Sri Lanka: Little Reconciliation Four Years After War’s End

On May 19, 2009, the Government of Sri Lanka proclaimed an end to the fighting against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE) led by Veluppilai Pirabhakaran.  At one point, the LTTE controlled a quarter of Sri Lanka’s territory as they pressed their campaign for an independent state for the country’s Tamil minority.

The start of the armed conflict in 1983 provoked the concern and then the intervention of the government of India concerned with regional security and the impact of the violence on its own Tamil population in Tamil Nadu, south India.  In 1987, there was an agreement between the Governments of Sri Lanka and India for a decentralization of authority by the creation of provincial councils and the deployment of an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to enforce a ceasefire.

A 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution providing for the establishment of provincial councils was passed by the parliament. Unfortunately, these councils never became functional.  The IPKF had no peace to keep and became an agent of political discord and a target of violence.  In 1990, the last of the IPKF was withdrawn.  In 1991, the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a LTTE supporter, and the Indian government ceased to play a visible role in the Sri Lankan conflict though India watched events closely.

International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) quickly became concerned with the conflict in Sri Lanka. They organized conferences and made suggestions for changes. NGOs proposed their services as mediators.  One of the first high-level seminars was organized in October 1986 in Oslo, Norway by the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) which led, a good deal later, to direct mediation efforts by the government of Norway. Norway had been involved in aid projects in Sri Lanka from the 1950s and so there was a history of experience and trust.  However, in the end, the efforts of the government of Norway did not produce negotiations in good faith.

I had also been involved as the representative of Peace Brigades International (PBI) in negotiating with the Sri Lanka Government representatives at the UN, Geneva, for the sending of a PBI team to Sri Lanka to undertake non-violent protection of organizations working for peace.  However, due to government restrictions and death threats, the PBI team was withdrawn.

Since the armed conflict had a certain religious coloring – the Tamils being largely Hindus, the majority Sinhalese, Buddhists, and a small but geographically-compact population of Muslims – religious organizations, both national and international, tried to play a role as mediators or at least, proposed possible measures for negotiations.

In the end, no offer of compromise was ever enough, and all forms of moderation were seen as betrayal.  The war continued with the last months being particularly destructive. The psychological wounds are deep, and the healing of individual traumas with psycho-spiritual techniques remains a real priority, for the sufferings of the war may sow the seeds of future unrest and a desire for revenge.

At the end of the armed conflict in 2009, the Citizens of the World again proposed federal structures of government as a way of respecting differences in a pluralistic society while providing the possibilities of joint action. There is a need to develop government structures in which all citizens feel that they belong and that their interests are safeguarded.

I have not been to Sri Lanka since the end of the fighting, so my impressions come only from contacts in Geneva and correspondence with people in Sri Lanka.  My view is that there is little spirit of reconciliation.  However, there is a realization that violence does not bring reforms.  There does not seem to have been creative changes in the structure of government or effective measures to develop popular participation in government.  But, obviously, there are on-the-ground observers who may see positive processes that I do not see from a distance.

The Citizens of the World continue to call for creative responses in Sri Lanka from a population that has much suffered but which has real intellectual and spiritual resources.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.