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Sri Lanka

Ending stagnancy in peace process after three years of ceasefire

Jehan Perera

Colombo, 10.10.2005

Sri Lanka Map.There was once a theory that no ceasefire in Sri Lanka would last for more than 100 days. The reasoning was that the LTTE would not wish a ceasefire to go beyond a hundred days on account of the damage it might do to the militant morale of its cadres. The breakdown of the ceasefires of 1991 and 1995 in which the LTTE launched surprise attacks on the Sri Lankan armed forces appeared to back this line of reasoning. The LTTE's own justification for withdrawing from the past ceasefires was the absence of progress in those peace processes. On each of those occasions the fighting that erupted after the breakdown of ceasefire was more terrible than what was before.

The present ceasefire is the fruit of the Ceasefire Agreement signed on February 22, 2002 by the Sri Lankan government and LTTE. It brought to a full stop a civil war that had been steadily escalating in intensity and spread, with hundreds of casualties after each battle, and crippling even the country's sole international airport several months earlier. The transformation of the country after the ceasefire is a cause for celebration. Most positively, from a people's point of view, would be the remoteness of a return to war in the past. There were many who feared that the ceasefire of 2002 would likewise be the forerunner to worse bloodshed than experienced ever before.

But now the ceasefire has passed the three year mark. In the larger perspective, it has been a successful ceasefire and the fears of the sceptics have not materialised. The latest report on the observation of the Ceasefire Agreement by the international monitors of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission revealed that there had been close to several thousands of violations of the ceasefire by the LTTE over this period and a few hundreds by the government. There were a large number of killings, mostly by the LTTE. But neither the LTTE nor the Sri Lankan armed forces have engaged each other in direct military combat during this period. There were also three incidents when LTTE ships suspected of smuggling in arms were sunk as a result of naval action or pursuit. But there was no retaliation by the LTTE or mutual fighting.


Whatever may be their personal rivalries, the actions of the political leaders of the country have been by and large responsible during the period of the three year ceasefire. President Chandrika Kumaratunga had to put up with the injury to her dignity of having the Ceasefire Agreement signed without her knowledge by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in February 2002. As the executive Head of State and Command in Chief of the armed forces, President Kumaratunga could have scuttled the Ceasefire Agreement at its outset. But she bore the humiliation with considerable graciousness.

When President Kumaratunga joined hands with the JVP to form a political alliance to topple the government headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, there seemed to be a danger to the Ceasefire Agreement. This danger stemmed from the JVP's stance that the Ceasefire Agreement constituted a betrayal of the country. The JVP advocated abrogating the Ceasefire Agreement and expelling the Norwegian facilitators. But the victory of the PA-JVP alliance at the general election of April 2004 did not bring about this worst case scenario. Instead it saw a gradual shift in the position of the JVP towards a more responsible stance that has continued to safeguard the ceasefire and its gains.

There is also a second positive feature of the present situation. It is the LTTE's demonstrated willingness to be flexible on the issue of working with the government on tsunami reconstruction. Prior to the tsunami, the LTTE appeared to have dug its heels in on the issue of the proposed Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA). In November 2003 the LTTE proposed an LTTE dominated interim government with comprehensive powers for the entirety of the north east, including the areas currently under government control. It insisted that it would not engage with the government in talks on anything other than the ISGA. But with the ISGA proposal demonised in the country by opponents of the LTTE, the government was unable to find the political will to engage on this particular issue with the LTTE.


Following the tsunami of December 26, 2004, however, the LTTE has been negotiating with the government on establishing a temporary mechanism to access and disburse tsunami funds from international sources. Setting up this temporary mechanism does not require all the heavy baggage that accompanies the ISGA proposal with its plans for separate law courts and control of the coastal seas, among others. It may be possible to establish a tsunami mechanism with a short time frame to perform its tasks, after which the government and LTTE can together decide whether to scrap it or enhance its powers and scope. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's offer of cooperation to the government to deliver tsunami relief to the affected people fits in with the need of the government and LTTE to establish a joint tsunami mechanism for north east relief for a short period. However, the refusal of the government's junior partner, the JVP, to accept such a joint mechanism remains a major constraint in the forward movement of the peace process. Unfortunately, in recent weeks the JVP has been launching ferocious verbal attacks against NGOs and sections of the media that they accuse of promoting the Norwegian-facilitated peace process. The JVP's opposition the signing of an agreement on a joint tsunami mechanism with the LTTE is based on its fear that it will be the first step towards the establishment of an interim administration for the north east modelled on the LTTE's ISGA proposal.

The natural instinct of those attacked would be to keep their distance from the JVP and to attack them in turn. Those who seek a long term and sustainable solution to the ethnic conflict need to bear in mind the importance of obtaining a national consensus on its solution. The JVP is no longer a fringe or marginal party. Instead it is one of the biggest political parties in the country, with hundreds of thousands of voters and perhaps millions who agree with its nationalist views. As the junior partner in the government the JVP has the ability to derail the government's peace effort by withdrawing its parliamentary support to the government. As a party in opposition, the JVP has an unparalleled ability to mobile its supporters onto the street to fight with its political opponents.

Many years ago, when the civil war was at its height, and hundreds were dying in battle every month, a handful of organisations, such as the National Peace Council, took the position that there could be no political solution to the ethnic conflict from which the LTTE was excluded. Therefore, they urged that any peace process should bring in the LTTE as a partner and as an integral part of the solution. Time has proved them right. Similarly, it is necessary to adopt the same position today with regard to the JVP. There can be no viable political solution to the ethnic conflict from which the JVP is excluded.

Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Forum, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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