- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
The 2002 cease-fire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, the separatist terrorist group formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), had been steadily deteriorating. But the government’s decision to formally end the cease-fire has led to an escalation in the violence. Ahilan Kadirgamar, spokesman for the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, an independent group of activists working to promote democracy, says a political solution is the only way to resolve the conflict. He worries that without a cease-fire, "It will be an unrestrained war going forward."
What’s the situation in the country now?
The situation in the country has deteriorated considerably over the last two weeks. Two members of parliament have been assassinated this month and since the government’s abrogation of the cease-fire there have been a number of bomb blasts. Also, there is fighting that’s going on in the north. 2008 looks quite bleak for Sri Lanka.
The cease-fire had really only existed on paper since 2006, when both sides had begun to violate it. Do you think its official end holds any significance now?
The cease-fire agreement may have been a flawed agreement to begin with because it did not have any provisions to ensure implementation. Soon after it was signed in 2002, the LTTE started violating it with impunity but this was followed about three years ago with the security forces also violating the CFA [cease-fire agreement]. Over the last two years we have fallen into a full-blown war. So, in that sense the CFA was just on paper. Nevertheless the possibility of talks between the LTTE and the government has pretty much collapsed along with the CFA. Now at this particular moment, the abrogation of the CFA when the violence was escalating in Sri Lanka is of serious concern because now the war will have no obstacles at all; it will be an unrestrained war going forward.
There was another initiative called the All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) that was set up in order to find a viable political solution for the country’s ethnic issue. Where does that stand now?
Yes, the APRC was initiated by the president about a year and a half ago, where almost all the parties except for the Tamil National Alliance, which is seen as a proxy of the LTTE, were called upon to come up with a consensus document for a political solution. There have been a number of steps and a number of parties have submitted their proposals. APRC’s chairman has said that he hopes to finalize the process by the end of this month. The proposals themselves [reflect] the consensus that has been achieved [thus far] is far reaching in the sense that, not only will there be a substantial devolution of power, it will lead to an end of the executive presidency so that we can move to a Westminster parliamentary system.
But one crucial question that has not been agreed on is the structure of the state. Now, the debate in Sri Lanka has always been around whether it should be a unitary state or a federal state. The compromise that many hoped will be achieved would be neither—it would be a state with certain federal features but it won’t be explicitly called a federal constitution or for that matter a unitary constitution. The Sinhalese nationalist parties and the president’s party, SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party], in the last few months, have been calling for a unitary constitution, which would be a major setback in terms of winning the confidence of the minority communities for these proposals. But nevertheless we hope the APRC will complete the process and put forward these proposals.
What has been the role of the United States in the peace process?
The United States, along with the European Union, Japan—which is Sri Lanka’s largest donor—and the facilitator, Norway, formed the four cochairs to the peace process, which is mainly a donor mechanism that was initiated at the Tokyo Donor Conference in 2003. Since then the United States has been a watchdog, along with the other cochairs. Both the State Department and the U.S ambassador in Colombo have been very vocal, both on the lack of progress and the need to address human rights and humanitarian concerns. More recently, late last year, the foreign operation bill passed by Congress has activated the Leahy amendment, which inhibits most forms of military support to Sri Lanka unless Sri Lanka moves on prosecuting military personnel responsible for grave human rights abuses, and there is humanitarian access as well as access to the media in conflict areas, and Sri Lanka works toward a new human-rights monitoring mission with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. So the United States has been engaged considerably on the political front to push Sri Lanka toward a political solution.
India’s involvement in the conflict has been criticized in the past for the support it extended to the Tamil militants. It even deployed a peacekeeping force in 1987, which ultimately had to leave after three years amidst escalating violence. Do you see India playing a more constructive role now?
India is the most important actor in terms of the international community when it comes to Sri Lanka but India has also had a traumatic experience in dealing with Sri Lanka. There was the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, which was followed by the peacekeeping force that tried to enforce that accord. But during that period, both the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka at that time opposed the Indian intervention. Followed by that, there was the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi [by the LTTE]. Since then, India has officially had a hands-off policy. During the last two years there are increasing noises from India. There is also considerable economic engagement on the part of India. The Sri Lankan economy has increasingly become integrated with the Indian economy, so in that sense it is in India’s interest as well to see a solution to this problem.
More recently India has also been very vocal calling on the government of Sri Lanka to move on a political solution and constitutional reform that would address the concerns of minorities. Now to what extent India would translate its concerns into actual pressure that would push the actors in Sri Lanka, we’ll have to wait and see. Due to its problematic past, the LTTE is banned in India following the Gandhi assassination. It will make it harder for India to intervene again or to put pressure in Sri Lanka with the LTTE in the picture. That has been one of the obstacles to India playing a more active role in Sri Lanka.
What do you see as a solution to this conflict? What could break the deadlock?
The only way forward is through the political process. The long-standing demands of the Tamils and now increasingly all the other minorities has been constitutional reform to address their grievances and aspirations. While it’s quite clear that this year the war is going to escalate, the government has said that they will defeat the LTTE. Even if they defeat the LTTE, which is questionable as to whether they would be able to—they have claimed that in the past [too]—they still have to put forward a political solution that addresses the grievances and aspirations of the minority communities. The political process needs to go forward and at the same time the confidence of the minorities have to be won over by ensuring that human rights are protected because over the last two years, the human rights situation has deteriorated terribly.