So far both peace and anti-peace activities outside the conflict areas of Sri Lanka’s North and East have been small. A demonstration for peace in early March saw a few hundred gather in Colombo’s main railway station. The Buddhist monks who led a delegation to the Norwegian embassy to protest against the ceasefire were even fewer. The lack of passion one way or the other actually reflected the general satisfaction with the prevailing ceasefire. On 15 March, however, the Sarvodaya Movement commenced a massive peace operation with daylong meditation in the city of Anuradhapura, to be followed by rural programmes that will go on till 31 December. In their pamphlets, the organisation has urged people to prepare themselves even prior to the meditation by refraining from eating meat or speaking ill of anything. The participants will be silent throughout the four-hour meditation. There will be no militancy or controversy, only empathy and unity.
This peace meditation programme comes at a special time. The guns have fallen silent, yet the gulf between the conflicting parties remains and has to be bridged by outside mediators. The primary objective of the peace meditation is to orient the individual and collective consciousness of people away from violence so that the political leaders will be forced to make constructive decisions. At this juncture, when the Sinhala peace constituency is under pressure, the importance of creating such an environment and of Sarvodaya’s capacity to bring together people of different persuasions cannot be overemphasised.
The Sarvodaya peace meditation programme, with its emphasis on silence and harmony, is an important antidote to other types of mobilisation taking place in the country by people who are politically motivated and use nationalism and images of violence in ways that generate apprehension and hatred. Critically, the series of events that have been taking place in the North and East under the theme of Pongu Thamil, or Tamil Uprising, has sent a mixed message. The LTTE and many mainstream Tamil political parties have been fully involved in these events. The celebratory showing of videos of Sri Lankan military defeats and the killing of hundreds of soldiers, the slogans demanding the eviction of the military from the Tamil Homeland, and the symbolic burning of a giant military boot are considered inflammatory by Sinhala society at large.
The justification for Pongu Thamil is that the long suppressed sentiments of the Tamil people are being permitted to emerge in a cathartic release that is healing to them. Certainly the festive air at the Pongu Thamil events and the ability to openly condemn the institutions of the Sri Lankan state in the presence of Sri Lankan soldiers may be providing a measure of satisfaction to people who were long subjected to controls and harassment. Another justification is that Pongu Thamil represents the LTTE’s efforts to achieve politically what it hitherto was seeking to achieve by force of arms. Shortly after a wellattended Pongu Thamil event in the major town of Vavuniya which attracted some 40,000 people, the LTTE opened its first political office in a government-controlled area of the north-east.
The LTTE, being a non-state actor, will be apprehensive of a permanent cease-fire that puts it at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the government, which has political legitimacy backed by economic resources. Mobilising the people through Pongu Thamil appears to be part of the LTTE’s strategy to strengthen itself in the context of the ceasefire. While this makes sense, the LTTE should also be aware of the difficulties that its campaign could put the government into. The LITE and the government need to cooperate if the peace process is to be sustained. There is a need for more understanding and less provocation. Though most of the by and large Sinhala population is satisfied with the ceasefire, there is general disquiet among them due to the deliberate fanning of Tamil nationalism. Such a disquiet will grow if an attempt is made to hold a Pongu Thamil in the central hills among the Indian Tamil population.
In this emotion-laden context, the peace meditation campaign launched by the Sarvodaya Movement could be restraining at a time when hardliners, provoked by the celebrations in Jaffna, may well try and mobilise an anti-peace campaign. The peace process is tenuously balanced and both the main parties must tread carefully to reassure their civil constituencies. In this respect the Prime Minister’s visit to Jaffna is as illustrative as it is historic.
The Jaffna visit
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to Jaffna was historic, because it came a full twenty years after his uncle JR Jayewardene went there as President in 1982. Thereafter, Jaffna became virtually out-of-bounds for government leaders. The anti-Tamil riots of July 1983 are generally taken as the moment in which the war for Tamil separation got out of control. A lack of government commitment to the well-being of the people of the north coupled with fear of LTTE assassination kept the top government leadership away from the northern capital.
What is most hopeful and promising about the present peace process is the sense of realism that is apparent within the top government leadership. Although sections of the mass media tried to make out that the prime minister’s visit to Jaffna was a triumphal one, there is no indication that the prime minister himself felt that way.
However, winning the hearts and minds of the proud people of Jaffna is going to be an uphill task for any government leader. The wounds of war are much too deep and raw. Take the town of Chavakachcheri, which today lies in ruins; its schools, temples, houses and commercial establishments brought down just two years ago by a government which felt compelled to destroy the town to preserve Sri Lankan rule over it. After nearly two decades of war, and many events of a similar nature, the leader who can win the affection of the Tamil people will be one who empathises with them and acknowledges their claim to self-determination in their areas of traditional habitation. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has still not come to that point, at least he has not done so publicly. But the purpose of the Prime Minister’s visit was not to win the hearts and minds of the people of Jaffna — it was intended more as a message to his Sinhala electoral base, that the peace process was about re-uniting the country, and not about dividing it. Such political manoeuvres have become necessary because there are enough opponents of the peace process who have been arguing that the ceasefire agreement paves the way for the strengthening of the LTTE and the eventual division of the country.
If the Sarvodaya peace operation and the Prime Minister’s visit to Jaffna represent two internal factors that are keeping the peace process on track, there is also a complementary external factor that reinforces their impact. Even a year ago it seemed very unlikely that the United States would take any strong interest in the Sri Lankan conflict, but 11 September evidently changed the situation. The formal position of the US today is that it will take action against terrorism in any part of the world, and will help governments that face terrorist challenges to overcome them. But in fact the main thrust of the US-led war against terrorism has so far been against Islamic countries and terror groups. Sri Lanka provides the US an opportunity to take a stand that is not against an Islamic group.
The visit of the US Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca to Jaffna along with a US special forces brigade commander at the very time that the prime minister was evidently meant to send a strong message of US support to the process. It sent a very strong signal to sceptics and supporters in both the North and South that Sri Lanka has become an important arena for a US peace building effort. The show of US support is of particular importance in view of the widespread Sinhala perception that the government may have gone too far in opening up the roads and country to the LTTE. This apprehension of even the moderate majority of Sinhalese would be assuaged by the US reassurance that it is watching. This will strengthen the government’s hand in pushing forward and taking risks despite the lack of bipartisan political support.
However, there is an aspect to the US stance that has added stridency to the pro-war Sinhala nationalist groups. Just prior to the synchronised visits to Jaffna, the American ambassador in Colombo, Ashley Wills, made a strong public statement chiding the LTTE for its continued human rights abuses, particularly those targeting the Muslims in the east. In his statement he referred to “increased LTTE recruitment in Sri Lanka’s north and east, including of children, as well as kidnapping and extortion, especially of Muslims”.
Indeed, even those who publicly condemned the ambassador’s statement would privately acknowledge the truth of the allegations. There is no doubt that the offences identified by him have been taking place, with even independent human rights organisations such as Amnesty International calling on the LTTE to desist. And, it is not only Muslims who have been feeling the heavy taxation’ of the LTTE, but also Tamils in areas newly accessible to the LTTE on account of the ceasefire agreement.
Although Tamil politicians and media reacted negatively to the US allegations, the immediate response of the LTTE itself was much milder. The LTTE’s chief negotiator, Dr Anton Balasingham, pledged that the LTTE was committed to the peace process. Subsequently he also said that the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran was concerned about the allegations and would take action against any LITE violations of the ceasefire agreement. Dr Balasingham added that the LTTE would also invite Amnesty International to send a delegation to LTTE-controlled areas to ascertain the truth for themselves.
These are promising signs of self-confidence in the LTTE, that at this time there is no one to take their place in the hearts and minds of the Tamil people, certainly not the government. Added to this are promising signs that the LTTE is making the transition to a political organisation, one that is prepared to deal with the rest of the world on the basis of give and take, and accountability on the basis of international human rights norms.
For the present there seems to be a convergence of significant forces that add up to a fairly strong thrust for peace, and if this trend towards moderation in politics continues at the level of the government, the LITE and the civil societies on both sides of the divide, the prospects for peace will be come considerably brighter.