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Basics of making peace

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In the past two weeks, many families in Sri Lankan government-controlled areas have begun fleeing to Tamil Tiger-controlled regions - with good reason: casualties are mounting rapidly amid retaliatory violence by the increasingly hard-pressed Sinhala-dominated military against local civilians. Jaffna has grown increasingly anxious and volatile as ‘disappearances’ again become routine, women are sexually assaulted, and civilians are mercilessly beaten or shot.

Law and order in Jaffna has almost completely degenerated in recent weeks. The government machinery – save the military occupation – has essentially shut down in Jaffna. Even foreign non-governmental organizations are now not free from attack (six de-mining workers from HALO Trust and the Danish De-mining Group have been abducted in Army-controlled areas this week). Little wonder families are fleeing from military persecution to the Tiger’s de facto administrative capital of Kilinochchi, several miles south along the A9. Almost two thousand families have decamped, according to aid workers there.

The University of Jaffna has remarkably reopened, even after its protests against military excesses were violently put down by the Army, whose troops even forcibly entered the campus and assaulted students and professors alike. However, those people remaining in Jaffna are facing more violence from the military amid a further degradation of ceasefire. With attacks on soldiers and retaliatory attacks on civilians rising, the idea of a ceasefire has grown laughable to Jaffna residents. Little wonder that violent protests are easily provoked and many civilians areas are turning to thinly disguised LTTE fronts for protection.

The international community meanwhile continues to call for the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to go back to the negotiating table. The upcoming visit of Eric Solheim, Norway’s former Special Envoy to Sri Lanka and now Oslo’s International Aid minister, is undoubtedly to foster this end.

However, simply returning to peace talks is nothing more than a band-aid solution to a much more systematic problem. The dynamic in the Northeast has changed greatly since the 2002/3 talks and the landmark Ceasefire Agreement before that. The trust that emerged between the government of the time and the LTTE has eroded slowly but surely amid a series of pernicious actions by Sri Lanka’s leaders. Today both sides are much farther from achieving a consensus on most peace related matters than ever before – except times of open conflict.

But the unqualified international insistence on new talks reveals a fundamental divergence between the interests of the international community and those of the Tamil community. This is not an ideological problem, but a practical one. The former does not have to live near High Security Zones (or in displaced camps as a consequence of the HSZs), suffer harassment on the way home from school, fear arbitrary arrest or summary execution on a daily basis. Thus, whilst international representatives chant the mantra of talks being the only way forward, the Tamil community is more concerned with clear and ever present safety fears.

Since President Mahinda Rajapakse was elected on the hardline anti-peace platform, it is unlikely either he or his Sinhala nationalist political allies would uphold, let alone consolidate, earlier progress in the peace process. Any talks would thus begin further behind than where they stalled and stall again even sooner than before. Under such conditions, what does it mean to rush for peace talks?

Instead of blindly demanding the resumption of talks, the international community should first demand the full implementation of the ceasefire, in particular the restoration of normalcy. This would greatly diminish the ongoing violence in Jaffna by actively demilitarizing the peninsula. Sri Lankan troops would finally leave the homes of local residents. Women would not fear sexual assault; youth need not fear arrest or disappearance. The media, NGOs and local civil society can function freely.

The ‘shadow war’ has been ongoing for at least two years now, bringing the risk of sudden death or worse to every Tamil street and home in the Army-controlled parts of the Northeast. The government must be compelled to disarm paramilitary groups to regain the trust of the Tamil people, let alone the LTTE, in the peace process. Sri Lankan troops are understandably on edge now due to escalating violence by Tigers or Tiger-backed groups. But for a considerable time, the Tamil Resurgence rallies have seen swelling attendance, reflecting long-simmering anger at military occupation and daily harassment. Now that anger is being channeled into undisguised support for the Tigers.

This weak start – demilitarization - is all that can be asked for. In any other country, it might be reasonable to demand the government investigate and punish military/paramilitary attacks on civilians. But in Sri Lanka, justice has been replaced by a plethora of forgotten committees and commissions. The culture of impunity that is allowing and exacerbating attacks on Tamils must be convincingly eliminated for people to believe that anything other than the threat of LTTE realiation can deter military excess. Only this week the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) decried the six-year delay in prosecuting the soldiers responsible for the murders of those buried in the mass graves in Chemmani. AHRC condemned the attorney general’s office itself, stating: “delays in court trials as well as due process amount to a clear betrayal of justice.”

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said recently his government is “still willing to walk that extra mile for peace.” But any meaningful steps towards peace must start by demilitarization. That means ending the shadow war and the harassment of civilians. These steps are not bargaining chips for the negotiation table; they are fundamental steps of building confidence. They are the basic steps of peace itself.

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