A year of peace

Print edition : March 28, 2003

Even as Sri Lanka enters the second year of relative peace in two decades, the game of brinkmanship continues and a sense of edginess begins to creep in.

in Colombo

"The main achievement is that the violence has stopped. Fear that stalked our people has become a thing of the past. There will be ups and downs. One should not be disheartened by the negative developments. The challenge is how to manage it."

G.L. Peiris, Chief Negotiator, Government of Sri Lanka, on the eve of the first anniversary of the ceasefire agreement.

A YEAR since the guns fell silent in Sri Lanka, the peace process has continued to chart an uncertain course, with no clear indication of the destination available. The reaction to the cessation of hostilities in a country that was wrecked by war, one would have expected, should have been a unanimous endorsement of it by the civilians who bore the brunt of the acts of aggression.

A view of a high security zone in the northern Jaffna peninsula.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

That, however, has not been the case. On February 22, the day when southern Sri Lanka burst into celebrations, the reactions in the north and the east were muted. A reduction in the military presence in all parts of the island is evident. That, by itself, with the added comfort of the absence of suicide bombings or other acts of terror, has given the southerners enough peace to light their lamps in celebration.

In the north and the east, however, the mood has not been so ecstatic, as an unfinished agenda pushed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) kept the collective mood at a sombre level. Residents of Jaffna and elsewhere spoke loudly on how the ceasefire had meant "nothing to us as there are still high security zones (HSZs) in the peninsula". In hushed tones, they said that there had been a difference in their daily lives.

The dichotomy in the reaction to this event also brings out the fact that the conflict is far from true reconciliation. It is also a telling statement on what concepts of peace and conflict resolution mean to sections of Sri Lankan society.

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe (left) and LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham.-RICHARDSEN/SCANPIX/REUTERS

The nature of the state in Sri Lanka, the key factor behind the decades of separatist conflict, is undergoing re-definition. Clearly, the key question that will surface in the months ahead is how the polity, and its several participants, will manage this change. Advocates of the peace process are quick to point out that the consequences of no-war have been a reduction in the strain on an already debt-ridden exchequer; that the gains from no loss of human lives have been considerable and, more important, that the country is set on an irreversible path to peace.

In terms of human lives, Sri Lanka could not have asked for a better 12-month-period during the past 20 years. The earlier, seemingly irreversible, military momentum that the island had got itself into has been halted, at least for the time being. Recent official figures put the loss of human lives as a result of the conflict at over 46,000. Unofficial figures have placed it in the area of 60,000 during the two decades, for which there are no details. Police figures said the LTTE had killed 14,487 security forces personnel, 7,473 civilians (25 of them foreigners) and 70 politicians. The LTTE had already said that it had lost 17,648 of its cadres in battle.

While nearly 2,000 people were killed in the civil war during 2001, this figure fell to just two in 2002. In terms of human life, the ceasefire has stopped additions to the numbers of the victims of the military machines. However, a militarist mindset continues to prevail. When Colombo and the LTTE started talks last September, there was an air of uncertain expectation over the manner in which the two sides would address the issues and approach the sticky subjects. The negotiation process of the past year is some indication of the approaches of the two sides.

For the government, which is charged by the Opposition with conceding too much, the committee route has become a favoured option. Thus, joint committees, comprising members of the government and the LTTE, were formed for several issues - the two main ones being the SIHRN, the Sub-Committee for Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs, and the SDN, the Sub-committee on De-escalation and Normalisation. In addition, there are committees to study political issues and gender-related aspects of the peace process.

Of these committees, the SDN has all but ceased to work. Given the importance of the military issues to the final resolution of the conflict, the neutering of the SDN, over differences between Colombo and the LTTE on the issue of the HSZs, is a serious pointer not just to the fragility of the peace process but also to the importance that the Tigers have accorded to their position that they are not willing to give up arms.

The manner in which this impasse was addressed also gave an indication of the government's approach to handling such issues - that of deferring the hard questions and taking on the softer ones. The expertise of Satish Nambiar, the former head of the U.N. peace-keeping forces in the erstwhile Yugoslavia, was sought and the two sides agreed to await his report. Though the issue has been soft-pedalled, all indications are that there is not going to be an easy outcome. Trond Furuhovde, the head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, has pointed out the importance of maintaining the balance of military forces, which he saw as the most crucial factor of the ceasefire.

In terms of ceasefire violation, the total number between February and December 2002 stood at 556. The LTTE was found responsible for as many as 502 of these, and the government forces for 54. Child recruitment was the most common violation, with as many as 313 cases; this was followed by 89 cases of abductions of adults and 41 cases of harassment. On the government's side, harassment (20), extortion (12) and restriction of movement (7) figured high.

That much of the government's responses to the various incidents on the ground are aimed at ensuring that there is no return to arms makes clear the nature of the pressures on the administration. In a way, the past 12 months have also seen considerable brinkmanship. After Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and LTTE leader V. Prabakaran signed the ceasefire agreement, separately, there has been a measured attempt by the Tigers to gain international legitimacy.

While there has been a greater thrust in the attempt at internal legitimacy, the external factor has remained elusive. The ban on the LTTE was lifted as a precondition for the talks. While the LTTE has its instruments of state - judiciary, police and taxation - in areas under its control, its writ runs across the north and east, including in civilian pockets under government control.

International endorsement, however, has not been forthcoming. The main demand by major global players that the LTTE should renounce the concept of a separate state and rule out a return to violence as a means to achieve political ends has not met with the required response. Multilateral agencies, including the organisations of the United Nations, have also jumped into the scene to bring more pressure on the Tigers. But, going by all indications, there has been no clear statement of change. The LTTE's main argument is that its military strength is its bargaining power and that to give it up would be suicidal.

Opponents of the peace process are of the view that the last 12 months have been "a bit of a mixed bag". While conceding that there has been no open fighting, they hold the view that "the LTTE is deriving more advantage from it". The government's explanation of confidence building, they say, should be "a two-way process". Senior leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) hold the view that the government "must be more assertive" in its dealing with the LTTE. Moreover, there is also the need to address the core issues of the conflict, a point that has been made constantly by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is credited with initiating the latest attempts at peace with Norwegian involvement. "Postponing the core issues is not wise at all, a senior Member of Parliament said, adding that such an approach would add to the apprehensions that the LTTE "is waiting for something more".

ALTHOUGH it is early in the day to pronounce the end game of the ongoing process, the intermediate stake is evident. It is the Jaffna Peninsula, the heartland of the island's Tamil nationalist movement. The LTTE's writ runs across the town, which is under government control. This was evident, in some measure, from the public responses to the one year of ceasefire. Although visibly different, and with many people living in greater comfort levels than in the past, the most common view was that the Army should de-escalate from the HSZs - the major demand of the LTTE at the talks. Several organisations, reportedly front organisations of the LTTE, have kept this issue alive. On February 22, Jaffna had a partial, token two-hour closure to protest against the continued presence of the Army in HSZs. The re-opening of the Jaffna Public Library was also postponed indefinitely, reportedly under pressure from the LTTE.

Jaffna, the main beneficiary of the peace process in the Tamil majority north and east, responded in this manner as it faced an uncertain military future. The Tigers were in control of the peninsula after the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) left the island. Government forces retook Jaffna town and large parts of the peninsula from the Tigers in 1995-96.

Since then, the LTTE has made its intention of regaining Jaffna clear. Against that backdrop, the call for de-escalation in the HSZs is seen by sections of the military and political leadership as the LTTE's means of retaking Jaffna without firing a single shot.

Although the full dividends of peace have not yet reached Jaffna peninsula, the situation has improved considerably. Residents agree that the reduction of military presence, the lifting of the night curfew, the return of electricity supply, and the rising public confidence levels cannot be ignored. "This is the best time we have ever had," a long-time Jaffna resident, who has lived in the city when it was under the IPKF, the LTTE, and the Army, said. She sees two reasons behind today's muted response. The unresolved problem of the HSZ, she felt, was a matter of concern, but added that the focus of public opinion on this single issue, overlooking the gains made, was largely because of the tendency to speak "what will be acceptable to the LTTE" given the uncertain future that the residents are confronted with.

"Their diktat operates there. They may not want to start running it, but they would prevent other people from doing so," said a senior political leader. The reluctance of the LTTE to make any commitments, critics say, is indicative of their desire not to have any permanent solution. The gains could be possible changes in international public opinion.

As the game of brinkmanship continues and the island enters the second year of ceasefire, a sense of edginess has started to creep in.

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