The recent spate of violent clashes in Sri Lanka’s east has been serious enough to warrant several days of curfew in major towns of the region such as Batticaloa. The east is a potential cauldron of inter-ethnic tension, populated by an almost-equal mix of Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala peoples. The Tamil claim, buttressed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) military might, that the east is an integral part of the Tamil homeland leaves much scope for apprehension among the non-Tamil majority living there.
The clashes in the east have included an attack on an LTTE office in Muttur, a town in Trincomalee District that is neither fully under the control of the Sri Lankan military or the LTTE. Mortars have also been fired, allegedly from within a Tamil area in Batticaloa District, with some blaming the LTTE for the attack. If this is the case, it represents a clear violation of the ceasefire agreement, although it remains unclear at this time who was actually responsible.
As an ethnically diverse area, the east has been home to a variety of armed groups. Unlike as in the nearly completely Tamil north, the LTTE has not been able to monopolise militancy in the east. There are several non-LTTE Tamil militant organisations active in the area, along with several Muslim militant groups. These non-LTTE factions have often worked in alliance with the Sri Lankan military, serving as sources of intelligence and sometimes even engaging in operations against the LTTE.
The violent events taking place in the east highlight this region’s differences with the north. As a nearly homogeneous Tamil area, the north is more likely to accept unilateral LITE regional rule under a future interim administration. But the east, with its non-Tamil majority population, is less likely to accept LTTE-controlled governance. While the Tamil National Alliance, which accepts the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil people, won overwhelmingly in the north in the December 2001 general elections, the Sri Lanka Muslim Conference (SLMC) and the national parties carried the day in the east.
Accordingly, it is clear that recent violence in the east has not worked to the LTTE’s advantage. By underscoring the multiethnic composition of the region, these events suggest that a future political dispensation in the east should not be modelled on the Tamil-dominated north, irrespective of LTTE claims.
Unless driven’ by irrational considerations, parties generally do not act against their interests, and conventional wisdom suggests that if the Urn has been fanning tensions in the east it would be weakening its own position. However, the LTTE appears to have been instead reaching out to other groups recently, as indicated by LTTE leader Velupillai Parbakaran’s willingness to negotiate with SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem on the issue of LTTE ‘taxation’. While the agreement has not done away with all the problems, it has ended most of the harassment of Muslims, although individual LTTE members may continue to commit abuses.
Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that the disturbances in the east are the work of parties opposed to an LTTE interim administration governing a merged northeast region. Apart from the unsubstantiated mortar firing allegation, there is no evidence of any direct LTTE role in the disturbances in the east. Past LTTE policies of extortion, taxation and intimidation have left scars in the Muslim population, and the available evidence suggests the involvement of anti-LTTE groups who have felt a loss of power following the government-LTTE rapprochement.
Prior to the ceasefire agreement, anti- LTTE Tamil militant groups played an important role in assisting the Sri Lankan military in its operations against the LTTE. They were heavily armed, well-funded and wielded considerable authority over the Tamil population in government-controlled areas. The elite Special Task Force (STF) of the Sri Lanka Police dominated most parts of the east prior to the ceasefire agreement. Working with the help of the anti-LTTE groups, the STF obtained valuable information on the multiethnic east and restricted the movement of the LTTE.
Unlike as in the overwhelmingly Tamil north, the STF in the east did not feel the insecurity and vulnerability of its army colleagues. As such, the ceasefire agreement has been a galling experience for them, divesting the STF of its dominance and opening up new opportunities for the LTTE’s unarmed cadre.
Despite provocation, the LTTE appears to have been conducting itself with restraint in the east. It is not in the LTTE’s interest to jeopardise the ceasefire agreement at this time, or the benefits that the forthcoming peace talks with the government in Bangkok are likely to bring. These gains potentially include the setting-up of an interim administration in the north and east and the concomitant legitimisation of power over those parts of the east currently in flames.
For the moment, the LITE seems to be setting its sights high. There is reason to believe that its gamble of permitting the highly respected Amnesty International (AI) to visit Wanni in the north has paid dividends. The AI delegation that visited Wanni and also met with political leaders in Colombo appeared to be impressed by the LTTE’s positive approach to human rights issues.
There is no disputing that the LTTE has a very poor human rights record. It has a long track record of assassination, torture, massacres and suicide bombings, and has earned itself condemnation from human rights organisations in Sri Lanka and worldwide — not to mention the numerous international bans that have been imposed upon it. But now the LTTE appears willing to change itself for the better and to accommodate international human rights standards into its structures of governance.
Any willingness on the part of the LTTE to open itself up to the scrutiny of international human rights watchdogs and to operate within internationally-accepted human rights standards is extremely positive. However, the LTTE will likely soon discover that its good intentions may be irreconcilable with maintaining its monopoly position over power in the north and east. It is much easier to govern a complex, multiethnic society, such as that found in the east, through the gun than through open and active public discourse.
When it attempts to expand its regime of law and administration to previously government-controlled parts of the north and east, the LTTE is likely to face countervailing pressures of various kinds. This is especially likely in areas that are inhabited by non-Tamil populations. The temptation to resort to their old practices of coercion and intimidation will loom large in the minds of LTTE cadres on the ground when they are faced with the competing demands of the east’s mixed population.
At the national level, the challenge for Sri Lanka today is to find a suitable structure of governance in which two or more peoples can co-exist, cooperate and be partners within a single state. It is necessary to create a political system that does not permit the unilateral imposition of one group’s wishes on others. Sri Lanka’s experience provides sufficient warning against empowering an ethnic group in a unitary framework over ethnic minorities.
There is a compelling need for a decentralised and plural polity to replace the prevailing constitutional structure. This applies not only at the national level, in Colombo, but also at regional levels, in the north and east. A genuine power-sharing arrangement granting space from the centre, whether Colombo (in the case of Sri Lanka) or Kilinochchi (in the case of the north-east), and distributing power among the regional and ethnic communities, is necessary for Sri Lanka to realise its promise of peace.