Sri Lanka: Assassinations and a Fractured Peace Process

Lakshman Kadirgamar, 73, a lawyer, had been Foreign Minister from 1994 to 2001 and again from April 2004 until his murder.  He was an eloquent and forceful speaker at the United Nations and in other multilateral meetings against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE), the main Tamil armed movement working for a separate Tamil state. The LTTE, led by Veluppilli Pirabhakaran was founded in the mid-1970s.  Through a combination of strict internal discipline, military ruthlessness and political sophistication, the LTTE have marginalized all rival Tamil militant groups.  It is estimated to have some 18,000 armed troops and has been able to administer the areas in the Jaffna peninsula that it controls. Thus, Kadirgamar was seen as a ‘turncoat’ by the LTTE and a prime target.

Although he was heavily protected, gunmen were able to shoot him from a house across the street from his home as he left his swimming pool.  The police have arrested 12 Tamil men in connection with the assassination, of which two are thought to be directly involved.  The LTTE has denied being responsible for the assassination – which may be true as the LTTE is never shy in taking credit for its attacks and suicide bombings.  If the LTTE did not organize the assassination then the killing is one more sign of the fractured nature of Sri Lankan society with many different groups, some paramilitary, often acting in similar ways but under the control of different leaders working from the shadows.

Kadirgamar has been replaced by Anura Bandaranaike, brother of the Sri Lankan President Chamdrika Kumaratunga.  The Bandaranaike family is the Sri Lankan copy of the Nehru dynasty of India with his father, his mother and now his sister as the leader of the country. The first trip of Anura Bandaranaike was to the Indian government and to meet with Sonia Gandhi.  His appointment is also a sign of the ever narrower circle of those holding power and of the persons that the President can really trust, especially in this period before early Presidential elections before the end of the year.

The LTTE-government conflict in Sri Lanka has become self-perpetuating with hidden war economies and both political and civil society groupings which draw their strength from frozen ethnic identities.  For those whose power is drawn from ethnic-based nationalism -often with racist overtones – any person who moves outside this ethnic mindset is a danger who must be destroyed.  The most prominent of the Tamil champions of universal human rights and the respect of minorities in all situations, Neelan Tiruchelvan, Director of the International Center for Ethnic Studies was killed by a LTTE suicide bomber in July 1999 as a warning that universalistic humanism would not be allowed to weaken the current enclave mentality and its accompanying ethnic cleansing.

In a mirror image of the narrow ethnic-based Tamils, there are extreme Sinhalese groups such as the Sinhala Veera Vidakana (SVV) largely based on Sinhalese traders who have always had to compete with Muslim and Tamil traders, and the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT), strong especially among the English-speaking elite and partly funded by Sinhalese living abroad.

These Sinhalese groups provide a relentless ideological resistance to constitutional reform, power-sharing and peace negotiations.  By playing upon an ideology of the essential nature of Sri Lanka Buddhism as a guide for the whole Buddhist world, they are able to mobilize a large number of Buddhist monks in opposition to constitutional reforms, such as greater autonomy for the Tamil-majority areas of the country.

One can date the start of the violence between Tamils and Sinhalese in 1977 when a large number of Tamils gave up believing that their interests would be defended by a parliamentary system in which they were a permanent minority.  However, it is July 1983 when using the pretext of LTTE’s killing 13 soldiers near Jaffna, Sinhalese directed widespread violence against Tamil men, women and children, homes and stores for ten days.

However, the rioting was not spontaneous but rather the culmination of a systematic campaign of anti-Tamil violence that had been in the making since July 1977. In 1983, the government did nothing to limit the violence, and it took three days before the government even called for calm largely as a result of messages from the then Prime Minister of India Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her sending her Foreign Minister Mr Narasimha Rao to Sri Lanka.

The July 1983 led to the departure of many Tamils for India and Western Europe-North America where many have often become supporters of the LTTE.  Thus began a war which has undermined the lives of millions of Sri Lankans, especially in the Tamil-majority areas of the north and east.  An estimated 65,000 people have died as a result of the civil war.  Since February 2002, there has been a Norwegian facilitated cease-fire which holds despite grave tensions, some terrorists attacks, and assassinations.

Since the cease-fire and the Memorandum of Understanding of 24 February 2002, there have been on-and-off negotiations, more off than on.  There have been two complementary aspects to the negotiations and to efforts for sustainable conflict reduction. One aspect deals with the decentralization of power through constitutional reforms and different models of federalism and the devolution of power. Negotiations continue over which areas and which powers wound be granted to the Tamils – which in practice means to the LTTE.  The other emphasis is upon strengthening parliamentary democracy, respect for political and cultural pluralism, and strong mechanisms to insure respect for human rights.

For the moment, negotiations have concerned the government and LTTE negotiators with facilitation offered by Norway and the USA and Japan watching closely.  Sri Lankan civil society is deeply divided and fractured into a multitude of groups and currents.  Yet it seems that in both Sinhalese and Tamil societies, the impetus for war and violence is diminishing.  The challenge for civil society groups in Sri Lanka at present concerns the creation of a broad peace-making strategy while maintaining critical support for the efforts of the government, the LTTE and foreign facilitators to deescalate the conflict.  For a peace process to be effective and lasting, inter-ethnic reconciliation is a crucial condition, and such reconciliation is likely to come only through the sustained efforts of civil society groups.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva. Photo from