The assassination of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, the highest ranking leader to have been killed since President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, has sparked off hectic political activity in the island nation. Considered the single most serious blow to the Ceasefire Agreement signed three years back between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the killing comes a month after the two sides formalised an understanding on a joint tsunami recovery mechanism. While the government was quick to accuse the LTTE of being behind the assassination, the Tamil rebels, for their part, denied any involvement in the attack. However, their track record of not claiming responsibility for killings they have engineered coupled with their fierce opposition to Kadirgamar, a Tamil who opposed their politics, makes the denial less credible.
The incident is but one in a series of ceasefire violations that have been taking place over some time. Kadirgamar’s assassination, however, had the potential to snowball into an explosive issue taking the country back to war. While the responsible approach of mainstream political actors coupled with the anti-war sentiment of the majority has managed to stave off the possibility of war for now, the role of the international community in bringing the LTTE back to the table is crucial if the peace process is to continue. The most important task at hand is to resume dialogue between the conflicting parties, ensure strict compliance with the ceasefire agreement in its spirit and letter, and put an absolute end to the use of violence.
Chessboard of violations
The high-profile assassination brought the ceasefire agreement itself under the scanner. The agreement has been followed more in breach rather than practice for some time now. Tamil political opponents of the LTTE, journalists, military personnel and LTTE cadre are being killed virtually on a daily basis. Recently, a police superintendent, Charles Wijaywardena, was abducted and hacked to death when he went unarmed to talk to a crowd of people in Jaffna angry at the accidental shooting of a barber by a soldier. The LTTE cadre is suspected to be behind the killing.
What Kadirgamar’s killing reveals is the autonomy of the forces resorting to violence. Some time back, Kausalyan, a leader of the LTTE, was ambushed and slain in the east amidst several camps of the Sri Lankan Army. In the northeast, international observers, who have been living with the people in significant numbers, especially after the tsunami, are appalled at the degree of human rights violations they witness on the part of the Tamil Tigers. These abuses include killings of political party activists, disappearances and child recruitment. Mothers are assaulted when they try to stop their children getting forcibly recruited. Most of these violations are not being reported because the people are afraid to speak up.
For some, the Kadirgamar killing was the final move in this chessboard of ceasefire violations. Analysts believed that the timing of the assassination, when there was a strong possibility of elections being held later this year, could only have helped the stridently anti-LTTE outfits like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and weakened those who advocate a negotiated solution. A diplomat expressing puzzlement over the spate of killings said that if the LTTE wished to gain international legitimacy and were sincere about the peace process, such actions were clearly counter-productive. The intention, it seems, was to provoke a reluctant nation back to war.
The ceasefire violations have created terror in the minds of people, and weakened the peace process immensely by eroding the credibility of the negotiating partners. The pre-requisite for any political give and take is trust between the two sides. In the midst of sudden, deliberate and hideous killings, it is this trust that lies shattered.
A war averted
In six weeks, Sri Lanka moved from a resurgence of optimism regarding the peace process when the agreement on tsunami recovery was signed on 24 June this year to what seemed like an almost certain collapse of the ceasefire. In the immediate wake of the assassination, there was intense political pressure on the government to either retaliate or stop cooperating with the Tigers. But such a retaliatory measure would have only served to strengthen forces that seek escalation of the conflict. What was needed in fact was a concerted effort by all parties involved to create a sustainable environment for dialogue.
As the tension heightened, the Norwegian facilitators of the peace process unexpectedly announced that the LTTE had agreed to President Kumaratunga’s request for talks to strengthen the Ceasefire Agreement. Since they left the negotiating table in April 2003, the LTTE has refused to negotiate with the government until several of their conditions were met, including a response to their proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority.
The credit for preventing a headlong plunge into the abyss of war and the possible resumption of the negotiations should go to Kumaratunga. Despite weeping at the death of her close colleague, the man she had considered elevating to be her prime minister, she urged the international community to bring to the negotiating table the very forces she believed had assassinated him, and who had earlier attempted to assassinate her too, blinding her in one eye. The president had to contend with those nationalists who angrily poured scorn on her for seeking once again to appease the killers instead of taking punitive action against them. The responsible conduct of Kumaratunga’s political rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe, further helped consolidate this call for negotiations. A lesser opposition leader would have clearly seen this as an opportunity to undermine the government by making false claims about how to deal with LTTE. But the moral support that Wickremesinghe’s opposition has given to the sensitive decisions of the president, be it the joint tsunami recovery mechanism with the LTTE or inviting them back to the table, in the aftermath of Kadirgamar’s assassination, can be considered nothing less than statesmanlike.
However, it is the people who, for refusing to get swayed by jingoism and war hysteria, deserve credit for averting a definite return to war. While shocked and distressed at the assassination, they did not convert to a mob demanding vengeance. Even the most hardline nationalists who despise the LTTE and the idea of ‘appeasing’ them do not urge a return to war. They may not quite know how to engage with the LTTE but after 20 years of bloodshed, they do know that war is not quite the way to engage them.
While the Norwegian facilitators did become more active in seeking to bring the two sides together after Kadirgamar’s assassination, analysts believe that they have to be more assertive and even-handed in their appearance. Kadirgamar himself was a critic of the Norwegian facilitative effort. In one of his last public pronouncements, he had proposed that the facilitators should either plead their cause with greater conviction or step aside and permit some other country or group of countries to take their place. It appears that the Norwegian team has taken his advice more seriously only after his passing.
The LTTE may have agreed on talks because they are aware of the international disenchantment with their track record of political killings, child recruitment and repeated threats of war. The Tigers’ belief that they were no longer a pariah organisation must have received a tremendous blow when the British government banned the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), an arm of the LTTE a fortnight ago. The LTTE would be concerned that after the assassination of Kadirgamar, other international actors and aid donors, too, will begin to ostracise them. Whatever be the reason, the re¬entry of the LTTE, particularly Dr Balasingham, is an opportunity for a paradigm shift on the lines of the breakthroughs that took place in the early months after the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement.
While the announcement of talks between the two sides was a welcome step, regrettably there has been little movement on the path of negotiations after the announcement was made. Killings in the northeast continue on a daily basis and politicians in the south have little reason to be confident about their own security. There have been two additional problems that have also emerged in the way of these negotiations — one is the selection of a venue for talks and the other, the announcement by the Supreme Court that presidential elections must be held this year.
The decision of the Supreme Court that presidential elections must be held this year, rather than next year, have also added doubts about the sustainability of peace negotiations with a lame-duck chief executive. Any decision taken now could be irrelevant with the election of a new head of state. However, the fact that successive governments have not officially revoked agreements with regard to the peace process entered to by earlier governments should assure all sides that agreements of today will be respected in the future.
The government and LTTE must start talking immediately, if only because continuous ceasefire violations have taken a heavy toll on the common citizen. Strengthening the ceasefire agreement would, at the outset, bring relief to ordinary people and stop human rights abuses. The talks must get the LTTE to make a firm commitment that they would not target politicians during elections this time around and abide by the Ceasefire Agreement. A free and fair election could set the tone for future negotiations. Talks are also expected to bring about a semblance of political stability, without which there cannot be a political solution to the protracted conflict. This stability is necessary for governments to make reasoned accommodations and convince people about the need for future compromises.