Brian Senewiratne, Australia
Peace cannot be abandoned in Sri Lanka
The Peace that has prevailed in Sri Lanka for the past 17
months, after nearly two decades of one of the bloodiest and most destructive
conflicts in South Asia, is in danger of being abandoned. After half a dozen
non-productive Peace Talks and no visible peace-dividend for the Tamil people in
the North and East, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have declined to
take part in any further talks “for the time being”. The specific accusation was
of “…the government’s refusal to implement the normalization aspects of the
Ceasefire Agreement and subsequent agreements reached at talks…” It is clearly a
wake-up call to the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) that it is time to deliver on
the undertakings given in the “Declaration of Cessation of Hostilities”, signed
by the GOSL and the LTTE on 23 February 2002.
A breakdown of the peace process will be a serious problem for Sri Lanka. What
is at stake is the future of the whole country. A breach of the current Peace
cannot be compared with the breakdown of earlier Peace Talks e.g.1994-1995 . The
degree and sophistication of the militarisation on both sides is such that if
war breaks out again the bloodshed and destruction will be much more serious.
If fighting breaks out again, the chance of another negotiated settlement is
unlikely. It could be a “Fight to the finish”, whatever “finish” might be. It
need not necessarily be the physical destruction of the country but the
destruction (the finish) of the economy, which will set the country back 50
years (or more).
Before discussing the problem of Peace, some commonly, but inaccurately, used
terms must be clarified.
The Tamils are often described as a “Tamil minority” mainly to portray the
on-going ethnic problem as “a minority problem”. The Tamils are not a “minority”
but a ”people” who are numerically less (18%) than the Sinhalese (74%).
The ongoing conflict has been described as “the Tamil problem”. It is not a
Tamil problem but a Sinhalese problem. The “problem” has been the inability of
the Sinhalese to accept that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual,
multi-cultural country where different ethnic, religious and cultural groups
have a right to exist in equality, dignity and safety . That is a Sinhalese
The necessary solution is often said to be “a devolution of power” to the Tamil
areas. “Devolution” implies a flow down from a higher level to a lower level.
The Tamil people are not asking for power to be “devolved” but to be shared so
that they can run the area in which they live (the North and the East).
Unless these fundamental points are recognised and accepted, there will never be
a solution to the ethnic problem, the current Peace Process notwithstanding. If
these points are not accepted, the current “Peace” will turn out to be a
In addition to problems in the Tamil North and East, there are significant
problems in the Sinhala South. Increasing poverty and an escalating cost of
living have made life for the Sinhala masses intolerable. Prime Minister
Wickremasinghe has failed to deliver on his promises to address the galloping
corruption, escalating poverty and poor governance which characterised the
previous Kumaratunga regime. As a result, there is widespread disenchantment
with the Government which has now been in power for 17 months.
This dissatisfaction has been exploited by political opportunists, especially
the Marxist JVP, who are being supported by half of Kumaratunga’s party, the
SLFP, amongst others. This deadly cocktail has been made even deadlier by
support from thousands of Buddhist monks, the bastion of Sinhala chauvinism, who
are capitalizing on the virulently anti-Tamil stance of the JVP. This has
created a highly unstable situation in the Sinhala South, which can make or
break governments. As a result, the Wickremasinghe Government is looking
increasingly shaky. A return of the disastrous Kumaratunga regime, in coalition
with the JVP, is not a possibility, but a probability. Such a change will, quite
definitely, end the peace process with a return to war. It will also be the end
of the current carnival in Colombo where the ‘elite’ are having the time of
The widespread peace euphoria has mesmerized expatriate Tamils, and others, who
are unable to see the volcano about to erupt in the South and a sabotage of the
Peace and a return to war in the North. Should this occur, violence will engulf
the whole country. This is not a doomsday scenario but precisely what happened
in 1988-89 when the murderous JVP ran amok in the South and the Indian Army did
the same in the North and East. This time round there will be no Indian Army in
the North and East but a much-enhanced and well-entrenched Sri Lankan Army, with
the Indians in the background playing a proxy role.
Instead of wallowing in the euphoria of Peace, it is time that people woke up to
reality rather than be taken by surprise. I have not the slightest doubt that
the LTTE is very much awake to these possibilities which is why they are
measuring their steps carefully and not rushing in to negotiate with a
Government that may be unable to deliver. Indeed, it might not even be there to