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False Hope

When the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government signed the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) five years ago, they justifiably triggered a euphoric wave of optimism across the island. The guns had of course been silent for two months already – the LTTE’s Christmas truce had been promptly reciprocated by the UNF government (newly elected with a nod and a wink to the Tamils from the Tigers). Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But when it was unveiled, the CFA had a magical air of finality about it. The international community lavishly praised the truce and called for talks. Norwegian shuttle diplomacy – and not a little input - helped draft it. And, as in all agreements, both the government and the LTTE gained and lost by the ceasefire. But, and this is the crucial truth, both sides were satisfied enough to sign it. They even agreed to international monitoring of their conduct.

Five years on, as the hardpressed staff of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) pointed out last week, bloody battles are once again being fought in the Northeast - alongside a dirty war of terrifying abductions and vicious murders. Since President Mahinda Rajapakse assumed power the simmering ‘shadow war’ between Sri Lanka’s military intelligence and the LTTE has exploded into a major conflict. It is often said that the truce exists only on paper now. In practical terms, this is true. Yet the CFA still has massive potency. Neither side is prepared to serve the two-week notice to quit. That alone attests to the powerful symbolism of the CFA. The agreement is more than a technocratic set of rules. It represents the very principle that negotiation, not violence, must finally settle political questions; that peace is better than war. To abrogate the CFA is to repudiate this. Which is why both the state and the LTTE refuse to do so. It is also why the warmongering Sinhala nationalists have demanded the CFA be torn up from the moment it was inked.

The CFA has been pilloried from the outset. Chandrika Kumaratunga, the President whose abortive ‘war for peace’ concluded with the truce was its most powerful critic. Yet she never dared exercise her considerable Presidential powers to abrogate it. Her chagrin that Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe usurped her authority and signed the CFA was tempered by a recognition of the extent of international backing for the truce and the mood amongst most Sri Lankans. The question then is why the CFA is now being ignored so blatantly by both sides?

There are many reasons why the CFA failed to fulfill its promise and pave the way to a negotiated peace. There are other reasons, some of which are related, why it collapsed into renewed war. Naturally, depending on one’s political loyalties, blame is apportioned differently. But one thing is quite clear. In the past five years, international support for the CFA has tangibly faded. Nothing symbolizes this more starkly than the international silence that marked the truce’s fifth anniversary this month. Norway’s lone voice trotted out an obligatory salute and a plea for the ceasefire to be honoured. Meanwhile there is a shameful thundering silence from that mighty institution which appointed itself to manage Sri Lanka’s transition to peace: the Co-Chairs. When the United States, European Union and Japan joined Norway in 2002/3 to underwrite the peace process, they put a pile of money on the table and imposed conditionalities on both parties. But unable to micromanage the outcome they wanted, they simply abandoned the peace-building project. Frustrated at the LTTE’s refusal to follow the marked out route to disarmament, they condemned the movement. They also abandoned the conditionalities and gave the money to the Sri Lankan state anyway.

Meanwhile, a peculiar ‘counting’ of violations was introduced as a much-quoted scale of wickedness by which to judge the two parties. We wonder how many violations the killing of 50 children in an airstrike constitutes? How does this compare with the recruitment and subsequent release of 50 under-18s? Can we numerate the continued occupation by the military of the homes of 30,000 Tamil families, even now, five years on? Yet we are emphatically told that the LTTE violated the truce ‘more’ than the government. Whilst not the most important aspect of Sri Lanka’s fiasco, the impact of the SLMM’s methodology on respect for the CFA and especially its own standing, should not be underestimated. How much outrage, really, was provoked when Sri Lankan artillery barrages compelled SLMM chief to huddle in bunkers. Not once, but twice.

Most importantly the CFA’s collapse last year can be linked directly to the international community changing its mind on the efficacy of military force. Whilst maintaining the mantra that ‘there is no military solution,’ the international community has set about helping Sri Lanka unabashedly pursue a military victory over the LTTE. Of course the justificatory logic was that the Sri Lankan state had to be helped to defend itself against the LTTE – which is unquestioningly deemed the aggressor in this ‘internal’ war. The premise that underpinned the CFA (that there are two belligerents) was discarded. Amongst the one-sided condemnations, the exasperating international bias went from being a disrupting influence in the Norwegian peace process to being the underpinning principle of a new round of conflict: President Mahinda Rajapakse would not have resumed a full-scale war against the LTTE without being assured of international support.

Undeniably, both the LTTE and state’s armed forces have breached the CFA. However both sides have specific and compelling reasons to court international support and sympathy: the state to retain its diplomatic, military and, above all, financial support; the LTTE to pursue political legitimacy and make a case for governance. Therefore, as long as the international community was committed to opposing the use of military force to settle Sri Lanka’s political question, there could be no war. Low intensity violence would continue and occasionally flare, but there would be no return to open conflict.

Yet last year the government launched a full-scale war. The suicide bomb attack on Army Chief Sarath Fonseka last April was the casus belli. Yet almost exactly three years earlier, when the military attacked and sank an LTTE ship in March 2003, restraint, not retaliation was demanded – and exercised. In June 2003, an LTTE oil tanker was similarly destroyed. In each case, a dozen LTTE cadres, including at least four commanders were killed. Yet the truce held. It is precisely because the international community has given President Rajapakse a green light to militarily destroy the LTTE that the ceasefire collapsed so spectacularly last year.

The ramifications of this internationally endorsed new ‘war for peace’ are exactly the same as the last one. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils will be displaced. Our people will endure starvation and disease amid international embargoes as the world maintains a studied silence – irrespective of Diaspora lobbying. Large numbers will of die or be maimed. And it will continue until either the Tamils end their opposition to Sinhala rule or a new balance of forces emerges from the battlefield our homeland has once again become.