Sri Lanka’s Return to War: Limiting the Damage
Sri Lanka’s Return to War: Limiting the Damage
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis
Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis
Report 146 / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Return to War: Limiting the Damage

Sri Lanka is in civil war again, and there are no prospects of a peace process resuming soon.

Executive Summary

Sri Lanka is in civil war again, and there are no prospects of a peace process resuming soon. On 2 January 2008, the government announced its withdrawal from a ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This formalised a return to conflict that has been underway since 2006 but also presaged worse to come. The humanitarian crisis is deepening, abuses of human rights by both sides are increasing, and those calling for peace are being silenced. There is no present chance of a new ceasefire or negotiations since the government, despite pro forma statements in favour of a political solution, is dependent on hardliners and appears intent on a military decision. International actors must concentrate for now on damage limitation: protecting civilians from the war’s worst effects and supporting those working to preserve Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions.

In addition to heavy fighting in the north, the first weeks of 2008 have seen the assassinations of a government minister and a Tamil opposition member of parliament, multiple bombings in Colombo, a wave of deadly attacks on civilians in the majority Sinhalese south, and widespread disappearances and killings of non-combantants in the north and east. More than 5,000 combatants and civilians are estimated to have been killed over the past two years. At least 140,000 have fled intensified fighting in the north, and more are likely to be forced out if the military continues its push into Tiger-controlled territory. If the government’s military approach in the east is a precedent for its conduct of the northern campaign, civilians and their property are at grave risk.

Much of the blame for the resumption in violence lies with the LTTE; its ceasefire violations and abuses of the population under its control pushed the government towards war. The Tiger strategy was to shore up internal support by provoking a Sinhala nationalist reaction; it worked, although the insurgents may come to regret their approach. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has also overplayed his hand. Relying on support from Sinhala extremists, he has let them set an agenda that allows only for a military approach.

The military and much of the government leadership believe they can defeat or permanently weaken the Tigers by the end of 2008. The LTTE has been badly hurt over the past eighteen months: it has lost the areas it controlled in the Eastern Province; its arms routes have been disrupted; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its fighters have been killed; and senior commanders are now vulnerable to targeted elimination, either from air force bombs or special forces. But the Tigers remain a formidable fighting force. While the army has been inching forward in the north, they are fighting back from well-defended positions. Even assuming the Tigers can be defeated militarily, it remains unclear how the government would pacify and control the large Tamil-speaking areas in the north that have been under LTTE domination for a decade or more.

The government argues its military campaign will clear the way for a political solution. Vowing to “eradicate terrorism”, it says it aims to destroy the Tigers or force them to disarm and enter democratic politics and negotiations alongside other Tamil and Muslim parties. But after promising for more than a year to undertake substantial constitutional reforms once the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) recommended them, it now proposes only to “fully implement” the constitution’s long-existing Thirteenth Amendment. The limited devolved powers for the north and east that this would represent are unlikely even in the best case to be sufficient to win over many Tamils or Muslims, though they could be a useful start if implemented sincerely. Since President Rajapaksa has chosen to depend on strongly Sinhala nationalist parties for his government’s survival, however, this seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, ethnic divisions are deepening. The humanitarian costs of the war are concentrated in Tamil-speaking areas. In Colombo, security forces have conducted large, often indiscriminate arrests of Tamils under emergency regulations. But Muslims are under pressure from both the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), a paramilitary group which broke from the Tigers and operates with the government’s blessing, and government-sponsored land and administrative changes. The much touted “liberation” of the Eastern Province has failed to bring development or democracy; instead it has been characterised by military rule and rising ethnic tensions. The government will lose an opportunity to set up a democratic alternative to the LTTE in the east if it fails to rein in the TMVP ahead of a series of elections scheduled to begin in March 2008.

The human rights and governance crisis continues unabated, with paralysis of the institutions empowered to investigate and prosecute, and consequent impunity for abusers. The many ad hoc commissions of inquiry of the past two years have accomplished nothing, while disappearances and political killings continue, especially in Jaffna and other parts of the north. Both the Tigers and the TMVP continue to recruit and make use of child soldiers, despite repeated pledges to UN agencies and others not to.

The current conflict is worse than what preceded the 2002 ceasefire. The government’s counter-insurgency campaign is more brutal and indiscriminate, the terror and criminal activities of its Tamil proxy forces more extensive and blatant, and the role of chauvinistic Sinhala ideologues in government more pronounced. The suspected involvement of pro-government forces in the assassinations of Tamil politicians is particularly disturbing. The Tigers have fully militarised life in areas under their control and returned to brutal attacks on Sinhalese civilians, intent on provoking even worse retaliation.

As unpromising as present circumstances are, the government should be alert to any opportunities that arise to promote a new peace process. Meanwhile, the international community needs to use its limited leverage for the time being to prevent further deterioration, while developing strategies to strengthen the moderate, non-violent forces still committed to a peaceful and just settlement and to build the middle ground – significantly beyond the unitary state but far short of a separate Tamil state – that will be necessary if a lasting political solution is to gain traction once political conditions are better. This will require pressing the Tigers and their supporters to abandon terrorism and separatism, while simultaneously encouraging a new consensus in the south in support of constitutional and state reforms.

Colombo/Brussels, 20 February 2008

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