The end of peace

Neither the Colombo government nor the rebel leadership wants to take the blame for destroying the peace process, but both appear eager to exploit the situation. All the international community can do now is to ensure that both sides are held accountable for the hurt they inflict on the civilian population.

The peace process that began in 2002 in Sri Lanka is now in serious crisis. An undeclared war between the armed forces of the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is intensifying every day. In the escalating violence, civilians have become victims of claymore mine attacks, while there are reports of civilian killings by unidentified death squads operating in the northern and eastern provinces. The conflict has now become a dirty war, in which civilian populations are deliberately targeted.

The 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the presence of the International Monitoring Mission are no longer effective instruments to arrest the spiral of violence or the sliding back to war. Indeed, it can now be said that the war has begun. Now more than ever, Sri Lanka needs new initiatives from the international community and the government to prevent the war from developing into a catastrophe

All this is taking place against a backdrop of the recent failure of Colombo and the LTTE to re-start the stalled peace process. The first such attempt under the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse was made in February in Geneva. Facilitated by the Norwegian peace brokers, the two sides met there after a three-year gap in direct talks. The immediate context for the Geneva meeting was the increasing violations of the CFA and the fears of a resumption of full-scale war. In Geneva, the two sides agreed to renew their commitment to honour the CFA fully and to take immediate steps to prevent future violations. That pledge was not kept, and within two weeks Sri Lanka had returned to violence, with each side blaming the other.

The European Union's listing of the LTTE as a terrorist entity on 29 May happened amidst an increasing risk of full-scale hostilities. The decision should come as no surprise, said the EU, given that the LTTE had systematically ignored prior warnings. The LTTE had disregarded the EU's repeated insistence that the parties in Sri Lanka "show commitment and responsibility towards the peace process, and refrain from actions that could endanger a peaceful resolution and political settlement of the conflict".

The Oslo shift

The meeting of the peace process co-chairs – the EU, US, Norway and Japan – which took place a few days later, blamed both Colombo and the LTTE for the crisis, and insisted that both parties take immediate steps to "reverse the deteriorating situation and put the country back on the road to peace". The four demanded that the LTTE re-enter the negotiating process, renounce terrorism and violence, and "be willing to make the political compromises necessary for a political solution within a united Sri Lanka". The government, meanwhile, was asked to address the legitimate grievances of the Tamils, take steps to prevent acts of terrorism by armed groups, and protect Tamil civilians throughout the country.

Most importantly, the co-chairs insisted that Colombo "show that it is ready to make the dramatic political changes to bring about a new system of governance which will enhance the rights of all Sri Lankans" – with 'dramatic political changes' meaning federalist state reforms. This refers back to the international consensus that federalism is the only alternative to Tamil separatism and Sinhalese unitarism.

If the co-chairs thought that by being 'tough' they could pressure the two sides back to the table, it was a short-lived hope. Responding to intense international pressure, the LTTE agreed to meet with the government delegation in Oslo on 8 June, and the two delegations traveled there. Astoundingly, however, on the morning that the talks were set to begin, the LTTE delegation, led by its political head S P Thamilselvam, refused to meet the government representatives – the explanation being that the Rajapakse government had sent too junior a delegation.

The government immediately recalled its team. The nonplussed Norwegian facilitators sent a stern letter to both the government and LTTE leaders, demanding that they re-commit to the CFA and ensure the security of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). The incident forced the international community to realise that they have little or no role to play in re-convening Sri Lanka's peace process, and as this is written they will be looking for an honourable exit.

Why did the LTTE go back on their word? Subsequent excuses aside, it appears that in Oslo the rebels in fact implemented a major political decision to terminate the peace process. In truth, this peace process has been in crisis for the past three years, and only intensified during the last six months in the context of government change in Colombo.

Both the government and LTTE have repeatedly expressed deep dissatisfaction, each for their own reasons. The Rajapakse government came to power in November on a Sinhalese nationalist platform promising the electorate that it would amend the CFA and start a new process. The thinking of Colombo politicos has been that the peace process, initiated four years ago by the previous United National Front government, accorded unnecessary legitimacy to the LTTE, and gave the rebels concessions that placed national security and sovereignty at risk. The LTTE's negative assessment of the peace process, meanwhile, is clearly based on the view that it has not produced a favourable political outcome for them.

The EU ban appears to have provided the excuse for the LTTE to bring the peace process to a political end, without the need for an official announcement. The 10 June Oslo announcement by S P Thamilselvam was actually a step towards a unilateral path that the LTTE leadership seems intent in exploring. This unilateralism seems to entail either separating the EU from Sri Lanka's peace process, or creating conditions for the United Nations to engage in Sri Lanka under new conditions of dramatically increasing violence.

New paradigm

As the 2002 peace process approaches what in all likelihood is its final phase, Colombo, the LTTE and the international community face three particular dilemmas. For the government, the problem now is to prevent a major war from breaking out, while trying to weaken the LTTE militarily and politically. The government does not want to be seen by the international community as taking any direct initiative to bring the peace process to a formal end. Meanwhile, there are groups within the establishment that continue to argue that the time has come to defeat the LTTE militarily. The radical Sinhalese Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a key member of the ruling coalition with 39 parliamentary seats, has launched a campaign saying that 'enough is enough', and telling President Rajapakse to move in the direction of defeating "LTTE terrorism" once and for all. Along with sections of the military, they emphasise that war with the LTTE is both necessary and winnable.

President Rajapakse, however, appears to be cautious about a large-scale war, and many politicians understand that such a conflict would give an opportunity for the rebels to launch heavily destructive attacks on the country's economic edifices and general infrastructure. The government's preferred option seems to be maintaining the low-intensity war of the past few months, eventually weakening the LTTE's offensive capacity. Even without the 15 June attack in Kebettigollawa, however, would that really work?   For its part, the LTTE has bid farewell to the 2002 peace process, even though it may not have made an official announcement. The rebels' dilemma is essentially what to do next, for they too do not want to be blamed for unilaterally initiating the next phase of the conflict. At the same time, the government's low-intensity offensive has hurt them militarily. With the 2004 defection of Karuna, the LTTE's military commander of the eastern province, the LTTE's military strength and control of the east has suffered a considerable setback. With the assistance of the Karuna group and other paramilitaries, a number of the local LTTE military commanders and key civilian supporters have been assassinated in recent months.

The LTTE leadership's claim that it has the ability to protect civilian Tamils is also coming under serious doubt, particularly in the context of the continuing abductions and killings of pro-LTTE civilians by anti-LTTE armed groups, as well as the government's new policy of retaliatory air and artillery strikes. Thus, from the rebels' perspective as well, a major war seems to be a necessity. Who takes the initiative to declare hostilities, however, remains the question. It seems that the LTTE would prefer provoking the government to take the first step towards all-out war, with the hope that a massive retaliatory attack would be justified in the eyes of the world.

As far as the international community is concerned, the LTTE is clearly engaging in a process of trying to redefine its role in the conflict. The rebel leadership has realised Norway's limitations as a peace facilitator. From their perspective, Norway has not been able to ensure that the Colombo government implemented commitments made during the negotiations. The LTTE might now look for a stronger body, with the capacity for power mediation. Yet there are probably no volunteers to take up this responsibility, particularly in view of the international community's frustration and disappointment with both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

New international role

Against this backdrop, the international custodians of Sri Lanka's peace process do not seem to have many options. In both the EU ban and the Tokyo statement, released at a major donor meeting in the end of May, the international community re-asserted its role in Sri Lanka. There are limits to what external bodies can do, however, particularly when the domestic actors in Sri Lanka are not in a mood to work together for peace. The United Nations might be the next in line to get involved, though it is clear that it would do so only reluctantly.

The escalating dirty war in Sri Lanka has, however, opened up space for a new kind of role for the internationals. They must consider setting up an international verification commission to investigate incidents of violence against civilians. Although there have been many incidents of gruesome violence against both Sinhalese and Tamil civilians in recent months, including the 15 June massacre, the SLMM does not have the power or capacity to conduct thorough investigations and positively identify the perpetrators. While the government and LTTE exchange charges and counter-charges over responsibility for such war crimes, the presence of other armed groups in the northern and eastern provinces has made such violence against civilians a crime with impunity.

With the end to peace, it is now time to think about an international verification commission for Sri Lanka, with powers of both investigation and ensuring compliance. The move would be a small but necessary step towards humanising a conflict that looks truly and tragically intractable.

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Himal Southasian