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”)