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September 01, 2005

Will Sri Lanka's cease-fire hold?

Posted by Clifford Bastin

It was widely hoped that in the aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami Sri Lanka's politicians might be able to find a common purpose in rebuilding the island. These hopes have come to nothing, Clifford Bastin reports. Sri Lanka now stands perilously close to renewed civil war.

Long before the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on 12th August, the Cease-fire Agreement (CFA) signed between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Feb 2002, was teetering on the brink of collapse. It is unclear exactly how many killings have taken place since the cease-fire began, but credible estimates comfortably exceed 300. The majority of these political murders have taken place since an Eastern faction split away from the Tigers in March 2004 and most violence has occurred in the East. The LTTE accuses Colombo of conducting a dirty war of attrition in collusion with Tamil para-militaries.

Anton Balasingham, the London-based Tiger negotiator and ideologue, maintains that there are five Tamil para-military groups who are provided with logistical support, safe havens and finance by the security forces, particularly military intelligence. The Government refutes this and portrays the blood-letting as a consequence of internal Tamil feuding. Attacks by the LTTE on security forces have again become frequent such that in July Helen Olafsdottir of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) described the situation as a "nightmare and most dangerous".

While the country has not experienced the bombings and pitched battles of the past, the cease-fire has existed for some time in name only and the drift back to war has seemed inexorable. On the day he died the Foreign Minister was not the only victim of political violence. Three police officers in Amaparai in the East of the island were wounded, one fatally, and elsewhere in the district members of the army's Special Task Force were attacked. In Colombo a Tamil presenter on State Television and Radio was shot dead, along with her husband. The couple were associated with the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), an anti-Tiger group. The woman presented a popular radio show produced by Douglas Devananda, leader of the (Eelam People's Democratic Party), EDPD, a group that is part of the ruling coalition.

It has been suggested that the media personality was killed in revenge for the murder in May of Dharmaretnam Sivram, a senior editor of the Tamilnet website who also had a column on the English language Daily Mirror newspaper. After being abducted outside a Colombo restaurant, Sivram's body was found later in a high security zone near Parliament which the Tigers allege indicates state complicity. Sivram's articles were sympathetic to LTTE objectives and their leader Prabhakaran subsequently conferred the title of maamanithar, or great man, on him.

The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, almost certainly by the LTTE, has made it difficult to see how a meaningful cease-fire can be restored, despite protestations by both sides that they remain committed to pursuing peace. To draw a parallel, it would be hard to conceive a cease-fire in Northern Ireland enduring if the IRA succeeded in killing Jack Straw, or if IRA operatives were being targeted by groups linked to the government. Following Kadirgamar's death the killing has continued unabated. The implications of his killing cannot be over-stated and as the Head of the SLMM, Hagrup Haukland, commented:

This is the most serious incident during the three and a half year cease-fire.
A fortnight prior to the Minister's death, suspected Tigers had been apprehended filming outside of his residence situated in the leafy Colombo suburb of Cinnamon Gardens. Kadirgamar was a Tamil Christian from Jaffna, the LTTE heartland. He had been a close ally and confidant of President Kumaratunga for many years, serving as Foreign Minister from 1994 to 2001 and again since 2004. He studied at Oxford University and became President of the Union in 1959. Subsequently he enjoyed a successful legal career specialising in intellectual property law, a curious specialism given how freely available pirated music, films and software are in Colombo shopping plazas. He campaigned internationally against the recruitment of child soldiers and claimed credit for the banning of the Tigers in the USA and UK, incurring the intense wrath of that organisation. When flags were flown at half-mast upon his death by UN agencies in Kilinochchi, a Tiger stronghold in the north, the compounds were stormed and the flags ripped down.

The loss of her Foreign Minister has been a grievous blow to the President who has appointed her brother the Tourism Minister, Anura Bandaranaike, to the post.

On 15th August in Aceh province separatist rebels and the Indonesian government, prompted by the imperative of post-tsunami reconstruction, signed a peace agreement bringing to an end years of conflict. In Sri Lanka the tsunami has provided no such catalyst for a peaceful resolution of conflict. It has been apparent from the outset that some accommodation needed to be reached between Government and rebels to allow aid to be channelled from international donors to Tsunami affected territory under Tiger control in the North and East. The establishment of a Joint Mechanism has been under discussion since January and President Kumaratunga has acknowledged that it could be a first step towards re-invigorating the peace process. International donors insisted on a means of equitably distributing the $3bn that they had pledged. In addition a separate mechanism was required given the reluctance of many donors to provide aid directly to the LTTE, an outlawed organisation in a number of key donor states.

A Joint Mechanism was vehemently opposed by the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP), a Sinhalese nationalist and Marxist party that formed part of the governing coalition. The opposition Heritage party (JHU) of Buddhist monks joined with the JVP in huge demonstrations and a number of monks went on hunger strike. Both groups are implacably opposed to making concessions to the LTTE and view an aid sharing mechanism as de facto recognition of Tiger sovereignty and a stepping stone towards secession. In mid-June the JVP carried through on their threat to leave the Government if the President proceeded with the Joint Mechanism, and in so doing deprived the Government of its parliamentary majority.

Once the agreement was signed the Joint Mechanism became known as the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS). This structure provided for a committee at its apex comprising one member each from the Government, LTTE and Muslim community, chaired on a rotating basis and operating by consensus. The views of multilateral and bilateral donors were to be presented by representatives with observer status. The jurisdiction of P-TOMS was to be the 2km coastal belt in the North East affected by the tsunami.

For a short while it seemed as though the long impasse over aid distribution for relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation had been broken ensuring that international funds would at last reach the victims on a scale commensurate with their needs. It was also hoped that co-operating in the various committees of P-TOMS would ease tensions between Government and LTTE, paving the way to a revival of the stalled peace process.

Optimism that the agreement would change the prevailing political climate lasted about as long as the life span of a Mayfly. The JVP and JHU wasted no time in petitioning the Supreme Court that P-TOMS was unconstitutional. The interim ruling of the Chief Justice was that while in principle the agreement was legitimate, four clauses were questionable and the deal was effectively blocked until a definitive judgement is delivered later in September. In particular the Supreme Court has doubts concerning the legality of the World Bank acting as custodian of the international relief funds donated to Sri Lanka. Further it questions the decision to base P-TOMS in Kilinochchi near Jaffna, where the LTTE have their political head quarters. The Tigers reacted furiously to the de-railing of P-TOMS, in the words of their spokesman S. P. Thamilchelvan:

Sinhala leaders have been using one strategy or another to scuttle any deal that provides some benefit to the Tamils.
The prevarication and delay in responding to the post-tsunami situation can engender deep dismay in the casual observer yet, for those whose lives have been convulsed by the calamity, the foot dragging must be insupportable. Conditions for the many tens of thousands of displaced survivors, living in tents or single roomed wooden shelters are trying in the extreme. The shelters are unsuited to the searing heat and humidity of the tropics or to resist the ferocious downpours of the monsoon. The World Bank's damage assessment was that 90,000 homes had been fully or very largely destroyed in the tsunami yet in July People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFREL), a local pressure group monitoring the relief work, reported that less than 1,000 permanent houses had been completed. In the devastated town of Hambantota in the far South, the Government announced during January that it would clear inland jungle and construct 2,000 dwellings. By June forty-seven had been completed but as the authorities had not managed to supply water or electricity only three were occupied.

It is not an insufficiency of funds that is hampering reconstruction as early pledges from international donors have largely been converted into real commitments. A more significant impediment is the scarcity of land in the densely populated coastal belt and the slow pace at which available land is being allocated. Local administration is ponderous and many of the displaced lacked titles to their destroyed property. The Government quite reasonably has created a precautionary Buffer Zone set back from the sea and does not permit rebuilding within it. The World Bank has estimated that the imposition of a buffer-zone requires that 60% of the damaged housing units be relocated which inevitably slows the rebuilding effort and urges a more flexible approach.

Through its handling of the many generous donations of international aid supplies the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to win friends but have certainly influenced people. In August The Times reported that 167 containers of relief materials were languishing at the port in Colombo, unprocessed by customs or held pending the payment of customs duties and there have been many similar stories in the international media. Oxfam was asked to pay $1m in import duties on 25 off-road vehicles imported from India, which were subsequently kept idle for more than a month while negotiations continued. The charity was invited to hand the vehicles to the government, re-export them or pay the duty. A Presidential spokesman, Harim Peiris, explained that, after having been temporarily suspended, import duties had been re-imposed to encourage local procurement, although in the case of vehicles Sri Lanka has no manufacturing capacity.

The threat of a return to civil war aside, Sri Lankan politics have been as turbulent as ever. The country will face Presidential elections before the end of the year. Parliamentary elections may also be on the cards, as the Government lost its majority when the JVP left the coalition. The timing of the next Presidential elections had become extremely contentious. Mrs Kumaratunga was elected for her first six year term in 1994. However she chose to go to the country a year early in 1999. In her opponents' view winning a further six year term in 1999 implies that the President's current term must end in December of this year. However in 2003 Mrs Kumaratunga announced that she had sworn her oath of office secretly during 2000 and that this is the time from which her second presidency should be considered to have begun, hence she feels entitled to remain in office until 2006. In August the Election Commissioner ruled against the President affirming that her second and final term allowed under the Sri Lankan constitution began with her re-election in 1999 and thus fresh elections are indeed required in December this year. The Supreme Court has now given its determination - and upheld the ruling of the Election Commissioner. In anticipation of this, both main parties had already named their candidates.

If the debate on the timing of the election was to be explained to a man from Mars he should have very great difficulty fathoming how such confusion could have been permitted to arise. Perplexing it may be, but in Sri Lankan politics, just as in Alice in Wonderland, words can come to mean exactly what Humpty Dumpty desires them to mean.

Another curious feature of the political landscape relates to the allocation of ministerial positions. Transparency International recently highlighted:

the unsound political tradition of having "jumbo" cabinets.
To construct a viable coalition from the plethora of parties, Governments lure and assuage by promising high office with the status, perks and attractive financial opportunities that appointment brings. At present only two Members of Parliament representing parties in the coalition are not Ministers or Deputy Ministers. It is not uncommon for the Cabinet to have in excess of 40 members, some holding more than one portfolio. Patronage exercised so generously has become the habit of both main parties but does little to endear politicians to a long suffering and sceptical electorate. As Transparency also observes it is a practice that a poorly endowed nation can ill afford to resource.

In the short time that has passed since the killing of the Foreign Minister there has been one development that allows just a scintilla of hope that the country will avoid a descent into renewed civil war. Agreement has been reached in principle to the first high level meeting between Government representatives and those of the LTTE since in 2003 the Tigers suspended participation in direct talks. The agenda will focus on means by which the rapidly deteriorating security climate can be improved. This does not mean that homes for the displaced are any nearer but at least if the headlong rush to war can be averted the prospect of homes, jobs and stability will not recede further beyond the horizon.

The grounds for optimism are, however, limited. The Government and the LTTE cannot even agree where to hold the talks. The Government has rejected the request of the LTTE for talks to be held on foreign soil. The reasoning may or may not be sound but either way the venture is now in doubt and for the displaced languishing in the camps along the coastline there is a little less reason to hope.

To read Clifford Bastin's other reports from Sri Lanka, see Sri Lanka after the Tsunami.

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