05 September 2006
When the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was signed in February 2002 by the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, there were good reasons to believe it would last longer than previous truces. The most important aspect of this truce was the role of the international community. It was not only the transparency accorded by the Nordic-staffed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), but the sense amongst many in Sri Lanka that the international community was underwriting the truce - as well as the wider peace process. The emergence of the self-appointed 'Co-Chairs' in 2003 was arguably an explicit acceptance of this role. And despite the oft-stated mantra that it was up to the two protagonists to solve the ethnic question, the international community has intervened time and again to pursue its vision of the end result. It did so with a barely disguised bias towards the state. This bias, moreover, was often - and still is - justified on the basis of the interests of the 'peoples of Sri Lanka.'
Yet today the international community has repeatedly failed to discharge the responsibilities it claimed for itself. The CFA is in tatters. Both sides may express commitment to 2002 agreement, but a state of undeclared war exists. The fiction is maintained by the international community also. International diplomacy is today centred on 'saving' the truce. To some extent, this is understandable; any peace process must rest on a stable ceasefire. But throughout this year the violence has escalated as the international community has watched. The talks in Geneva afforded a short pause, but the 'shadow war' grew in intensity and exploded into direct confrontations. There has always been a depressing inevitability to this, not least due to international inaction. The fact is the international community simply has no response to when the Sri Lankan state is the aggressor.
The Sri Lankan military's invasion and occupation of LTTE-controlled Sampoor is a new rubicon in this sorry decline. Even when Colombo launched its first offensive on LTTE-controlled parts of Trincomalee on July 21 (four months after it began bombarding the region) the international community was conspicuously silent. The first call for restraint only came on the day the LTTE struck back, overrunning government-controlled Muttur. Norway, spearheading international peace making efforts, demanded both sides return to their borders as of February 2002.
But the occupation of Sampur marks the first forcible occupation of territory since the truce. And it has taken place at a horrendous civilian cost. An estimated 60,000 Tamils are displaced in the east. The fighting has displaced tens of thousands of Muslims there also and tens of thousands more people in Kilinochchi and Jaffna. Sri Lanka's justification of this onslaught - that it was necessary to protect Trincomalee harbour - is utterly spurious. By the same logic, any offensive against LTTE can be justified - to safeguard Batticaloa, Jaffna, Vavuniya, even Colombo. What does the CFA mean then?
Expectations of the international community have never been greater than now. The question is what value can be placed on the international promises which have underpinned the peace process thus far. Can the international community get Sri Lanka to respect the CFA? Can it ensure the over 200,000 people displaced in the recent violence receive desperately needed help, despite Sri Lanka's punitive blockade on relief agencies and supplies? Press reports say the Co-Chairs are scheduled to meet next week. In the meantime, large numbers of people, mainly Tamils, are caught in a humanitarian crisis which has been deliberately engineered by Sri Lanka. The dynamics of the infamous 'war for peace' have resumed in earnest.
Amid all this is the war psychosis that has gripped the Sinhala people. A barely disguised supremacist nationalism is now rampant, fuelled most by the Sri Lankan state itself. Emboldened by a sense the Liberation Tigers are weak, the entire Sinhala nation is adopting bellicose and aggressive stances on the peace process. Even the darlings of the international community, the opposition United National Party has hailed President Mahinda Rajapakse's military onslaught against Sampoor - instead of condemning it for the blatant breach of the CFA that it is.
And where now the talk of pluralism, federalism and liberal values that the international community has long advocated for Sri Lanka? This moment of poised Sinhala mobilization is why every previous agreement of the past sixty years with the Tamils has collapsed.
Except this time, it is the international community - which, at the outset, pointedly usurped the LTTE's claim to speak for the Tamils - on which the greatest expectations have been placed.