The extension of the month long ceasefires by the LTTE and the Colombo government was expected, and there was no reason for it to be other-wise. So far, the ceasefires have been diligently observed by the two sides in respect to the avoidance of physical clashes. This has brought enormous relief to the people living in the conflict areas, not to mention urban areas such as Colombo, where the tension caused by the prospect of a sudden attack has diminished to nearly zero. The parties to the conflict too have benefited. They are able to rest and recuperate from their years of fighting.
For the government in particular, the ceasefire has been of great importance. It is able to show that it has delivered results to the people and honoured one of its key election-time promises. The other problems that the government confronts, such as the rising cost of living and the power shortage, cannot be resolved in the short-term even if efficiently dealt with. Although the business climate has improved, it only paves the way for future investments and this takes time. For the LTTE, too, the ceasefire has been important. Apart from making the Tamil people happy, it can reduce the momentum of the international movement to ban it as a terrorist organisation.
However, the present ceasefire situation has a major weakness in that it continues to be based on the decisions taken unilaterally by the government and LTTE. The ceasefire is not one that has been mutually negotiated. This would mean that each party has given its own interpretation to what the ceasefire means, and so far there has been no joint agreement as to its meaning. This leaves room for potential misunderstanding and even deliberate exploitation by either side, or by a recalcitrant faction within it, to embarrass the other.
Therefore, maintaining the stability of the present ceasefire arrangement would be of utmost importance to the government, LTTE and Sri Lankan people. The weakening of the economy, and society in general, caused by the past years of war and political mis-management can only be remedied in a situation of ceasefire or peace. Reports that the LTTE’s chief negotiator Dr. Anton Balasingham has submitted proposals to the Norwegian facilitation team for maintaining the stability of the ceasefire are welcome in this context. His proposals apparently call for the segregation of areas of control, the setting up of neutral zones separating both sides, and rules of passage with regard to movement by personnel by either side to the other.
Dr. Balasingham’s proposals are important ones as international and Sri Lanka’s own past experience with cease-fires would demonstrate. In the past month, there were two incidents that could have led to a localised breakdown of the ceasefire. A police vehicle with senior officers on board took a wrong turn and entered into LTTEheld territory in the east. The LITE area leader accepted the policemen’s story, treated them with courtesy and sent them on their way. On the other hand, the LTTE cadre could easily have fired on the police vehicle.
Likewise, earlier in the first month of ceasefire a group of armed LTTE cadre in uniform walked into an army checkpoint seeking to go through it on the grounds that they wished to visit their relatives in the government-held area. Once again the interaction between the two groups was cordial and the LTTE cadre turned back peaceably when their request was turned down. But it is also possible that an exchange of words could have escalated into an exchange of fire. The sight of armed LTTE cadre approaching them in itself could have led the soldiers to fire.
At present, it certainly appears that the top level leadership of both the government and LTTE are keen on keeping the ceasefire going and wish to promote the peace process. In his first policy statement to Parliament, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that his government’s aim was to “avoid action which would hinder the fruition of our hopes in making the ceasefire last.” The same aim is also evident in Dr. Balasingham’s proposals to the Norwegians. But it must be remembered that neither the government nor LTTE are homogeneous entities.
Within the government itself there are ministers who have publicly claimed in the past that there is no ethnic conflict in the country, only a problem of terrorism. The JVP and Sinhalese nationalist parties are protesting the concessions made to the LTTE, with the former planning a major campaign against the lifting of the ban on the LTTE until it renounces separatism and lays down its weapons. These strong trains of thought within a section of Sinhalese society could impact on individual soldiers at the front lines. In a crisis situation they can take actions their commanding officers have not ordered.
Likewise within LTTE ranks there are similar divisions. This is particularly marked in the case of recruitment. While the government nor the LTTE have ceased recruitment, the problem with the latter’s is that a section of the insurgents, particularly in the east, is engaging in forced recruitment. LTTE commanders who are sufficiently hardline to engage in forcible recruitment during a ceasefire may also be willing to escalate any confrontational situation in which they find themselves.
After 18 years of war and bad faith on both sides maintaining peace on all fronts is likely to be difficult. There is danger of smallscale localised events suddenly spiralling out of control. If and when such localised break-downs occur it is imperative that the leadership of both the government and LTTE take immediate steps to prevent a spread. It is also important that media and civic leaders be prepared to exert a calming influence on the general population rather than mobilise communal tensions to the point that they fatally undermine the peace process. Society both north and south needs to be prepared to resist this danger and give their fullest cooperation to efforts to maintain the ceasefire.