri Lanka's government now conclude that the LTTE will soon be eliminated, perhaps in less than one year. Unfortunately, these predictions may prove to be unrealistic. The 25 year-old insurgency will not evaporate without a settlement on constitutional federalism that current strategies are not on track to produce.

The ethnic basis of Sri Lanka's civil war was largely an invention of the British colonial regime. The British created a arbitrary division that has been exploited over time for various ends. After the British left in 1972, governmental power was transferred from the minority Tamil-speakers to the majority Sinhala-speakers, exacerbating an "ethnic" conflict that was based primarily on language. A governmental imbalance of power now remains.

The government is currently headed by the hardline, anti-LTTE Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and his coalition of the United People's Freedom Alliance. Meanwhile, the Tamil National Alliance Party, a coalition of Tamil political parties, garnered less than 7 percent of the vote in the most recent parliamentary elections. This imbalance, combined with "ethnic" animosity, has led to authoritarian discrimination policies such as the Emergency Regulations of 2005. These measures have been used to detain journalists and political opposition, stigmatize human rights advocates as "LTTE sympathizers," and extrajudicially abduct suspected members of the LTTE's civilian-support network.

Yet, the Sri Lankan military believes, somewhat short-shortsightedly, that it has reached a turning point in the conflict. This bravado ignores realities of the situation. The Sri Lankan army has fewer mobile troops at its disposal than it did a few months ago when retaking eastern territories, since troops are now being used to secure the region. Moreover, the LTTE's northern positions, such as the Tigers' recently reinforced defensive structures within the Vanni region, are much more strongly fortified than were their eastern territories. The government's political support is also crumbling in urban areas, particularly the capital city Colombo, due to rising inflation and a worsening economy. If the military employs the same brutal counter-insurgency tactics in the north as it has done elsewhere, the Tamil population will be further alienated--possibly invigorating a greater insurgent backlash.

While the government of Sri Lanka may be misplacing its hopes in military action, the international community has similarly misplaced hopes in the peace talks brokered by Norwegian mediators. Despite a 2002 ceasefire agreement, continued violence and human rights abuses have rendered such negotiations largely ineffective. Indeed, brutal tactics are now commonplace on both sides of the battlefield. Rebels assassinate moderate leaders, enlist combatants for suicide bombings, and recruit child soldiers. Government forces summarily execute suspected rebels.

The new ceasefire talks mediated by outsiders may still be suffering the consequences of past mistakes. Sri Lankans, particularly the Sinhalese, viewed the Norwegian mediators as biased and partial. The international community underestimated the impact this error would have on the Sinhalese psyche. Specifically, the collapse of the 2002 ceasefire--primarily due to the LTTE's continued aggresion--has generated an intense backlash from the Sinhalese population. In order to distance themselves from the embarrassment of the bitter failure, many politicians have adopted more nationalistic positions that preclude any attempts at compromise. This has only decreased the likelihood that a renewed peace process through mediation will be successful.


Pursuing a resolution through military action will only produce more deaths, but pursuing peace through flawed processes will produce greater mistrust. A constitutional settlement under a realistic timetable is thus the only viable long-term peace prospect. This process would devolve more power to the provincial level, giving the Tamil population greater self-determination in local matters while maintaining the integrity of the unitary state.

Few actors are pushing for such compromises, and those that are, such as the Sri Lankan negotiation group known as the All-Party Representative Committee, risk being ignored. The immediate course of action of the Sri Lankan government should be to assure the Tamil population of its good faith and capability. This will necessitate outside help to secure the eastern territories humanely and professionally. Such aid may come from India, which, due to shared geography, culture, and history, maintains the closest relations to Sri Lanka and is the best candidate for foreign mediation.

If Indian forces are to prevail, they must avoid perceptions of one-sidedness. This is what undermined the Norwegian mediation and could undermine future negotiations as well. Here, international actors such as the United States or United Nations could provide legitimacy by supplying human rights monitors for the contested Sri Lankan territories. But the Sri Lankan government must first take the initiative to push for a meaningful constitutional settlement. As this internal conflict continues to take innocent lives, the government is realizing that military dominance cannot substitute for governance. It must now look beyond "ethnic" differences toward collective peace.

staff writer

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Title Annotation:ASIA PACIFIC
Author:Galster, Collin
Publication:Harvard International Review
Geographic Code:9SRIL
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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