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28/11/2006 | Sri Lanka: The Failure of the Peace Process

International Crisis Group Staff

Although resumed fighting has led to frustration, Sri Lanka needs international engagement more than ever, focusing first on immediate humanitarian concerns and halting serious human rights abuses, but including a longer-term effort to renew a peace process.

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

After four years of relative peace, Sri Lanka has again plunged into military conflict between the government and the separatist Tamil group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A 2002 ceasefire, negotiated with Norway’s help, remains intact on paper but is flouted on the ground with increasing regularity and frequent brutality. More than 2,500 people, many of them civilians, have been killed since January. Human rights abuses and political killings are carried out with impunity by both sides. The humanitarian crisis in the north east is critical, with more than 200,000 fleeing their homes during the year. Until attitudes change on both sides, the immediate prospect is for worsening violence.

The 2002 ceasefire ended twenty years of conflict, in which as many as 70,000 died. But attempts to reach a political solution quickly ran into problems. Negotiations ground to a halt in mid-2003, when the LTTE suspended its participation. Talks in February and October 2006 failed to restart discussion of a political settlement, and on both sides military leaders now seem to be in the ascendancy. The initial peace deal was rushed through, with the government keen to capitalise on war-weariness among the population. Although it stopped full-scale military clashes, significant problems in the design of the process ultimately contributed to the renewal of conflict.

The peace process was exclusively focused on two parties: the government, then led by Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP), and the LTTE. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and other key southern political elites were largely excluded from the process. Among Tamils, non-LTTE parties had no role; nor did the important Muslim community, which makes up some 7 per cent of the population. Much of the dynamic of the conflict is within ethnic communities, and the failure of the peace process to address this made a lasting peace more unlikely.

The process also relied too heavily on economic incentives and was undermined politically by opposition to the government’s economic reform program. More significantly, neither side had a clear idea of what the endgame might look like. Although the government promised an interim administration in the north east, run by the LTTE, this did not take into account the nature of the rebel movement, which continued to kill and silence opponents, recruit child soldiers and run the areas it controlled like a totalitarian regime. The LTTE was also unable to articulate a clear vision of its future. Its dream of a separate state – reiterated by its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in his 27 November 2006 annual speech – is unacceptable to the Sinhalese, and to the major regional power, India, and its rejection of democratic methods makes its eventual transition to pluralistic politics deeply problematic.

The renewal of conflict under the administration of President Mahinda Rajapakse makes any political settlement more difficult. There is little evidence that either side can win militarily. Although the LTTE may have been weakened by internal splits and increased international pressure on its fundraising among the Tamil diaspora it remains a formidable military force, able to mount terrorist attacks throughout the island and confront government troops in conventional battles. The conflict has spawned serious human rights abuses that further undermine the goal of a peaceful settlement, and the humanitarian situation has declined markedly, with thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing to avoid being caught in the fighting.

The international community has a key role to play in restraining both sides and pushing for serious discussion of a political settlement. However, rather than engendering a new level of engagement, the resumed fighting has led to frustration, with some donors and key players more reluctant to become involved. Sri Lanka more than ever before needs international engagement that is critical and sustained, focusing above all on immediate human rights and humanitarian concerns but with a longer-term political view that seeks to renew a peace process taking into account the full complexity of the conflict.

This report, Crisis Group’s first on Sri Lanka, describes the background to the conflict, its successive stages and the present state of play, identifying the major problems that have plagued the peace process so far. It will be followed by a series of more specifically focused reports containing recommendations.

International Crisis Group (Organismo Internacional)

 

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