On a June (30, 2006) afternoon, my plane lands smoothly in Colombo’s plush Bandaranaike International Airport. But beneath the velvet runway lays the turbulence of an ethnic strife that for 20 years ravaged this hauntingly picturesque island nation of Sri Lanka. In 2001, at the height of the war between the country’s Sinhala speaking Buddhist majority population and the Tamil Hindu-Christian minority community, the airport was attacked and a third of Sri Lanka’s commercial airline fleet was destroyed. More than the loss to the civil aviation industry, the assault was a blow to Government pride.
The airport offence was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a radically militant group headed by V. Prabhakaran. He has been demanding a separate State for Tamils in the northeastern regions of Sri Lanka, and had waged a bloody guerrilla war, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, for two decades till 2002, when a ceasefire was declared.
That ceasefire now appears to be breaking down. My taxi driver, who takes me that June afternoon from the airport to Colombo’s swanky downtown Independence Avenue, tells me that another war is imminent, a dread shared by many others in the city. Deserted streets and shopping malls convey a fear psychosis among Sri Lankans, who believe that the latest assassination of the country’s high-ranking Deputy Army Chief, Lieutenant-General Parami Kulatunge, by a suspected suicide squad member of the LTTE clearly signalled the start of hostilities.
All along the 30-km route from the airport to the city, I saw several Army-manned posts. Cumbersome checks prolonged the journey time, and for a nation that thrives on tourism and goes by the name, Europe of the East, such an irritant has already started discouraging visitors. Colombo’s empty hotels and restaurants conveyed this all too clearly to me.
But why is the ceasefire signed between the Government and the LTTE in February 2002 collapsing? Sinhala nationalists and critics of the LTTE say that Prabhakaran was never seriously interested in a negotiated settlement. He was merely trying to buy time through the ceasefire to regroup, rearm and restrengthen his forces. There was a time when the LTTE had to recruit children, barely 12 or 13, to carry out their deadly hit-and-run war.
On the other hand, the LTTE argues that the Government was never for a political solution; it wanted a military resolution of the crisis.
But, the fact is that both sides appear to have lost an excellent opportunity for a peaceful compromise. The peace process of 2002, facilitated by Norway, froze the military operations of both the Government and the LTTE. At that point of time, it was widely expected that the ceasefire would help achieve a political answer to years of armed battle, brought on distrust and animosity between the two warring sides. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
There were two areas where the Government-LTTE negotiations ran into major glitches. Firstly, soon after the ceasefire, both sides agreed during an Oslo conference that they would explore a federal option within a united Sri Lanka. They were willing to look at India as an example, where the Federal Government in New Delhi lets the States enjoy a liberal degree of freedom, though not to the same extent the American States do.
Secondly, in October 2003, the Government and the LTTE placed on the table their proposals for an interim administration in the disputed northeastern provinces. But, somehow they could not find a common path to walk together. Even a deadly natural calamity like the Tsunami in December 2004 that offered an excellent chance to work shoulder-to-shoulder could not push them towards a broad framework of cooperation and understanding.
Clearly, the basis to this is suspicion and incompatibility. The Government, dominated by Sinhalas, still views the ethnic problem as terrorism. And, this calls for a military intervention. Admittedly, this group, made up of hardcore Sinhala nationalists, concedes that limited power sharing with the Tamils may be possible. But the Indian model with liberal autonomy for the States is ruled out.
The LTTE still harbours secessionist tendencies, though in October 2003, it was willing to barter total independence for confederalism (a fairly advanced form of regional autonomy), which emphasised self-rule rather than shared rule.
Obviously, a common ground could not be found, and ceasefire violations became common before the LTTE resorted to its classic style of suicide-bomber assassinations.
The Sri Lanka Government of President Rajapakse does not want a full-scale war. It does not want to be seen as the one to have ended the peace process.
But Rajapakse has few supporters. The revolutionary Sinhala political party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a key member of the ruling coalition, wants the Government to defeat the LTTE once and for all through war. The party is sure that the war can be won, and the LTTE terrorism completely rooted out.
The JVP and some others contend that with the LTTE in disarray after the defection of its Eastern Province military commander, Karuna, to the Government side, the Tigers have been hit quite badly. Also, many of the LTTE commanders and important civilian supporters have been killed by the Karuna faction. Finally, the LTTE is also not in favour of being labelled an initiator of the next war.
The JVP is confident that this the right time to finish Prabhakaran and his army. Rajapakse is dithering.
Can peace ultimately come to Sri Lanka only through the barrel of a gun? Nobody knows the answer to this. At least, not now. But everybody has had enough of murder and mayhem. My taxi driver takes a parting shot at this state of dilemma and uncertainty. If there has to be another war, let it be the last one, he says before dropping me off at my destination.
The Emerald of the East, as Sri Lanka is endearingly referred to, is, it seems, bracing itself for another war that can hopefully establish a long yearned period of peace and prosperity.
(Posted on this website on July 3 2006)
The recent assassination of Sri Lanka’s 73-year-old charismatic, though controversial, Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar (August 2005), threatens to ruin an already fragile peace process and a three-year-old ceasefire between the Government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, demanding a separate homeland for the minority Tamils in a majority Sinhala island nation.
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