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Peace at hand
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 09 - 2002

An end to one of the world's bloodiest conflicts is in sight and Sri Lankans rise to the challenge, writes Gamal Nkrumah
In an unprecedented development, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam, better known as LTTE or simply the Tamil Tigers, held direct peace talks aimed at reaching an agreement on ending the 20 year Sri Lankan civil war. The peace talks, sponsored by Norway, took place at a naval base in Sattahip, 255kms southeast of the Thai capital Bangkok. No agreement has yet been reached, but the talks are viewed as primary discussions in the search for a permanent peaceful resolution of the conflict. Last February, the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers signed a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire that has so far held, and observers note that the peace process is fast gaining momentum.
"Harassments have completely stopped. In the past the harassment of ethnic Tamil people in majority Sinhalese areas and vice versa was very common. There has been absolutely no exchange of fire since 22 February when the cease-fire agreement came into effect," noted Hagrut Haukland, chief of staff of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Haukland said that Sri Lankans of all walks of life now feel safer and more secure. "We are taking no chances. We are taking precautions. We are deploying people in potential trouble spots such as Jaffna, Tricomallee and Batticaloa," Haukland told the Weekly. The SLMM, an international cease-fire verification mission headed by Major General Trond Furnhovde to establish possible violations, is composed of monitors exclusively from the five Nordic countries -- Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. "Tourists and investors are slowly returning to the country. We are cautiously optimistic that a permanent settlement will soon be reached," he added. "The [protagonists] in Sri Lanka are setting an example for the world," concurred Vidar Helgesen, state secretary of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.
The Norwegians have brokered peace deals and nurtured peace processes in the Middle East, in Guatemala and Columbia. But international interest in a peaceful resolution to the Sri Lamkan crisis is not limited to Norway and other Nordic countries. The European Union presses for constructive peace dialogue, and pledges help for the victims of communal violence. The EU pledged financial contribution to the establishment of a Peace Secretariat.
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The international community expressed its support for the peace talks and pledged financial backing for the reconstruction of war-torn Sri Lanka and the rehabilitation of victims of the conflict. Major Western nations that host large ethnic Tamil communities include the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia. These countries have all proscribed the Tigers as a terrorist organisation, and so has India.
The fallout from 11 September have had disastrous repercussions for the Tigers. Branded as a terrorist organisation, the Tigers have had their activities in Western nations scrutinised and curtailed. The US has recently expressed its preparedness to review its ban on LTTE. Washington has made that conditional on the Tigers' renunciation of terrorism. Richard Armitage, US deputy secretary of state for South Asian affairs visited Jaffna and met with representatives of the Tamil National Alliance, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the opposition People's Alliance of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Western nations urge democratisation and a greater respect for minority rights, but they all stress the unity of the island nation. A US Embassy statement issued in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo stressed the maintenance of the "territorial integrity" of the island nation. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan concurred saying that he hoped a political settlement will "preserve the country's unity and integrity".
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and the Tigers' leader Velupillai Prabhakharan "have a genuine will and a firm determination to resolve the conflict through the process of dialogue", explained Anton Balasingham, chief Tiger negotiator in Thailand. The mutually agreed cease-fire agreement with international monitors from Scandinavian countries that came into effect earlier this year in February is a test for the resolve of Sri Lanka's warring parties.
"A firm foundation has been laid for peace negotiations between the principal parties in the conflict," Balasingham said. "Normalcy of civilian life is slowly and systematically returning to the northeast of Sri Lanka, the homeland of the Tamils and Muslims, the region that has faced the brunt of the armed conflict," he added.
Previous peace talks ended in violence, but observers are hopeful that last week's peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers have paved the way for an end to Sri-Lanka's 20-year conflict. The Sri Lankan government lifted a ban on the Tamil Tigers this month as a condition for the peace talks, pointed out Professor G L Peiris, chief Sri Lankan government negotiator in Thailand.
LTTE, too, softened their position. In the past, the organisation was widely seen as a separatist group determined to establish an independent political entity for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority. The Tigers backtracked, saying that their demand for an ethnic Tamil homeland should not necessarily be interpreted as secession. Self-determination, LTTE now says, could mean autonomy. "Our demand for a homeland is not a demand for separate statehood," Balasingham said. The next round of peace talks are scheduled for 31 October- 3 November. Two more rounds are to take place in December 2002 and January 2003.
More than 60,000 people have lost the lives in the conflict. Both government forces and the Tigers have committed gross human rights violations and atrocities in the past. Over the past two decades, the Tigers have dispatched more than 200 suicide bombers and have included among their victims the late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was assassinated by a woman suicide bomber in 1991.
Setbacks for the peace process are bound to have dire consequences, shaking an already fragile confidence in the Sri Lankan economy. The Sri Lankan economy shrank last year for the first time since independence from Britain in 1948. A resumption of hostilities will plunge the island nation's economy into deeper recession.
The Tigers raided the island nation's main international airport Bandaranaike, 30kms north of Colombo, in July 2001. Three airbuses belonging to the national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines were destroyed and another three were badly damaged. Over 4,000 tourists were badly shaken and stranded at the airport. After the raid, the number of tourists plummeted but Western tourists are trickling back to Sri Lanka's famed beach and mountain resorts. Prospects for economic recovery are looking brighter.
Another crucial player is Sri Lanka's giant neighbour, India, with a population of some 60 million Tamils, concentrated in Tamil-Nadu, a state geographically adjacent to Sri Lanka via Adam's Bridge. Until Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, India was widely seen as a tacit supporter of the Tigers. But undoubtedly, the Tamil Tigers still have staunch supporters and sympathisers among their fellow Tamils across the Palk Strait in Tamil-Nadu.
Like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Kashmiri crisis and the Sudanese civil war, the roots of the Sri Lankan conflict can be traced back to British colonial times. Under the British colonial system, Sri Lanka's Tamils were favoured and they dominated the professions and bureaucracy. In the past, the Tamils were disproportionately dominant in education and among the professionals. In 1970 Tamil students constituted 40 per cent of the engineering and medicine faculties even though the Tamils numbered less than 18 per cent of the island's population.
After independence, successive majority Sinhaese governments sought to redress the balance, and changed the university admissions policy from one based on merit and the actual marks obtained in exams to a quota system. Today Tamils form 15 per cent of the college student population. Such affirmative action resulted in Tamil anger and frustration.
A turning point in the Tamil's fortunes was the 1956 election victory of SWRD Bandaranaike, President Kumaratunga's father, on a Sinhalese nationalist ticket and with it the fortunes of the Tamils were reversed as he sought to redress the balance. The tables were turned when Bandaranaike's 1956 Sinhala Only Act was enacted making Sinhalese the official language -- previously English and Tamil had been the official languages, making the change a catalyst for heightened tensions.
Amid charges of nepotism and corruption, the ethnic Sinhalese dominated Sri Lanka's political establishment. After his assassination, Bandaranaike's widow, Sirimavoh, inherited his office becoming, the world's first woman prime minister. Political assassinations became the hallmark of post-independence Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's husband was gunned down in 1989 and her own father was assassinated when she was only 14 years old. By the time Kumaratunga's People's Alliance coalition came to power in 1994 the country was yearning for peace.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, a nephew of Sri Lanka's first Executive President Junius Jayawardene, rose to power after Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected president in 1989. By then the country slipped deeper into turmoil and strife. Premadasa, too, met a bloody end, at the hands of a Sinhalese hard-liner.
Today, there is an unmistakable air of expectancy and optimism. Monitoring mechanisms are in place and the notion of power sharing is fast gaining acceptance. Challenges remain, but they are not insurmountable. The Tigers warn of the impact of "economic strangulation", "extreme poverty and severe deprivation" in the north and east. In the north, one million people are internally displaced and the entire civilian infrastructure has been destroyed.
A deal was also reached between the Tigers and the Muslims and LTTE leader Prahakharan signed a separate agreement with Rauf Hakeem, leader of the country's largest Muslim political party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress -- a rather unwieldy political ally of successive Sri Lankan governments, including Kumaratunga's and Wickramasinghe's.
Ethnic Tamils, geographically concentrated in the north of the island, still predominate in important sectors of the economy such as trade and commerce. The Sinhalese majority predominate in the south, central and west. In eastern Sri Lanka, Hindu Tamils, Buddhist Sinhalese and Muslims constitute a third each of the population. The Jaffna Peninsula in the far north of the island and its capital Jaffna City have for centuries been the cultural and political heartland of Sri Lanka's Tamils. Today the city lays in ruin, and much of the peninsula has been laid to waste.
The Tigers recruit unemployed urban Tamil youth and deprived Tamil agricultural workers in rural areas. The Tigers are said to have an army of about 10,000 men and women. LTTE has an impressive arsenal that includes artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, rocket launchers.
There is a need to identify and finance urgent development projects in the north and northeast of the country. Landmine clearance is another difficult and costly task, and so is accelerating the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people.
Enhancing public confidence in the peace process is yet another task at hand. There is stiff opposition to the concept of the devolution of power from Sinhalese hard-liners. Ethnic reconciliation is on the cards in spite of efforts by hard-liners to throw many a spanner in the works.

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