New Approach: The Democratic Path to Peace in Sri Lanka

By Kumaratunga, Chandrika | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview
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New Approach: The Democratic Path to Peace in Sri Lanka


Kumaratunga, Chandrika, Harvard International Review


THE PEOPLE'S ALLIANCE GOVERNMENT which assumed office in Sri Lanka in 1994 inherited a complex of issues often referred to as "the ethnic conflict," the discord between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, which respectively comprise 74 percent and 13 percent of the country's population. Earlier administrations sought to solve the conflict through military defeat of the Tamil rebellion. Were military victory alone sufficient to resolve the conflict, the present government could claim some success in restoring peace and civil government to Jaffna, the northern city once the stronghold of the militant Tamil group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But the present government of Sri Lanka has taken the position that only meaningful political and economic change can truly resolve the conflict. The issues underlying the ethnic discord can only be successfully addressed by a comprehensive and feasible constitutional arrangement that provides for power sharing between the central government and peripheral areas. Such an arrangement would devolve responsibility for development-related decisions to the diverse sections of the Sri Lankan nation.

In order to follow an approach that recognizes both the military dimension of the conflict and the underlying sources of discontent, the Sri Lankan government must pursue several objectives. It must defeat the LTTE, which alone among Tamil groups has rejected the option of peaceful negotiations preferred by the rest of the country. Second, the government's proposals on the wide devolution of power must be implemented with the consensus of the political parties represented in the parliament and with the approval of voters in a popular referendum. Third, rapid, equitable, and sustainable development initiatives must be pursued, combined with the reconstruction and rehabilitation of social and economic infrastructure in the wartorn areas. A successful conclusion to ethnic strife can only be achieved by a political settlement which has, as its principal aim, the development of a united, peaceful, and prosperous Sri Lankan nation.

The Roots of Militancy

The beginnings of the Tamil militancy can be traced to the formation of the Tamil New Tigers in 1972. The movement, led by the teenaged Velupillai Prabhakaran, comprised mainly Tamil youth who were disgruntled by the divisive policies of previous regimes. Tamils were denied the right to conduct official business in the Tamil language, and the 1974 and 1975 standardization of entry requirements to institutions of higher learning were seen as discriminatory to Tamils. The mayor of Jaffna was assassinated as a consequence of supporting the government of the day.

Faced with this discrimination, another group, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was established in 1976, pledging to attain a sovereign, secular, and socialist state--Eelam--for the Tamil people. The TNT, meanwhile, was renamed and reconstituted as the LTTE in 1978. Following attacks on police and army installations, the LTTE and other militant movements were banned.

The approach to the LTTE militancy and the ethnic conflict in the 1980s lacked a rational, coherent strategy, causing the crisis to grow to catastrophic proportions and devastate both civil society and the national economy. The most glaring example of the gross mishandling of the conflict was the way in which India was alienated by government figures through tactless and undiplomatic comments and actions. It was impolitic, to say the least, to have forsaken the confidence and goodwill of India in trying to address the crisis.

Symbolic concessions were made to appease Tamil demands, such as the recognition of Tamil as a national language in the 1978 Constitution, but these measures were more than negated by the government's policy of banning militant groups like the Tigers and repressing moderate Tamils through harsh methods. Consequently, militancy and terrorism took root more firmly, with violence becoming the norm and faith in democratic conventions disappearing among Tamil youths.

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