Crouching Tigers: Pursuing Elusive Peace in Sri Lanka

By Galster, Collin | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Crouching Tigers: Pursuing Elusive Peace in Sri Lanka


Galster, Collin, Harvard International Review


Long-standing conflict in Sri Lanka has claimed over 60,000 lives since 1983. Rebels from the Tamil minority demand substantial political autonomy for the primarily Tamil northern and eastern regions, creating tension with the Sinhalese-dominated government forces. In late 2007, Sri Lanka's military pushed into rebel-occupied territories, dealing multiple blows to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The army has recorded other recent victories, including clearing eastern territories on rebel-controlled islands, sinking rebel military supply ships, and killing the Tigers' long-time political representative and media liaison, Suppayya Paramu Thamilselvan, in an air strike. Many within Sri Lanka's government now conclude that the LTTE will soon be eliminated, perhaps in less than one year. Unfortunately, these predictions may prove to be unrealistic. The 25 year-old insurgency will not evaporate without a settlement on constitutional federalism that current strategies are not on track to produce.

The ethnic basis of Sri Lanka's civil war was largely an invention of the British colonial regime. The British created a arbitrary division that has been exploited over time for various ends. After the British left in 1972, governmental power was transferred from the minority Tamil-speakers to the majority Sinhala-speakers, exacerbating an "ethnic" conflict that was based primarily on language. A governmental imbalance of power now remains.

The government is currently headed by the hardline, anti-LTTE Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and his coalition of the United People's Freedom Alliance. Meanwhile, the Tamil National Alliance Party, a coalition of Tamil political parties, garnered less than 7 percent of the vote in the most recent parliamentary elections. This imbalance, combined with "ethnic" animosity, has led to authoritarian discrimination policies such as the Emergency Regulations of 2005. These measures have been used to detain journalists and political opposition, stigmatize human rights advocates as "LTTE sympathizers," and extrajudicially abduct suspected members of the LTTE's civilian-support network.

Yet, the Sri Lankan military believes, somewhat short-shortsightedly, that it has reached a turning point in the conflict. This bravado ignores realities of the situation. The Sri Lankan army has fewer mobile troops at its disposal than it did a few months ago when retaking eastern territories, since troops are now being used to secure the region. Moreover, the LTTE's northern positions, such as the Tigers' recently reinforced defensive structures within the Vanni region, are much more strongly fortified than were their eastern territories. The government's political support is also crumbling in urban areas, particularly the capital city Colombo, due to rising inflation and a worsening economy. If the military employs the same brutal counter-insurgency tactics in the north as it has done elsewhere, the Tamil population will be further alienated--possibly invigorating a greater insurgent backlash.

While the government of Sri Lanka may be misplacing its hopes in military action, the international community has similarly misplaced hopes in the peace talks brokered by Norwegian mediators. …

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