The Sri Lanka Peace Process: A Critical Review

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    Journal of South Asian online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/097317410600100201

    2006 1: 151JOURNAL OF SOUTH ASIAN DEVELOPMENTSonia Bouffard and David Carment

    The Sri Lanka Peace Process: A Critical Review

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    Journal of South Asian Development 1:2 (2006)SSSSSagagagagage Pe Pe Pe Pe Pububububublicatlicatlicatlicatlicatioioioioionsnsnsnsns New Delhi/Thousand Oaks/London

    DOI: 10.1177/097317410600100201

    The Sri Lanka Peace Process: A Critical Review



    Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

    Carleton University



    AAAAAbstbstbstbstbstrrrrraaaaaccccctttttIn the wake of a new wave of violence in Sri Lanka and the classification by numerousWestern countries of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a terrorist organisa-tion, many wonder if the agreement mediated by Norway between the government ofSri Lanka and the LTTE has any long-term chance of success. This review will analyse thedifferent strategies and proposals elaborated in previous agreements and peace talks de-signed to end the conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil minority,with the purpose of identifying whether the current ceasefire agreement has a chance oflasting and leading to a peaceful and durable resolution of the conflict. The changingnature of the Tamils requests and the governments proposals from the independence ofCeylon until the present will be considered, along with the causes of their evolution, thereasons why certain proposals were accepted or rejected, and the major obstacles pre-venting a successful agreement from being reached. The study of the 1957, 1965, 1984,1985, 1987, 1989 and 1995 failing agreements, as well as the changing context in whichthey were abandoned or modified, will lead to the conclusion that the United Nationsshould take on a bigger role in the peace process if it wants the ceasefire to be successfullyimplemented and lead to a permanent peace. The United Nations could enhance its roleby pressuring both sides to increase the pace and the commitment to negotiation, by ac-cepting to monitor the ceasefire, or by announcing retribution for both sides in case ofnon-compliance. In the absence of UN involvement, the current ceasefire will not onlyhave little chance of evolving into long-lasting peace for Sri Lanka, but could also exacer-bate the conflict by allowing both parties to regroup and increase their fighting capabilities.


    Since independence, Sri Lankas protracted conflict has been witness to numerouspeace negotiations. Many proposals have been suggested and studied over theyears, but no long-lasting agreement has been reached. Although a ceasefire wasnegotiated in 2002, its implementation has yet to be completed and respected by

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  • 152 Sonia Bouffard and David Carment

    both sides. What can we learn from all these failing peace accords? What are themain obstacles to a permanent settlement of the conflict, and what are the provi-sions that could ensure success? In reviewing the peace process in Sri Lanka, weconclude that the United Nations could play a more significant role in the reso-lution of the conflict and act as a guarantor for the current ceasefire in order tocreate the necessary conditions for the negotiation of a permanent and positive peacein Sri Lanka.

    This review begins with an overview of the political and social context ofSri Lankas colonisation and identifies some of the basic problems that arose whenthe country gained its independence from Britain. We then review the failed negoti-ations between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil representatives in 1957, 1965,1984, 1985, 1987, 1989 and 1995. We identify the minimal conditions acceptableto both sides, the reasons why the proposals were first considered and then rejected,and the forces that acted as polarising factors during the processes. In the finalsection we identify the necessary requirements for lasting peace in Sri Lanka andthe likely success of the 2002 the ceasefire agreement.

    According to Taras and Ganguly (2002), the relationship between Sinhalese andTamils is not only an example of peaceful coexistence but also traditional rivalry.Due to centralised colonial administration, the problematic issues between thetwo sidespolitical, religious, cultural, linguistic and economicwere held incheck by the British administration. When Sri Lanka became independent andthe Sinhalese majority obtained political power, these issues became the basis forfirst political mobilisation, then armed conflict.

    First, political arrangements of ethnic groups and their degree of influence overthe state and its decision makers are determined in part by historical experience.One characteristic of the historical experience is the self-perception that the Sinhaleseare a threatened peoplethey, not the Tamils of Sri Lanka, should be regardedasthe minority. Surrounded by an overwhelming Hindu Tamil majority in the regionover 52 million, including South Indiathe Sinhalese have, over time, developed areverse psychology of superiority. The perceived threat was reinforced by the factthat Tamils became disproportionately represented in the colonial administrationas well as in the legal, medical and engineering professions. Enticed to learn Englishby the Northern and Eastern Provinces unfertile land, the Tamils were more suitablefor administrative posts. Although they were not occupying a majority of the pos-itions, they continued to be over-represented in the colonial administration untilindependence (De Silva 1986: 90).1

    Second, the Sinhalese have had a 2,500-year history of political and religiousaffairs in which the sacred Sinhalese Buddhist texts describe the southern states ofIndia as the main oppressors of the Sinhalese people (The Dipavamsa 1959). Theidentity of India as an external and threatening force is the most salient aspect ofhistorical relations between India and Sri Lanka. This perception is reinforced byIndias continuing status as the greatest of the powers within South Asia.

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  • The Sri Lanka Peace Process: A Critical Review 153

    Third, like India, the political system in Sri Lanka is elitist and personalised.The politics of Sri Lanka belong to a select fewmembers of either a plantocracyor English-educated political elite. In the early years of mass politics, transferpayment schemes and the state patronage system of the Sri Lankan governmentdid not translate into the kind of participatory democracy that commonly is asso-ciated with welfare states (Moore 1985). Decision making remained highly cen-tralised and controlled by an elite group of Colombo-based politicians (ibid.). Inother words, due to the fragile nature of democracy, ethnic tensions were manipu-lated by the Western-educated elite.

    Fourth, and finally, the Sri Lankan political system continues to exhibit aspectsof institutional incompleteness. An illustration is the transformation of theSri Lankan constitution over the past 25 years. These changes reinforced the powersof the president and the unitary political system, while, more recently, attemptshave been made to devolve power to provincial councils. The failure of devolu-tion to take hold after the death of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993and the subsequent election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) meant thatregional politics remains subservient to that of Colombo. In sum, the unitary natureof the state has two implications: First, politics is direct; leaders are selected on thebasis of their willingness to protect the group and appeal to voters on that basis.Second, a unitary state implies lack of flexibility in finding solutions related toautonomy.

    Historical and social elements combined to create a centralised system basedon identity politics that proved to be ill-prepared for the political mobilisationof Sri Lankas minority Tamils. Despite inheriting a legal and constitutionalsystem that emphasised individual rights and liberties, democracy quickly be-come equated with quotas, applied both in the government and higher education(De Silva 1993; McGowan 1992). Inter-ethnic elite interests converged initiallyduring the 1920s, but that goal then had a simple and unifying character: to endcolonisation. Subsequent elite interes