Sri Lanka: Peace and Reconciliation

Sri Lanka: Peace and Reconciliation

Karunyan Arulananthan, M.D Refugee Health Advisor

(Date: Mar 1995)

I want to thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me to present my perspective on peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

I visited Jaffna along with two others from Los Angeles on a medical mission in March 1995. Jaffna, the city of my childhood, was at that time encircled by government armed forces, enforcing an embargo on medicine, food, fertilizers and other necessities. Fishing was banned in the seas around Jaffna, depriving the population of their main source of protein. For years it had been subjected to constant aerial bombing and random shelling. There was no telephone, no electricity, no gasoline. However, despite this and the massive destruction of homes, temples and churches, and the strangling of the economy, there was still a functioning community. I watched a cricket game, attended a sports meet, and worshipped at my old church. I visited hospitals, refugee camps, feeding centers, and met old friends, relatives and other citizens of Jaffna.

Jaffna at that time has 250,000 internally displaced people. The hospitals were short of medicines and personal, and malnutrition was evident among the more vulnerable sections of the population.

This was in March 1995. Since then the people have been subjected to intensified aerial artillery assault and even tighter economic blockade under the cover of a news blackout. Almost the whole population has been displaced, re-displaced, "re-re-displace," and traumatized.

Many Tamils have now returned to Jaffna and are living in what is left of their homes, but they still lack basic necessities. The situation is most critical in the Wanni district where the government has practically severed the flow of essential supplies into the area. The children in Wanni are starving. "The Leader" a newspaper in Colombo, reported NGO workers estimating that 60-70% of the children in the area as being malnourished. Other reports describe a bleak picture of drought, shortage of drinking water, non-availability of medicines and vaccines, all because of the embargo. The east too suffers from the long years of war. The International Red Cross reports that malnutrition is rampant.

In short, there is a massive humanitarian disaster currently occurring in the north east of Sri Lanka. It is not adequately acknowledged - actually it's being ignored.

A nutritional survey of Jaffna's children carried out in 1993 by Dr. Sivarajah, a time when conditions were much better, showed that 31.4% of children studied were stunted, an indication of chronic starvation. This and other data are published in the book, 'VICTIMS OF WAR IN SRI LANKA," which gives very disturbing information about the physical and psychological health status of the population in the conflict zone prior to 1994. I do not have any contemporary data, but given what has happened since then, the situation must be much worse.

Long-term starvation, ill health and the absence of medical help are slow destroyers of communities that are often recognized as humanitarian disasters. Usually it is bombing and killing that catch people's attention, and the people in northern Sri Lanka have had their fill of these too. Instead of describing it in words, I have a brief video which will communicate the reality better.

"3-minute video of Navaly church bombing and Exodus (edited)"

While the north-east of Sri Lanka has been the most devastated and brutalized, the south also feels the effects of a war fought in this poor, third world country. Surveys have shown extensive malnutrition among preschool Sinhala children, and there was considerable international media exposure of the Central Bank bombing in Colombo, which was too gruesome.

At the core of this tragedy is the war. It impoverishes the Sinhalese and destroys the Tamils, but continues to persist. Everyone accepts that there is little hope for change until the political problems that cause the war are solved. Promises of a political settlement have been made to the Tamils for close to 40 years and they continue to be made, but nothing has happened.

Why is this conflict so intractable? Fundamentally, the war is about power. [The constitution has concentrated all the power in the hands of the majority Sinhala community, which has used its power to brutalize and decimate the minority Tamils. The Tamil community has revolted against this arrangement, an arrangement which, if not changed, will leave them powerless, deprived of separate identity, and without their traditional homelands in the north-east.] Initially they used a parliamentary approach to secure relief. When this was spurned by the Sinhala community militant Tamil groups resorted to extra-parliamentary methods. The Sinhala community, which now has total power over the Tamil community, has refused to let the Tamils have their own share of power.

These are the basic issues, and around these are various arguments, denials and pieces of propaganda, and even deeply held belief, for which many people have died and are dying. The war is intractable because power is never relinquished easily.

Alluding to the Irish situation, Senator Mitchell commented that "if the focus remains on the past then the past will become the future." I would hope that we can incorporated the spirit of this sentiment in our deliberations, so that we try to understand the present realities in order to bring about a better future.

The Sri Lankan government enjoys international legitimacy not available to Tamil groups, including the LTTE. It has told the world that it has a strategy to end the war. It is termed "peace through war."

The four key elements of this strategy are:
1.the elimination of the LTTE - the only viable Tamil opposition
2.the winning of the hearts and minds of the Tamils
3.strict press censorship and information control
4.the devolution of some powers to the Tamils living in north-east

Perhaps peace could be a reality if all these elements could succeed together. But the question is will it?

The government and the military have already told the Sinhala people and the world that the LTTE is defeated with the occupation of Jaffna and this victory has already been celebrated. But the LTTE does not seem defeated, as recent events have indicated. I would characterize the current military situation to be similar to that during the time of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The IPKF was unable to eliminate the LTTE despite using close to 100,000 troops. Further, the Indians were initially welcomed with garlands and then hated within a short time. This dynamic is intrinsic to population control by military occupation in the presence of guerilla war and there is no reason to believe that the experience with the Sri Lankan army occupation will be any different.

Further, Tamils see little substance in the government's program to win their hearts and minds as the government continues to be insensitive to the people's suffering. It persistently refuses to admit the true nature of the humanitarian tragedy facing the Tamils. The government's policy of totally controlling relief and the relief agencies working in northern Sri Lanka furthers Tamil distrust because the government selectively provides relief to those in the government areas while denying relief to those outside it. Thus the government is using food and relief as a weapon of war. The government's political and military considerations have taken precedence over the health and welfare of the people. This is rather like the treatment of Kurds by Iraq and the southern Sudanese tribes by the government of Sudan - not exactly models of how to build trust.

Tamils also continue to be the main victims of human rights violations in Sri Lanka to the point that many feel that just being Tamil is a crime in Sri Lanka. There has unfortunately been a tendency in the west to understate the extent of human rights violations by the government a point clearly made by Amnesty International when it criticized the U.S State Department's report on the human rights practices in Sri Lanka. To quote from Amnesty International, "a climate of impunity still prevails with very few members of the government's forces being held accountable for their crimes," and it goes on to state that the report "underplays the gravity of the human rights crisis that Sri Lanka experienced and creates and unduly favorable impression of the Sri Lankan Government's human rights performance; A reader of the report could not be aware that even with the human rights initiatives taken by the government, Sri Lanka still ranks second highest in the world after Sudan in its total number of "disappearances" recorded during 1995."

I believe the underlying problem is more basic. Any government dependent on the Sinhala Buddhist constituency and a Sinhala BUDDHIST army cannot win the hearts and minds of the Tamils. However, the government does not recognize these and seems sadly to have begun to believe in its own propaganda, as conquerors often do.

Thus, as far as the hearts and minds program is concerned, most Tamils are convinced the war is against them as a people, and not just against the LTTE. They may be suppressed by terror, but their hearts are not won over.

To the Tamils, including those opposed to the LTTE, peace through war translates into peace through subjugation. They see government's policy as a continuation of the same policy that gave rise to the armed struggle over 20 years ago. This is true even of the anti-LTTE Tamil groups who are actively collaborating with the army as auxiliaries and informers.

The third element of the peace through war program is the Draconian press censorship and information control, the existence of which is in itself a proof of the fact that there is information that must be hidden from the world. Absence of reliable information in a situation such as in Sri Lanka will never result in the climate that is needed to bring peace. It only succeeds in distorting the true nature of the problem. While the Tamils are beaten and then blamed for disturbing the existing order, the West barely understands the big fundamental problem alluded to by Dr. Little yesterday. I am referring to the problem of majority Sinhala community whose identity combines the race, religion, language and land in exclusive terms. It has no word in its language for ethnic pluralism within the Sinhala state and its belief of what the country should be is made into law. The Tamils have had to endure living with a majority community such as this. The rest of the world has been unable to understand such a phenomenon and I am thankful for Dr. Little for finding words to express it. The fourth element of the peace plan is the devolution proposal. Politically, the government, despite its conquest of Jaffna, does not seem able to convince the Sinhalese to accept this plan. Recently the leading Buddhist monks expressed their opposition to the package to the American Ambassador. These prelates want a military solution to the problem. Because of the considerable confusion that exist on this important aspect of the peace plan as shown by yesterday's discussion the organizers of the meeting have asked Dr. Shakuntala Rajasingham, a constitutional lawyer, for her comments on this subject and she will follow my talk.

In essence, the status of these four elements make clear that current government's approach is the same as the failed policies of the previous governments. President Kumaratunge, whatever her intentions, and hopes might have been, is now trapped by old policies bent on control of the Tamils by force and the acceptance of what Dr. Little has called Sinhala Buddhist suzerinity. In my opinion peace through war program is doomed.

Instead, this program has contributed to the present situation, that is highly unstable, militarily, politically and economically. The longer it lasts the more intractable it will become. It is inevitable that the government will widen the military operation and that the economy will suffer even more. Thus, not only the Tamils, but the whole country, will have to face the consequences of this policy of peace through war. I remain convinced that there is a better way of assuring peace with justice.

Even if the government's policy is seen as flawed, the international communities tend to ignore this, as their approach is overshadowed by their perception of the LTTE as an authoritarian, undemocratic organization that uses terror. This view of the LTTE has been vigorously promoted by the Sri Lankan Government. LTTE justifies its methods as being necessary in times of war - the only situation in which it has existed. Recently it was revealed that assassinations attributed to the LTTE were indeed carried out by Sinhala hit men participating in the Sinhala political intrigue.

The antipathy towards the LTTE also perhaps stems from the concerns of governments about the LTTE's claim for Tamil self-determination and its goal of a separate state. However, the LTTE has repeatedly called for international mediation and declared its willingness to consider a constitutional arrangement in which the Tamils can meaningfully share power. These declarations have been brusquely dismissed by the government and the international community. This is unfortunate, because this dismissal serves to foreclose a real opportunity for peace.

Whether one likes it or not, we cannot ignore the reality that the many Tamils see the LTTE as the only effective protector of their interests, despite its human rights record and other actions that have contributed to its negative perception. What the Tamils, who are tired of the war want above all is for the government to enter into sincere discussions with the LTTE, with the help of a third party. There can be no peace without the participation of the LTTE.

What then is the way out? I believe that it is time that the international community, and particularly the United States, take a fresh look at the situation. As we search for new strategies I remain convinced that the peace will not be possible without international mediation. The dynamics within the country will only promote more war. A major international initiative is needed to deal with both the humanitarian and the peace dimensions of the conflict, as was done in Bosnia. The process of resolving this conflict requires nations, not war. As a citizen of the US, I would hope that America would lead this initiative towards peace.

The State Department has repeatedly affirmed its support for negotiatedi settlement within a united Sri Lanka. Its recognition of the risk to the minorities given the historical experiences of the Tamils is reflected in its policy of not lethal weapons to the government. Thus, the US policy seems to suggest a strategy opposed to war as the cornerstone of achieving peace. However, recent reports, including the most recent by Mark Kaufman of the Philadelphia Inquirer that the US is training army personnel in Sri Lanka are disconcerting. This follows the permission given to Israel to sell supersonic bombers with US engines to Sri Lankan government. One also worries whether the favorable treatment given to the human rights record of the Sri Lankan government is an indication the free movement of people, and the adequate and free flow of essential necessities for the people caught in war-torn areas. The NGOs and other relief organizations must be allowed freedom to function in response to the people's needs. I endorse the recommendations of the US committee for refugees and hope that they will be implemented.

In summary, it is my contention that meaningful change for long-term peace will not arise from within Sri Lanka. A massive humanitarian disaster will only be avoided and peace established by diplomatic intervention similar to that in Bosnia.

I want to end my remarks by appealing to my Sinhala brethren to join hands with all those concerned to bring about a negotiated settlement to this war with the help of an international mediator. Such a process is in everyone's interest.