The first anniversary celebrations of the ceasefire agreement on 22 February showed how different sections of society are responding to peace. The main event, sponsored by the government, was a lamp-lighting ceremony at Independence Square. As part of its programme, the government sent directives to state institutions and schools to organise similar ceremonies. The light of the lamps was meant to symbolise the hope that the ceasefire would be a lasting one.
Another event took place at an open-air auditorium in Colombo’s main park, drawing in members of Sri Lanka’s social elite who have been largely untouched by the vicissitudes of life in the country. Youngsters with upper class backgrounds enrolled in international schools organised a peace concert, and some of the country’s best-known singers and bands played late into the night. The organisers charged a hefty entrance fee, with the proceeds going to deprived schools in the north and east.
A third event, an exhibition of photographs held at the national art gallery under the theme of ‘A Year of Life’, portrayed conditions before and after the ceasefire. Sponsored by the National Peace Council, this three-day exhibition was supplemented by a cultural show at the new town hall organised in association with the National Youth Services Council and the Ministry of Relief, Rehabilitation and Refugees. The presence of the outgoing Norwegian ambassador, Jon Westborg, as a guest of honour was an indication of the important role of his country in the so-far-successful peace process.
While the formal celebrations are notable, there is widespread support for the peace process in most sections of Sri Lankan society, including those that did not observe the anniversary. All public opinion polls have so far revealed that 80 to 90 percent of people support the ceasefire agreement. These same surveys also show that most people have reservations about some of the terms of the agreement and its implementation. But virtually no one, except for members of extremist political organisations, wants the ceasefire to lapse and war to return. Even though the economy is not yet yielding its potential riches to the masses, the peace dividend of being safe from bomb blasts and gunfire is too valuable for people to disregard.
Intuition says that the benefits of peace accruing to the people of the north and east, where it was most violent, are greater than to the rest of Sri Lankans. The signing of the ceasefire has also brought about a lifting of the economic embargo placed on the region. Due to the destruction and deprivation in the past, people in the north and east continue to be much worse off than their counterparts in other parts of the country. But today they are better off than they were during the years of war.
It is in this context that the black flags, hartals and disruptions in parts of the north and east that accompanied the one-year celebrations elsewhere in the country need to be critically examined. The ostensible rationale for these protests was the continuing burden under which people in the north and east suffer. A consortium of humanitarian agencies in Jaffna issued a statement to this effect and joined in the protests. However, the agencies also expressed the legitimate concern that recent violent incidents between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could destabilise the peace process.
Three incidents in the past month indicate that the ceasefire may be under stress: the apprehension of an LTTE arms boat and the suicides of its crewmembers, clashes between Sri Lankan soldiers and LTTE cadre over belts worn by LTTE women cadre, and the fatal shooting of a Sri Lankan soldier who went beyond army lines. This apprehension was also expressed in the Jaffna NGO statement. Such worries help to justify the army remaining in a state of high alert in case the ceasefire agreement breaks down.
The other complaint highlighted in the NGO statement was the slowness of the relief and rehabilitation process in the north and east. The inability or unwillingness of the government to speed up this process and to enable people to return to normalcy gives rise to a valid concern. While there is certainly a dearth of both human and financial resources at the government’s disposal, the LTTE can use Colombo’s tardiness to present itself as the sole defender of the interests of the Tamil people.
But despite the continuing difficulties of life in the north and east, conditions have undoubtedly improved since the ceasefire’s signing. It is the natural inclination of people to celebrate improvements in their lives, but the absence of public celebrations on the ceasefire anniversary in the north and east appears to stem more from the LTTE’s needs rather than the public mood. The LTTE’s refusal to permit the opening of the Jaffna public library in February might also be an example of this. A year into the ceasefire the LTTE’s agenda continues to dominate life in the north and east.
The LTTE has used the last year to build its strength using the resources of the north-east. Perhaps to overcome the reduction in funding from expatriate Tamils, it is taxing people in the region heavily and still recruits children, even through forcible means. It is therefore necessary for the LTTE to use every opportunity to justify what might otherwise, in normal times, be publicly seen and denounced as anti-people measures.
The contrasting public attitudes to the ceasefire’s anniversary in the north-east and the rest of Sri Lanka underscore the four challenges that face the country as it begins the second year of ceasefire. The first is shifting from a mentality of war to one of peace. The readiness to utilise war as a means of advancing political objectives has not totally disappeared. The very large demonstration organised by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) against the ceasefire agreement two days before the anniversary shows that pro-war sentiment still exists in sections of the polity.
The second challenge is for the government to find a way to move the ethnic conflict beyond the scope of partisan politics. In this context, the government must win over the mainstream opposition to the peace process. Achieving a bipartisan approach to the ethnic conflict has been a long-standing need in the country and a long-standing goal of civic organisations. Among such civic organisation, the influential business community, in particular, needs to strengthen its initiatives instead of being satisfied in its contribution to the signing of the ceasefire agreement.
The third challenge for mainstream society is to change its mindset from Colombo-centred to region-based thinking. This is necessary to pave the way for a constitutional transition from unitary to federal structures of governance. The setting up of joint government-LTTE institutions to decide on the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the north and east is a positive step in this direction. Government representatives on these bodies should be prepared to take speedy decisions, together with the LTTE, so long as those decisions are in the interests of the people of the north and east.
The fourth challenge is for the LTTE to change its militaristic approach to power and democratise itself. This requires that the LTTE educate its cadres about the public’s right to refuse LTTE demands. Requiring people to put up black flags, close shops and stay indoors on the first anniversary is not the way to win hearts and minds, whether in the north and east or elsewhere. The people in the south need to feel that there is goodwill and co-operation coming from the northeast.