|The Sri Lankan Conflict - A Multi-Polar Approach|
|Monday, 16 June 2008|
By Prof. Asoka Bandarage
Narrow interpretations of cultural identity and models of conflict resolution built on ethnic dualism contribute to ethnic polarization and inhibit sustainable peace. To improve both the analysis and processes of conflict resolution, it is necessary to move beyond the bipolar ethnic model and explore the multi-polar nature of conflicts.
The conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is commonly identified as a primordial ethnic conflict between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. But, much of the long pre-colonial history of Sri Lanka was characterized by ethno-religious pluralism and co-existence over antagonism and conflict. There has been tremendous inter-mixture between Sinhala and Tamil populations as well as the Muslims who are considered an ethno-religious group in Sri Lanka.
Asoka Bandarage is currently a professor at Georgetown University . She has taught at Yale, Brandeis and Mount Holyoke, and is the author of Colonialism in Sri Lanka, Women, Population and Global Crisis and publications on South Asia, global political economy, ethnicity, gender and population. This article is derived from her forthcoming book, The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka: Broadening the Discourse ( Routledge).
The dominant Sinhala vs. Tamil dualism projects Tamils and Sinhalese as two homogeneous categories overlooking the intra-ethnic conflicts and killings within the Tamil and the Sinhalese communities. It is believed that the Tamil Tigers have killed more Tamils than the Sri Lankan armed forces, especially given the fratricidal wars among Tamil militant groups since 1985. Likewise, the Sri Lankan security forces had killed more Sinhalese than Tamils by the end of the 1980s, particularly when it suppressed the JVP (Jantha Vimukthi Peramuna- People’s Liberation Front) insurgency that arose against the 1987 Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, which was introduced to resolve the Tamil separatist conflict.
On the Tamil side, it is the ‘partial and often partisan view’ of the northern, especially Jaffna peninsula Tamils, that is often identified as the Sri Lankan Tamil perspective. This is largely due to the fact that the Tamil Diaspora in the west is drawn largely from that conflict-ridden region of the island. The Diaspora influence has prevented the international community from understanding ‘the diversities and intricacies’ within Tamil communities. Moreover, the Tamil Tigers who claim to be the ‘sole representative of Tamils’ have turned Sri Lankan Tamils, on the island and in the Diaspora, into a ‘silent majority,’ presenting the LTTE position as the only Tamil perspective.
Electoral politics has contributed to a vibrant multi-party democracy among the Sinhalese, but the entrenched party rivalry especially between the two major political parties, UNP (United National Party) and the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), has undermined a unified approach to eradicating terrorism and a political solution to the separatist conflict. The Muslims are generally left out of the dominant discourse on the Sri Lankan separatist conflict, yet they are a distinct island-wide community and the largest group in the Eastern Province claimed by the secessionists as part of its fictitious ‘traditional Tamil homeland’. Like the Sinhalese and the Tamils, they too have significant regional and class differences.
Origins of the Conflict
The dominant ethnically based approaches portray the Sri Lankan conflict as a purely domestic conflict when in fact, it has been a regional South Asian conflict from the very beginning. After India adopted the draconian anti-secessionist amendment to its constitution in 1963, the South Indian Dravidasthan secessionist movement was halted, but, South Indian support for a "surrogate" Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka expanded. All Sri Lankan moderate and militant separatist groups, including the LTTE, were nurtured and protected by Tamil Nadu political parties. The LTTE’s assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu in 1991 alone shows that the ‘Sri Lankan’ separatist conflict is a regional one. Even today, the manifesto of the MDMK (Marumarchi Dravida Munnetra Khazagham) in Tamil Nadu calls for autonomy for regional states in India and establishment of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.
The fault lines between the Sinhala and Tamil communities that show up in the modern Sri Lankan conflict were drawn during the period of British colonialism from1815 to1948. The island’s conflict, like many other ‘ethnic’ conflicts around the world, emerged with democratization and the shift of power from privileged minorities, such as the Sri Lankan Tamils to the Sinhala Buddhist majority who had been marginalized under colonial rule.
Today, the Sri Lankan conflict has become an international conflict with serious implications for peace and security across the world. Over the course of the Sri Lankan secessionist war, the LTTE—banned in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, the EU, India, and Malaysia -has emerged as –the proto-type of global terrorism. According to the FBI, LTTE’s ruthless tactics have ‘inspired terrorist networks worldwide including Al Qaeda in Iraq’. The LTTE ‘perfected the use of suicide bombers; invented the suicide belt; pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks’. It is also the first militant group to acquire air power.
Notwithstanding its multiplicity of intra-ethnic, regional, and international dimensions, the Sri Lankan conflict continues to be characterized as a primordial Sinhala vs. Tamil conflict and a domestic phenomenon. The failure to grapple with the multi-polar reality has in turn contributed to the failure of peace initiatives, especially the 2002 ceasefire agreement facilitated by Norway.
The 2002 Ceasefire Agreement
The 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA) upheld the dualistic characterization of the Sri Lankan conflict by recognizing only the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE as the two parties to the conflict. Bypassing elected members of Parliament representing non-LTTE Tamil interests and choosing to negotiate with the unelected LTTE, the Agreement accepted the LTTE as ‘the sole representative of Tamils’ elevating the internationally banned terrorist organization, to an equivalent status with the democratically elected Sri Lankan government. The Agreement did not require LTTE cadres to be disarmed. Rather, it dictated terms to weaken the armed forces of the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and strengthen LTTE military capability by requiring the GOSL to disarm non-LTTE Tamil paramilitary groups and to offer to integrate those cadres within the GOSL armed forces ‘for service away from the Northern and Eastern Province’. The CFA did not ban child soldiering and forcible recruitment and child recruitment, routine practices of the LTTE, and it failed to specify mechanisms to monitor and enforce other serious human rights violations or to uphold pluralism and democracy.
Other terms of the Agreement further advanced the separatist ambitions of the LTTE. By accepting those terms the government of Sri Lanka acceded to the LTTE’s right to control land areas it had usurped in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and a formal partition of the country under the supervision of the Scandinavian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). Notwithstanding implications for democracy and peaceful conflict resolution, there was massive support for the CFA from the ‘international community’ and the local peace lobby, which dubbed it as the ‘best chance to establish peace’.
For those opposed to separatism and the LTTE, however, the CFA symbolized appeasement, if not outright capitulation, to terrorism. Norway, the facilitator of the peace process, and the Scandinavian countries that provided the members to the SLMM were the final arbiters and supervisors of the implementation of the Agreement. Although this placed Norway in the dominant position, Norway and the Nordic SLMM were severely constrained by the CFA’s capitulation to terms laid down by the LTTE. For example, according to the CFA, the SLMM, which established its headquarters in Colombo and local monitoring committees in all other districts of the north and the east, was excluded from Killinochi and Mullativu, the LTTE strongholds where the Tamil Tigers were allowed to do as they pleased without any kind of monitoring. Given the LTTE’s insistence that the proscription prevented it from being ‘an equal and legitimate party to engage in peace talks with the government,’ the Sri Lankan government lifted the proscription on the LTTE, paving the way for negotiations. There was tremendous local opposition against this move since the LTTE had neither disavowed separatism nor were disarmed.
During the 2002-2003 negotiations, the GOSL and the LTTE held six highly publicized rounds of talks, but, the LTTE refused to deal with the core issue— specifically, the nature of the administration for the north and the east—at any of these sessions. The situation on the ground became more confused, and there was little hope for long-term peace among those directly affected by the conflict. Marginalization by the peace process and fear of living under a terrorist LTTE regime radicalized many young Muslims, who began to demand a separate Muslim region in the southeast. On January 29, 2003, students of the South Eastern University put forward a separatist Muslim platform- the Oluvil Declaration. Echoing the landmark 1976 Tamil separatist declaration, the Vaddukodai Resolution, it asserted that Muslims are a separate nation with claims to a ‘traditional homeland’, self-determination, and political autonomy apart from both Tamil and Sinhala domination.
The peace process was not broadened in response to the concerns of Muslims or different Tamil and Sinhala groups. Thus, the internationally driven bipolar conflict resolution model intensified the specter of a future globalized war between the LTTE and the Muslims and ethnic balkanization of the east. Low caste Dalits who constitute a major portion of the LTTE cadres also felt marginalized by the peace process. As a Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit leader wrote, ‘A problem that that has been awaiting a resolution for decades was simply glossed over as if it did not even exist.’ The limitations of the bipolar model of conflict analysis and resolution became most apparent when the LTTE split into two in March 2004. The Northern/Wanni wing led by Prabhakaran moved against the renegade LTTE Commander in the East, Karuna and some 7,500 of his cadres, in violation of the CFA. Karuna’s challenge to Prabhakaran’s authority was more than a personal matter. It was driven by more deeply rooted historical, cultural, and regional differences and political-economic inequities between the Tamils of the north and the east. In defecting from the LTTE, Karuna invoked the resentment of eastern Tamils toward the northern Tamils who had long dominated over them and spoken for them. The LTTE split exposed the shortcomings of the bipolar conflict resolution model, which overlooked intra-ethnic, regional, and cultural differences within and across the linguistic divide. The ground situation in the north and the east, became rife with internal LTTE feuding and LTTE intra-ethnic killing.
Notwithstanding its professed role as protector of Tamils, the LTTE continued to oppress Tamil people, using the legitimacy given by the CFA as their ‘sole representative’. According to SLMM statistics, the LTTE has been responsible for a disproportionately large number of the CFA violations and human rights abuses. Between February 2002 and April 2007, for example, the LTTE was responsible for 3,830 and the GOSL for 351 out of all violations ruled and reported by the SLMM. Of these, LTTE was responsible overwhelmingly for human rights violations including child recruitment, torture, forced recruitment of adults, and assassinations.
UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, Child Soldiers Global Report, and the local human rights group University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) UTHR reported that the CFA led to an increase in one of the worst aspects of the 21-year separatist conflict—the forcible recruitment of children, some as young as ten or eleven years of age.
Just as UNICEF was relatively ineffectual in stopping LTTE’s recruitment of children, the SLMM was ineffectual in controlling Sinhala-Tamil as well as Tamil-Muslim clashes which flared up in the east in the aftermath of the signing of the CFA. More than 200 politicians from rival Tamil parties were reportedly killed between the signing of the CFA in 2002 and mid-January 2006. A number of Tamil media personnel who did not completely toe the LTTE line were also believed to have been eliminated by the LTTE. Providing long lists of names of Tamil opponents systematically eliminated by the LTTE, UTHR blamed civil society activists, the international community, and the Sri Lankan government for the ‘manipulative’, ‘unprincipled,’ and costly approach to peace which yielded ‘Dividends of Terror’ rather than peace.
Norway, the facilitator of the peace process, and the Scandinavian peace monitors, the SLMM, came under even more criticism from Tamil dissidents, Sinhala and Muslim nationalists, and some international human rights and anti-terrorist groups. Norway has played and continues to play multiple and conflicting roles in Sri Lanka as peace facilitator, leader of the SLMM, and leading aid and loan provider. As Human Rights Watch observed in August 2003, ‘The SLMM appears to lack both sufficient political distance from the negotiating process and a genuine capacity to investigate these [human rights] incidents. As a Norwegian-led initiative, the monitoring effort is too closely tied to the politics of the peace process.’
Although Norwegian peace ‘facilitation’ in Sri Lanka continued to be viewed positively in the international media and by LTTE supporters, there was growing frustration and anger in Sri Lanka. Norway was seen as a new colonial ruler and a supporter of LTTE separatist terrorism. The Patriotic National Movement, which emerged in February 2004 with the objective of protecting Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, called for the expulsion of Norwegian facilitators from Sri Lanka. One rally drew over 50,000 people, considered to be the largest protest in Sri Lankan history. Frustrated by Norwegian disregard for LTTE atrocities, Tamil dissident groups frequently protested outside the Norwegian embassy in Colombo, bringing coffins of their politicians said to have been murdered by the LTTE.
During the course of the ceasefire, the LTTE was able to strengthen itself financially and militarily. By 2007, it was raising an estimated US$ 200 to 300 million a year through its licit and illicit businesses and fronts globally. The financial largess allowed the LTTE to purchase advanced weaponry for its military struggle and to pursue a sophisticated propaganda campaign on electronic, print, and other media and try to portray itself ‘ as a genuine national liberation’ movement despite its continued terrorist activities. Indeed, the bipolar conflict model which identifies Tamil interests and LTTE interests as one is at least partly to blame for this situation.
Federalism: The Magic Solution?
According to Sri Lankan government estimates, Sinhalese were 75 percent, Sri Lankan Tamils were 11.9 percent, Indian or hill country Tamils 4.6 percent, and Muslims (Moors and Malays) were 8.2 percent of the island’s total population in 2001. According to other estimates, the percentage of Sri Lankan Tamils is less or the same as for the Muslims, i.e. 8 percent of the total population. The proportions of the two communities –Sri Lankan Tamil and Muslim- will keep decreasing and increasing if present trends continue. The emigration of people from the north and the east has steadily increased due to the war and LTTE terrorism. The majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka live amidst the Sinhalese and the Muslims in the multicultural southern areas of the island. In other words, the Tamil community now is more an island-wide rather than a regional minority. These demographic and multicultural realities undermine the separatist argument that an exclusive Tamil northeastern region is required for the Tamils to live in safety apart from the Sinhalese.
Some 800,000, that is, more than 25 percent, of Sri Lankan Tamils are now part of the Diaspora. Toronto is believed to be the largest Sri Lankan Tamil city in the world. Much of the financial (about 90 percent) and ideological support for the LTTE comes from the Tamil Diaspora elite and the worldwide Tamil community, making the Sri Lankan separatist struggle a transnational phenomenon increasingly removed from domestic realities. The ‘re-drawing of the ethnic map of Sri Lanka’ calls into question the justice of granting one-third of the island exclusively to the small population of Sri Lankan Tamils, especially when increasing numbers of them are no longer living in the areas erroneously claimed as the ’traditional Tamil homelands’.
For most of the long history of the island, tolerance and mutual coexistence have been the predominant characteristics of inter-group relations, not enmity and conflict. During the course of the war, two broad patterns of ethnic relations have emerged: a mono-ethnic policy in the north and ethnic pluralism in the south. Some 100,000 Muslims and a smaller number of Sinhalese were driven out of the Northern Province by the LTTE’s ethnic-cleansing campaign, making it imperative that any solution to the separatist conflict take into account Muslim and Sinhala rights to the north and the east and their opposition to Tamil regional autonomy. are . Despite the most gruesome LTTE massacres of Sinhala and Muslim civilians in the Eastern Province, it has maintained its multiethnic—Muslim, Tamil, and Sinhala—character, but, given historical settlement patterns that enhance mutual coexistence, attempts to artificially carve out exclusive ethnic enclaves by Tamil or Muslim separatists could lead to greater upheaval and suffering.
Given the dominant Sinhala vs. Tamil dualism, few studies have explored the common political-economic issues facing youth across the different communities. While ‘ethnic tensions’ exist, they have been ‘exacerbated by the ongoing conflict’. As one study noted, Tamil and Sinhalese youth have ‘similar major concerns and ‘reducing the potential of violent conflict to ethnic discrimination belies the complexities of social discrimination and the very real lack of adequate employment and livelihoods of youth both’. Indeed, the broadening of the global discourse on conflict requires moving beyond ethnic dualism and cultural identity to considering socio-economic inequities at the local, regional and international levels as well as the patterns of pluralism and coexistence and the changing ethnic distribution on the island.
A sustainable solution to the Sri Lankan conflict ‘must take into account issues of poverty and property rather than seek to extend the interests of international corporations’. Indeed, decentralization of power needs to be carried in a way that allows local people—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims—greater control over regional resources and decisions over governance. The creation of separate ethno-nationalist regions is not a panacea. A policy that only breaks up the unitary, centralized Sri Lankan state through a form of federalism and grants Tamil regional autonomy is unlikely to address these fundamental issues of economic democracy and political participation that are important to all Sri Lankans, not just a single ethnic group.
(Courtesy : The Harvard )
|Last Updated ( Monday, 02 February 2009 )|
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