Friday, 12 March 2010

Analysis: Sri Lanka Tamil Conflict

Sri Lanka is located about 31km (18.5 miles) off the southern coast of India. Because of its location in the path of major sea routes, Sri Lanka is a strategic naval link between West Asia and South East Asia. It is separated from the Indian subcontinent at its narrowest point by 22 miles of sea called Palk Strait. Its total area is 25,332 square miles comprising Sri Lanka 18,042 and Tamil Eelam 7,290 sq miles. The total population is 17,103,000, according to latest population statistics (1991), consisting of 12,656,000 Sinhalese, 3,113,000 Tamils, 1,214,000 Muslims (mostly Tamil speaking) and others 120,000.

The root of the modern conflict goes back to British colonial rule when the country was known as Ceylon. The British brought in Tamil labourers to work the coffee and tea plantations in the central highlands, making the island a major tea producer. But the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community resented what they saw as favouritism towards the mainly-Hindu Tamils under British administration.

A nationalist political movement from Sinhalese communities arose in the country in the early 20th century with the aim of obtaining political independence, which was eventually granted by the British in 1948. Disagreements between the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic communities flared up when drawing up the country's first post-independence constitution and have existed in one form or another ever since. The majority Sinhalese began a program of making the island nation a Sinhala Buddhist State at the height of which was Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's declaration of the "Sinhala Only Act". This law in 1956 demoting Tamil and promoting Sinhala and Buddhism as the only official language and religion was a crucial turning point for Sri Lanka's politics

Tamil Frustration with the Political Process

The core problem of Sri Lanka has been one of identity. The Tamils want to preserve their identity and the Sinhalas want to overrun it.

For much of the last 20 years it has suffered fighting between the armed forces of the predominantly Sinhalese government and Tamil Tiger rebels who want an independent homeland in the north and east.

In the decades after independence, Tamils politicians pushed for a federal system through the Tamil Federal Party. The concept of a separate nation, Tamil Eelam, was proposed by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976. TULF was a coalition of parties who went on to campaign in the 1977 elections for an independent state for Tamils in Sri Lanka. The TULF won an overwhelming mandate from the Tamil people for a separate state.

In October 1983, all the TULF legislators, numbering sixteen at the time, forfeited their seats in Parliament for refusing to swear an oath unconditionally renouncing support for a separate state in accordance with the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

Frustrated by the lack of progress through politics and non-violent protest, Tamil youth started to form militant groups.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam commonly known as the LTTE or the Tamil Tigers) formed in 1976 to be a military organization based in northern Sri Lanka. Since its formation, the LTTE has been headed by its founder, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Sri Lankan Politics

The government is a mixture of the presidential system and the parliamentary system. The President of Sri Lanka is the head of state, the commander in chief of the armed forces, as well as head of government, and is popularly elected for a six-year term. The President's deputy is the Prime Minister, who leads the ruling party in parliament and shares many executive responsibilities, mainly in domestic affairs, however overall it is the President that has the main power in Sri Lanka

Politics are controlled by rival coalitions led by the left-wing Sri Lanka Freedom Party, headed by President Rajapaksa, the comparatively right-wing United National Party led by former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Marxist-Nationalist JVP.

Whilst the SRFP is a combination of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance & Marixt Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) and predominantly Sinaahlese Nationalist, the NUP is seen as more Western orientated, Liberal and noted for being Open to Free Market Economics. Its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had pledged to open talks with the Tamil rebels and to resuscitate the ailing Sri Lankan economy.

This political infighting between the SRFP and UNP is what lead to the 2003 political crises when President Kumaratunga suspended Parliament, declared a state of emergency, and dismissed key ministers responsible for peace talks with the LTTE.

An April 2004 national election was held to restore the Parliament dissolved by Kumaratunga. In those polls, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition, composed of the populist SLFP and the staunch Marxist-Leninist, Sinhalese nationalist People's Liberation Front (JVP), took a plurality of the seats in parliament and so ousted the UNP. The UNP's defeat was attributed in part to a perception among voters that too many concessions were being made to the LTTE in peace negotiations.

November 2005 the most recent presidential poll in Sri Lanka saw SLFP stalwart Mahinda Rajapaksa defeat UNP Ranil Wickremasinghe in an election marked by an LTTE-engineered boycott. President Mahinda Rajapaksa's hard-line election campaign of November 2005 had ruled out autonomy for Tamils in the north and east and promised to review the peace process. Mahinda Rajapaksa, position that the solution to the conflict lies in a unitary state has been instrumental in the military offensive against the Tamil Tigers being ratcheted up, and the government formally abandoning a six-year-old Norwegian brokered ceasefire.

Current Conflict

Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and for parts of this decade, whilst Sri Lanka has witnessed a combination of Tamil Tiger suicide and military attacks, the conflict escalated sharply when in 2008 the government formally pulled out of a ceasefire brokered by Norway six years earlier.

Whilst in 2002 the Tamil Tigers almost ran a virtual mini-state in area under their control, running their own police force, schools and courts, however after the current breakdown of the peace process, the Sri Lankan military launched a major offensive against the Tamil Tigers, bringing a vast area under their control and limiting the Tigers to a 21.5 km2 area in the Mullaithivu District.

As a result of this offensive, there is increasing belief that the final military defeat of the LTTE is near. Faced with a choice between scaling back army operations and resuming peace negotiations or pressing ahead with military offensives, President Rajapaksa appears to have concluded the Tigers could be decisively defeated on the battlefield. The risk of alienating key hardline coalition supporters has played a central role in this calculation as has the tacit approval of its fight against the Tamils, which has most notably been forthcoming by the US.

International Involvement and Brokering in Sri Lanka

There have also been growing calls for the LTTE to surrender, including a joint statement issued in February 2009 by the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway, which said there was "just a short time before the Tigers lost all the territory still under their control".

The Tiger leadership in turn asked the international community to "pressure the Sri Lankan government to reciprocate" on a cease-fire offer proposed last week. The United States, the United Nations, the European Union and India have called for a cease-fire however without avail.

The key involvement to date has been from the US, UK/European Union and India. Whilst nations like Pakistan and China have played a more back staged role in their support of Sri Lanka it requires a further in detail look at how the international involvement is aligned with regards to the Sri Lanka / Tamil conflict and what interests are involved and for who?

Indian Interests in the Region

India became involved in the conflict in the 1980s for a number of reasons, including its leaders' desire to project India as the regional power in the area and worries about India's own Tamils seeking independence.

The latter was particularly strong in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where ethnic kinship led to strong support for independence for Sri Lankan Tamils. Throughout the conflict, the Indian central and state governments have supported both sides in different ways. Beginning in the 1980s, India, through its intelligence agency RAW, provided arms, training and monetary support to a number of Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE and its rival Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO). The LTTE's rise is widely attributed to the initial backing it received from RAW. It is believed that by supporting different militant groups, the Indian government hoped to keep the Tamil independence movement divided and be able to exert overt control over it.

India became more actively involved in the late 1980s, and on June 5, 1987, the Indian Air Force airdropped food parcels to Jaffna while it was under siege by Sri Lankan forces. At a time when the Sri Lankan government stated they were close to defeating the LTTE, India dropped 25 tons of food and medicine by parachute into areas held by the LTTE in a direct move of support toward the rebels. Negotiations were held, and the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed on July 29, 1987, by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Jayewardene.

Under this accord, the Sri Lankan Government made a number of concessions to Tamil demands, including a devolution of power to the provinces, a merger-subject to later referendum-of the Northern and the Eastern provinces into the single province, and official status for the Tamil language (this was enacted as the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka). India agreed to establish order in the North and East through a peacekeeping force, and to cease assisting Tamil insurgents. Militant groups including the LTTE, although initially reluctant, agreed to surrender their arms to the IPKF, however in the end the IPKF had to be withdrawn under rather embarrassing circumstances due to the rising unpopularity amongst the Sri Lankans.

Later India became the first country to ban the LTTE after being its early ally. The Indian change of policy came gradually, starting with the IPKF-LTTE conflict, and culminating with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. India opposes the new state Tamil Eelam that LTTE wants to establish, saying that it would lead to Tamil Nadu's separation from India.

However currently, the Indian Sri Lankan policy seems to be in a limbo. With the LTTE banned in India for Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, India has no leverage with this group. India also cannot offer much more than lip sympathy to the Sri Lankan Government, which is turning to foreign sources like Pakistan and China for augmenting their assets to be used against the LTTE.

Nevertheless, India is still an interested stakeholder in ongoing developments due to its large Indian Tamil population that sympathizes with the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. As such last week, India's foreign secretary and national security adviser met with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to express their concerns about the situation in the north, including casualties among civilians.

British / European Involvement in the Region

The British colonial rule over Sri Lanka has been referred to as the origin of the problems in the region. Colombo has always argued that it was redressing the imbalance from colonial times when Sinhalas accused the British of giving preferential treatment to Tamils.

Either way with a strong Tamil community in Britain, the recent demonstrations by the Tamils in the political quarters of London despite being banned as an illegal organization within the UK, and the recent calls by London for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka are all clear signs of British Tamil interests.

Recently both the British and European efforts in the region have been at the forefront calling for ceasefire. British and French foreign ministers Bernard Kouchner and David Milliband in Sri Lanka over recent days have urged the government to halt its military offensive against Tamil Tiger in the north. Mr Kouchner said that he and Mr Miliband had "insisted and insisted" on a ceasefire, but so far their request had not been met with a positive response from the government.

In a clear statement of snuffing and thwarting other European efforts the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, had been due to accompany his European colleagues on the visit, but was refused entry by the Sri Lankan government. The European Union has strongly criticized the refusal.

On the other hand the United Nations humanitarian chief John Holmes left empty-handed after a three-day visit aimed at persuading Sri Lanka to open a humanitarian corridor to the Tamil-held territory.

Some British Journalists have even been barred from entering Sri Lanka because Colombo accuses them and the British press with supporting the Tigers because of the large Tamil community in Britain.

The UK Prime Minister first called for a ceasefire on 14 January. Since then the Government, through its direct contacts with the Sri Lankan government, in concert with other international partners and in multilateral fora, consistently has urged both parties to the conflict to agree to a ceasefire.

The UK government in fact has gone as far as to set up a ‘Special Envoy to Sri Lanka' however Colombo still refuses to accept an envoy.

Des Browne MP, Prime Minister's Special Envoy for Sri Lanka, states in his statement that the British Government has always been very clear that there can be no military solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka and that sustainable peace can only come about through an inclusive political process that fully takes into account the legitimate concerns of all communities in Sri Lanka - Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. It very much remains my hope that I will be able to contribute to such a process as well as to an improvement in the humanitarian situation."

American Interests

Sri Lanka whilst shadowed politically and in terms of significance by its major neighbours nevertheless has been seeking closer relations with the United States since early seventies.

More contemporarily towards the end of 2001, following the attacks of 9/11, Colombo was given the green light of the WoT to further its campaign against the LTTE as international pressure and even direct US support of the Sri Lankan Government as part of the War on Terror was forthcoming.

During the Tokyo Donor conference the United States in particular was heavily critical of the violence perpetrated by the LTTE. US State Department officials, as well as the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, gave warnings to the Tigers claiming their return to hostilities would mean that the Tigers would face a "more capable and more determined" Sri Lankan military.

On February 3, 2009, the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway issued a joint statement urging the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and end hostilities, as there was just a short time before the Tigers lose all the territory still under their control.

In a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, US ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead delivered a blunt warning to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to return to the negotiating table or confront a strengthened Sri Lankan military backed by the US

To make the point unmistakably clear, Lunstead added: "Through our military training and assistance programs, including efforts to help with counter-terrorism initiatives and block illegal financial transactions, we are helping to shape the ability of the Sri Lankan government to protect its people and defend its interests."

By indicating US support for the Sri Lankan military, Lunstead's comments encourage the Rajapakse government and the military to escalate their stance towards the LTTE as has been happening. A stable Sri Lanka without the LTTE is in the interest of the US for more than one reason.

War on Terror

Successive governments in Colombo have been keen to cultivate close military ties with the US. Both of the major parties-Rajapakse's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the opposition United National Party (UNP)-have backed the US administration's "war on terrorism" and tacitly supported the US-led occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

For the Pentagon, the island is located in a key strategic position in the Indian Ocean aside naval routes between the Middle East and South East Asia.

Security Relations

The United States and Sri Lanka have maintained friendly military-to-military and defense relations. According to the U.S. State Department, senior Sri Lankan military officers continue to strongly support U.S. strategic goals and programs, and Sri Lanka continues to grant blanket over flight and landing clearance to U.S. military aircraft, and routinely grants access to ports by U.S. vessels

Military Bases

In June 2002, Washington held discussions with the UNP-led government on a far-reaching Access and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) that would enable US warships and aircraft to use facilities in Sri Lanka. Following the December 2004 tsunami, the US military dispatched warships, helicopters and marines to the island setting a precedent for future US involvement in the name of "humanitarian aid".

Military Alliances

The United States also maintains a limited military-to-military relationship with the Sri Lanka defense establishment. In July 2002, President Bush met with then-Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wickremesinghe at the White House and pledged U.S. support for peace and economic development in Sri Lanka. It was the first visit to Washington by a Sri Lankan leader since 1984.

Trade Agreements

The United States and Sri Lanka signed a new Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in 2002. However, the political instability of subsequent years set back the time frame for any possible Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and relevant negotiations were put on hold pending positive developments in peace negotiations.

U.S. Trade and Investment

The United States is by far Sri Lanka's most important trade partner, accounting for more than one-quarter of the country's total exports. In 2007, U.S. imports from Sri Lanka were valued at an estimated $2.1 billion (virtually unchanged from 2006). About two-thirds of this value came from imports of apparel and household goods, most of them cotton. U.S. exports to Sri Lanka in 2007 were valued at an estimated $228 million (also roughly equal to the 2006 figure), led by drilling and oil field equipment, which accounted for about one- third of the 2007 export value. Sri Lanka's Board of Investment reports that some 90 U.S.-based companies operate in Sri Lanka with a total estimated investment of more than $500 million.

U.S. Assistance

A total of nearly $3.7 billion in U.S. economic and military assistance went to Sri Lanka from 1947 through 2006, about two-thirds of this in the form of food aid. Direct U.S. non-food aid included more than $14.5 million for FY2006 and an estimated $9.4 million in FY2007

Conclusion

To conclude the current developments make it clear that Rajapaksa's regime is focused on finishing of the Tamil Tigers militarily and regaining the remaining few areas of Tamil stronghold. With both the national momentum behind the leadership as well as tacit US approval it seems clear that nothing is likely to stop the current regime from finishing off its stated goal.

The European Union, UK and India have been at the forefront calling for ceasefire and made high-level diplomatic representations with Colombo to meet with their Sri Lankan counter parties. However, to date these have been largely ignored by Sri Lanka albeit it has tried to provide assurances on civilians trapped in the conflict.

Whilst the US has also recently echoed the desire to see a ceasefire, its position in contrast to Europe and UK is very clear. There is no high level political/diplomatic representations being made, and nor the same degree of focus as is being seen across the ocean.

The US has provided Colombo with the support and ‘green light' to deal with the LTTE and this is clear. Its approval and backing has been with the Sri Lankan government in tackling the LTTE. This is further clear from the statements and interests that US has in Sri Lanka.(by M. R. Mohamed)

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