// archives


This tag is associated with 2 posts

Back to War in Sri Lanka

15 January 2006

Back to War in Sri Lanka

By Gwynne Dyer

Wars only end when one side wins, or both sides conclude that they can’t gain any more by fighting. Neither side can actually win in Sri Lanka, but too many people on both sides still believe they can get a better deal by more fighting, so it’s back to the war that they suspended in 2002.

In the past month, about seventy soldiers and sailors have been killed in a number of attacks that the government blames on the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, while the LTTE claims that at least forty Tamil civilians have been killed in attacks by government forces. On Saturday, even the Norwegian-led international peace monitors came under grenade attack in their eastern base at Batticaloa. At some point in the next month or so, either newly elected President Mahinda Rajapakse or Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran will probably declare the ceasefire over, but for practical purposes it already is.

That’s a shame, but it’s hardly a surprise. There have been no actual peace talks since 2003, and the Tamil Tigers’ “time out” has more or less expired. (Like other nationalist groups that employ terrorist attacks, and particularly suicide attacks, as part of their struggle, the LTTE came under strong American pressure to change its ways after 9/11, but the passage of time and the growing distractions that the US faces on other fronts have now largely freed it from that pressure.) Besides, every twist and turn of political manoeuvring within the government was taking it farther away from the kind of deal the Tamils wanted.

Sri Lanka is no more complex in ethnic or religious terms than many of its neighbours in South and South-East Asia, but it has fallen into a pit of ethnic hatred and violence from which it is now very hard to escape. The Sinhala-speaking Buddhists who make up three-quarters of the country’s 18 million people have shared the island with the Tamil-speakers of the north and north-east (who are Hindu or Muslim) for almost two millennia, but it took the machinations of the British empire and the demagoguery of democratic politicians to turn them into enemies.

Having overthrown the Buddhist kingdom of Kandy in 1815, the new British rulers found that Tamils were more willing to work for them than the old Sinhala elite that had just lost power. The colonial administration depended heavily on Tamils, who benefited greatly as a result, but after independence in 1948 the shoe was on the other foot. During the 50s and 60s the most successful Sinhala politicians were those who tried to destroy the Tamils’ advantages by making Sinhala the only official language and restricting the government jobs and university places open to Tamils.

They also laid the foundations for civil war: by 1976 most Tamils backed parties that demanded autonomy from the central government for Tamil-majority areas. In 1983, after a series of ghastly anti-Tamil pogroms in the capital, the Tamil Tigers took over from elected politicians in the north and the insurgency began. But neither the Tigers nor the army could win, despite 64,000 dead and over a million refugees. When the two sides agreed on a ceasefire in 2002, the front lines were not very different from those of 1983.

It was time for a compromise, and LTTE leader Prabhakaran did have one in mind. In response to signs that the government might be ready to negotiate autonomy for Tamil areas, he stopped demanding independence and began speaking of a “homeland” that might still remain part of Sri Lanka. But he definitely intended to keep full control over that “homeland” — and meanwhile the usual erosion of purpose occurred on the Sinhala side.

The Sinhalese have spent the past two decades arguing with one another about what terms to offer the Tamils, but the hard-line nationalists on the Sinhala side win most of the arguments. The president for the past eleven years, Chandrika Kumaratunga, talked endlessly about a peace deal with the Tamils, but every time one of the Sinhala nationalist parties that supported her objected to the terms she was offering, she made them harsher.

When a new prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, won the 2001 elections with the support of a coalition of opposition parties and tried to offer the Tamils better terms, she accused him of betraying the country and eventually suspended parliament in late 2003 in order to halt the peace process. So Wickramasinghe ran for the presidency last November against Kumaratunga’s chosen successor, Mahinda Rajapakse. He would have won, too — except that by then the Tamil Tigers had given up on the peace talks.

If Tamils had voted in large numbers, they would certainly have supported Wickramasinghe, but the Tigers ordered them to abstain, so Rajapakse scored a narrow victory instead. And Rajapakse, once willing to talk about autonomy, has been getting steadily less conciliatory as his dependence on Sinhala ultra-nationalist parties has deepened.

The Tamil Tigers, despairing of any Sinhala politician being able to deliver the goods, had already decided to re-start the war: the electoral boycott that brought Rajapakse to power was just a device to shift the blame onto the Sinhalese. So now the war is re-starting, and although everybody knows that the final deal must include a Tamil autonomous area, many thousands more will die before the next attempt at a negotiated settlement.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“That’s…wanted”; and “It was time…side”)

Sri Lanka: A Fake Crisis

6 November 2003

Sri Lanka: A Fake Crisis

By Gwynne Dyer

It seems like a textbook case of a coup. While the elected leader of the government is out of the country, the president suspends parliament, fires the ministers of defence, information and interior and takes over their departments, and puts troops on the streets of the capital to guard the state television station. The next day she declares a state of emergency that gives her the right to jail people for up to a year without charge “to prevent a further deterioration of the security situation.” At this point in the process, usually, the police are going around with lists of government opponents kicking doors in, and a lot of people are going into hiding.

Not in Sri Lanka, which has been democratic since independence 55 years ago. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe didn’t even bother to rush home from Washington, where he was meeting President Bush. “This is not the first crisis I have had,” he said when he got the bad news on 4 November. “When I go back, I’ll sort it out.” He probably will, too.

Things are less bad than they seem in Sri Lanka. Nobody has actually been arrested under the state of emergency (which expires after ten days anyway). The parliament was only suspended for two weeks, and when it meets again on 19 November the majority of its members are going to be very cross indeed at President Chandrika Kumaratunga. By then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will be home, and unless the Tamil Tigers do something really stupid the crisis will be over.

The Tamil Tigers (formally the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — LTTE) are what this crisis is all about. After twenty years of war, the guerilla leaders who have established their control of the Tamil-speaking, largely Hindu minority in the north-east of the island have accepted that the changed global attitude towards terrorism post-9/11 means that they are not going to win their war for independence, at least not in this generation. For the past twenty months, there has been a cease-fire while they try to cut a deal for autonomy within Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Wickremeshinghe is ready to cut a deal too, recognising that a clear-cut military victory over the LTTE is impossible. Most of the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority in Sri Lanka profoundly dislikes any change that seems to threaten the unity of the country, but they have also watched for a whole generation as the country of some 20 million people consistently failed to fulfill its promise of becoming another Asian ‘tiger’. They are sick of slow growth and constant death (an average of ten people killed by the war each day for twenty years), so in 2001 they turned their back on the hard-liners and voted for Wickremesinghe’s United National Party.

Until then President Kumaratunga, the heiress of a political dynasty that has always beaten the Sinhalese nationalist drum, had it all her own way, with her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in control of the parliament and her elderly mother as prime minister. She used her almost unbridled power to launch an all-out, years-long offensive against the LTTE in search of a decisive military victory, and ended up proving to most people’s satisfaction that it could not be done. By the end of the 90s, the Sri Lankan army was suffering humiliating routs and experiencing mass desertions, so the voters abandoned her.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected prime minister in 2001 with a mandate to negotiate peace, and with the assistance of Norwegian mediators he had a cease-fire by the end of the year. The talks have been difficult, but there has been no shooting in Sri Lanka for almost two years now and the LTTE has publicly dropped its demand for independence. Since Wickremesinghe’s government has also conceded that there will be some kind of autonomy for the Tamils within Sri Lanka, the rest should be just a prolonged haggle — and the return of peace had already unleashed an economic boom that was making the whole process acceptable to even dedicated Sinhalese nationalists.

But not to President Kumaratunga (who has lost her husband and an eye to the LTTE in separate attacks). Her party has rejected the peace talks with the LTTE, condemning the Norwegian mediators as ‘salmon-eating busybodies’. And she has seized the opportunity of Prime Minister Wickremeshinghe’s absence abroad to stage a provocation — it’s not really a coup — in the hope that she can trick the Tamil leadership into walking out of the talks.

The pretext for her dramatic move was the publication of the LTTE’s proposals for the kind of autonomy that the Tamil province should have. It was more than most Sinhalese would want to grant, naturally enough, being the statement of a negotiating position, but Kumaratunga declared that it meant “a further deterioration of the security situation” and acted. The headlines blared and the Sri Lankan stock market crashed, but it isn’t going to work.

It won’t work because the LTTE knows that she’s bluffing, and that Wickremesinghe will not be diverted by the nonsense. Every action Kumaratunga has taken is legally within the rights of the president, but she can’t keep it up very long without parliament’s agreement — and well over half the members of parliament have already signed a letter condemning her actions. Normal service in Sri Lanka will soon be restored.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Until…her”; and “The pretext…work”)