Neither war nor peace

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

SRI LANKA is between war and peace. There are three scenarios that can emerge from the ceasefire agreement between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government: war, peace, or no war-no peace.

War scenario

The war scenario echoes previous failed attempts at turning ceasefires into more long-term settlements. Whether one blames the Tigers or the government, the basic dynamic entails a re-arming, recruiting and re-grouping by both sides. There were signs of this in the run-up to the ceasefire agreement on the Tiger side. As Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was preparing to travel to Vavuniya to sign the agreement, the Tigers were hurriedly landing armaments. Similarly, Amnesty International reported the aggressive recruitment of child soldiers by the Tigers. Other reports refer to the Tigers raising funds through extortion, particularly from Muslims living in the Eastern Province.

The Sri Lankan government is also planning a recruitment drive and the purchase of new equipment for the armed forces. These measures by themselves do not indicate that the parties are opposed to peace. Preparation for war is inevitable in any ceasefire situation because there is no guarantee that a ceasefire will evolve into a permanent solution. Still, this dynamic may not be stable, particularly if both sides continue preparing for war, without implementing provisions of the ceasefire agreement. One side or the other may sincerely, or slyly, utilise a delay in implementing the ceasefire as a violation of it, to begin fighting.

While the presence of a neutral third party mediator makes this situation different from previous ones, this scenario unfortunately is still very possible. To get beyond it, the government will engage the Tigers on a series of short-term humanitarian issues - such as humanitarian de-mining and medical services - and medium-term developmental issues - such as the restoration of roads and irrigation. This will lead to the second scenario.

No war-no peace scenario

The Tamil Tigers will utilise the negotiations over humanitarian and development assistance to extend their administrative influence over Tamil majority areas that have hitherto been controlled by the government. They will ask the government to cede control over the Northeast to them in the form of an interim council. This de facto rule by the Tigers will be combined with a massive infusion of rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance from the Sri Lankan government and the international community. It will lead to large-scale humanitarian schemes, medium-scale development projects and significant market integration of the Northeast with the rest of the country. There will be a general easing in the difficulties faced by civilians living in the Northeast in particular, and the country in general, because of the absence of war. These measures can be taken administratively by the government, that is, through the use of executive powers, and will not depend on constitutional reform or even legislative support.

The basic bargain between the government and the Tamil Tigers will be as follows: The government grants de facto control of the Northeast to the Tigers, along with economic assistance and the space to begin development work. In exchange, the Tigers desist from fighting.

The Tigers will seek to extend this scenario in the hope that the interim council will be transformed, with the passage of time, into a de facto separate state. Any attempt by President Chandrika Kumaratunga or Prime Minister Wickremasinghe to thwart this runs the risk of reverting to war. The Tigers will portray the efforts to prevent the formation of a de facto separate state as a disruption of the peace process and start fighting. However, if President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe cooperate in addressing Tamil political aspirations while thwarting Tiger separatist ambitions, they may help take the process forward to the peace scenario.

Peace scenario

This involves resolving three conflicts: the armed conflict between the Tigers and the armed forces of Sri Lanka; the political power conflict between the three main forces that currently have a stake in political rule in Sri Lanka - the Tamil Tigers, the United National Party (UNP) and the People's Alliance (P.A.); the ethnic conflict among Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. The current peace strategy of the UNP-led government appears to be based on solving one conflict at a time, beginning with the armed conflict. While it would be preferable, in theory, if each of these solutions could be tackled one step at a time, the reality is more complicated. A solution to the armed conflict may require or be assisted by a breakthrough in the political power conflict. And a solution to the political power conflict may require some progress in resolving the ethnic conflict. Thus these three conflicts, or at least elements of it, will often have to be addressed simultaneously. And the level of uncertainty can be quite high. Still, many elements of a solution already exist - the new ceasefire agreement signed by the current UNP-led government and the political package drafted by the previous P.A.-led government. These elements can be stitched together in a way that may enable Sri Lanka to bootstrap its way to a solution. Sadly, the failure of the two major political parties to collaborate effectively in resolving the conflict makes the peace scenario the least plausible.

Ram Manikkalingam is a Fellow of the Open Society Institute and an Assistant Director at the Rockefeller Foundation based in New York. This article expresses his personal views and not those of either of the institutions.

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