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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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  • Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict: have bombs shattered hopes for peace?
    Marshall R. Singer, Professor of International and Intercultural Affairs, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  
    Asian Survey Vol.36 No.11 Nov 1996 pp.1146-1155

Have Bombs Shattered Hopes for Peace?

In January 1995 peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were underway and a cessation of hostilities by both sides had been achieved. What was striking was that first in Israel, then in Northern Ireland, and finally in Sri Lanka it had suddenly become possible to negotiate peace with the enemy - a concept that had been unimaginable in all three regions a year or so before. But by February 1996 bombs had been detonated by extremists in all three countries, in part to ensure that moderate politicians would not be able to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace. The peace process in all three countries seemed to have begun to unravel; in Sri Lanka the bombings have had a devastating effect but it may still be possible to rescue the peace process there.(1)

The conflict raging in Sri Lanka is a long-simmering struggle between the island nation's two major ethnic groups: the majority, mostly Buddhist Sinhalese, and the minority, mostly Hindu Tamils. Dating the start of the struggle depends upon one's perspective. Some would argue it began in the 10th century with successive invasions by waves of South Indian Tamils, who drove the Sinhalese south into the Kandian hills in the center of the island and to the southern and western coasts. The so-called Sri Lanka Tamils have been in the northern and eastern regions ever since. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British brought more Tamils from South India to Ceylon to work first on the coffee, and later the tea estates, but these so-called "Estate Tamils" live almost exclusively in the Kandian hills, and until now have not been involved in the Tamil fight for independence.


Sri Lanka is a rare South Asian nation in that it was not born of an independence struggle. Once the British made the decision to leave India and Pakistan in 1947, they decided to leave Ceylon (in 1948) as well. Although some small leftist parties functioned on the island even before independence, the main party that united almost all Sinhalese and many Tamils was the United National Party (UNP). The Tamil community did have one small political party called the Tamil Congress, which had asked the British for a 50/50 split of power between Sinhalese and Tamils, but most Tamils in the earliest days supported the UNP. Today, many Sinhalese date the beginning of the modern conflict between the two ethnic groups with what they see as the arrogant demand of the Tamil Congress, with Tamils constituting less than 20% of the total population, to share power equally with the other 80%.

Once independence was granted, one of the first things the Sinhalese-dominated government did was to disenfranchise the Estate Tamils - who made up almost half of the Tamil population on the island at the time and who had lived there for generations - on the grounds that they were "Indians" and not really Ceylonese. Many Tamils date the beginning of the current ethnic conflict to that event. Obviously, India did not want to take back over a million poor Tamil estate workers, who would certainly be unemployed. However, through negotiations lasting many years, large numbers of the Estate Tamils did return to India while others managed to gain Sri Lankan citizenship. The disenfranchisement of the Estate Tamils in 1948-49 was certainly unnerving for the Ceylon Tamil population. Almost immediately the Federal Party came into existence among Tamils, demanding a federal system for Ceylon.

On the Sinhalese side, sentiments were hardening as well. In 1952 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike broke with the ruling UNP and started his own Sinhalese nationalist party called the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He promised to restore Buddhism to its proper place in society by making it the national religion, restore ayurvedic (local) medicine to its proper place, and most important, to make Sinhalese the only official language of the country. In 1956 Bandaranaike, with a coalition of parties he had formed, was swept into office on that platform.

One must note that from before independence until 1956, the Ceylonese elite - whether in the civil service, business, the professions, academia, or the press - were overwhelmingly Western-educated, English-speaking "gentlemen," whose ranks were heavily over-represented by Tamils and Christian Sinhalese. The Ceylon Tamils were resented by the average Sinhalese precisely because they were so well placed in society. And the average Sinhalese feared them.

The Sinhalese may have constituted the overwhelming majority of the population, but when they looked northeast across the Palk Strait, they saw 50 million Tamils in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu whom they perceived as potentially menacing. Bandaranaike promised to give Ceylon back to the Sinhalese masses, and they responded by supporting him. Rioting broke out in 1958, and several hundred Tamils were killed or injured by Sinhalese nationalists. This was also the year that Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk who felt that the prime minister was not moving fast enough to implement his Sinhalese Buddhist platform.

Ultimately, Bandaranaike's widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, took over the party and was elected the world's first woman prime minister in 1960. When she came to power again in 1970, the SLFP with a coalition of like-minded parties took control of two-thirds of the seats in Parliament; they amended the Constitution and changed the name of the country to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. After a scandal in which it was alleged that Tamil secondary school teachers were giving higher grades to Tamil children than to Sinhalese, Bandaranaike's coalition instituted an "ethnic preference program" in the educational system that would make it easier for Sinhalese (and more difficult for Tamils) to get into universities.

Shortly after the 1970 election, however, Bandaranaike was faced with an armed uprising of radical Sinhalese youth, many of whom had gone through the university studying in Sinhalese as their medium of instruction. When one creates 60,000 university graduates who speak only Sinhalese, one had also better create 60,000 jobs for university graduates who speak only Sinhalese. The government failed to do that. These radical youth were known by the English initials JVP, and they caught the government completely off guard. All political parties in Sri Lanka condemned them, including the Communists and Trotskyites who were in the governing coalition, and with the help of several foreign governments, including India and the United States, the JVP was brutally crushed.

Among Sri Lankan Tamil youth, similar rebellious sentiments were stirring. Under the Bandaranaike language policy, they had been allowed to study in the Tamil language in schools in Tamil areas - which included Jaffna University - but jobs for "Tamil only" educated youth were no more plentiful than for "Sinhalese only" youth. With the education reforms of the 1970s, even fewer Tamil youth were to be admitted to universities to study in Sinhalese. In addition, young Tamils were increasingly frustrated with Tamil politicians who had not been able to deliver federalism, which would have granted them some degree of control over their own destiny, at least in Tamil areas. One of the tragedies of Sri Lanka is that the Sinhalese have never been able to accept the concept of federalism; to them it meant creating a separate country on the island.

One of the essential elements that must be kept in mind in understanding the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is that, since 1958 at least, every time Tamil politicians negotiated some sort of power-sharing deal with a Sinhalese government, regardless of which Sinhalese party was in power, the party out of power always claimed that the party in power negotiated away too much. In almost every case - sometimes within days - the party in power backed away from the agreement. Hence, by now most Tamils question the ability of any Sinhalese government to implement any agreement to which it might agree in principle.

By the late 1970s, small bands of armed Tamil teenagers began to demand total independence from Sri Lanka, and they had become convinced that violence was the only way this was going to happen. While most Tamils didn't approve of their violent ways, they did approve of their message, and soon the largest mainstream Tamil party changed its name and began calling for total independence - Tamil Eelam (Tamil homeland) - for the North and East combined. A group of these armed "boys" (as they were called by their Tamil elders) ambushed and killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers in July 1983. The bodies were brought back to Colombo for a public funeral and riots broke out.

The government did nothing to stop the fighting for five days, either because it felt it couldn't control the military - as many Sinhalese believe - or because it wanted to let Sinhalese vent their anger on Tamils generally - as many Tamils believe. When it was over, several thousand Tamils had been killed or injured and over 100,000 had fled to India. For many Tamils, this was the major turning point. It was a pogrom of such intensity that many formerly moderate Tamils were suddenly convinced that only a totally separate state could protect Tamils. The Sinhalese government turned to its military in an attempt to stamp out "terrorism" (as it was officially called), but these efforts were so Draconian that they created many more militants than they killed. Every time the government launched an offensive into Tamil areas, hundreds of innocent civilians were killed, although this obviously was not the government's intent, and hundreds more otherwise moderate Tamils became militants.

The last of the remaining major Tamil militant groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are clearly ruthless. They have brutally eliminated all of the other militant Tamil groups who once fought at their side. They terrify Sinhalese villagers, particularly in the Eastern Province, which they consider part of their traditional homeland. They consider the Sinhalese who have been settled there by the government as unlawful trespassers on "their land." They have no compunction about going into villages at night and slitting the throats of men, women, and children.

They have also killed many moderate Tamil leaders whom they label as "traitors." The Indians believe that they have enough evidence to convict the Tigers, in court, of having killed former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and probably Sri Lankan President Premadasa as well. The Tigers were undoubtedly also the ones responsible for the bombing of the Central Bank Building in Colombo on January 31, 1996, an attack that took approximately 100 lives and wounded 1,400. Furthermore, most people other than LTTE supporters agree that the LTTE has reneged on every agreement it ever signed when it saw it to be in its interest to do so.

Nevertheless, most ordinary Tamils in the North appear to support the Tigers, not necessarily because they like them but because they like the Sri Lankan - or Indian - armies less. The Tigers are ruthless and authoritarian but they are not corrupt; they do not tolerate stealing, bribery, or rape, actions other armies are famous for. In fact, they are perceived as single-minded in their defense of Tamils. They are so disciplined that when captured, they swallow the cyanide capsules they carry with them at all times rather than risk revealing anything under torture.

Cessation and Renewal of Fighting

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the current president, is the only head of state whose father and mother were both heads of state before her, and a woman whose father and husband were both killed because of the ethnic conflict. She was elected to the office of president in December 1994, in large part on a platform of negotiating an end to the conflict. Within weeks of taking office, she had sent a delegation North to talk directly with the Tigers with no preconditions. A cessation of hostilities was worked out, but the Tigers insisted on four conditions for continuing the truce:

1. Immediately lift the embargo that had been in effect for some years on food, gas, and other supplies to the North;

2. Allow Tamil fishermen to fish the northern coastal waters;

3. Remove a military camp in a strategic position in the North;

4. Permit the LTTE cadre to carry guns for their own protection when in government-controlled territory in the East.

The government rejected the last two demands out of hand, and finally agreed to the second demand but only partially, and only after months of negotiations. While the government accepted the first demand - to lift the embargo immediately - it had difficulty implementing it. Some goods got through but nothing like the amount that was needed, that the Tigers expected, or that southern Tamils tried to send North. Trucks were stopped and searched, as indeed was necessary to prevent arms smuggling, but frequently they could not get through because of bureaucratic red tape and probably military distrust and hostility.

The LTTE saw all of this as just one more example of the government's inability to deliver on agreements and on Sinhalese refusal to meet legitimate demands. The Tigers first set a deadline of March 1995 for their demands to be met and later extended it, but on April 19, 1995, despite having signed an agreement that either side would give 72 hours notice before abrogating the pact, the Tigers gave four hours notice and then blew up two ships in an east coast harbor.

This was followed almost immediately with a major LTTE offensive launched against the Sri Lankan military, not a direct frontal assault but hit-and-run attacks. In rapid succession, almost a quarter of the Sri Lankan navy was sunk, several planes were downed (by what may have been ground-to-air missiles), and scores of military personnel were killed. These actions made Kumaratunga's relations with the military particularly difficult, as during the truce talks she had canceled approximately $72 million worth of contracts for military hardware. She argued at the time that the government was talking peace, not war, and therefore military hardware was not necessary.

The president, who had banked so much on the agreement, and the people around her felt that they had been duped by the LTTE, which they now believed had agreed to the truce merely to regroup and rearm. The army had warned Kumaratunga that the Tigers might do just that, as had the government of India, other Tamil militant groups upon whom the LTTE at some point had turned, and Sinhalese critics of the agreement. The government responded, first, with an ill-advised offensive called Operation Leap Forward.

It deployed 10,000 armed men in the largest single military operation undertaken in the war up to that time, but it was a disaster. The army was able to conquer approximately 78 sq. km of territory but could hold only 7 or 8 kms. Moreover, more than 200 Tamil civilians were killed in the process and 180,000 became refugees. Many Sri Lankan soldiers were killed, and a great deal of equipment was lost as troops were pushed back from newly captured land.

In August 1995, Kumaratunga unilaterally announced a peace package that went much further than anything that had been offered to the Tamils in the past. Not only was she offering federalism (although without using that word; "devolution" is preferred), but a federalism that would give the regions an extraordinary amount of autonomy. Virtually all of the powers that in previous proposals would have been held concurrently by the center and the regions were to be handed over to the regions, more or less exclusively. With some modifications to the boundaries of the Eastern Province to be worked out in the future, this proposal recognized the right of the Tamils to a single region (the Tamils call it "homeland," over Sinhalese objections) in a merged Northeastern Region. Under this package, the regions would be given the right to negotiate directly for foreign loans and investments and the Northeast would even have the right to maintain its own Tamil army.

The reason the peace package went as far as it did seems to have been that the government, unable to get anywhere in its negotiations with the LTTE, hoped to appeal directly to the war-weary Tamil people. The government hoped that by offering the Tamils significant portions of what they had been asking for, it could win the support of the common people of the North and East, and that the latter would, in turn, put pressure on the Tigers to accept the arrangement. Whether that peace package will get the hoped for northern Tamil support remains to be seen.

A prior question seems to be whether President Kumaratunga can get the Sinhalese support she needs to amend the Constitution by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and to win a national referendum. The Buddhist clergy came out against the proposals almost as soon as they were announced. New political groups have emerged on the Sinhalese right, hoping to defeat the package in the referendum even if it makes it through Parliament. There is considerable pressure on the UNP, which is now the major opposition party, not to support the package. As of this writing, the UNP had not rejected it outright but Kumaratunga was forced to modify it considerably, giving less autonomy to the regions than first suggested in an attempt to get Sinhalese support.

In January 1996 the Kumaratunga government formally submitted a modified version of the peace package to Parliament. In the first version, no central government would have been able to remove a regional government regardless of the circumstances. The modified version spells out the authority of the center to remove any regional government that tries to separate from the republic and assume direct rule over the region. The Sinhalese applauded this change but Tamils are leery of it. They fear Colombo would use that provision to suppress any Tamil regional government of which the center did not approve. The question, of course, is at what point will so many modifications have to be made to satisfy Sinhalese demands that the government will lose the support of moderate Tamils?

At the same time as the government was offering a political solution, it decided it needed to show both the Sinhalese right and the Tigers that it could be tough and hand the LTTE a major military humiliation. Accordingly, in late October 1995 the government launched yet another offensive against the Tigers. This time the military threw 40,000 troops into battle. Despite reservations among some military authorities in Colombo about how successful this campaign could be, government troops took Jaffna city in December. As they advanced on the city, however, most of the population left. The government claims that the Tigers forced people to leave at gun point in order to create a human shield and to embarrass the government politically with hundreds of thousands of refugees. There may be truth in that assessment, but there is probably also truth to the Tiger claim that many fled to escape large-scale bombing and shelling of populated areas.

In March 1996 the government launched yet another military offensive in the North, and this time succeeded in capturing the remainder of the Jaffna Peninsula. The Tigers fled into the jungle to continue the fight. No doubt the fall of Jaffna city and loss of the peninsula were major defeats for the LTTE, but the Tigers still have not been completely crushed, as they demonstrated in January 1996 when they blew up the Central Bank building in downtown Colombo in retaliation for the fall of Jaffna city.

Again in July 1996, they overran an army base in the North, killed over 1,000 government troops, and made off with millions of dollars worth of weapons and munitions; the LTTE also set off bombs on commuter trains outside Colombo, presumably in retaliation for the fall of the peninsula. While both the Sinhalese and Tamil populations are war-weary, there is some question as to whether the Sinhalese people are prepared to go as far as the Sri Lanka government has indicated it is willing to go in offering devolution of power to the Tamils.

On the other hand, I believe the vast majority of the Tamil population is willing to settle for more compromise than is the LTTE. It is interesting that both sides have hardened their bargaining positions, and are setting conditions for a resumption of negotiations to which each knows full well the other side will not agree. The government now says it will not negotiate until the Tigers lay down their arms; the Tigers say they will not negotiate until the government leaves Jaffna. Clearly, neither side will agree to either set of conditions.

One event that would change the entire situation would be the death of the LTTE leader, V. Prabhakaran. I very much doubt that the LTTE would survive his death very long. There is no clear heir apparent, and while one rarely hears of splits within the leadership, such a cult of personality has been created around Prabhakaran that it is unlikely anyone could assume his role. Thus, for the moment at least, we have a stalemate. Not willing to accept a peaceful solution short of de facto Eelam, the LTTE strategy seems to be to bring the war to the Sinhalese and hope that eventually they will tire of taking casualties and grant Eelam. The Tigers use Ethiopia and Israel as their models. In the former, a new government finally agreed to independence for Eritrea after years of fighting; in the latter, the Israelis finally agreed to what they see as something short of a separate country on the West Bank and Gaza but which the Palestinians certainly see as an independent state.

Can There Be Peace in Sri Lanka?

Short of Prabhakaran's death, a military solution is not at all likely. The government could launch yet another offensive, but the IRA and Hamas have shown that even the British and Israeli armies and police have been unable to prevent terrorist attacks. Certainly the Tigers are equally committed, and no government can protect against that.

Having achieved military victory in Jaffna, large numbers of Sinhalese, as well as the army and the Buddhist clergy, are now saying, "Why compromise? We have them on the run, there is no need to compromise." Since the bombing of the Central Bank and the commuter trains in 1996, increasing numbers of Sinhalese are asking: "See what terrorists they are? How can we negotiate with them?" For their part, the Tigers and their supporters say: "You took Jaffna, but we have now shown you that you can't put a stop to our movement. We will continue fighting until you grant us Eelam."

Is there anything that a Sinhalese government can do unilaterally to bring peace? It would seem that the Sinhalese must actually implement some sort of devolution of power guaranteeing that Tamil fears of persecution and discrimination will be mitigated.

 Granting major shifts of autonomy from the central government to the regions would be a big step in that direction. There must also be irreversible guarantees for minority rights written directly into the Constitution. Of course, constitutions can be abrogated, but that is a chance the Tamils would have to take and the LTTE up to now has refused to take it.

Also until now, the Sinhalese have not changed the Constitution to include these guarantees. Ordinary Tamils of the North and East are undoubtedly war-weary. They have suffered the most since 1983, and are clearly tired of it. If the peace package is actually implemented, the vast majority of Tamils will probably go along with it despite attempts by the Tigers to disrupt the process. The problem is that only the Sinhalese can approve and begin the process of implementation. To get the necessary two-thirds vote in Parliament and the support of the Sinhalese people in a referendum will require a unified stand by President Kumaratunga's government and the opposition UNP.

Probably the only way the Sinhalese could be brought to accept any political solution would be for all the major Sinhalese parties to form a Government of National Reconciliation, including all the party leaders. At a minimum it would have to include the People's Alliance (Kumaratunga's coalition) and the UNP. So far, neither party has been willing to make such a move while in power.

Many observers are now convinced that the president's only hope for success is to go to the people with a unified national government and ask for support. If she offered such a deal to UNP leaders, they might accept. The sad thing is that each time a bomb goes off and kills more civilians, whether in Sri Lanka, Israel, or Ireland, more and more people become convinced that "there will be no peace if bombs keep killing people," and there is virtually no way to stop those bombs from going off. The question is, does one allow the very small minority with the bombs to have their way and scuttle peace possibilities, or does one go ahead with as much peace as possible? That is something the governments of Israel, Northern Ireland, and Sri Lanka will have to decide in the months ahead.

Prime Minister Rabin of Israel had the determination to proceed with the peace process despite Palestinian bombs, and he was killed by an Israeli extremist because of it. If President Kumaratunga persists in pushing the peace process in Sri Lanka, she may have to worry as much about Sinhalese extremists as she does about Tiger attempts to kill her. Even given that, it seems she has no choice but to pursue peace.

1. This article is based on more than 600 interviews conducted in Sri Lanka, India, the U.K., the U.S., and Mexico between July 1983 and March 1996.




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