Sri Lanka (February 1998)
by Koenraad Van Brabant, RRN February 1998

The conflicts in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka appear equally intractable: the aims of the opposing groups are too far apart; the minds are set on the past and not on the present and the future; and high emotions can quickly drown any rational analysis or proposal. When the People’s Alliance government started peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the autumn of 1994, Sri Lankans made hopeful comparisons with Northern Ireland, where the IRA had then declared a ceasefire. The Northern Ireland talks remain under threat of renewed paramilitary violence, while full-scale war has been raging again in Sri Lanka since April 1995.

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The prospects for a negotiated peace were significantly diminished when on 25 January three LTTE suicide commandos exploded a truck bomb just outside the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, killing at least 16 bystanders. The attack on this site of pilgrimage is contrary to international humanitarian law, which the LTTE in 1988 had promised to respect. The choice of the target – the Temple is the most sacred shrine of Sinhalese Buddhists – and the timing – the 50th Anniversary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence were scheduled to be held in Kandy a week later send a clear message about how Tamil militants perceive Sri Lanka’s failure to build a nation. The attack was also extremely provocative, sure to enrage hardline Sinhalese nationalists whose intransigence matches that of the LTTE.

In response the Government outlawed the LTTE as a political party, a step it had so far refrained from taking on the grounds that it would make peace talks illegal. Heavy fighting erupted again in the Vanni area, where the army since May 1997 has been moving slowly forward to capture the strategic landroute between Vavuniya and Kilinochchi. Meanwhile and for the first time since 1983, local elections were held in government-controlled Jaffna, in which moderate Tamil parties participated.

The banning of the LTTE leads to renewed pressure by Sri Lanka on the UK government to outlaw the organisation and close its office in London. One of the standing counter arguments of the UK government to this demand had been that the LTTE was not banned in Sri Lanka. India banned the LTTE after it murdered Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. It recently in absentia condemned Prebakharan, the LTTE leader, to death for that assassination. The USA banned the LTTE in 1997.

Most Tamils, and surprisingly also the mostly Sinhalese UNP opposition party, have criticised the government’s ban of the LTTE as leaving only a military option to end the war. The UNP however has also rejected the government’s devolution proposals for a political solution to the conflict. The government needed the UNP support to get a two-thirds majority for constitutional reform. It is to be feared that the two major parties, the SLFP and the UNP, will renege on their agreement of 1997, and return to the partisan and ‘winner-take-all’ politics that has helped create deep fractures in the body politic and remained a major obstacle to peace.