The recent assassination of Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, foreign minister of Sri Lanka, is a blow to the fragile peace process in that country. Hard fought negotiations have yielded a tenuous ceasefire, yet a peace agreement remains beyond reach. Antagonism between ethnic groups has been matched by equally powerful divisions within those ethnic groups. The murder of Mr. Kadirgamar could provide an excuse for the abandonment of the peace process; this must not happen. His killers must be found and punished. The peace process must not become an additional victim of this brutal slaying.

Sri Lanka is a deeply divided country. Sinhalese comprise 74 percent of the population, and their nationalism has alienated many other native ethnic groups. Especially embittered have been the Tamils, who make up 18 percent of the population and are the country’s largest minority. Their anger has provided fertile soil for separatist movements that seek to establish a homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The Tamils are by no means united; various groups run the political spectrum. The most hard line of them is the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers.

The Tamil Tigers have battled against the government for two decades in a savage conflict marked by brutalities on both sides. The war has claimed some 64,000 lives. There have been ample and well-documented instances of massacres, disappearances and torture. It is estimated that over 386,100 people have been internally displaced by the conflict; nearly 40 percent of which are under 18 years old. As many as 143,000 are refugees in India.

Two years ago, the two sides negotiated a ceasefire, which has held despite violations on both sides. The agreement was the result of a changed international environment that drained sympathy for Tiger tactics; the fatigue of combatants; and the availability of outside mediators who were ready to help broker a deal. Norwegian negotiators have done much of the work, but Japanese diplomats have provided critical support for the rebuilding that is essential to an enduring peace.

A ceasefire is not a peace agreement, however, and moving beyond this point has proven extremely difficult. There are a number of reasons for the stalemate, not least of which are the deep divisions within each side. Extremism has been a hallmark of Tamil Tiger policy, and the readiness of its current leadership to compromise on the demand for independence has bred discontent, leaving some factions ready to take action on their own initiative. There are reports of as many as 130 killings of Tamils by militants since the ceasefire went into effect.

It is suspected that those renegades were responsible for the assassination of Mr. Kadirgamar who, on Aug. 12, was shot to death by a sniper as he got out of a pool at his home. The Sri Lankan government blamed the Tigers for the killing; Mr. Kadirgamar, a Tamil, had been denounced as a traitor by hardline Tamils for joining the government. The LTTE denied any role in the killing. The leader of the Tiger political wing claimed that “war is not an option” and declared that his party wanted “to maintain the ceasefire momentum.” Rebel negotiators have met with Norwegian representatives to profess this commitment to the peace process.

Divisions among the rebels are matched by divisions in the government. President Chandrika Kumaratunga is suspicious of the Tigers, but she has spent an equal amounts of time battling former pro-reconciliation Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe — the president dissolved parliament two years ago and called elections that returned her party to power — along with a nationalist party that opposes concessions to the LTTE. The country’s constitutional court is soon to deliver a decision on the need for elections as a result of the dissolution of Parliament. If the court decides a ballot is needed, the peace process is likely to be put on hold. Worse, a more nationalist government could win the election, making any deal virtually impossible.

This profound mistrust makes any negotiations difficult and adds layers of intrigue to the political situation. In the aftermath of the assassination, Parliament imposed a state of emergency for one month. During that time, the government wants to examine the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. The Tigers have complained that the agreement has been routinely violated and a failure to honor it will result in its collapse. Both sides blame the other for the violence. There is concern that the government will use its power during the emergency to harass suspected rebels and their supporters; a Sinhalese backlash against the Tamils is also a possibility.

The extraordinary human cost of the conflict makes any delay unacceptable. Sadly, Mr. Kadirgamar’s assassination is another detour on the long road to peace in Sri Lanka.

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