COLOMBO — My plane lands smoothly at Colombo’s plush Bandaranaike International Airport, but beyond the runway lies the turbulence of ethnic strife that for 20 years has ravaged this hauntingly picturesque island nation.
In 2001, at the height of the war between Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority population and its Tamil Hindu-Christian minority community, the airport was attacked and one-third of Sri Lanka’s commercial airline fleet was destroyed.
More than a major loss to the civil aviation industry, the assault was a blow to government pride. The airport attack was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a radically militant group headed by V. Prabhakaran. He has demanded a separate state for Tamils in the northeastern region of Sri Lanka and had waged a bloody guerrilla war, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, for two decades — until a ceasefire was declared in 2002. That ceasefire now appears to be breaking down.
My taxi driver, who takes me from the airport to Colombo’s swanky downtown Independence Avenue, tells me that another war is imminent, a dread shared by many others in the city. Deserted streets and shopping malls convey a fear psychosis among Sri Lankans, who believe that the latest assassination of the country’s high-ranking deputy army chief, Lt.-Gen. Parami Kulatunge, by a suspected LTTE suicide squad member clearly signaled the start of hostilities.
All along the 30-km route from the airport to the city, I saw several army-manned posts, and cumbersome checks prolonged the journey. Such an irritant has already started discouraging tourism, upon which “Europe of the East” thrives. Colombo’s empty hotels and restaurants attest to this.
But why is the ceasefire, signed between the government and LTTE in February 2002, collapsing? Sinhala nationalists and critics of LTTE say Prabhakaran was never seriously interested in a negotiated settlement — that he was merely trying to buy time to regroup, rearm and restrengthen his forces. There was a time when LTTE recruited 12- and 13-year-old children to carry out their deadly hit-and-run attacks.
On the other hand, LTTE argues that the government was never for a political solution, that it wanted a military resolution of the crisis.
The fact is that both sides appear to have lost an excellent opportunity for a peaceful compromise. The peace process of 2002, facilitated by Norway, froze the military operations of both the government and the LTTE. At the time, it was widely expected that the ceasefire would help achieve a political answer to years of armed battle, distrust and animosity between the two warring sides. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
There were two areas where the government-LTTE negotiations ran into major problems. First, soon after the ceasefire, both sides agreed during an Oslo conference that they would explore a federal option within a united Sri Lanka. They were willing to look at India as an example, where the federal government in New Delhi lets the states enjoy a liberal degree of freedom, though not to the same extent the American states do.
Second, in October 2003, the government and LTTE placed on the table their proposals for an interim administration in the disputed northeastern provinces. But somehow they could not find a common path. Even a deadly natural calamity like the tsunami of December 2004 — which offered an excellent chance to work shoulder to shoulder — could not push them toward a broad framework of cooperation and understanding.
The reason for this is suspicion and incompatibility. The government, dominated by Sinhalas, still views the ethnic problem as terrorism, which by definition calls for a military intervention. Admittedly, this group, made up of hardcore Sinhala nationalists, concedes that limited power-sharing with the Tamils may be possible. But the Indian model with liberal autonomy for the states has been ruled out.
LTTE still harbors secessionist tendencies, although in October 2003 it was willing to barter total independence for confederalism (a fairly advanced form of regional autonomy) that would emphasize self-rule rather than shared rule.
When a common ground could not be found, ceasefire violations became common and the LTTE returned to its classic style of suicide-bomber assassinations.
The Sri Lanka government of President Mahinda Rajapakse does not want a full-scale war, and does not want to be seen as the side that ended the peace process. But Rajapakse has few supporters. The revolutionary Sinhala political party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a key member of the ruling coalition, wants the government to defeat LTTE once and for all through war. The party is sure the war can be won and LTTE terrorism completely rooted out.
The JVP and others contend that the LTTE is in disarray following the defection of its Eastern Province military commander, Karuna, to the government side, that many of the LTTE commanders and important civilian supporters have been killed by the Karuna faction, and that LTTE is not in favor of being labeled the instigator of the next war. The JVP is confident that this is the right time to finish Prabhakaran and his army.
Can peace ultimately come to Sri Lanka only through the barrel of a gun? Nobody knows the answer to this yet. But everybody has had enough of murder and mayhem. My taxi driver comments on this state of dilemma and uncertainty. If there has to be another war, he says, let it be the last one.
“The Emerald of the East” seems to be bracing itself for another war — one that will finally establish a long hoped for period of peace and prosperity.
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