Sri Lankans fear feud imperils fragile peace

Fellows Fall 2004

By Kavita Menon

June 04, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- A political feud between rival leaders, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, is threatening the country's high-profile peace process, leaving many Sri Lankans worried about their future.

Since the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels reached a cease-fire agreement in February 2002, Sri Lankans have experienced the longest period of calm since fighting began in 1983. In Colombo, that has meant a dramatic reduction in the number of checkpoints, fewer soldiers on the street, and simply less tension and fear of the unexpected.

The cease-fire is holding, but fear is creeping back. "People are a bit jittery now," said Mohammad Azar, who manages a jewelry shop in Colombo's Majestic City shopping mall. He said he worried that Sri Lanka would sink back into suicide attacks and barricades, and people "don't know where and when the bombs can go off."

The Tamil Tigers earned worldwide notoriety for their use of suicide bombers who targeted civilians as well as government forces. Despite stringent security in Colombo, they carried out devastating attacks -- choosing high-profile targets including Sri Lanka's own World Trade Center, a set of twin towers in the heart of the city.

The current political crisis was touched off on Nov. 4, when Kumaratunga abruptly suspended Parliament and took over three top Cabinet ministries while Wickremasinghe was in Washington to meet President Bush. In a televised address to explain her actions, Kumaratunga criticized the prime minister's handling of the peace process and accused his administration of allowing the Tigers to gain strength at the expense of the country's security.

Public reaction to the president's moves and the ensuing political crisis appears to be guided primarily by attitudes toward the peace process itself. Those who support the process tend to mistrust the president's motives. "This is basically not a game of trying to safeguard the country," said Nalir Perera, who works at an Internet technology firm in Colombo. "It's pure power struggle."

Perera added that he is thinking of leaving the country if the situation deteriorates again.

"From my youth up to my middle age -- I'm 41 now -- I have lived with all these problems," he said. "I don't want my child to go through this."

However, the president finds support from among those who believe the rebels were using the peace process to get what they have demanded all along, a separate homeland for the Tamil people.

Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, have suffered violence and discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority, who are mostly Buddhist. Sri Lanka also has a small but influential Muslim minority.

On Nov. 1, three days before the president reshuffled the Cabinet, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the rebels are formally known, unveiled a proposal for an interim administration to govern the northeastern region while peace talks continue. They proposed an administration with far-reaching powers to be controlled by "an absolute majority" of LTTE appointees.

Ariyadasa Nanayakkara, a retired civil servant and author with a keen interest in political news, thinks the rebels went too far. "They are making demands nobody can yield," he said. "Their proposals are leading up to a separate state." Nanayakkara supports the president's intervention for slowing down a process pushed by Wickremasinghe, whom he accuses of "going all out to placate" the Tigers.

Nanayakkara is proud of his Sinhalese identity, but he does not want to be counted among the extreme nationalists opposed to making any concessions to accommodate the country's Tamil minority. He is also proud of defending his Tamil friends during the ethnic riots of 1983, when organized mobs systematically targeted Tamils, killing an estimated 2,000 people.

Among those killed in 1983 was Sathivale Balakrishnan's father. And though the violence of 1983 pushed many of his generation to join the Tamil militancy, Balakrishnan himself has been a lifelong advocate for peace and social justice, and is now program director at the National Peace Council, an independent group. He worries that the peace process will lose momentum at a critical juncture, just when the Tigers had diverted substantial attention to draft a political document that they planned would be the basis of future negotiations.

"When this kind of obstacle is seen, then their frustration will set in," he said, speaking of Tamils in the northeast, who have suffered the brunt of the war. "It is the public support among the Tamils that can exert a continuous pressure on the LTTE to sustain them in the negotiation process, you see. I think this cannot be delayed too long."

But a long delay seems likely unless the president and the prime minister begin to recalibrate their widely divergent positions. Kumaratunga, who narrowly escaped a Tiger suicide attack in 1999 and takes a hard-line approach to negotiating with rebels, is pushing for a new Grand Alliance to govern the country. The prime minister says there is no need to change the government as long as he commands a parliamentary majority. He also says that without control over key ministries such as Defense and Information, he cannot remain in charge of the peace process.

Norway, which has played a key role in facilitating the peace talks, announced last weekend that it is suspending its involvement here due to the political crisis. Norwegian deputy foreign minister Vidar Helgesen also warned that, "the cease-fire will be much more difficult to sustain in a political vacuum."

The Tigers have not exploited the leadership crisis in Colombo to resume fighting, and have reiterated their commitment to the peace process and the cease-fire.

"The strongest reaction to what happened last week is the fear of going backward," said Peter Harrold, Sri Lanka country director for the World Bank. "It was, `My God, here we go again. Are they taking us back to war?' I think it revealed the depth of the desire of people as a whole to avoid a return to war."