So said Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse after yet another round of violence that threatens to end the fragile peace in that country. His exasperation is understandable. The distrust between the two antagonists — the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — is so profound that it is proving impossible to transport negotiators to internationally sponsored meetings. The failure to resume the talks will guarantee a return to the civil war that has bloodied the country for over two decades.
Tensions between the Sinhalese that make up the majority of Sri Lankans and the 3.2 million Tamil minority exploded in conflict in 1983. Protesting discrimination and second-class status, the Tamil Tigers, as the LTTE are unofficially known, have fought for an independent homeland in the north of the country. It has been a bloody conflict, with both sides showing no hesitancy in attacking civilians. Tamil separatists have been just as quick to kill Tamil moderates prepared to work with the government in Colombo on a political solution to the war. During two decades of conflict, more than 65,000 people have been killed and more than 350,000 people have been displaced.
Finally, in February 2002, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire. It has endured despite sporadic violations ever since. Peace talks have been considerably less successful as the government has proven as divided as the Sri Lankans themselves. Members of the Sinhalese majority protest concessions to the Tamils, arguing that it could pave the way to division. The splits have been powerful enough to bring about the collapse of the government in Colombo.
Plainly, there are hardliners on both sides that seek a military rather than a political solution to this situation. Accusations from both camps that individuals opposed to negotiations have attacked their own forces are not beyond belief.
In February of this year, international mediation yielded another agreement in which the two sides agreed to take measures to prevent intimidation, acts of violence, abductions or killings. Yet within a month, the international Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was warning that the ceasefire was on the brink of collapse after a string of attacks had left more than 40 people dead on both sides; both sides were to blame. The violence — mine explosions, suicide bombings, assassinations of journalists, military air strikes — is dreadfully familiar. Each killing triggers a response, which generates yet more reprisals. The body count has already topped 200 victims. Without intervention, the downward spiral will force a resumption of all-out war.
President Rajapakse has called for the resumption of peace talks. That is difficult when the negotiators cannot even meet. The last attempt was aborted when the LTTE objected to the presence of Sri Lankan naval vessels monitoring the transport of rebel negotiators. This prompted a rebuke by the monitoring force which rightfully chided the rebels for not paying attention: “Those in positions of responsibility on either side are not acting in the interests of their people.”
Truer words were never spoken. An international coalition of more than 50 countries and 25 multilateral institutions has promised to provide $4.5 billion in aid to Sri Lanka if the two sides would end their fighting and work together toward peace. That is a tremendous sum of money that could be used to undo the damage of war and create economic opportunities that could erase the stigma and inequality that has been created by discrimination. Yet, even that carrot is not as alluring as the donors had hoped, as those who favor violence and conflict have been able to prevail.
The European Union, Japan, Norway, and the United Sates co-chair the donors’ group and have invested the most time and effort in negotiating a solution. They have condemned the recent violence and called on both sides to return to the peace talks.
Japan has a central role to play in Sri Lanka. It is the largest single donor to the country, providing 45 percent of all external aid. Former U.N. Undersecretary General Yasushi Akashi has been appointed Japan’s representative for peace building and reconstruction. Mr. Akashi has a long record of work on peace building and can, with real support, help bring the sides together.
He already has the incentives he needs. Now, he and the other peace negotiators need sticks. If the violence continues and the talks remain blocked, other governments should declare the LTTE a terrorist group, refuse to have contact with the group, and block remittances from Tamils overseas that can be used to support its activities. The government too must be isolated and sent a clear message that it must end its support of militias that fight the Tamils and halt the violence against civilians. Enough is enough.
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