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Mesmerized by the situation in Lebanon, the world has paid little heed as Sri Lanka’s ceasefire has disintegrated and the country slips back into war. While the conflict in Sri Lanka is not as old as that in the Middle East, it appears every bit as intractable. The international community has mediated, but neither side appears truly committed to making and keeping peace. Absent that will, and a determined effort by outside forces to enforce it, Sri Lanka will remain a deeply and bitterly divided country.

The Tamil struggle for a homeland in Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s longest conflicts. The country is divided between a Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Tamils, a Hindu group that is predominant in the north and has long complained of discrimination. Fighting erupted in 1983 and has been vicious: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the LTTE or “Tamil Tigers,” has made wide use of children soldiers and suicide bombers, and has shown no compunction about killing Tamil moderates who favor dialogue over war. For its part, the government has made little effort to discriminate between combatants and civilians, alienating many Tamils who might otherwise opt for compromise.

In 2002, international mediators helped broker a truce to end fighting that had claimed an estimated 65,000 lives. Ceasefire monitors from five Nordic countries were deployed in the north and east of Sri Lanka; they halted the open conflict, but individual incidents of violence continued. The pace has intensified in the last year: It is estimated that as many as 1,400 people have been killed since December. Ominously, the ceasefire monitors say they have lost count. Since April, fighting has spread throughout Tamil territory, displacing as many as 128,000 people.

The latest — and seemingly fatal — blow to the ceasefire occurred in late July, when rebels closed a sluice gate in northern Sri Lanka that provides water to about 60,000 people in government-controlled territory; they claimed the government reneged on a promise to build water towers in rebel-controlled areas. Negotiations ensued, but the military took action as well — a “humanitarian mission” that included air strikes and sending in troops — to regain control of the water supply. The gate was reopened Aug. 8 — according to the LTTE at the behest of the mediators; the government claims to have forced the decision.

While the ceasefire exists in name only, the Tigers have sent mixed signals as to whether it is officially over. Some spokesmen have said the ceasefire was “void,” but those statements did not call from the top LTTE leadership. For its part, the government has said it still honors the agreement. Earlier this month, Sweden, Finland and Denmark announced that they would pull out of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission in response to a demand from the LTTE. The four co-chairs of the international group trying to help rebuild Sri Lanka — the European Union, the United States, Norway and Japan — called on the parties “to cease hostilities immediately and to return to the negotiating table.”

Instead, the conflict was widened. The military has launched air strikes on rebel territory and the two sides trade artillery fire throughout the Jaffna Peninsula, the heart of the Tamil homeland. There have been car bombs in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, and the assassination of Ketheesh Loganathan, a Tamil who was No. 2 in the government’s Peace Secretariat, which is supposed to lead negotiations with the rebels.

While the water gate was reopened, the Tamils appear to have held their own with the military. Their military successes may make political advances more difficult. Support for the fighting is increasing among Sinhalese, hardening the government’s negotiating position. Tiger forces have reportedly detained Muslim community leaders as they take new territory, a charge the Tamils deny, but one that is sure to earn them more enemies.

It was hoped that a ceasefire would facilitate investment and business opportunities that create prosperity, increase the size of the pie, and make it easier for both sides to reach a deal on enhanced autonomy for the Tamils. Japan has played a leading role in those efforts to improve the economy and consolidate peace. But the willingness to help must be balanced by another message: Failure to honor commitments will have serious consequences. The leadership on both sides has yet to grasp that the ceasefire is more than a temporary lull that they can use to better their situation when fighting resumes. The Sri Lankan people are now paying dearly for their leaders’ failure to commit to peace.

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