Still support the LTTE today

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Sri Lanka: a dead end peace process?

by Dietmar Kneitschel, FES Sri Lanka
May 23, 2002

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  • The armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil secession movement "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam" (LTTE) has been on hold since December 24, 2001.
  • The initial euphoria about the ceasefire and the announcement of negotiations between the government and the LTTE are giving way to increasing skepticism.
  • It is particularly feared that the LTTE will be granted a dominant position in the transitional administration planned for the northern and eastern provinces and that it will establish totalitarian sole rule there.
  • At present, neither the government nor the LTTE are striving for a permanent solution to the ethno-nationalist conflict, but are content with a mutually beneficial interim solution (a "negative peace").
  • Despite the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the conflicting parties on substantive issues, there are good prospects that the ceasefire will be maintained over the longer term.

The guns have been silent in Sri Lanka since December 24, 2001. A unilateral ceasefire declared by the Tamil rebel organization "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam" (LTTE) at the beginning of this day was reciprocated by the recently newly elected United National Front (UNF) government. On February 22, 2002, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe signed an indefinite ceasefire on behalf of the government and LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran for the Tamil guerrillas in separate meetings with the mediating Norwegian ambassador Jon Westborg.

The ceasefire and the announcement of peace negotiations between the government and the LTTE initially met with broad popular approval. An opinion poll carried out by the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in January showed a high level of support for the peace process. More than 80% of those questioned supported negotiations between the government and the LTTE, while less than 10% were in favor of the option of a military crackdown on the rebels by government troops.

In the meantime, however, disappointment and skepticism are widespread, and there are increasing doubts that the ceasefire could bring the hoped-for breakthrough to a just and stable conflict resolution at the negotiating table. News of ongoing child recruitment, massive arms imports and human rights abuses by the LTTE are of concern. Increasingly, however, there are also growing doubts that the 'Tigers' have really given up their goal of establishing their own state 'Tamil Eelam' in the north and east of the island and are ready to find a democratic, political compromise solution within the framework of sovereignty and to accept Sri Lanka's territorial integrity.

The concurrence of the short-term interests of the government and the LTTE enables "peaceful co-existence"

Negotiations on a solution that will permanently eliminate the causes of the ethno-nationalist conflict are not yet on the agenda. Both parties to the conflict assume that their positions are too contradictory and that it would therefore make no sense at the present time to enter into negotiations on a permanent conflict solution.

In a pragmatic assessment of reality, the government accepts the LTTE's still rigid position. Because the ceasefire gives you the opportunity to revive the shattered economy. In order to be able to achieve its economic goals (growth of 3.4% in 2002 after a decline in gross domestic product of 1.4% last year), the government is endeavoring to de-escalate the military conflict.

With this "interim solution" of a “negative peace”, the hope is linked that the silence of the arms and the LTTE's engagement in projects for the economic and social development of the north-east areas could also lead to a transformation of the conflict. This would mean moderation of the LTTE and the abandonment of extremist positions and maximalist demands. In this way, the prerequisites could be created to later enter into negotiations for a mutually acceptable compromise.

The strategy of the Wickremesinghe government towards the LTTE is fundamentally different from that of its predecessor. While the "Peoples' Alliance" (PA) government pursued the goal of not only militarily bringing the LTTE to its knees, but also isolating it politically from the Tamil population, the UNF government, in office since December 2001, undertook neither military nor political action Attempts to weaken them, but relies on 'peaceful co-existence'. The Memorandum of Understanding on which the ceasefire is based even grants the LTTE privileges that strengthen its position. For example, the possibility of political work outside of their direct sphere of control. By renouncing the weakening of the LTTE, the government draws the conclusion from the experience that past efforts to suppress the LTTE militarily have been unsuccessful and that the constitutional reform proposals submitted by the PA government have not led to a political solution to the conflict.

However, the government seems to underestimate the risk involved. Such a ceasefire, bought with far-reaching concessions to the LTTE, does not simply freeze the status quo. It could strengthen the position of the LTTE without the LTTE having to show any further willingness to grant concessions than the temporary cessation of the use of force. Probably the most important concession to the LTTE contained in the ceasefire agreement is the provision that the "Eelam Peoples' Democratic Party" (EPDP), which the previous government has massively supported as an alternative to the LTTE, as well as the others have so far acted as auxiliary troops of the army in the fight against the LTTE political-military groups are disarmed. This would give the LTTE a gun monopoly on the Tamil side.

What does the LTTE want?

An answer to the question of what the LTTE wanted was awaited from the international press conference at which LTTE Supreme V. Prabhakaran and so-called 'theorist' and prospective LTTE negotiator A. Balasingham entered the LTTE-dominated April 10th Vanni region. When asked whether the LTTE could accept a settlement as an alternative to a separate Tamil state based on the amalgamation of the north-eastern provinces, which are largely populated by Tamils, and the granting of substantial political autonomy for such a merged province, the national leader 'of the LTTE that the time is not yet ripe for this. For the LTTE to consider an alternative to statehood, any proposed solution must be based on the recognition of a Tamil homeland, a Tamil nationality and the right to self-determination. Incidentally, the order he gave to the LTTE cadres years ago to shoot him should he ever give up the goal of a state of his own, Tamil Eelam, is still valid.

With their statements, Prabhakaran and Balasingham made it clear that the LTTE is still sticking to its essential positions and that the search for a lasting solution to the ethno-nationalist conflict through a compromise is not currently on their agenda. Rather, it seems to strive to consolidate its political and economic position in the areas under its control, to expand its geographical base of influence and to improve its image, especially in front of the international public.

Balasingham stated that “internal” self-determination was also being considered by the LTTE. But it should do justice to the essential principles of recognizing the Tamils ​​as an independent nation with sovereignty over their own territory and the unrestricted right to determine their own fate. Thus, the ideas cherished by the LTTE with regard to internal self-determination clearly go far beyond what is usually understood by it. They harbor real dangers for the continued existence of Sri Lanka as a state unit. Both the semi-federal solution agreed in 1987 within the framework of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the more extensive 'devolution package' presented by the PA government in 2000 had been rejected by the LTTE as completely inadequate.

What the LTTE understands by self-determination, Prabhakaran had already made clear in his Heroes Remembrance Day speech in November 2001. At the time, he emphasized that the 'Tamil people' would like to preserve their national identity and lead their own political and economic life without being influenced by others in their 'historically due territory'.

A concept of autonomy that realizes 'internal' self-determination within an undivided state association cannot be reduced to the fact that an ethnic group claims autonomy to develop and maintain its own identity, language and culture in a territory it defines as an exclusive 'homeland', but otherwise isolated from the rest of the country and its population. Rather, such a concept simultaneously requires a cross-ethnic commitment to togetherness, to common basic values ​​and to loyalty to the state as a whole. 'Internal' self-determination is based on the design principle of the vertical separation of powers. Regional self-determination is combined with co-determination and shared responsibility for the state as a whole. The tension and conflict potential of diversity and unity is balanced through cooperation and compromise.

In addition, any solution based on the principle of ethnic territorial 'internal' self-determination 'would inevitably create new minorities and likely give rise to new ethnic discrimination and thus conflicts. This applies in particular to the Muslim population settling in the east of the island, but also to the Tamils ​​'of recent Indian origin' who only immigrated in the last century and mostly live in the highlands, as well as to the large number of Tamils ​​who now live in regions predominantly Sinhalese , i.e. living outside of the areas claimed by the LTTE as Tamil homeland. The massive ethnic cleansing that the LTTE has carried out in the past in the territory it ruled is a clear warning of the dangers of federalization or autonomy that is constructed on the basis of ethnic homogeneity or ethnic enclaves.

Regional autonomy would therefore necessarily have to be limited by clear and enforceable precautions for the protection of minorities and supplemented and relativized by effective structures for the political participation of minority ethnic groups in the political center. The messianic promise made by the LTTE, according to which a separate 'ancestral' living space for the Tamils ​​would mean the final solution to the conflict, falls short in view of the current spread of settlements and the diverging interests of the different groups of Tamils.

What does the LTTE think of democracy?

Although the LTTE leader had stated at his international press conference that his organization would "allow" other Tamil parties to be politically active in the north and east of the island, there are currently many indications that the LTTE is striving for a monopoly of political rule at best, through the existence of aligned bloc parties, it could get a "democratic" look. Prabhakaran had already revealed his understanding of democracy to the Indian daily India Today in 1986. He spoke out against a multi-party democracy, since a unity party could develop the desired Tamil state 'Tamil Eelam' more quickly.

Not least because of the radical persecution and elimination of dissenters pursued by the LTTE in the past, there is currently no significant Tamil opposition to the LTTE's claim to be “sole representative” of the Tamils. The Tamil party alliance "Tamil National Alliance", which is represented in parliament with 15 members, has submitted to the LTTE and given up independent positions and policies. Caught in an unresolved collective social trauma, the vast majority of the Tamil population, especially in the north and east of the island, seems to be emotionally behind the LTTE. Only small groups like the "University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna)" warn of the 'totalitarian peace' that the LTTE could establish in the areas it controls.

Meaningful negotiations on a lasting and democratic conflict solution cannot be based on a monopoly of representation and negotiation by the LTTE, but must have a pluralistic character on the Tamil side, at least in the medium term.

Open questions regarding the transitional administration in the north-east provinces

Negotiations between the government and the LTTE will not yet be a step towards a permanent solution to the conflict, but will concentrate on negotiating the conditions for the functioning of a transitional administration in the north and east of the island. The creation of such an 'Interim Council' was part of the political program that the United National Party (UNP) had put forward before the 2001 elections.

The Wickremesinghe government seems to have given the LTTE in advance at least the prospect that it would be given a dominant position in a transitional administration of the northern and eastern provinces. The LTTE would not only retain control over the areas already under its control, but could even extend its rule to areas previously controlled by the government in the north (Jaffna, Vavuniya) and east (Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara) of the island. With this territorial gain, the LTTE would de facto have control over a large part of the areas it claims to be Tamil 'homeland' and 'Tamil Eelam'.

Proponents of an LTTE-dominated transitional administration point out that such a concession is a necessary confidence-building measure, which also enables the LTTE to transform its hitherto exclusively military organization into a political one. In addition, so the argument goes, the transitional administration is a school for the LTTE to learn in practice the need to respect democratic norms.

In doing so, however, the danger, which should not be underestimated, is overlooked that the LTTE, in a transitional administration dominated by it, could expand its hegemony - in accordance with its totalitarian claim - to absolute monopoly and could hardly create reversible facts in the area under its control . The transitional administration, theoretically conceived as an instrument for the LTTE's gradual entry into the political mainstream of the country, would thus be turned into its opposite. It would not be a preliminary stage of the long-term sought-after, lasting peace solution based on democratic principles within the framework of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, but rather an opportunity to consolidate the opposition-free political rule of the LTTE in a "state within a state" and a stepping stone to secession.

Obstacles on the way to negotiations

Initially, the start of negotiations could fail because of the condition set by the LTTE to lift the ban on the organization imposed in Sri Lanka in 1997. Although the Wickremesinghe government appears to be ready to give in to the LTTE demand if the negotiations fail otherwise, the legalization of the LTTE is not only met with opposition from radical Sinhala groups and parties, but is also met by some of the largest Opposition party "Sri Lanka Freedom Party" (SLFP) and the president rejected. According to the President and the SLFP, the ban should only be lifted after progress has been made in negotiations and the LTTE has renounced terrorist activities. The SLFP also speaks out against forming the transitional administration of the north-east provinces before talks on the substantive issues of conflict resolution. First of all, the key issues must be negotiated, and only after the initial progress of the negotiations can the composition and tasks of the transitional administration be discussed.

It cannot be ruled out that the SLFP could fall back into the traditional destructive role of a fundamental opposition that has traditionally been used in Sri Lankan politics, subordinating the interests of society as a whole to its own interests in power. While the UNP torpedoed the PA government's peace initiatives in the past, this time the role of objector and saboteur would fall to the SLFP.Such a situation would be particularly likely if, due to excessive demands by the LTTE, the support of the Sinhalese people for the peace process continued to decline and the opposition promised a future election victory.

The tolerance shown so far by the opposition party and the president (who is also head of state and government as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces) towards the initiatives taken by the prime minister could quickly give way to a confrontation if Wickremesinghe does not respond to the demand of the SLFP, a joint of To establish a “Standing Committee” led by the President and Prime Minister for cross-party discussion, orientation and control of the peace process.

Skeptics also recall that the LTTE regularly broke ceasefire agreements (1985, 1990, 1995) and ended talks before negotiations on key issues of conflict resolution had even begun. They conclude that for the LTTE, truces are just tactical maneuvers to continue the war by other means; H. be misused to replenish the arsenal, to recruit new cadres and to regroup the military.

Groups and people inside and outside of Sri Lanka who otherwise resolutely advocate a negotiated political solution to the conflict also point to the dangers of a short-sighted appeasement policy that serves only short-sighted political and limited economic goals and could put democratic principles and human rights aside.

Long-term ceasefire, but no conflict resolution

The ceasefire and the intention of both parties to the conflict to enter into negotiations on an "interim solution" in the near future do not allow the conclusion that it manifests the political will to a non-violently negotiated democratic and fair compromise solution on both sides.

In view of the growing criticism of allegedly excessive advance payments and concessions to the LTTE, the government is also stepping on the brakes. Speaking to the top Buddhist college of priests, the Maha Sangha, the prime minister said that an agreement with the LTTE on the transitional administration in the north-east provinces would only take place with the approval of parliament and after a referendum has been held. He also assured that the LTTE's geographically defined concept of a 'Tamil homeland' would not be accepted by the government. There is only one 'homeland' that extends over the entire territory of Sri Lanka and belongs to all of Sri Lanka's ethnic groups. With this, however, the dominance in the administration of a de facto 'homeland', which the LTTE is striving for and which the government is likely to promise, may no longer be feasible. From the perspective of the Tamils, Wickremsinghe would thus join the inglorious ranks of Sinhalese politicians who break their promises, such as Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Include bandaranaike who had already made promises in the past (e.g. the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Agreement 1957), but then withdrew them under pressure from the Buddhist clergy and the Sinhalese opposition.

At least the chances of a long-term ceasefire are good. In the current situation, maintaining the ceasefire is vital for both parties to the conflict. The Wickremesinghe government will only be able to stay in power if it can show economic successes that are unattainable without a silence of arms. A termination of the ceasefire by the LTTE would inevitably result in the USA no longer sparing the LTTE, but including it as a target in its global fight against terrorist organizations. It is unthinkable that the LTTE will expose itself to this danger.

For a lasting solution to the conflict based on democratic principles, however, it will be necessary to overcome extremist nationalist positions on both sides. A de-ethnicized perspective of 'unity in diversity' for Sri Lanka, supported by both Sinhalese and Tamils ​​and the other ethnic groups, would have to be developed. Such a perspective would on the one hand do justice to the common political, economic and social interests of the various ethnic groups and exclude privileges and disadvantages based on ethnic or religious affiliation, and on the other hand guarantee the free, independent cultural development of all ethnic groups.

The goals and positions that are currently being proclaimed by both sides are still far from such a vision.

Friedrich Ebert Foundation | net edition: Urmila Goel | The Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Asia