Sri Lanka: Peace Process on the Ropes
Ambassador Teresita Schaffer,
Director, South Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies,
South Asia Monitor, December 1, 2005
The election of Mahinda Rajapakse as Sri Lanka’s president puts
the country’s already fragile peace efforts at a watershed. By engineering a
boycott of the election, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) virtually
guaranteed Rajapakse’s election, but also served notice that their position has
In post-election statements, Rajapakse gave a conciliatory tone to some tough
positions, while LTTE chief Prabhakaran repeatedly said that he had given up on
Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese politicians. Both said they wanted to maintain the
cease-fire, but the wide gulf between them could not be clearer. The Norwegian
facilitator is reported to be planning a trip to Sri Lanka. He will need to
start what amounts to a whole new peace process.
A local politician with deep Buddhist roots:
A Sinhalese from Southern Sri Lanka and a Sri Lanka Freedom
Party (SLFP) stalwart, Mahinda Rajapakse first entered parliament in 1970 at age
24. Chandrika Kumaratunga, the outgoing president, named him labor minister in
1994. After a stint as opposition leader, he became prime minister in April
2004. He is at heart a local politician, close to his home constituency of
Hambantota, an area known for a depressed economy and radical politics. His
political style is long on tactics and the popular touch. His guiding political
principles have chiefly involved government economic benefits for the poor and
close contact with the Buddhist clergy.
A polarizing campaign:
Rajapakse’s platform promised generous economic benefits to
farmers and public-sector workers. Its peace policy drew heavily on pacts
Rajapakse had negotiated with two strongly nationalist political parties: the
Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP), a former insurgent group with 39 seats in
parliament whose name translates roughly as “People’s Liberation Front,” and the
Jatika Hele Urumaya (JHU), composed mainly of Buddhist monks. These agreements
led him to jettison most of the principles behind the outgoing government’s
peace policy. This came as a shock to Kumaratunga, who had selected Rajapakse as
her successor based largely on his energy and tested vote-getting ability. More
importantly, it made the fundamental basis for peacemaking into an election
issue, unlike the last presidential and the last two parliamentary elections,
when the core of peace policy was widely accepted.
The defeated candidate, opposition leader and former prime minister Ranil
Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP), campaigned on a platform of
mild economic reform and continuity in the peace process that he had launched
during his stint as prime minister. His campaign style was no match for the fire
coming out of the SLFP-led camp.
The LTTE’s decisive boycott:
A key ingredient in Rajapakse’s victory, ironically, was the
LTTE’s successful call for a poll boycott by Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. Tamil
voters would almost certainly have voted overwhelmingly for the UNP; with their
support, Wickremasinghe would have won. The boycott was undoubtedly intended to
show the LTTE’s power. It was also touted by LTTE spokesmen both in Sri Lanka
and elsewhere as a way to clarify the Sinhalese population’s warlike attitudes.
If the Sinhalese population left to its own devices would elect a man with
Rajapakse’s campaign platform, the argument went, this proved that the LTTE had
no choice but to insist on a separate state.
Peace process on life support:
Even before the election, the nearly four-year old cease-fire
was in trouble, particularly after last summer’s assassination of Sri Lanka’s
foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. A Tamil closely integrated into the
Colombo establishment, Kadirgamar earned the LTTE’s ire not only for his strong
anti-LTTE stance but especially for persuading other countries to designate it
as a terrorist organization. The LTTE denied any role in his assassination, but
its denials were widely disbelieved. This assassination, increasing violence
against anti-LTTE Tamils and between government and LTTE intelligence
operatives, and repeated clashes between the LTTE and the international
cease-fire monitors were all signs that the cease-fire existed mainly in theory.
The negotiation process too was barely alive. Talks had been suspended since
April 2003. The only recent dialogue had been a lengthy negotiation to create a
post-tsunami relief mechanism that included both the LTTE and the government.
The relief mechanism, known locally as P-TOMS, was challenged by Sinhalese
opponents in the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, which in July found parts of it
incompatible with the constitution.
Several donors, including the United States, had in any case announced that they
would not use this mechanism to route their aid funds. This left the outgoing
government with the worst possible outcome: an unfunded and unimplementable
arrangement, branded as too generous to the LTTE by the political opposition,
and a Supreme Court ruling that confirmed the LTTE’s suspicions that the Sri
Lankan polity would never agree to give them meaningful participation in running
the country. Popular attitudes toward the peace process, hopeful at the start
and fairly patient as recently as mid-2004, had become sour and disillusioned.
By the summer of 2005, pessimism and finger-pointing were the order of the day
in both the LTTE camp and the Sri Lankan political mainstream.
After the election, Rajapakse stresses peace… :
President Rajapakse’s post election statements stressed the
importance of bringing peace to Sri Lanka. Some policies he outlined, such as
strengthening human rights protections in the cease-fire and bringing the
opposition and the Muslim community into the peace process, would be highly
desirable. But others would change key features of the peace process. He
reiterated his determination to renegotiate the cease-fire agreement and pledged
to safeguard the “unitary nature of the state,” rejecting the previous
government’s willingness to negotiate a federal framework. He rejected the
concept of self-determination, even in the qualified form that the previous
government had accepted it. He welcomed facilitation by the United Nations,
friendly countries, the international community, and India—conspicuously
avoiding any mention of the one country that has actually been involved in
All these positions had been foreshadowed in his election platform, and all will
be seen by the LTTE as indications that Rajapakse is not serious about
negotiations. And his designation of Ratnasiri Wickremanayake as prime minister,
a politician known for his hard-line nationalist views, will be read all over
Sri Lanka as an indication that Rajapakse is faithful to the tough tone of his
…and Prabhakaran says time is running out:
Prabhakaran’s major post election statement was his November 27
speech on Heroes’ Day, the annual commemoration of the LTTE’s fallen warriors
and an occasion that usually elicits warlike language.
The punch line of the speech was that the LTTE would wait to see what the new
government could produce. If the results fell short, he pledged to “intensify
our struggle for self determination…for national liberation…in our homeland.”
Most of the speech was a carefully crafted argument about how Sri Lanka’s
Sinhalese politicians had undermined every chance for peace in the past two
decades and more. He declared that the LTTE’s participation in the peace process
was intended to show the international community that it stood for peace. “We
wanted to demonstrate beyond doubt that the Sinhala racist ruling elites would
not accept the fundamental demands of the Tamils and offer a reasonable
political solution,” he asserted. “It was with these objectives we participated
in the peace process.” The warlike tone fit the Heroes’ Day norm, but the
unrelenting argument about how both major Sri Lankan parties had failed to keep
their promises offers little optimism that a breakthrough is likely.
Sri Lanka’s near-universal literacy, strong health performance
and relatively low average poverty rate should be important assets for economic
Unfortunately, political uncertainty and significant concentrations of rural
poverty in parts of the country have prevented Sri Lanka from taking advantage
of its strong track record in investing in its people. Sri Lanka’s economy had
been growing at 5 to 7 percent per year since the cease-fire took effect, and
investment had begun to revive. In recent years, the major drag on the economy
had been high defense expenditures coupled with the depressing impact of
security threats. Both of these issues could become a factor once again. The
cost of Rajapakse’s extravagant promises of subsidized agricultural inputs and
pay enhancements for the public sector will threaten the relative fiscal
stability of the past three years. The new government will be presenting a new
budget, so its intentions will become clearer quite soon.
Shake-up in Sri Lankan politics:
This election also led to the departure from their positions of
authority of two major figures in Sri Lankan politics, representing the two big
families that have dominated the political scene for most of Sri Lanka’s
Ranil Wickremasinghe resigned as leader of the opposition, preparing the way for
a possible leadership change in the UNP. Chandrika Kumaratunga is out as
president. There are already rumors that she may come into parliament, and that
will keep alive speculation that she wants to come back as prime minister if she
can get the constitution changed to a parliamentary system. But for the present,
there will be an unaccustomed fluidity in Sri Lankan politics. Adding to the
uncertainty are the apparently strained relations between Rajapakse and his
Both the JVP and the JHU have decided to sit with the opposition, though they
support the government. The decision not to include any JVP ministers in the new
cabinet has raised questions about how the coalition will function. This means
that Rajapakse’s majority in parliament is shaky. He will need to decide whether
to call for a new parliamentary election, a move that would be unpopular with
most of his group’s parliamentarians and, in today’s polarized Sri Lankan
setting, might not clarify very much.
The key - peace and leadership:
The ethnic question remains the key issue for Sri Lanka’s
future. The peace process that began with such hope in early 2002 cannot be
revived. Sri Lanka needs to reinvent both the cease-fire and the peace dialogue.
The government and LTTE need to commit themselves fully to peaceful means for
finding a peaceful solution. The outlook is not promising. When cease-fires
break down, violence often resumes at a higher rate than before. And there is no
time to waste: violence is already going up, and the LTTE is at least
considering whether a military option makes sense.
Against this backdrop, one of the key Norwegian facilitators is trying to put
together a trip to Sri Lanka, and the co-chairs of the aid group plan to meet.
The international friends of the Sri Lankan peace process need to proceed with
bracing realism and appeal to the most urgent self-interest on both sides.
Without a new commitment to a real cease-fire and a serious dialogue, all of Sri
Lanka’s communities stand at the brink of tragedy. Posturing for international
support is no substitute for getting on with that extremely difficult job. The
inclusiveness Rajapakse has promised could stand him in good stead, but the key
quality he will need is leadership.
South Asia Monitor is published by the Center
for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt
institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is
nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy
positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in
this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).