Sri Lanka: Efforts to Overcome a New Cycle of Violence

On January 8, 2008, the Sri Lankan Minister for Nation Building, DM Dassanayake was killed when his convoy was hit by a powerful roadside bomb blast, allegedly planted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) near the capital, Colombo. The killing follows the murder of LTTE’s Political wing chief S.P. Tamilselvam and the Intelligence wing chief "Colonel" Charles by the Sri Lankan security forces. On New Year’s Day, a Tamil Parliamentarian Thiagarajah Maleswaran was assassinated inside a Hindu temple in Colombo. Maleswaran had been a Parliamentarian from the Tamil heartland, Jaffna, and continued to speak out about the sufferings of the people of Jaffna, who are subjected to a climate of violence and many extra-judicial killings. Maleswaran was an advocate of non-violence in politics, and his death in a sacred spot was done to drive home the idea that only violence counts.

These deaths bring Sri Lanka’s escalating conflict into sharp focus. On January 2, 2008, the government of Sri Lanka formally withdrew from the Norwegian-brokered Cease Fire Agreement (CFA). Norway expressed concern that the Sri Lankan move was a serious step which would further escalate the violence. On January 3, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon regretted the Sri Lankan government’s decision to terminate the CFA. He urged "all concerned to ensure the protection of civilians and enable humanitarian assistance to be provided to affected areas and underlined the urgent need to end the bloodshed in Sri Lanka through a political solution."

The Cease Fire Agreement had ceased to function long ago. The CFA, signed in February 2002, has been repeatedly violated with impunity both by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. For the past two years, the government and the LTTE have been engaged in a high level of hostilities little short of war, including overrunning of forward defense lines, capture of territory, artillery, sea and air bombing and large scale displacement of people. An estimated 6000 people have been killed during 2006-2007 when the cease fire was said to be in place, and many more were wounded.

As part of the cease fire, a Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) had been created. Although the international monitors were unable to prevent acts of war and human rights violations from taking place, they were authorized to be physically present in the conflict zones, to record incidents, and to report them to the parties in conflict and to the United Nations. However, the monitors have been unable to issue reports on violations since July 3, 2006.

The mandate negotiated by the Norwegians for the monitors never had sufficient powers, size, capacity or political backing to play an effective protection or confidence-building role. Both the government and the LTTE felt able to ignore its recommendations from the start. The monitors were often denied access to areas where serious incidents of human rights violations had occurred. The only real power such monitoring missions enjoy is a function of the level of their international backing. In this case, the United Nations has often been distracted.

With the end of the Cease Fire Agreement, the SLMM also comes to an end. There are now no monitors or a neutral body to which to report violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The resumption of war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE has been accompanied by familiar widespread human rights violations by both sides. The LTTE has continued attacks on the military and Sinhalese civilians. The LTTE continues to repress violently Tamil dissenters and as well as forced recruitment of both adults and children. For its part, the Sri Lankan government has been committing extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. Disappearances and abductions are occurring at a disturbing rate. The Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission estimated some 1,000 cases in 2006.

Since violence in the past has led to neither a military nor a political victory, will the current round lead to more than a stalemate with many more people killed and populations displaced? Can non-governmental organizations play a role where governmental and UN structures have been inadequate?

A hopeful sign was an international conference of religious leaders on Peace in Sri Lanka, December 12-13, 2007 in the city of Jaffna. As the statement of the conference stated "The decision to make Jaffna the location of the Summit was to express solidarity with all those who continue to live in situations of violence and despair due to the ongoing conflict. The venue of the meeting was the Jaffna Public Library, which was burned down in 1981 in the course of the conflict and rebuilt nearly two decades later to be a testament to a new era of peace and national reconciliations, which is still to dawn…During the period of the Summit we experienced first hand the difficulties of travel to and from Jaffna. We saw the massive destruction of infrastructure and housing that occurred in previous phases of fighting, the loss of villages and fertile agricultural lands to High Security Zones, and the fear and insecurity in the lives of the people, especially youth, which is dehumanizing to all those affected. The sound of artillery firing, testimonials of daily killings and disappearances, the very large military presence in the city and the night time curfew provides added motivation to our work for peace in Sri Lanka".

The conference was organized largely by Dr. William Vendley, Secretary General of the New York-based Religions for Peace International – known for most of its history as the World Conference on Religion and Peace. It was first started by the Unitarian minister Homer Jack who was my friend in disarmament and conflict resolution efforts, so I have followed its efforts with interest for a long time. A major group in the effort has been a Japanese Buddhist movement, the Rissho Kosei-kai. I have on my living room wall a Japanese calligraphy done by the founder of the Rissho Kosei-kai. I mention this in the spirit of "full information" that I have a favourable impression as to the aims of Religions for Peace International. However, the gap between good intentions and results on the ground is one that we all know. Still in the full information aspect, the highest ranking of the foreign Buddhists there – to give his formal title – was His Holiness Tep Vong, Great Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, who was of great help to me when I was helping to set up programs for schools in Cambodia in 1991 – so again a favourable bias, without overestimating the impact of Cambodian Buddhist views in Sri Lanka.

Along with the 9 non-Sri Lankan participants, there were 12 religious leaders from Sri Lanka: Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Many of the recommendations of the conference have been made before and arise from political analysis rather than mystical inspiration: propagating the need for a power-sharing constitutional framework in which people enjoy the political right to develop their communities and improving internal trade and marketing between the northeast and south, which will build goodwill between communities and reduce economic pressures.

Most important, beyond appeals to what the government and the LTTE should do, is what religious organizations are able to do themselves. Thus, with the end of the external government monitors, the Conference participants have pledged themselves "to engage in an awareness-creating, observation and monitoring role as a support group in a renewed peace process." Such a monitoring role is crucial. If the governmental SLMM was not able to do the job, can religious organizations carry out the mission?

The participants were well aware that Sri Lankan religious organizations alone cannot structure such an effort – all the more so that they are often divided on political lines themselves. Therefore, the Conference "welcomed international religious leaders, especially from countries with a Buddhist tradition, to join hands with religious leaders in Sri Lanka in working for peace."

In conclusion, the Conference statement stressed "Despite nearly three decades of loss of innocent lives, agonizing suffering and dehumanizing of society, each of our religions call us in hope to believe that peace is possible. We commit ourselves to work together in hope for healing, justice and peace." Can we give a hand?

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens and the editor of the journal of world politics: 

Also see these related articles for more information:

The Human Cost of Sri Lanka’s ‘Ceasefire’ 

Sri Lanka: Assassinations and a Fractured Peace Process

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