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Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Will peace ever return to paradise?

Special to The Japan Times

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Foreign visitors to Sri Lanka have been singing its praises since the days of Marco Polo. From sacred Buddhist ruins and magnificent sculptures to gorgeous beaches and the verdant hills of the tea estates, this is an island that has much to offer in a relatively small area. Wandering mendicants, monks and pilgrims attest to spiritual inclinations amid the resplendent attractions; unlike tourist sites such as Angkor in Cambodia or Borobodur in Indonesia, here ancient religious complexes are still embedded in the fabric of the local community.

News photo
A woman picks tea on an estate near Haputale, Sri Lanka.

One searches in vain for superlatives that do justice to this earthly paradise, yet few tourists visit because of the nearly two decades of civil war that have claimed more than 60,000 lives. A lull in fighting last year between the government and the Tamil Tigers, known by their acronym LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), led to an encouraging recovery in tourism, but this came to an abrupt halt in July when the LTTE carried out a suicide attack on the international airport north of the capital, Colombo.

Recent developments, though, offer some hope for a brighter future. Last month the new government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose United National Party narrowly unseated President Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance in the December elections by promising peace to the war-weary nation, signed a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire with the LTTE. People's desire for an end to the conflict is palpable and was expressed with alacrity and sincerity in random conversations with locals met on a recent visit.

News photo
The reclining buddha at Gal Vihara, a 14-meter-long statue dating from the 12th century

Unsettling, however, is the widespread cynicism about prospects for a lasting peace. After all, Kumaratunga herself swept to power in 1994 on a similar platform, and although expectations were high when she launched negotiations with the LTTE in January 1995, four months later the talks foundered amid mutual recriminations and both sides resumed hostilities.

Everyone may want an end to war, but breaking the cycle of attacks and reprisals will be difficult. Two decades of sustained violence has exacted a heavy toll on civilians and led to the embrace of a divisive ethnic nationalism inimical to the trust necessary to address grievances and negotiate peace. The new government carries the burden of a bitterly contested election victory, and relations between Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga, whose term as president runs until December 2005, remain frosty. Moreover, some UNP leaders continue to espouse the politics of ethnonationalism that have fanned the prejudices of the country's Sinhalese majority, and the UNP itself is credited with first introducing the legislation on citizenship and language that originally sparked the Tamil minorities' grievances.

These two legislative initiatives, the 1948 Citizenship Law (which denied citizenship to some Tamils) and the 1956 law elevating Sinhalese to the official language, were seen by Tamils as an attempt to disenfranchise and marginalize them in favor of the Sinhalese majority. Some 75 percent of Sri Lanka's population is Sinhalese and 19 percent is Tamil, although there is a distinction between the Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula in the north, who have been resident for centuries as migrants from nearby southern India, and the hill country, or tea estate, Tamils, who were brought over by the British during the colonial era to provide coolie labor. In general, the less-privileged hill country Tamils, divided by caste and historical experience, have not supported the LTTE, although they have their own activist unions dedicated to improving working and living conditions.

In the 1970s, the government's decision to limit Tamil places at university and its declaration of a state of emergency in the north further alienated Jaffna Peninsula Tamils, who believed they were being penalized for their educational success and targeted for harsh security measures. It was from this time that the military and police, with virtually no Tamil presence due to a Sinhalese-only policy, gained notoriety for excesses and escaping accountability.

The current violence exploded in 1983 when the government orchestrated ethnic riots targeting Tamils throughout the country, although the official version insists that the pogroms were a spontaneous response to an LTTE ambush of security forces. Many Tamils fled overseas and have since become a rich source of funds for the Tigers; they have also successfully raised awareness of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

While conceding that the government has grossly mishandled the Tamil question, Sinhalese tend to bristle at foreign criticism and what they see as lopsided global support for a terrorist organization. They point out that the LTTE is not representative of the vast majority of Tamil people, and that it suppresses all dissent and democracy in its own community by lethal means and forcibly recruits child soldiers and suicide bombers.

Observers also point to the fact that the Tigers have a vested interest in seeing the conflict continue, because they have alienated their own people and would have trouble winning open elections. Continued funding from refugees also depends on ongoing hostilities and grievance-feeding repression by the government.

Along with those politicians who shamelessly fan ethnic extremism for electoral gain, the military and police also stand to lose from a lasting peace. In the absence of the insurgency, the security forces would face sharp reductions in their budgets and lucrative arms-procurement deals (current government defense spending stands at more than $700 million per annum, exceeding revenues from tea exports, the country's single largest export earner). The Colombo rumor mill suggests that some alleged Tiger incidents have actually been staged by paramilitary groups, while cynics point to the failure of the military to finish off the LTTE despite several opportunities, arguing that factions within the military have worked to fend off "victory."

It is this constellation of interests that is locked in a dance of death and conspires against the voices of reason. However, external pressure for a lasting peace has mounted since Sept. 11, as an intolerance toward terrorism erodes sympathy for Tamils as victims of state repression. The crackdown by Western governments on a range of known terrorist organizations is also likely to impede the flow of funds to the LTTE.

The LTTE wants a homeland in the northeast of the island, but ceding territory is, understandably, anathema to the government. Others suggest a federal arrangement with considerable devolution of power and constitutional guarantees of equal rights for all Sri Lankans, but accepting such an arrangement would require a level of mutual trust that is not yet evident.

The process of resolving Tamils' grievances is vulnerable to extremists from both sides and ongoing negotiations will require a considerable degree of statesmanship. One can only hope that those involved can rise to the challenge and overcome obstacles to the implementation of a lasting accord. Until they do, the long-suffering people of this troubled paradise will remain deprived of a peace they both want and deserve.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.

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