Even before Sri Lanka’s government withdrew in January
2008 from the ceasefire agreement (CFA), the
Norwegian-led peace process and ceasefire on which it
was built had ceased to be relevant.
Plagued by violations, primarily by the insurgent
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ceasefire
collapsed in July 2006. From then, both sides engaged in
the full range of offensive military actions, including
artillery and ground assaults, air and naval raids,
ambushes and use of mines, and committed many human
rights violations against civilians. The war intensified
in 2007, and the government is now pressing its
advantage in the north, hoping for a knock-out blow. The
rebels are fighting back, increasingly with brutal
attacks on civilians in government-controlled areas.
In addition to the conflict’s humanitarian costs, Sri
Lanka is experiencing growing ethnic tensions, violence
against journalists and dissenting politicians, and
extensive human rights abuses: disappearances, forcible
child recruitment, political killings and abductions.
Democratic institutions are under assault across the
country, and dangerous trends are emerging of more
centralised power, military autonomy and radicalisation
of Muslims in the east.
This report, based on interviews with politicians, civil
servants, diplomats, aid workers, human rights activists
and military analysts, explores the costs and likely
course of the war.
While the Tigers are under intense military pressure, a
decisive government victory remains very difficult to
achieve; moreover, were it to be achieved, the conflict
would likely continue in a new form, especially so long
as there was no genuine devolution of power to the north
and east. The report analyses the government’s recent
proposals for limited devolution and argues that much
more is needed, both to address the legitimate
grievances of minorities and to support the
transformation or defeat of the insurgency.
Neither side is interested in compromise, and there
appears to be no room in the near term for peace
initiatives or a ceasefire. But the government and the
international community can do much to mitigate the
damage. This report sketches an agenda for urgent
humanitarian and human rights measures, equitable,
democratic development in the Eastern Province and
constitutional reforms. It urges greater international
pressure on the LTTE’s financial and arms networks and
argues that it must undergo a major transformation prior
to any involvement in new negotiations. Finally, it
suggests the need to move beyond the 2002 peace process
and establish a new architecture of international
support for peace.
The return to war
The End of the Ceasefire
The return to conflict began soon after Mahinda
Rajapaksa’s election as president in November 2005.
Almost immediately the Tigers, in the guise of
independent “people’s militias”, began attacks on
security forces with the clear intention of provoking
war. The government initially reacted with restraint.
A major military response – air attacks on suspected
LTTE camps in the Eastern Province – came only after a
failed suicide bombing against the army commander,
Sarath Fonseka, in April 2006. Full-scale fighting began
in late July 2006 in the Eastern Province when the
army’s effort to reopen an irrigation canal closed by
the LTTE sparked a counter-attack that led to a major
campaign to retake the large areas of the east under
LTTE control. After almost a year of fighting, in which
hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced and
tens of thousands of homes damaged, destroyed and
looted, the government declared the east liberated in
Fighting intensified at the end of 2007 as the military
sought to retake areas in the north. Since September,
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary and brother
of the president, has repeatedly said the government is
committed to defeating the Tigers militarily and seeks
to kill their leader, Vellipulai Prabhakaran,
who, in turn, used his annual “Heroes Day” speech in
November 2007 to declare that negotiations were
pointless and call on Tamils to support a renewed
military struggle for independence.
Troops have been pressing the Tigers from all sides –
north east of Mannar, near Vavuniya, in the north east
region of Weli Oya and in the Jaffna peninsula – probing
for weak spots. While they have yet to win back large
areas, the shelling and aerial bombing have killed
hundreds of rebels.
The government downplays its own casualties, but most
analysts suspect they are higher than reported.
The LTTE claims to have made a “strategic withdrawal”
from the Eastern Province, but, though not a spent
force, it is under severe pressure. It has held most of
its positions in the north and attacked in government
areas. The most damaging was the 22 October 2007
combined land and air assault against an airbase in the
north central town of Anuradhapura, in which 21 suicide
troops destroyed at least a dozen aircraft and damaged
As it was underway, two of the Tigers’ small fleet of
propeller aircraft dropped bombs. Though none of the
four attacks by the “Air Tigers” have produced
significant damage to date, their propaganda value –
especially the 21 April 2007 attack on Colombo that
provoked uncoordinated anti-aircraft fire across the
city – has been considerable.
In late 2007 the Tigers began brutal bus bombings across
the country, beginning with an attack in the north
central Anuradhapura district on 5 December. With the
end of the CFA came a 16 January 2008 attack on a
civilian bus in the remote south central town of
Buttala, which killed 32 and injured more than 60; a 2
February attack on a bus in the central town of
Dambulla, which killed eighteen and injured scores; and
a 4 February attack in the north eastern area of Weli
Oya, which killed more than a dozen and injured as many.
The Tigers showed they can strike in and around Colombo,
with a suicide bombing at the main rail station on 3
February 2008 that killed twelve and wounded nearly 100.
Other recent attacks included the assassination of
Minister D.M. Dassanayake on 8 January, a claymore bomb
used against a military bus on 1 January and a failed
suicide bombing against their old Tamil rival, Minister
Douglas Devananda, on 28 November 2007. They have also
launched small guerrilla raids on police, military and
civilians in the Southern and Eastern Provinces.
The Politics of War
Since the resumption of offensive military operations
against the Tigers in late July 2006, the government has
framed its military actions as part of the global “war
on terrorism” and thus deserving of international
Even as it claimed to respect the CFA and to be
committed to a negotiated solution, it argued that it
was engaged in a “humanitarian” campaign “to liberate
the innocent and miserable masses of the north, who are
in grave and imminent danger at the hands of the LTTE”.
By the latter half of 2007, it was more explicit that
its goal was to “defeat the LTTE militarily” and win
back LTTE areas.
In November the president vowed to parliament to
“eradicate” terrorism from Sri Lanka, arguing that the
Tigers had “demonstrated that they will never be ready
to surrender arms and agree to a democratic political
“We have to defeat them militarily, we have to control
the Wanni”, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told
journalists the same month.
Government and military leaders say they are confident
the Tigers are on the ropes and can be beaten. In a
year-end press release, the army, air force and navy
chiefs “expressed confidence that 2008 would be a
decisive year for … eliminating terrorism from Sri Lanka
since they were already on course towards accomplishing
At the same time, the government continues to say it is
committed to a political solution that would satisfy
legitimate Tamil grievances. On 23 January 2008, it
announced proposals for implementing existing
constitutional provisions for limited devolution of
power to the Northern and Eastern Provinces and promised
they were the first step toward more substantial
power-sharing when political conditions allowed.
The government’s 2 January 2008 announcement that it was
formally abrogating the ceasefire agreement was greeted
with dismay and criticism by most of Sri Lanka’s
traditional supporters. Expressing “their strong
concerns”, the four co-chairs of the peace process –
Japan, the U.S., the EU and Norway – repeated their
conviction that “there is no military solution to the
conflict in Sri Lanka, and reiterate[d] their support
for a negotiated settlement”.
The attempt to defeat the Tigers is widely seen as
undermining the possibility of a political solution, but
little has been done to make it harder for the
government to pursue the war.
Critics face a dilemma, and the government has taken
advantage of this. Western powers, India and Japan do
not believe the Tigers can be beaten and worry about the
damage to ethnic relations and democracy from new
fighting. However, all want to see the Tigers weakened
and are constrained by knowledge that if they do not
give the government military support, others – chiefly
Pakistan and China – will pick up the slack. India in
particular worries about growing Chinese and Pakistani
military support and influence, and is widely reported
to have increased military aid in response. That even
the strongest critics of the renewed war and consequent
human rights violations continue to help the military
has undercut their public statements.
U.S. and UK criticism has lost some force due to
excessive use of “global war on terror” rhetoric and, at
least in government eyes, some practices in the Iraq and
A Military Path to a Political
Will the Military Campaign Work?
The government’s campaign in the north is designed as a
war of attrition. Having learned a lesson from earlier
periods of the conflict, the government is avoiding
trying to win territory quickly by frontal assault.
Instead, massive artillery and aerial bombing of Tiger
forward defence lines aims to weaken defences
sufficiently for measured ground assaults. The military
is confident the Tigers are short of ammunition and have
limited capability to counter-attack.
The navy claims it sunk seven ships carrying arms and
supplies to the Tigers in 2007, in some cases hundreds
of miles from Sri Lanka’s shores, and says this
represents the bulk of the rebels’ maritime supply
Military analysts generally agree that these successes –
due in part to increased intelligence cooperation from
foreign governments – have significantly degraded the
LTTE’s resupply ability.
The Indian navy’s increased patrols of the Palk Strait,
separating Sri Lanka from southern India, have also
reportedly disrupted smuggling routes.
More effective air attacks are another source of the
government’s increased confidence the Tigers can be
beaten. It controls the skies and has improved its air
support for ground operations.
Better intelligence and new weapons allow more accurate
attacks. The 2 November 2007 killing of the leader of
the LTTE’s political wing, S.P. Thamilchelvan, resulted
from a targeted strike on a bunker, and the government
has since repeatedly boasted of its ability to hit rebel
leaders. A number of other senior LTTE leaders have been
killed recently by “deep penetration units”,
and the government claims to have injured Prabhakaran
with a bunker busting bomb in late November.
According to a humanitarian worker with experience in
the north, “the government’s strategy is to make life
more and more uncomfortable in the Wanni. While
targeting Prabhakaran and the top leadership, they would
like there to be an internal collapse in the north. This
would allow them to avoid invasion and major casualties.
The Tigers’ strategy is simply to survive beyond 2008”.
Signs abound that the LTTE is under significantly
greater pressure than at any recent time. It is
reportedly short on fighters and forcibly and
extensively recruited, including among children,
Many front-line casualties are thought to have been
recent recruits and underage
The government’s military spokesperson says the LTTE
lost more than 4,800 fighters in 2006 and 2007, as
against 1,241 government military and police.
Published defence ministry figures claim more than 1,200
rebels and 100 soldiers were killed in the first six
weeks of 2008.
Nonetheless, a variety of factors could derail the
government’s strategy, and the military’s slow but
steady pace may be difficult to maintain if it fails to
produce noticeable results within six to nine months. At
present, the war is backed by a large majority of
Sinhalese, but much support is predicated on the belief
the Tigers are on the verge of defeat.
If the sense of imminent victory wanes, public
willingness to accept the burdens of war could also
The financial cost is already significant. The 2008
record $1.5 billion military budget is blamed for a
significant fraction of the 26 per cent annual inflation
rate, as the government prints additional money to cover
a large deficit.
The war and Tiger terrorist attacks in the south have
taken a toll on tourism.
If the Tigers hit economic targets in the south, as they
threaten, the pressures would worsen.
Domestic support also depends on holding down casualties
and limiting the ability of the Tigers to strike in the
south. Because the LTTE is dug into well-fortified and
heavily-mined defences, the military has been reluctant
to launch large assaults, but “at some stage this year,
they’ll have to move forward, if only for political
reasons. And at that point, government casualties could
The bus bombings and other rebel attacks on civilians
since the government announced its withdrawal from the
ceasefire seem aimed at expanding the sense of
insecurity throughout the Sinhalese south, which earlier
smaller attacks in Colombo had not done. They also
suggest the LTTE is less concerned with international
opinion and is willing to risk increased criticism if it
can weaken Sinhalese support for the war or provoke
reprisals against Tamil civilians that will hurt the
government’s international standing.
The government will need to carefully contain or cover
up the humanitarian costs if it is to retain India’s de
facto support for the war. Tamil Nadu opinion is unhappy
with the military approach but not yet sufficiently
inflamed to cause problems for the Congress-led
government in Delhi. If an attempt to recapture the
rebel-controlled area of Wanni produces many refugees to
south India, as in the past, or if there is news of
large-scale death and destruction, however, the Indian
government will come under increased pressure from its
Tamil Nadu political allies to act. This could result in
reduced intelligence or other assistance.
For all these reasons, a long war will be hard to
sustain, both economically and politically. The Tigers
need only to hold on and maintain their ability to
fight. After nearly six months of intense fighting, the
government has yet to advance more than a few
kilometres. According to many analysts, the LTTE may
well still be keeping its best fighters in reserve.
In the event the Tigers were defeated on the battlefield
and their de facto state in the north dismantled, the
conflict would be far from over. Some form of violent
resistance is almost certain. Until the underlying
political grievances were addressed, the north could
likely be governed only with a massive security presence
and much repression. Analysts believe the military would
need many more troops to keep control of the Northern
and Eastern Provinces while also protecting Colombo.
There are perhaps one million Tamils in the Northern
Province alone, many of whom have lived under Tiger rule
for a decade or more and have received weapons training
and/or fought with the rebels. Evidence from the
counter-insurgency operations in Jaffna and the Eastern
Province, especially formerly LTTE-controlled areas,
suggests government forces have difficulty trusting such
Tamils. The 600 civilians who went missing when the army
captured the Jaffna peninsula in 1995-1996 suggest the
scale of a potential catastrophe.
The government’s offensive, together with its attendant
security measures and human rights violations, has
already generated renewed support both within Sri Lanka
and among the diaspora for the Tigers, whom many Tamils
see as their only protectors.
A diplomat said, “the government needs to realise this
war can be won only if they have Tamils on their side.
But the government has done everything to push them
away….The LTTE are now being seen as good boys by many
So long as there is widespread support for separatism
and militancy in the diaspora, peace in Sri Lanka will
be hard to come by. Money for weapons and explosives
will likely continue to reach Sri Lanka, even with
tightened international controls.
What of the argument, advocated by less hawkish members
of government and their supporters, that sustained
military pressure can weaken the Tigers and persuade
them to return to negotiations in a more reasonable
frame of mind?
Such a strategy might work only if the government was
prepared to implement political proposals offering
Tamils a realistic chance of sharing power and
administering their own affairs. Without the pressure on
the Tigers that such proposals would generate from
Tamils themselves, it is hard to see the rebels making
real concessions, even if weakened militarily. There are
no signs the government intends to make such proposals.
Instead, it seems determined to extend its eastern
strategy to the north. A veneer of democracy would be
created by deeply flawed elections, and Tamil armed
groups would be used to police the local population,
while real political power would remain with the central
There is also no sign the government would be willing to
shift tactics and start negotiations if it felt it was
making military progress. The military would not want to
stop if it believed it had the Tigers on the run. There
would instead be strong political and institutional
pressure to “complete the job”, especially from the
Janatha Vikmukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela
Urumaya (JHU), Sinhala nationalist parties whose support
the government needs to survive.
A triumphant military and its political allies are also
not likely to be a force for a fair settlement of
underlying grievances. If negotiations with the Tigers
are to be possible again, the attempt to defeat them
will likely have to fail. But the cost of the war to
civilians can be expected to reinforce Tiger control
over Sri Lankan and diaspora Tamils, thus making them
less interested in concessions.
The government’s commitment to defeating the LTTE
militarily is thus a major gamble, whose limited chance
of success is already being purchased at huge cost. Any
battlefield successes would be sustainable only if
accompanied by a credible plan for devolution and power
sharing, backed by clear commitment to implement them.
Despite repeated government assurances that a political
solution is an essential part of its strategy, recent
developments suggest that the necessary political will
is still lacking.
The APRC and a Political
Since October 2006, the government has been promising
the imminent release of proposals from the All-Party
Representative Committee (APRC), tasked by President
Rajapaksa that July with “formulating a political and
constitutional framework for the resolution of the
national question”. Lacking clear procedures or
timetables, the APRC has been used to buy time and
reduce international pressure for a political solution.
Repeatedly, as the proposals seemed about to appear,
however, the government has engineered delays or put new
hurdles before a consensus document.
The APRC is known to have nearly completed a plan for
the full revision of the constitution, including
enhanced devolution for the north and east, power
sharing at the centre, a new upper house of parliament
and elimination or weakening of the executive
A strong majority is said to favour a system that goes
beyond the present unitary state. But members
representing the president’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP), the JHU and the equally Sinhala nationalist
Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) have consistently blocked
As the APRC neared a new promised delivery date in late
January 2008, reports and government statements
suggested it was being pressured to delay announcement
of reforms and instead propose full implementation of
the existing Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution as
an interim step.
Ratified in 1987 as part of the Indo-Lanka Accord, that
amendment made Tamil an official language and
established the provincial council system in most of the
country. Due to the war, political opposition, and the
central government’s reluctance to relinquish power,
however, the councils have limited authority. They have
never properly functioned in the north or east, the
areas they were designed to address.
The president and other officials argued it would be
simpler and more realistic to begin with the amendment
than with full constitutional revision, which would
require two-thirds approval by parliament.
On 23 January 2008, the APRC sent “interim” proposals to
the president, recommending that “the Government should
endeavour to implement the 13th Amendment to the
Constitution in respect of legislative, executive and
administrative powers, overcoming existing
Elections to the Eastern Provincial Council should be
held immediately and an “interim council” for the
Northern Province appointed by the president until
conditions permitted elections.
It also recommended full implementation of the
constitution’s official languages provisions, so all in
the north and east can do business with the state in
their own tongue, and said its “consensus document” on
new constitutional reforms “is being finalised” and
would reach the president “in the very near future”.
The Indian government called the proposals “a welcome
first step … to the extent … [they] contribute to … a
settlement acceptable to all communities within the
framework of a united Sri Lanka”.
Domestic reaction has been almost uniformly critical.
The turn to the Thirteenth Amendment was widely seen,
with good reason, as capitulation to the president.
The APRC admitted the interim recommendations were
unrelated to the discussions on major constitutional
reform which dominated its 63 meetings over eighteen
months. Many commentators and politicians noted the
president could have implemented the amendment at any
time without need for the APRC.
Advocates of devolution and supporters of the APRC
process consider the return to the Thirteenth Amendment
a betrayal of past presidential promises to respect the
APRC’s deliberations and accept power sharing that goes
beyond the existing constitution. Devolution supporters
point out that even if fully implemented, the amendment
is unlikely to satisfy longstanding Tamil demands for
autonomy. The constitution’s unitary state and powerful
executive president make any devolution under its terms
problematic, since the central government would retain
authority to retake virtually all powers by presidential
decree or a parliamentary majority vote. Indeed, that is
why devolution proponents have argued for decades that
the basic state structure must change first.
There are widespread doubts that the government will
actually implement the amendment in full. The APRC gave
few specifics as to what “full” implementation involves;
details were reportedly deleted at the last minute on
the president’s orders.
It seems unlikely that police powers and control of
finances, education and land – the central points of
contention under the amendment – will actually be
granted to the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
To implement the amendment at all, the government would
have to counter strong opposition from the JVP, which
argues that the provincial councils in the north and the
east could easily become the springboard for separatism
once controlled by Tamil nationalist parties.
To date the government has been unwilling to oppose the
party on any conflict-related policies and has curried
support from it and the JHU in a way that gives to both
power well beyond their level of popular support.
Despite the hostile political terrain, all parties with
a declared commitment to meaningful devolution – the
United National Party (UNP), the Tamil National Alliance
(TNA) and all Tamil, Muslim and left parties – should
call the government’s bluff and insist that the
amendment be implemented in a way that “assures
provinces the fullest degree of autonomy within the
by granting the financial, police, education and land
powers needed for devolution to be meaningful. They
should also continue to insist on the necessity of broad
constitutional reforms, call on the APRC to conclude
deliberations before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year
(mid-April 2008), and make public its proposals for new
constitutional arrangements. If the SLFP, MEP and JHU
refuse consensus, the minority and left parties should
publish their own preferred reforms.
The test of the government’s political will will come
quickly. For implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment
to have positive effect, there must be free and fair
elections in the east (and ultimately the north), with
all parties able to campaign unhindered. Devolution can
succeed only if Tamil politics in the north and east is
demilitarised. Otherwise, it will merely formalise the
power of armed groups.
Given the Sinhala nationalist forces the government has
allied with, its determination to pursue the war at all
costs and its continued reliance on Tamil armed groups,
however, the prospects for devolution under the
Thirteenth Amendment are hardly positive.
The Costs of war
The Human Toll
There are no independent and reliable sources for
statistics on killed and wounded since the CFA began to
collapse. The figure cited most often in media reports –
5,000 troops and civilians killed – may well be too low.
The military claims more than 6,000 combatants killed
since the beginning of 2006. There are no accepted
overall statistics for civilians over the past two
years, but it is clear that hundreds have died in
shelling and bombing. Many hundreds more have been
deliberately targeted by the Tigers and the government’s
counter-insurgency campaign. A conservative estimate for
total civilian deaths would be at least 1,500.
The humanitarian costs of the fighting in the north have
been largely hidden from the public. Concerns among aid
workers are mounting, however. Government figures as of
31 December 2007 published by the UN High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) show more than 148,000 displaced by
renewed fighting in the north, roughly half of whom are
within the LTTE-controlled Wanni, which is increasingly
difficult for humanitarian groups to access.
Hundreds of thousands are vulnerable as the military
tightens its grip on the Northern Province. An aid
worker with experience in the north said that:
The future in the Wanni doesn’t look bright in the
coming months. It’s going to be difficult to respond
effectively. Any form of humanitarian response is now
felt to be assisting the Tigers’ war strategy. There are
more and more restrictions from the government’s side,
even on the kinds and amounts of drugs that can go to
government hospitals. It’s an ongoing struggle for all
of us to get approval for what is required. It’s going
to be a very unpleasant year.
If the campaign in the east was a precedent for war in
the north, there is much to be worried about. The
government is proud that the number of civilian deaths
was relatively low, with best estimates of at least a
However, the damage to livelihoods, homes, possessions,
and sense of security and equal citizenship was huge. At
the height of fighting, over 150,000 were displaced,
some repeatedly over nearly a year, with large swathes
of territory flattened and property systematically
Thousands remain unable to work due to security
restrictions. At the end of 2007, some 38,000 in the
Eastern Province were still displaced.
Women are particularly disadvantaged by displacement and
the return to war. Those in conflict areas and refugee
camps in the north and east have regular complaints of
increased sexual violence and enforced sex work from
soldiers and armed men.
There is also evidence of more domestic violence due to
the highly militarised environment. The reduced economic
opportunities for women living in refugee camps and
conflict affected areas add to their vulnerability to
abuse and violence, as many are forced to trade their
bodies for money or needed commodities. Single women
heading households, widows, and women caring for the
disabled have gender-related needs which are not
adequately recognised or addressed by the government and
non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The same is true
for the health needs of women and adolescent girls.
The increases in arrests and detentions under emergency
regulations have brought particular dangers for women.
Safeguards to protect those in custody are widely
ignored; women wardens or police are not often
available, and forced sex with prison guards is a common
complaint. Chronically inadequate facilities for women
and girls in detention are under further stress.
The social and political costs of the past two years of
renewed warfare have also been significant. They are
likely to get much worse and will make a political
settlement even more difficult.
With the collapse of the ceasefire, the LTTE’s return to
terror attacks and the government’s counter-terrorism
measures, fear and inter-ethnic tension have grown
significantly. Tamils increasingly see themselves, not
the Tigers, as the government’s target. The decision in
June 2007 to evict some 375 Tamils from hotels and
boarding houses in Colombo and bus them “home” to the
north and east and to the central hill country was a
major blow to confidence.
This was followed by mass round-ups of more than 2,500
in Colombo in early December after a series of bomb
attacks blamed on the Tigers.
The arrests were disorganised and indiscriminate,
affecting many long-established residents of the capital
with proper identification. More than 400 were sent to
detention centres in the south. Most were released
within a week, but the experience was a shock.
Many felt such “security measures” were meant to send a
message that all Tamils pose a security threat and are
unwelcome in Colombo or Sinhalese areas.
Tamils from the north and east are
particularly vulnerable. A prominent Tamil professional
Most of the north east Tamils in Colombo are not here in
the city out of choice. They are here because there is a
war in the north east, and there is no guarantee of life
there. Many of them are in the city trying to find their
way out of the country. For these people Colombo is the
only exit point in the island. But even here they are
likely to be hounded, arrested or detained, put in buses
and sent back to the north east”.
Such policies also shrink the room for manoeuvre for the
few independent Tamil politicians who struggle to
survive within democratic politics. Under threat from
the LTTE, they necessarily depend on the state for
protection; but they also need to defend the interests
of average Tamils. The leaders of three anti-LTTE Tamil
parties told the president in an open letter that the
December 2007 mass arrests “will only strengthen the
claims of the LTTE and the pro-LTTE elements all over
the world that the Government is harassing the innocent
So long as the government imposes security measures that
alienate Tamils, pursues a war that will
disproportionately harm Tamils and fails to make any
meaningful constitutional and state reforms, non-LTTE
parties will be rendered irrelevant, other than as
paramilitaries and hired killers.
The Eastern Province
Land and displacement
Ethnic tensions are especially pronounced and dangerous
in the Eastern Province, which the government promotes
as a liberated area ripe for democracy and development.
Home to roughly equal numbers of Tamils, Muslims and
Sinhalese, it reveals the inability of the government’s
policies so far to provide political stability and
encourage peaceful coexistence.
There have been widespread allegations since mid-2007 of
plans to displace Tamils and Muslims and settle
Sinhalese on their land. Many Tamils and Muslims believe
there is a strategy to transform the area’s demography
and politics. There is little evidence of actual
demographic changes but enough cases of land being
acquired for development and other purposes to worry
community leaders, many of whom fear repetition of the
government-sponsored “colonisation” from the 1950s
through the mid-1980s, which radically increased the
Sinhalese percentage in the Eastern Province.
The best known example of officially-sanctioned
displacement is the high security zone south of
Trincomalee harbour in Mutur East and Sampur, which has
affected 15,000 Tamils. The Supreme Court rejected a
suit alleging violation of constitutional rights filed
by some of the displaced.
It overlaps a special economic zone to which the
government hopes to lure foreign investors. Many Tamils
and Muslims believe the major economic development and
infrastructure schemes will be used to bring in
Sinhalese and further dilute their proportions in the
Some Sinhalese settlement is already underway. According
to a Tamil parliamentarian, “in Kappalhurai (Trincomalee
district) forest land is being acquired for an army
housing scheme, which essentially means Sinhalisation of
Land is also being acquired for an army housing scheme
in Rottawewa village on the Trincomalee-Anuradhapura
road. “About 80 families of Sinhalese fishermen have
already settled in the Mankindimalai-Pulmoddai area
[Trincomalee District]”, the parliamentarian said.
At various places in the Eastern Province, supposedly
ancient Buddhist sites have been “discovered” and land
use restricted. Some Muslims fear the archeology
department’s decision to designate 43 sites as locations
of Buddhist interest in the predominantly Muslim areas
of Ampara district is a prelude to ouster of Muslims. In
other cases, environmental regulations have reportedly
been invoked to reclaim Muslim (and Tamil) farm land.
There are also widespread fears of administrative and
electoral gerrymandering to increase Sinhalese power in
the east and prevent the province becoming part of a
single north east administrative unit. Tamil and Muslim
critics allege there is a plan to make the Weli Oya area
a Sinhalese district with the accretion of adjacent
Sinhalese-majority areas to the west.
Some allege that Thoppigala (Kudumbimalai in Tamil) is
to be detached from the Tamil-speaking Batticaloa
district and joined to Sinhalese areas further west to
create a Sinhalese enclave.
Rule by the military and
Not all allegations of Sinhalisation of the east can be
proven, but even unfounded stories are likely to sow the
seeds of communal unrest so long as the government fails
to consult with local representatives and continues to
sideline Tamil and Muslim civil servants in favour of
Sinhalese. All decisions on eastern reconstruction and
development work, for instance, are made by the
nation-building ministry in Colombo, with little say for
Since the Supreme Court ordered the north and east
de-merged in October 2006, the Eastern Province
administration has been ethnically transformed, with
Sinhalese (many retired army officers) in top posts,
especially in Trincomalee district.
The military is directly involved in administering the
large parts of the east won back from the Tigers in
2007. It and the defence ministry insist on tight
control over humanitarian NGOs working with the newly
resettled populations, which do not have the free access
the government promised; both military and regular
bureaucratic approvals are still required for the
formerly LTTE areas, and NGOs are in effect prevented
from doing protection work.
In Batticaloa town, the police counter-terrorist wing,
the Special Task Force, dictates policy.
Taken together, these developments render Tamil and
Muslim local administrators and political
representatives increasingly irrelevant. Sinhalese hold
almost all effective political power in the
predominantly Tamil-speaking Eastern Province.
Violence, insecurity and
The government maintains that elections, first for local
authorities in areas once controlled by the Tigers, then
for the entire Eastern Province, are the way to return
local democratic control after years of war and terror.
The initial local elections are scheduled for Batticaloa
district on 10 March 2008, but virtually all independent
observers agree elections in the present context would
only add a democratic veneer to the illegitimate rule of
The Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), which broke
from the Tigers and is now led by the ex-Colonel
Karuna’s former deputy, Pillayan, continues to rule
Batticaloa and other parts of the east through terror
and crime, with tacit police, military and Colombo
approval. Still seen by the government and military as
useful to block a Tiger re-emergence in the east, its
reign of abductions, child recruitment, robberies and
repression of dissent is extensively documented.
The TMVP is blatantly intimidating political rivals in
an attempt to rig the elections. The TNA and Sri Lanka
Muslim Congress (SLMC) have both complained of
“Armed men are going around telling candidates belonging
to the SLMC that they should not [stand] and that after
the uncontested elections, they would be given three
vice chairmanships”, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem said.
“They said that only the United Peoples’ Freedom
Alliance [UFPA] candidates could contest”. Hakeem
charged that the TMVP was doing the bidding of the
president’s party, the UPFA.
The security forces were doing nothing to prevent the
TMVP from intimidating Musilm candidates, and “the idea
is to politically dominate the area”, he said.
The TMVP is also widely accused of fomenting tensions
with Muslims, including a December 2007 attack on a
mosque in the eastern town of Kattankudy, which left
three people dead.
With the de facto backing of state and security forces
and the absence of independent elections or police
commissions, the TMVP faces few restraints.
On 21 January 2008, the Supreme Court turned down a TNA
request to postpone the elections due to lack of
But no elections can be free and fair in such a context.
While election-related violence has so far been
relatively low, the years of TMVP intimidation have had
their desired effect.
A long-time independent political observer concluded:
The general situation is Batticaloa is not at all
conducive for an election….The high level of
lawlessness, consistent acts of violence and violations
of rights that take place with impunity, the lack of any
credible and trustworthy mechanisms to which people
affected by violence can take their complaints, all
combine to create an environment of terror in which no
campaigning for elections will be possible for any
The human rights crisis continues, despite rising
concern and calls for action from governments, the UN
and human rights groups.
Violations of civil and political rights are widespread,
with the majority and worst in the north and east,
where political killings and disappearances occur daily,
especially in Jaffna. Considerable circumstantial
evidence indicates the involvement of the military and
allied former Tamil militants. Many of those killed or
abducted and later found dead are taken from home at
night, during the curfew. By day unarmed civilians have
frequently been murdered in the streets, often just
yards from one of Jaffna’s ubiquitous army checkpoints.
Sri Lanka’s best-known and respected human rights group,
the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR),
estimated that a minimum of 700 were killed or
disappeared there in 2006 and 2007 as part of the
Killings and disappearances are also frequent in
Vavuniya and Mannar districts, though they appear to
have declined in Batticaloa. On 24 January 2008, two
graves with sixteen bodies, all shot execution style,
were discovered near the government-controlled north
central town of Kebitigollawa. Many fear the victims
were Tamils disappeared as part of the
In areas the Tigers formerly held in the east, the
military keeps a close eye on those suspected of
involvement. Disappearances are reported occasionally,
though human rights groups suspect that fear keeps many
relatives from reporting cases.
As noted, the TMVP is believed to continue forcible
recruitment of children, political killings and
abductions, extortion and intimidation of rivals.
The wave of abductions for ransom that swept through
Colombo and other parts of the country – targeting
almost exclusively Tamils and Muslims – reached its peak
in the first half of 2007 and has tailed off. On 1
January 2008, however, Sri Lanka saw its third murder of
a Tamil opposition parliamentarian in two years.
T. Maheswaran was shot while worshipping at a Hindu
temple in Colombo. Days earlier, he had announced he
would soon report to parliament on government and
paramilitary involvement in Jaffna’s killings and
disappearances. A few weeks before and against his
protest, the government had cut his official security
detail from eighteen to two.
The LTTE continues to systematically violate civil and
political rights. At least some of the killings in
Jaffna and other parts of the north are its
responsibility. The Tigers still rely on forced
conscripts, some of whom are underage or work for UN
agencies and humanitarian organisations in the
rebel-controlled Wanni. The Tigers closely monitor or
control civil society organisations, and there is no
independent media or freedom of speech in their areas.
They also maintain their own prisons and detention
centres, only some of which are open to the Red Cross.
Torture is believed to be widely practiced. Recent
attacks on unarmed civilians in Colombo and the south
east are flagrant violations of the right to life and
war crimes under customary international law.
Two years into the present wave of human rights
violations, there have been no prosecutions. Indictments
are known to have been brought in one instance, but no
progress has been made in any of the higher profile
cases, including the murders of seventeen workers for
the French NGO Action contre la faim (ACF)
and disappearances in which the government is suspected
Four of the few suspects arrested in connection with
abductions in Colombo were released in January 2008
after the police said no witnesses had come forward with
In addition to a police force unable or unwilling to
investigate the hundreds of killings, disappearances and
other government institutions have been equally
ineffective. The National Human Rights Commission, whose
members were appointed directly by the president,
contrary to the constitution, has shown little interest
in using its limited staff and resources to investigate
or report on abuses. It has actively prevented its
regional offices from sharing information on violations
with the media or civil society organisations. Citing
these and other failings, the international body charged
with certifying national human rights institutions
downgraded the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission to
None of the many ad hoc commissions of inquiry appointed
by the president to look into disappearances and other
violations have made any headway against impunity. Not
one has published findings or recommended prosecutions
to the attorney general. The best known, named in
November 2006 to investigate sixteen high-profile cases,
took more than a year to begin public hearings, and
there are no signs it has uncovered new facts. The
International Independent Group of Eminent Persons
(IIGEP), appointed by the president to observe and
comment on its work, has repeatedly pointed to
fundamental flaws in the process, including the undue
influence of the attorney general’s office.
The absence of a law and adequate resources for an
effective witness protection system makes it unlikely
that much evidence will be volunteered.
Addressing the UN Human Rights Council two months after
visiting Sri Lanka, UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights (HCHR) Louise Arbour pointed to “alarming”
numbers of disappearances and abductions and said:
There has yet to be an adequate investigation or public
accounting for the vast majority of these
cases….[overall] the various national institutions and
mechanisms that could be expected to safeguard human
rights have failed to deliver adequate
protection….[There is] a critical need for an
independent actor to gather information and publicly
report on the human rights situation. For this reason, I
have suggested that the Government would benefit from
the support of a presence of [an office of the] HCHR in
the country, with a full mandate incorporating technical
assistance and public reporting.
The government rejected the idea, arguing that it was
doing its best under trying circumstances and that no
country at war with a ruthless terrorist organisation
like the LTTE could be expected to have a flawless
record. The government is “justly proud of our national
institutions”, and any failings can be addressed best
through technical aid and training by the UN and other
As proof of transparency, it pointed to long cooperation
with UN human rights mechanisms and the recent visits by
UN special rapporteurs. Nonetheless, Sri Lanka’s Geneva
UN ambassador said, “our negotiations with the OHCHR and
international bodies will always be informed by a
determination that national institutions and national
processes shall be supplemented and supported by
international assistance, but shall never be supplanted
or substituted by the non-national”.
Concentration of Power
and Intolerance of Dissent
Political power is concentrated in the hands of the
president, his three brothers, a few close supporters
and the military leadership. An uncompromising attitude
has taken hold of many senior officials and officers. In
the name of patriotism, and out of a mix of Sinhala
nationalism and determination to retain power, dissent
is increasingly equated with treason. Publicly
questioning government policies has become dangerous.
Under the 1978 constitution, the president has
extraordinary powers and is difficult to remove from
Rajapaksa has taken the defence, finance and
nation-building portfolios. His brother, Gotabhaya, is
defence secretary and runs that ministry’s day-to-day
operations; brother Basil, a parliamentarian and
presidential adviser, manages the nation-building
ministry; brother Chamal is minister for irrigation and
water management and ports and aviation. Two thirds of
the national budget comes under ministries controlled by
the four brothers.
The Seventeenth Amendment, approved by parliament in
2001, was meant to put some checks on presidential power
by establishing the Constitutional Council, mandated to
nominate members to independent commissions on
elections, judicial services, police and human rights,
among others and to approve presidential nominations for
the Supreme Court, attorney general and other important
posts. Since the middle of 2005, just before Rajapaksa
took power, it has been defunct, due to poitical and
legal disputes. Rather than push to resolve the impasse,
the president used it to appoint directly those legally
required to be chosen or approved by the Council.
The last obstacle to reconstitution of the
Constitutional Council was overcome in January 2008,
when the name of the tenth panel member was agreed by
opposition parties, given to the speaker of parliament
and passed to the president. Ignoring his constitutional
duty, however, Rajapaksa has still not appointed the
Council. His refusal to allow modest checks on his power
from an active Constitutional Council bodes ill for any
As the war and terrorism rhetoric intensify, government
and military statements labelling critics traitors have
become common. In October 2007 Lakshman Hulugalle,
director of the Media Centre for National Security, told
a press conference: “We consider anyone who criticises
the defence forces to be a traitor to the nation, as
such people undermine the lives of armed forces
More recently, the army commander, General Sarath
Fonseka, said, “I am not blaming all journalists. I know
99 per cent … are patriotic and doing their job
properly. But unfortunately we have [a] small number of
traitors among the journalists. They are the biggest
obstacle [to defeating the Tigers]. All other obstacles
we can surmount”.
Verbal attacks on critical journalists and media
organisations are particularly disturbing in a context
where journalists are regularly assaulted and sometimes
Press rights groups ranked Sri Lanka as one of the most
dangerous countries in the world for journalists in
In a striking incident on 27 December 2007, Labour
Minister Mervyn Silva and a band of thugs physically
assaulted the news director of a state-owned television
station for not airing one of his speeches. The angry
staff confined the minister and some of his men for
hours, demanding an apology. The incident was broadcast
on live television and generated widespread revulsion
against the minister and sympathy for the journalists.
Despite calls for his dismissal from within the cabinet,
Silva remains too politically useful to be removed.
On 25 January 2008, one of the journalists who led the
resistance to him was nearly killed in a knife attack.
Others have been threatened, transferred or investigated
by the police.
Journalists who question government positions have been
arrested and harassed.
Newspapers and radio stations seen as critical have had
The printing presses of the most outspoken
English-language newspaper, the Sunday Leader,
though in a designated high security zone, were
destroyed in an arson attack by masked men.
The opposition is also targeted. In late 2007, the TMVP
kidnapped relatives to prevent TNA parliamentarians from
voting against the government budget. They abstained and
the budget passed. “The pressure and threats … were well
beyond what can be tolerated in a democratic setup”, a
Western diplomat said. “The government is making liberal
use of death threats to keep people in line”.
A Tamil parliamentarian who led the campaign against
disappearances and abductions went into self-imposed
exile after his police security detail was cut.
There have been coordinated verbal attacks on the UN and
other international bodies in the country. In August
2007, a minister called UN Coordinator for Humanitarian
Affairs John Holmes a “terrorist” for saying Sri Lanka
had one of the world’s worst safety records for
humanitarian workers, a documented claim.
The JVP, with government support, has led a campaign
against UNICEF and other UN agencies for allegedly
supporting the Tigers.
UNICEF has been accused of supplying “ready to eat”
meals and a blast-proof vehicle to the LTTE.
Despite a lack of supporting evidence, the government
has begun investigations and called UN officials to
account. A diplomat said, “the government’s attacks on
the UN are a fundamental assault on the international
system and codes of conduct. The UN and foreign
governments must send a strong message … that this is
Reacting to the CFA’s end, Louise Arbour warned both
government and LTTE that violations of international
human rights and humanitarian law “could entail
individual criminal responsibility under international
criminal law, including by those in positions of
Sri Lanka’s Geneva UN ambassador responded that his
government “will not be deterred by thinly veiled
threats, attempting to undermine the morale of its
military, deter its military campaigns and save
separatist terrorism from elimination”. Calling Arbour’s
warning “international terrorism”, JVP leader Somawansa
Amarasinghe added: “If any politician or military
officer is taken before international law for taking
decisions on behalf of the Motherland, they would have
to take them over our dead bodies”.
On the surface, the government would appear to be built
on weak foundations. President Rajapaksa’s SLFP has only
54 parliamentarians. The rest of the one-member majority
in a parliament of 225 comes from an ideologically
incoherent mix of parties held together by a desire for
Many parliamentarians have either been bought or coerced
into joining the government,
which has given ministerial positions and perks to
virtually all its legislators.
Many have also been warned their lives will not be
comfortable if they sit with the opposition.
The government looked shaky in December 2007, when its
budget was in danger, but it survived, in part because
the JVP abstained. Withdrawal from the CFA, a
longstanding JVP demand, was seen by many as repayment.
Many government parties are opposed to or uncomfortable
with the military strategy. Only the Rajapaksa brothers,
the JHU, and a few other SLFP ministers and UNP
dissidents are believed to be strongly behind the war
agenda. Yet, it is the war that keeps the government in
power, as it generates support from a public otherwise
angry at rising living costs, decaying services and
large-scale corruption. The war also keeps the JVP in
the de facto coalition.
The Rajapaksa administration’s course was set in
December 2006, when it coaxed away much of the UNP’s
parliamentary group, thus scuttling SLFP-UNP
cooperation. While many hoped the new members would
moderate the government and free it from the JVP, the
move also brought into government the strongly
nationalist JHU, which has gained significant influence,
and shifted the balance of parliamentary power in a way
that allows the JVP in effect to set government policy
on war, peace and ethnic issues.
The economy remains a major potential weakness of the
military approach. As noted, to pay for the costly
high-tech war of attrition, the government has been
printing large amounts of money, producing the highest
inflation in recent history – more than 26 per cent as
of November 2007.
The urban working and middle classes are particularly
hard hit. The war is also scaring away investors and
tourists; arrivals in 2007 were down by nearly 12 per
cent, with ripple effects on jobs and economic growth.
The pain has not yet been sufficient to threaten the
government, but if the war drags on too long, it may not
be economically or politically sustainable.
So long as the war continues to go well and the
government can keep the JVP happy, it is likely to
survive, but the president and his close advisers have
put all their eggs in the military basket. If
battlefield developments go badly, they have left
themselves little room to change course. The JVP and JHU
would refuse any new ceasefire or peace process and
instead mobilise their supporters to oppose another
betrayal. In such a situation, the president could be
tempted to choose greater repression instead of a
politically risky reversal requiring UNP support. That
rival party would have a difficult time either rescuing
the government or marshalling the votes to force a new
In the meantime, the government’s reliance on war to
weaken the Tigers is fuelling dangerous forces. Sinhala
supremacists, Tamil paramilitaries and militant Muslim
youth are growing stronger. Many in the international
community seem to assume that when the pendulum
eventually swings back from war to peace, Sri Lanka will
be somewhere close to where it was in late 2001/early
2002, but that is increasingly unlikely.
The government’s policies, in tandem with Tiger
provocations, are not merely running counter to the kind
of political settlement even the government says it
wants. The return to war, and the way in which both
sides are fighting it, encourages forces that may prove
difficult for this or future governments to control.
Three trends in particular are worth highlighting. Often
at their most advanced and visible in the Eastern
Province, they are at work to varying degrees throughout
Growing autonomy of the
The emergency regulations that have governed the country
in various forms for most of the past three decades have
given the military and police extraordinary powers.
The present government’s single-minded reliance on the
military to do whatever is needed to “eradicate
terrorism”, with no questions or criticisms allowed, has
given the military even greater powers and growing
autonomy relative to civilian authorities.
In Jaffna and portions of the Eastern Province,
the military issues its own photo identification cards,
which residents must carry, in addition to the national
cards other citizens are expected to have.
In July 2007, the Eastern Province military
commander notified local civil administrators his office
had final say on which humanitarian and development NGOs
could work in areas recently retaken from the LTTE,
despite government statements that the region was
liberated and safe for reconstruction and development.
The Supreme Court’s rejection of a fundamental
rights suit challenging displacement of Tamil families
by the high security zone south of Trincomalee ratified
the emergency powers of the military to determine who
could resettle on their land.
When requested by a presidential commission of
inquiry to provide information on the location of
military units at the time of the murders of the
seventeen ACF aid workers in August 2006, military
representatives claimed not to know. The defence
ministry has ignored additional requests.
While the war and the patriotism it stimulates can be
useful to politicians in the short term, the increasing
autonomy of the military and police risks reducing the
overall scope of civilian authority.
Fear of another “83” – shorthand for
government-sanctioned attacks on Tamils in July 1983
that left hundreds dead, businesses and homes destroyed
and sent hundreds of thousands into permanent exile – is
high among Tamils in Colombo. It is likely exaggerated,
and hopefully unfounded, but suggests the depth of the
alienation and insecurity most Tamils and growing
numbers of Muslim experience. The increasing influence
of Sinhala supremacist forces within and outside the
government, the impunity with which Tamils have been
killed and disappeared by forces linked to the
government and the indiscriminate ways in which
emergency powers and anti-terrorism laws have been
applied throughout the country have left many feeling
they are without protection.
Sinhalese, too, are feeling insecure. The rash of
attacks on Sinhalese civilians in Colombo and in the
south east bear all the hallmarks of the LTTE and are
likely designed to stir up ethnic tensions and provoke
retaliatory attacks on Tamils. In contrast to the
Chandrika Kumaratunga government in the 1990s, the
present administration has sent no strong messages to
its security forces or the general public that attacks
on Tamils are not condoned, and Tamils are not
responsible for Tiger atrocities. There is mostly
silence, or at best pro forma appeals for calm, and JVP
and JHU leaders are apt to make pronouncements that are
more like warnings to Tamils.
As ethnic tensions rise, so does economic insecurity.
The two are a potentially explosive combination. With
the JVP actively campaigning against the high cost of
living and traitors to the motherland, and in support of
a war to wipe out terrorism, there is a real risk that
economic discontent could be diverted into ethnic
violence. December 2007 attacks by Sinhalese youth on
Tamil villages near the southern town of Tissamaharama
were reportedly in reaction to earlier attacks on local
Sinhalese villagers blamed on the Tigers. But they were
also said to be in retaliation for economic suffering
caused by the Tiger attacks, which have led to the
closure of the nearby Yala national park, a major source
of income for local villagers. Some local military and
police elements were said to condone the attacks and
warn Tamil villagers of more to come.
Radicalisation of Muslims
Frequent stories about the existence of organised Muslim
armed groups have so far been unsubstantiated. “Yes,
there are armed Muslims, but these are stray elements
who use the gun to enforce Wahhabism in the Muslim
community. Their campaigns are not directed towards the
Tamils or anybody else”, said a trader in Kattankudy.
Muslim leaders nevertheless have grounds to warn that if
the government and its security forces continue to turn
a blind eye to TMVP aggression and criminal activities,
Muslim youth might take up arms in desperation. The TMVP
has driven some Muslims from their lands and given them
to Tamil favourites. Its attempt to rig the Batticaloa
district local elections and prevent SLMC candidates
from campaigning is creating anger. A Muslim social
worker pointed out: “In the 1990s, the Muslims, whether
old or young, were too scared to resist the Tamil
militants in word or deed, even though the Tamil
militants had massacred Muslims praying in mosques. But
now, the mood is different. The young are asking why
Muslims should bow to the Tamil militants”.
Sri Lanka’s Muslims have shown tremendous patience over
decades of violent conflict and remain a rare source of
political moderation. Such a valuable resource should
not be lost, but M.I.M. Mohideen, head of the Muslim
Rights Organisation, warned:
The Muslims can no longer be at the receiving end,
losing more and more lives and properties in the most
horrendous manner for no fault of theirs. The government
must now clearly indicate without any hesitation that it
is prepared to stand by the peaceful and unarmed Muslim
community to resolve their legitimate grievances before
it is too late.
Those in the international community concerned with Sri
Lanka’s political stability cannot afford to sit back
and wait for a return to negotiations. While the CFA and
the 2002 peace process are now definitively over, and
there is no near-term chance of a return to peace talks,
coordinated action could still help limit the damage to
lives, property, social cohesion and democratic
Sri Lanka’s international democratic allies, not only
the four co-chairs of the old peace process – Japan,
Norway, the EU and U.S. – but also India, Australia,
South Korea and other Asian states, as well as the UN,
must speak out even more strongly about the dangers of
pursuing the war against the Tigers, especially in the
absence of any serious government commitment to
devolution and power sharing, and respect for basic
human rights and political dissent. Governments and
multilateral organisations that have traditionally
supported Sri Lanka should move beyond expressions of
displeasure at the abrogation of the ceasefire agreement
and focus on five areas that are the necessary
ingredients for damage control and, eventually, a
sustainable political solution.
Donors and UN agencies should press more
vigorously for full, regular humanitarian agency access
to populations in need in the north and east and respond
in a more coordinated and forceful manner to the
intimidation campaign waged by the JVP, the Patriotic
National Movement and government elements.
Donors, most crucially Japan, the World Bank, the
Asian Development Bank and the UN, should devote the
requisite resources to ensuring that their funds support
only inclusive, consultative and conflict-sensitive
approaches to development and land issues in the Eastern
Donors and supporters should speak more strongly
and consistently in defence of human rights and
democratic freedoms inside Sri Lanka, at the UN Human
Rights Council in Geneva and, when possible, at UN
headquarters in New York.
A clear message should be delivered that
implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment is not an
adequate response to the legitimate aspirations and
rights of the Tamil and Muslim communities and that
constitutional reforms are still a necessary ingredient
for any sustainable political settlement.
Stronger political and legal pressure should be
applied to the LTTE outside Sri Lanka. The Tigers and
diaspora supporters should be told clearly that the LTTE
must change or face permanent isolation and political
The International Actors
Sri Lanka has long relied on Japan, its largest donor,
Pakistan, an important military supplier, and India, its
closest neighbour and both one of its largest trading
partners and a supplier of defensive military equipment.
Since the renewal of hostilities in 2006 and the ensuing
criticism of humanitarian and human rights problems
mainly from the U.S. and Europe, the Rajapaksa
administration has made a concerted effort to develop
political, economic and military support from
non-Western governments. Most recently, it has actively
cultivated Iran, China and smaller Asian states.
To a significant degree, this has been effective in
limiting foreigners’ influence on policy, but there is
still much that those worried at current developments
India remains the most important of Sri Lanka’s foreign
supporters. It has the political, economic and military
clout to influence policies and has spoken out regularly
on the importance of a form of power sharing that would
form the core of a political solution acceptable to all
three communities. Without its statements and strong
private pressure, the APRC process would not have
advanced as far as it has. The weak version of potential
devolution that ultimately emerged, however, suggests
India’s limits in the present political context.
Delhi is displeased with the mainly military approach to
the conflict, especially the CFA abrogation. It wants
Tamils to have equal treatment and a fair share of power
and worries about the deal they might get if the LTTE
was no longer in the picture. The governing coalition
would collapse without the support of parliamentarians
from Tamil Nadu, and that state’s parties cannot afford
to look weak on Sri Lanka’s Tamils. In part for these
reasons, the government is concerned about the possible
spillover effect of heightened violence in Sri Lanka,
whether large increases in refugees entering southern
India or other border security problems.
Preoccupied by coalition tensions and instability in
Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, and with little serious
pressure yet coming from its Tamil Nadu allies, however,
Delhi has resisted engaging in active peacemaking or
using its strongest leverage to shift Colombo’s
Its caution also results from important constraints,
including memory of the failed India Peace Keeping Force
in the late 1980s and the LTTE’s subsequent murder of
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The standing indictment of
LTTE leader Prabhakaran and Tiger intelligence chief
Pottu Amman for Gandhi’s killing and the terrorist ban
on the Tigers make it difficult to engage in any process
involving contact with the LTTE and help explain why it
is not unhappy to see the LTTE militarily weakened and
top leaders targeted.
India has significant economic and security interests in
Sri Lanka and does not want rivals, especially China, to
gain too great a foothold. It is also nervous about
Pakistan’s military and intelligence activities in the
country. It believes the position it has taken on
Myanmar opened space for Pakistan and China to gain
greater influence there and wishes to avoid a
repetition. Aware of this, the Sri Lankan government has
skilfully used its overtures to those countries to
entice India to increase both economic and military
support over the past year.
Despite India’s displeasure with the lack of significant
movement towards a political solution, it gives
significant military help, including radar and other
defensive equipment, intelligence sharing and naval
patrols to prevent LTTE arms smuggling.
And it carefully avoids public pressure on President
Rajapaksa to do something he might refuse.
Within these limitations, Delhi still has options.
Regardless of the extent to which Colombo implements the
Thirteenth Amendment, India should maintain strong
advocacy for meaningful devolution of power, beyond the
limitations of the unitary state. In part to increase
support for such reforms, it should offer strong backing
for non-LTTE Tamil parties, clearly distinguishing those
willing to abide by democratic norms from those, like
the TMVP, which are not. It should actively encourage
the growing links between Sri Lanka’s minority parties,
Sri Lankan Tamil, Up-Country Tamil, and Muslim,
encouraging a move away from narrow nationalism towards
a broader consensus around minority rights. It would be
useful for Sri Lanka to hear Indian – and not just
Western – voices on human rights, and in whatever way it
feels comfortable, India should endorse an expanded
OHCHR office in Sri Lanka, with full monitoring and
reporting capacity. In support of these goals, including
ultimately a renewed peace process, it should continue
to strengthen policy coordination with the EU and U.S.
Other governments and international actors need to
recognise the constraints within which the Indian
government is operating, while India should be more
proactive in letting them know what undertakings it
would support. All need to coordinate more closely.
Gaining India’s backing would create increased leverage
with Colombo. The January 2008 India-EU joint statement
was a positive step, but without more such coordination,
international policy on Sri Lanka will likely remain
As Sri Lanka’s largest single donor by far, Japan has
much but mostly unused leverage. Deeply invested in the
2002 peace process, it was slow to recognise the
government’s determination to pursue the war against the
Tigers and the damage being done to human rights and
democratic institutions. Traditionally reluctant to tie
aid to political conditions and also concerned about
China’s growing economic power in the country, it has
until recently been supportive of the Rajapaksa
administration. Despite expressing occasional worries
about rising violence and human rights violations, it
has repeatedly said it is confident the government is
committed to a peaceful solution.
Since the abrogation of the CFA, however, there are
signs that Japan’s patience may be wearing thin. Upset
at the possible “dire humanitarian consequences” of an
attempted military solution, Japanese envoy Yasushi
Akashi announced at the end of a two-day visit to
Colombo that new aid would be under review, based on
“very close monitoring and observation of the
situation”, and the government’s actions would be
“important considerations” in aid decisions.
Officials have also begun publicly expressing their
concern about human rights abuses and the urgent need
for a credible devolution package.
Allies, especially the U.S., should urge Japan to take
stronger steps, beginning with supporting a donor task
force on the east and a donor conference on wartime aid
priorities. Japan should publicly endorse a
fully-staffed UN human rights mission in Sri Lanka and
announce that it looks forward to the final report of
the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons
(IIGEP) and to Colombo taking the report’s
Sri Lanka is courting China, which is also one of its
major military suppliers, as a potential source of
investment and large infrastructure projects as well as
of political support. Chinese companies are involved in
two of the biggest development projects: the new port in
the president’s home town, Hambantota, and a coal power
plant in the north western town of Norochcholai. China
has been quiet about the military and political
situation but, as a Security Council permanent member,
should communicate clearly to the government the dangers
of its current policies and the importance of respecting
basic international norms, including the right of UN
agencies to work without undue interference.
Western governments and
Many Western diplomats in Colombo and capitals have
begun to express their frustration at their lack of
leverage over the Rajapaksa government. Conventional
wisdom has begun to be that because others give most of
the aid, there is little Western governments can do.
Money is not everything, however. Western governments
still have significant political and moral influence, if
used effectively, especially given the ties of elites to
Europe and the U.S., including educational institutions.
Four of the most senior officials have permanent
residency or passports from Western countries.
A few governments have begun to restrict the travel of
Sri Lankan officials for political reasons.
Short of such punitive measures, there are a range of
actions to take.
More countries should join the U.S. and UK in
speaking out for an end to impunity for human rights
violations; a non-violent, inclusive, transparent
development process in the Eastern Province; political
reforms beyond the present unitary constitution; and
insisting that the Tigers reform or be made irrelevant.
The U.S. and EU, as major donors to the World
Bank and the Asian Development Bank, should both invest
the necessary time and resources to ensure that their
money is used to support equitable, transparent and
conflict-sensitive development, especially in the
All should encourage and assist the UN to respond
more strongly to government, JVP and JHU intimidation
and to take more consistent and principled positions on
displacement and civilian protection.
While urging larger donors to review their aid in
the new war context, even smaller donors should aim to
leverage theirs to support whatever limited positive
initiatives local officials and civil society
organisations can carry out, and develop more effective
monitoring and reporting on governance and protection
Norway and the other
The architecture of the 2002 peace process is no longer
appropriate to the changed nature of the conflict and
needs to be cleared away so new structures can be
developed. India, the EU and U.S. should deepen
cooperation, with the goal of eventually forming a
contact group to replace the co-chairs, who no longer
have a clear role.
Despite Norway’s years of hard work and good intentions,
attacks from nationalist groups have taken their toll,
and it is now an object of too much suspicion among too
many Sinhalese for any government to be willing to use
its good offices.
International supporters of a negotiated settlement
should begin to seek out another party, perhaps even a
private individual, who could replace Norway as
facilitator, when and if the government and the LTTE
become interested in negotiations again.
Donors and supporters of Sri Lanka, Asian as well as
Western, should concentrate on five major areas.
Humanitarian needs in the Northern Province are
increasingly urgent. The withdrawal of the Sri Lanka
Monitoring Mission (SLMM) established under the
ceasefire meant the loss of one of the few remaining
sources of information on what is happening in areas
near the fighting. Without it, the protection and
information role of UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs
has become even more important. Their ability to work
unimpeded must be defended more strongly by governments,
including Japan and India, and by the UN leadership. UN
agencies must make clear they will be forced to scale
down or end their non-emergency operations in Sri Lanka
should harassment continue.
At the same time, UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs
should improve their capacity for coordinated
monitoring, reporting and advocacy on protection of
children, the internally displaced and other vulnerable
populations. They and bilateral donors should press in a
more forceful, coordinated way for full access to
populations in need and the right to deliver needed
supplies without undue security and anti-terrorism
restrictions. The government-controlled Consultative
Committee on Humanitarian Assistance has proven to be
ineffective at guaranteeing access.
Local government elections are to be held in March 2008
in areas recently regained from the LTTE, and provincial
elections are promised for later in the year. While the
stated goal of establishing democracy is important,
there is no possibility these elections can be free and
fair. In addition to their criminal activities, the
TMVP’s threats to political opponents – both Tamil and
Muslim – are systematic and well-publicised. Elections
under present conditions would be rigged and possibly
bloody, and donors should voice collective opposition to
holding them until basic security is restored and the
right of all parties to campaign freely and safely is
This requires the government finally cracking down on
If the government is truly interested in economic
development of the east, it will need to rely to a large
extent on donors. It has yet to forward large aid
requests to the major development banks, though the
World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Japan Bank for
International Cooperation and bilateral donors are
continuing smaller projects that were agreed before the
recapture of the entire east. The World Bank and the
Asian Development Bank endorse the principles of “do no
harm” and “conflict-sensitive” aid. For these to be
meaningful, however, both banks must devote personnel
and resources to monitoring where their money goes and
its political and conflict-related effects.
The U.S. and EU need to press the banks on this and
encourage Japan to do the same and more generally to
express publicly concern about developments in the
Donors, both multilateral and bilateral, should
establish a task force charged with analysing and
reporting on the political and economic situation in the
east and prospects for sustainable, inclusive and
equitable development. Reports of human rights
violations, lack of democratic governance and corruption
are widespread, but donors have been content to do their
own field assessments, which remain private; assistance
is given without significant coordination. This makes it
hard for donors to meet their responsibilities to
taxpayers and Sri Lankan recipients that aid will
support transparent, equitable, inclusive and
sustainable forms of development. The new task force’s
reports should be public and lay the groundwork for a
donor conference to reassess Sri Lanka’s development
assistance needs in light of the recapture of the
Eastern Province and the return to full-scale war.
Finally, the UN and international humanitarian NGOs in
the east need to be more determined in dealings with the
government. The understandable desire for access to
those in need has undermined attempts to use the
leverage of a common front to insist on respect for
basic principles of humanitarian aid.
Donor governments and UN agencies, with their NGO
partners, should prioritise meaningful implementation of
the Guiding Principles for Humanitarian and Development
Assistance, adopted with much fanfare in 2007 by all
major donors and the government.
They have not been applied in many cases, with the
result that there continue to be reports of returns to
only partially de-mined areas, excessive security
restrictions on traditional livelihoods, lack of
protection against government counter-insurgency
operations and continued military restrictions in
supposedly secure areas.
With the end of the CFA and the return to full-scale
war, human rights violations and the problem of impunity
are likely to worsen. India, Japan, South Korea and the
rest of Sri Lanka’s international supporters should join
the U.S. and UK in speaking forcefully on the need for
government action to curtail violations and end
impunity. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry and the
IIGEP have been ineffective. Donor governments and UN
bodies – the Human Rights Council, OHCHR, special
rapporteurs and the General Assembly – must highlight
the government’s clear and deliberate failure to live up
to its own constitutional requirements and make the most
of available legal and political tools.
Donors should consider following the U.S. Congress’s
example and condition military aid on government
willingness to investigate and prosecute security force
personnel linked to human rights violations. The
government should be persuaded to stop intimidation
against independent media and dissenting politicians,
end ruthless counter-insurgency practices, insist that
the TMVP act within the law and expedite reestablishment
of the Constitutional Council, leading to appointment of
new independent commissions. Government and military
leaders should be told that unless they take strong
action, they risk being held accountable for violations
of international humanitarian and human rights law. The
same message must be delivered to the LTTE as it attacks
The EU should table in the UN Human Rights Council a
strengthened version of its long-postponed Sri Lanka
resolution, even at the risk of its defeat. The
resolution should call explicitly for a fully staffed
and empowered OHCHR field presence. The U.S. needs to
make clear to opponents of the resolution that its
support for it and for an OHCHR mission is more than pro
forma. India and Japan also need to publicly endorse an
OHCHR field mission and to actively lobby the Sri Lankan
government and its supporters on the Human Rights
The debate should also be taken to the Security Council.
Sri Lanka is already on the agenda of its Working Group
on Children in Armed Conflict; the Working Group should
recommend, as it has previously threatened,
and the Council should approve, tough sanctions on the
LTTE for continued recruitment of child soldiers.
The Working Group should also recommend to the Council
that similar strictures be placed on the TMVP for its
child recruitment and note with great concern the ample
evidence that the government continues to assist in its
It should also consider and in principle show support
for the recommendation of the Secretary-General that the
Security Council “refer to the International Criminal
Court, for investigation, and prosecution, violations
against children in armed conflict that fall within its
The former head of the TMVP, Colonel Karuna, is now in a
UK immigration detention centre. On 25 January 2008, he
was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment for
travelling under a false name on a diplomatic passport
covertly supplied by the Sri Lankan government.
Should evidence be found to substantiate allegations of
torture or other grave abuses by Karuna and his men, the
UK should prosecute and advise governments it desires
their help in discovery and protection of bona fide
witnesses, including by offering visas to them and/or
The EU should increase engagement on human rights and
humanitarian issues. Senior representatives should visit
Sri Lanka to raise concerns and gain a clearer analysis
of the situation. This could be linked to the 2008
review of Sri Lanka’s eligibility for the Generalised
System of Tariff Preferences (GSP+), which grants duty
free export rights to countries with good records of
compliance with labour, environmental and governance
There is much speculation in Sri Lanka that the EU may
cancel these preferences due to the serious
deterioration in human rights and governance since they
were awarded in 2005.
Loss of GSP+ status would risk seriously damaging the
important garment industry, possibly throwing tens of
thousands out of work.
Rather than an all-or-nothing decision, creative ways
should be found to link continued eligibility explicitly
to the effective incorporation of Sri Lanka’s treaty
obligations into domestic law.
The APRC and a political
President Rajapaksa’s insistence that the APRC limit its
long-awaited proposals to Thirteenth Amendment
implementation scuttled a promising experiment in
constitutional reform. It is unlikely he will shift his
opposition to serious power sharing while his
parliamentary control depends on the JVP and JHU.
Nonetheless, there is still room for useful, if limited,
Sri Lanka’s friends should stress that the
twenty-year-old Thirteenth Amendment, fully implemented,
is no substitute for major, sustainable reforms.
A lasting solution requires giving elected
representatives from the north and east the right to
make decisions, including through power sharing at the
centre. While respecting that Sri Lankans must devise
constitutional reform details, internationals,
especially India, should make clear it is necessary to
move beyond the unitary state – the sooner the better.
The president’s decision to tie his government’s
survival to the JHU and JVP is not reason to abandon
calls for constitutional reform.
So that its creative constitutional thinking is
not lost, the APRC should be encouraged to publish its
power-sharing proposals soon, even as majority and
minority reports. Without pressure, it is likely to
deliberate endlessly, blocked from consensus by the
SLFP, MEP and JHU. The international community should
also urge the UNP, publicly and privately, to announce
willingness to support broader power-sharing proposals,
along the lines of those made public by APRC Chairman
Tissa Vitarana in early 2007.
In the absence of government moves towards more
substantial forms of power sharing, international
supporters – including India – should closely monitor
the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment on the
ground and press for all permissible powers to be given
to the north and east, and for local politicians and
civil servants to be granted effective decision-making
Sri Lanka’s partners should also encourage other
forms of state reform to address minority grievances,
beginning with practical implementation of the formal
parity of the Tamil language with Sinhala, as laid out
in the 2005 report of the Official Languages Commission.
The government should be urged to make a genuine attempt
to change the state’s engagement with all minorities –
Northern and Eastern Tamils, Up-Country Tamils and
Pressure on the
Even as the government must be pressed to change course
on numerous fronts, the LTTE should face stronger
political and legal pressure around the world. Over the
past few years, there has been much tougher enforcement
of anti-terrorism laws against Tiger arms smugglers and
front organisations in the U.S., UK, Canada, India and
but better implementation of existing legal measures in
Europe and elsewhere with significant Tamil populations
and active Tiger front organisations is still needed. An
anti-terrorism framework has its dangers, however. Among
other problems, it has provided justification for the
Sri Lankan government to implement measures that harm
and alienate many Tamils and so run directly counter to
the possibility of a political solution.
While LTTE arms smuggling, fundraising and intimidation
should be criminalised, the Tamil diaspora as a whole
should not be. Western governments’ policies on Sri
Lanka should consciously include attempts to open up
political space within their Tamil communities for
non-Tiger political voices. Those governments with
significant Tamil populations should engage
representative civil society groups directly, expressing
sympathy for the legitimate grievances of minorities in
Sri Lanka, while challenging them to reject the LTTE’s
destructive politics and actively guarding against any
intimidation of anti-Tiger Tamil groups.
The 10 December 2007 speech by outgoing British High
Commissioner Dominic Chilcott pointed part of the way.
Challenging the LTTE’s “fundamentally anti-democratic
position” that no other group is allowed to speak for
the Tamil people, he argued that “unless and until [the
Tigers] embrace democratic, non-violent methods, they
will exclude themselves from any future peace process”.
The international community should at least say clearly
the Tigers’ role in any future negotiations depends upon
their demonstrating readiness to respect human rights
and accept the rules of democratic political
Short of a complete military defeat, however, the LTTE
will likely remain a major player in any talks, though
it should not be the only Tamil negotiator. The
international community thus should take up the
challenge of pressuring and persuading it – perhaps
using diaspora representatives – to renounce suicide
bombings, attacks on civilians, political killings and
child recruitment. The brutality of LTTE violence
against all three communities has increased the
resistance to constitutional compromise and negotiations
among many Sinhalese and some Muslims.
Similarly the Tigers must be pressed to say
unambiguously they would accept autonomy within a united
Sri Lanka, not insist on a separate state. The demand
for a separate state allows Sinhalese hardliners to
argue that devolution would be merely a step towards
separation. Renouncing separation would make it easier
for Sinhalese progressives to argue for compromise. The
Tigers should also be required to take some real steps
towards transformation before being accepted as a
negotiation partner. Such moves, however, may well
require new leaders. Peace supporters should consider
setting a deadline for renunciation of a separate state,
after which they would actively pursue prosecutions of
current LTTE leaders for war crimes and crimes against
On the other hand, if the Tigers do indicate willingness
to make significant changes in policies and behaviour,
the international community should be willing to offer
incentives. Countries should develop step-by-step
benchmarks for progress towards revoking the terrorist
designation – in part to encourage Prabhakaran’s
removal. However hard it is to imagine, an LTTE without
him should be considered and ultimately encouraged.
International security guarantees for Tiger leaders will
be needed if genuine negotiatons can eventually be
Finally, increased international support is desirable
for track two initiatives with Sinhalese, Tamils and
Muslims, inside and out of the country. The aim should
be to begin to build the middle ground – significantly
beyond the unitary state but far short of a separate
Tamil state – required for a lasting political solution
to gain traction once political conditions are better.
International facilitators should aim not at
strengthening the representatives of an uncompromising
LTTE, but at developing support for the slow but
fundamental transformation of both sides, before, during
and after negotiations.
In reaction to a ceasefire agreement and peace process
that granted unearned legitimacy to an unreformed LTTE,
the Sri Lankan government has moved to reassert its
control of the entire country by military force. The
desire to beat the Tigers and end the war once and for
all is understandable. In the absence of a commitment to
sharing power with unarmed and moderate Tamil and Muslim
political forces, however, the return to war strengthens
extremists on both sides. Locked in a vicious and
escalating cycle of violence, the excesses of one feed
those of the other. Lost are the rights and well-being
of average citizens, Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim.
With no chance of a new ceasefire or major peace
initiatives soon, the present stage of the conflict will
likely continue for some time, but attempts must be made
to control the damage to lives and well-being, to
liberal and democratic institutions and to the
possibility of future, more sustainable attempts at a
just, negotiated settlement. This will not be easy:
basic institutions of the international system –
including the UN and the rules of war – are themselves
under assault and in need of robust defence. Responsible
parties in Sri Lanka and the international community
must nonetheless defend those caught in the middle:
human rights defenders, Sinhalese good governance
activists and Muslim, Tamil and Up-Country Tamil parties
still committed to peaceful political change. Though
they are under intense pressure, these are the political
forces on which hope for the future depends.