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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  • The Sri Lanka Peace Process: A Critical Review 151

    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 interests became fragmented along ethnic lines,especially after 1956, when ethnic nationalists swept into power on promises torestore Sinhalese pre-eminence.

    The tension between both groups emerged when the British decided to giveCeylon its independence in 1948. The drafting of Sri Lankas first constitutionpolarised the Sinhalese and the Tamils, who espoused different views on the futurepolitical system. The Sinhalese enounced their desire for political, economic andsocial control. The constitution of 1948 denied citizenship to Tamils of Indianorigin, which reduced the percentage of Tamils on the island and decreased thenumber of Tamil representatives in Parliament (Manogaran 1987: 40).2 In 1956the Official Language Act declared Sinhala to be the only official language ofSri Lanka, thus replacing English as the language of administration. In 1972 thenew constitution conferred official status to Buddhism, the religion of the majorityof Sinhalese. This was followed by some changes in the universitys admission pol-icy, which lowered the standards of admission for the Sinhalese in order to increase

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    the percentage admitted. Sharp discrimination against Tamil university applicantsin 1977 substantially reduced the proportion of Tamils in many universities. Whilethe proportion of Tamils admitted to science-based disciplines reached 35 percent in 1970, it dropped to 19 per cent by 1975 (De Silva 1979 in Shastri 1997:148). Student riots occurred in the same year (Kearney 1985).

    Along with the various policies aimed at confirming the dominating status ofthe Sinhalese majority, an attempt to manipulate Tamil ethnic identity was car-ried out. As early as 1933, but more importantly after independence, the govern-ment gave subsidies to peasants who would farm in the Dry Zone, which coveredthe Northern and the Eastern Provinces, and where the Tamils represented 68 percent of the population (Manogaran 1987: 6). Although the peasant colonisationpolicys aim was originally to alleviate the population density in the Wet Zone byimproving the irrigation system and giving land to a number of allotees in the DryZone, it can be argued that it was also used by the government to assimilate theTamils. Under the governmental colonisation policy, only a small number of Tamils(2,879 out of 16,532 in 1953) were given subsidies (ibid.: 91), while the Sinhaleseproportion of the population in the districts of Amparai, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa,Trincolmalee and Anuradhapura increased from 33 per cent to 51 per cent bet-ween 1946 and 1971, mostly due to the migration of Sinhalese settlers (Moore1985: 96). The result was a dilution of the Tamil majority in the Northern andEastern Provinces and an even further reduction of Tamil parliamentary representa-tion. Such discriminatory laws became the source of tension between the two groups.

    Sri Lankas protracted ethnic conflict can also be traced to the political mobilisa-tion of the Tamil minority in the early 1940s. In 1948 the main issue regardingethnic politics became the amount of power minorities would have in affectingdecisions taken at the centre. During the formative years of Sri Lankas independ-ence, Tamil political organisation became subdivided into two basic groups:(a) leadership that represented the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils, known asthe Tamil Congress (which until 1948 had worked closely with the United NationalParty, UNP); and (b) the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), which representedthe interests of Tamil plantation workers who, by 1946, formed over half of theTamil population of the island. Together, the Tamils formed a large enoughelectorate to gain representation for their sub-groups in the legislature.

    Under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, in 1949 a breakaway group ofTamil Congress members formed the Ceylon Tamil State or Federal Party, withthe aim of creating an organisation for the attainment of the freedom of the Tamilspeaking people of Ceylon (Kodikara 1982: 195). The Federal Party asserted itsinterest in four basic issues:

    1. Establishment of one or more Tamil linguistic states operating as a federat-ing unit or units enjoying wide autonomous and residuary powers withina federal state in Sri Lanka;

    2. Restoration of the Tamil language to its rightful place enjoying absolute par-ity of status with Sinhala as an official language of Sri Lanka;

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  • The Sri Lanka Peace Process: A Critical Review 155

    3. Conferment of full civil rights to all Tamil-speaking people; and4. Cessation of colonisation of traditionally Tamil-speaking areas with Sinhalese

    people (Kodikara 1985).

    According to the Federal Party, the call for autonomy (which in 1949 had notbecome a demand for a separate state) represented a workable scheme because,apart from Indian Tamils concentrated in Kandy and a small percentage of othersscattered throughout the island, the bulk of the Tamil population inhabited theNorthern and Eastern Provinces.3


    The 1957 BandaranaikeChelvanayakam Pact

    In 1957 the Federal Party representin...


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