Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka: A Comparative analysis

Comparative analysis of the intricate conflicts in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The complexity of the calamitous conflict in Sri Lanka due to the intransigence of the warring parties with regard to their divergent aims has not been fully grasped by the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donors Conference – the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway, who are pressing the warring parties to stop fighting, comply with the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and seek a negotiated settlement. Issues such as one-party self-rule for merged Northern and Eastern provinces, implicit in the way the settlement is being sought by the rebels have added another dimension complicating the resolution of the conflict. This has resulted in the killing of many politicians and intellectuals committed to democracy, pluralism and unity of the people and the country, as well as members of Tamil groups opposed to LTTE’s ideology and aims. Many Tamil civilians have also been killed in the course of consolidating the rebel outfit, LTTE as the sole representative of Sri Lankan Tamils. Thus, the war for independent Tamil Eelam has been waged with dual aims. On the other hand, the parties on the other side of the ethnic divide want to preserve the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and the central features of the failed unitary/majoritarian system.

Conscious of the unbridgeable gulf between the conflicting aims, their promises, declared commitments as well as public announcements are dodgy. At present, the government is trying to exploit the global ‘war on terror’ to convince the world that Sri Lanka too is being challenged by acts of terrorism unleashed by the LTTE this year. It has been declaring that its actions are only defensive against the offensives of the LTTE. On the other hand, the LTTE which also says it is compelled to take defensive actions is trying to convince the world the State terror is killing innocent people and causing severe hardships to the living by depriving them of food and other essentials. The sad aspect is that both parties are responsible for the humanitarian crisis and are equally guilty of the reluctance to take the initiative to end the killings and sufferings of the people. The exigent problems of the people in the East and North are being exploited to demean the enemy.

Hopefully, the above introductory remarks will help to grasp the hidden differences between the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka discussed in this article and the consequential difficulties in seeking a negotiated political settlement to the armed conflict in Sri Lanka.

Northern Ireland’s experience

On the invitation of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, British Labour MP Paul Murphy, who was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during 2002-2005 visited Sri Lanka November 14 – 16 to share his role in the Northern Ireland peace process that followed the U.S.-brokered 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement. He hoped the leaders in Sri Lanka could learn from their experience. At a meeting organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce on November 14 he drew attention to the following facts:

(i) There was hardly a family in Northern Ireland that was not affected by the violent sectarian conflict. It was the realization that no one could actually win the war and hence there was no point in continuing it that influenced both sides to seek a political settlement.

(ii) The will of all stakeholders to succeed in reaching a political settlement, the right structure for negotiations and an all-inclusive process led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The agreement was able to contain the violence stemming from clashes between Catholics and Protestants, even though it was tested at many different junctures.

(iii) What is needed in Sri Lanka is a home-grown solution. “A solution in one part of the world cannot be taken 5000 miles away in the hope that it works; it won’t work because the causes are different.” In Northern Ireland case, “the causes of the conflict ultimately boiled down to identity and self-esteem”.

(iv) If the stakeholders to the conflict are “as creative and imaginative as they can and if there is a will nothing is impossible.

These points were also mentioned in his media briefing after he met with the LTTE leaders in Kilinochchi. The crucial role played by the U.S, Irish and British governments in reaching the Good Friday Agreement was not emphasized. In Sri Lanka’s case, Norway the only country directly involved in the 2002 CFA and the now forsaken peace process had a different role not as powerful as the countries that exerted pressure on the parties in the Northern Ireland conflict. Furthermore, Sinn Fein a political party in the democratic mainstream led by Gerry Adams, a former IRA member was recognized by all governments as the political wing of the IRA. The chief negotiator of Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness a former IRA guerrilla is known for having steered the development of a coherent political strategy through the most trying of times. He visited Sri Lanka early this year and met leaders in Colombo and Kilinochchi. He also told it was the realization by the parties to the conflict in Northern Ireland that the war was not winnable and its continuation would only increase further the losses and the suffering of the people that influenced them to stop the combat and seek a negotiated political settlement. This realization has not yet dawned on the leaders of the warring parties in Sri Lanka.

Importantly, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party John Hume played the key role in persuading both sides to negotiate for a political settlement. On 7 February 2000, John Hume told: “There are terrible choices for all of us to make, if the agreement falls. This is a very historic time. For the very first time in our history the will of the Irish people as to how they share the island of Ireland has been established and made clear in joint referenda. It took immense effort by two Governments, the US President, all the political parties on this island and the massive support of the people of Ireland to achieve this prize. I now appeal to the IRA to show their deep respect for the will of the Irish people. I ask them to demonstrate for all to see their patriotism and desire to move the situation forward by strengthening the peace process through beginning voluntarily the process of decommissioning.”

[Paul Murphy, special envoy of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in Kilinochchi: Photo – TamilNet]

Paul Murphy after meeting the LTTE political wing leader S. P. Tamilselvan and other members in Kilinochchi on November 16 said there are striking similarities between the two conflicts. Although the number killed in the Northern Ireland conflict is about 3,500 compared with 65,000 in Sri Lanka, in terms of the ratio to the population of 1.5 million and 20 million the difference is not significant. A simple statistical comparison of the fatalities does not reveal the intricate differences between the two conflicts. This is not to deny there are some striking similarities. In the Sri Lankan conflict, more than 3,400 civilians, military personnel and rebel fighters have been killed and tens of thousands of Tamil and Muslim families displaced from their habitats during the ten months of this year. The number killed so far this year is about the total that died during the three decades of the Northern Ireland conflict. In addition to the lakh already in Tamil Nadu, more than 10,000 Tamils mostly from Trincomalee and Mannar have fled there this year. In Sri Lanka the number of fratricidal killings is also very high and the victims are all Tamils. Importantly, the irresponsible way the war was conducted over a long period in Sri Lanka is also a distinct factor that is hindering a mutually acceptable political solution.

Sinn Fein did not claim to be the sole representative of the Catholics and obstruct John Hume’s move to end the fighting and start the negotiation process. It did not interfere with the right of the people to vote freely, nor avoided facing the electorate. The other main party, the Democratic Unionist Party led by hardline priest, Rev. Ian Paisley backed by the Protestants too did not assert to be their sole representative. Besides the main Catholic Sinn Fein and Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, there were other parties, namely, the Alliance Party, Ulster Unionist Party, Progressive Unionist Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party that were involved in the peace negotiations. This enabled the Good Friday agreement to contain the violence stemming from frequent clashes between Catholics and Protestants. The success as mentioned by Paul Murphy during his recent visit is due to the “all inclusive process” that led to the Good Friday Agreement. The leaders of the different political parties in Sri Lanka are not as conscious as their counterparts in Northern Ireland, particularly with regard to the concerns and future of the people. In the case of the LTTE it has managed to create a situation where even the main political party which had the support of the Tamil voters is subservient to its strategy to establish ‘Tamil homeland’ in North-East Sri Lanka. Those minor parties not toeing its line are regarded as ‘friends of the enemy’. They are referred to as paramilitary groups and not as political parties representing the Tamils.

In the last election to the 108-seat Northern Ireland Assembly, voters from both communities elected the two hardline parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein. Although, it was agreed Rev. Ian Paisley of the DUP would be the First Minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein would be the Deputy First Minister, the power-sharing establishment is not functioning as intended because of the insistence by Rev. Paisley that the Deputy Martin McGuinness must pledge an oath of allegiance to the Police Service of Northern Ireland that is dominated excessively by Protestants. However, all parties are optimistic this problem will be resolved, because of their determination to avert the volatile past.

TNA not like Sinn Fein

LTTE’s political wing has only a leader without the normal grouping. The TNA an alliance of four Tamil parties with 22 members in the Parliament is not the political wing of the LTTE. The parliamentarians are required to be the spokespersons of the militant LTTE that has proclaimed to be the sole representative of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. They have no role in the talks between the LTTE and the government and are not even consulted before the talks.

They are expected to espouse the LTTE’s cause in Colombo within and outside the Parliament. Although the slain TNA parliamentarian Nadaraja Raviraj was conscious of the need for a potent organization in the struggle to free the minority Tamils from Sinhalese majoritarian rule, he had expressed publicly views that were not quite in line with LTTE’s ideology. The TNA parliamentary group leader R. Sampanthan at the press conference called by the Anti-War Front at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute on November 13 said: “He (Raviraj) resolutely stood for pluralism, democracy and human rights.” What he did not tell publicly was that the late N. Raviraj was against separation. He wanted a federal system in a united Sri Lanka for all ethnic communities to co-exist amicably. The tributes paid by the Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil leaders from different political persuasions and religious faiths demonstrate that the brutal murder of a promising leader is a loss for the country as a whole and not just for the Tamils alone. He strived for a peaceful settlement of the conflict through dialogue and compromise.

In an interview with ‘Weekend Standard’ January 28, 2006 Raviraj had told: “I don’t endorse any kind of killing as a democrat and as a person who is totally committed to non violence. In fact I don’t encourage violence in what ever form. We are only members of the Tamil National Alliance and we have joined hands with the LTTE not on the military side, that must be very clear and we have nothing to do with their military matters. Of course, we have very close contacts with them on the political side in order to find a political solution to the ethnic problem. We wanted to get the LTTE into the democratic stream. In order to get them in we are even sacrificing our political careers and we say you talk to the LTTE only. So we are making this type of sacrifice, in order to see an end to all kinds of killings and violence. This is our real ambition. So as you say para-military people or ex-militant people or other political party cadres had been killed, I do not deny it. Those are facts. And it has to be stopped. There is no other way to do it other than for us to engage in talks”.

To the query, “where do things stand now”, he replied: “I am a person, who always believe in hope and I am always optimistic. I would like Sri Lanka to survive without any major problems and all of us should live as equals. We want this country to prosper. There is no question about this matter or this stand”.

The demise of Raviraj at the present time, another liberal Tamil leader who had peace embedded in his heart and mind is very unfortunate for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Current situation in Sri Lanka

The current situation in Sri Lanka is the worst in the long period of the separatist war. Its ramification to a peaceful settlement of the conflict and to the character of future society has not influenced the thinking of the leaders, who have the power to prevent the looming disintegration of human and social values. The alarmingly rising crime rate in Sri Lanka is certainly an offshoot of the ongoing war. Professor S. T. Hettige of the Colombo University has said, the violent crimes are manifestations of a deeper malaise the country is facing. He said: “The whole country is giving way. There is a high wave of crime. There has been a total failure of governance for several decades”. Politically motivated killings and the worsening law and order situation seem to have had no effect on the attitudes of political leaders. Good governance like ‘just and honourable’ peace seems to be a mere slogan to dupe the people.

The pitiful situation in the North and East serves to know the mindset of those responsible for causing and sustaining it. The frank Helen Olafsdottir from Iceland, the spokesperson of Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) with only few monitors from Norway and Iceland remaining after those from the EU countries quit the island, in an interview with ‘The Nation’ was asked: “The LTTE has barred some international agencies from transporting food to the North. What is your observation?” She replied: “This is inexcusable but as always there are two sides of the coin. The LTTE is threatening the ship traffic to Jaffna and preventing e.g. the ICRC from transporting items to Jaffna. This is wrong. At the same time we have suggested to get a human corridor established in Vakarai so that aid may be transported into the area but to no avail. The SLMM feels that it has the needed guarantees from the LTTE but the GOSL is not allowing us even to go through the checkpoints. This is limiting our freedom of movement and violates the CFA. Both are not doing their best in order to alleviate the suffering of the people. Tigers are based among civilians and then the army bombs those places where civilians are. Both are wrong.”

To another question: “How do you view the closure of the A-9 road and the irregular supply of food to the North that has led to a crisis in the peninsula”, she replied: “Our view is simple here. The A-9 should be opened as soon as possible because keeping it closed violates the CFA.” Like Allan Rock, the special advisor to the UN representative for children and armed conflict, who implicated in his report both the Karuna group and the security forces in the forcible recruitment of children in the East based on his findings during his 10-day visit to the North and East, Helen Olafsdottir too has become unpopular among some section in the southern polity.

The Karuna faction has also been added this year to the UN Secretary General’s “list of shame” that aims to discredit governments and armed groups committing grave crimes against children. This list is included in the latest report of the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Security Council released on November 17. The plight of the Tamils in the East is different from their counterparts in the North because of two rival Tiger groups operating there.

The aerial bombings of areas under LTTE’s control that started after the suicide bomb attack in Colombo in April and escalated with subsequent provoking attacks by the LTTE, killed civilians including many children. The target of the suicide bomber was Sri Lankan Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who survived after sustaining serious injuries. Following the wide protests within and outside Sri Lanka on civilian casualties, the targets of Sri Lankan Air Force are now identified ‘Sea Tiger bases and training camps’. Although no civilian casualties have been reported, the people in the surrounding areas live in constant fear.

Ten lorry loads of food were sent on 17th November, from the Batticaloa Kachcheri to Vakarai and Kathiravelli. They were stopped at Navalladdy south of Mankerni Army checkpoint by the soldiers and directed to return. Eight lorry loads with food sent the next day were also stopped at the Maankerni checkpoint and were not allowed to proceed further. According to the military, the displaced persons who fled the rebel-controlled Vakarai area sheltering in the Mankerni refugee camp in government controlled area looted the supplies in the consignment. As a result about 12,000 families in the rebel-held Vakarai and Kathiravelli in Batticaloa district were denied essential supplies.

The government announced that the refugees (IDPs) in Mankerni would receive adequate essential supplies, while the difficulty in sending the essentials to rebel-held Vakarai is because of the artillery firing by the LTTE. According to some reports, the LTTE is forcibly preventing the civilians in the areas under their control to move to government-controlled areas in the East. Some 8000 anti personnel mines have been buried around Vakarai to prevent the people crossing over to government controlled areas. In the move to weaken the enemy, one party is trying to draw the civilians to its side, while the other is preventing them from leaving for their strength and protection.

Using civilians as weapons

The latest UTHR(J) Special Report No. 23 has vividly conveyed the callous actions of both sides in showing their power and determination regardless of the dire consequences. On the earlier tragic events in Muthur and Sampur, it says: “Both the Government and the LTTE conducted their military operations without the slightest concern for the civilians, who in the affected areas were mainly Muslims and Tamils. The Government’s bombing and shelling, claimed more than 100 civilian lives and injured about thrice that number. It knew of the presence of the displaced in Muthur schools, but nevertheless shelled them. The LTTE shelled government positions from civilian concentrations. It paid back the civilians in the village of Sampur by using it to direct cannon fire at the naval base in Trincomalee, without any thought for them.

Little reaches the public domain about the plight of the Tamil refugees of the area that is almost beyond belief. Many of the displaced were already living in Eechilampattu when troubles started in July. They fled to Vakarai and Panichchankerny in the LTTE-controlled part of Batticaloa District to escape the exchange of missiles by the Government and the LTTE. From the beginning of October, Vakarai and Panichchankerny have been regularly bombed and shelled by the Government. Many of the refugees have fled back across the Verugal River into Eechilampattu, where there is absolutely no access to any relief agency. The LTTE’s publicity campaigns too have made very little of the plight of these refugees. Their thrust at Geneva was the humanitarian crisis in Jaffna, to a large extent engineered by them, with a view to having the A9 trunk road open for their own ends”.

The report in condemning the closure of A-9 at Muhamalai entry-exit point by the government has said: “The A-9 road must be opened because the people have the right to travel and to trade and it has been Jaffna’s main lifeline for 65 years after barriers were imposed on sea borne trade with India. The LTTE’s abuse of this lifeline is an issue that must be tackled separately.” In Sri Lanka both the warring parties are impervious to the plight of civilians caught in the fighting. Much worse is the use of the humanitarian disaster to portray the enemy as vicious and inhuman, when both are unwilling to defuse the crisis.

[From left; US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, Norway’s Minister of International Development Erik Solheim, Japanese Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi, and Herve Jouanjean, the European Commission director general relations, at a news conference at the State Department in Washington – Photo Courtesy: DailyMirror/AP]

The Co-chairs’ statement issued after the review meeting in Washington D.C. on November 21 asked the Sri Lankan government to reopen the A-9 highway and called upon the Tamil Tigers to cooperate with the government in the humanitarian initiatives that are implemented through the relief organisation to help the civilians. The statement urged both parties to work together to depoliticize the humanitarian aspects of the conflict and to respect human rights. Given the past record of the warring parties paying no heed to earlier statements of the Co-Chairs, it is very doubtful whether there will be positive response to the latest call.

The Island editorial 24th November has poignantly said: “However noble their intentions may be, the Co-chairs are, we are afraid, not making a worthwhile contribution to peace making. They are only behaving like a group of preachers trying as they do very hard to impress the virtues of non violence, compassion and respect for human rights on the warring factions, knowing very well that they are pouring water on a duck’s back. Nobody seems to pay heed to their preaching but they go on pontificating. Thus, the Co-chairs have wasted their time and money on meetings. The suffering of civilians remains far from ameliorated, violence escalates and the death toll rises. ……. Bland statements which leave much unsaid are not going to take us anywhere”.

Strategy to promote hatred

The strategy used by the LTTE to demean the enemy since the time they were fighting against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) has been exposed by many analysts. Tisaranee Gunasekara in her weekly columns in the ‘Asian Tribune’ and the ‘Sunday Island’ of 19 November 2006 has warned the government of the consequences of reacting irresponsibly in retaliation as is happening now to LTTE’s strategic hostile actions.

To quote: “The fate of the IPKF is particularly instructive. The North Eastern Tamils welcomed the IPKF as their saviours. In order to gain the upper hand in its anti-IPKF war, the LTTE needed to effect a change in this pro-Indian mentality of the Tamils. The method used by the Tigers was diabolically simple – targeting the IPKF from population centres (including hospitals and temples) and melting away, leaving the hapless civilians to bear the brunt of Indian retaliation. The shelling of the city of Jaffna and the killing of medical personnel in the Jaffna hospital were instances of the LTTE using this tactic with devastating effect. The civilians had to pay a horrendous price, but the Tigers achieved their objective. Faced with indiscriminate (often lethal) attacks by the IPKF, the majority Tamil perception of the Indian army changed – from friend and saviour to The Enemy”.

She has also condemned the Vakarai killings of innocent displaced families with children and old persons and the acute food shortages in Jaffna as a result of the A-9 closure. “Such blows that hurt the civilians, would not only turn the population against the Army and make things worse for us in Tamil Nadu it will also de-legitimise the Lankan cause internationally”. The LTTE’s pre-Eelam objective is to force the withdrawal of the ‘occupying forces’ from the ‘Tamil homeland’ by creating conditions that induce the people to object to their presence. Sri Lankan government has so far failed to come up with a counter strategy to win the confidence of the people in the North and East. The LTTE’s strategy also prevented the government from embarking directly on moves to win the confidence of the Tamil people in the North-East. However, the present government has gone recklessly too far in challenging the LTTE’s strategy. Most Lankan refugees sheltering in crowded camps in Tamil Nadu have said they came to escape from the hostile acts of Sri Lankan armed forces. There is no doubt that this tactic has worked in the past but it is doubtful whether it will continue to remain effective.

It is mind-boggling some professionals and other well-to-do expatriate Tamils have failed to see the self-destructive nature of the war for control over the land to be liberated from Sinhalese hegemony. It is also irresponsible for the Tamil media serving the Tamil Diaspora to promote racial enmity and give slanted versions of developments in Sri Lanka. Very little is being done by way of forming public opinion to move away from warfare towards political settlement and peace.

The lack of will

The desire for peace is one thing and the will to seek peace is another. It is in the latter, the courage and determination have been lacking among the Sri Lankan leaders. The way the control of a part of the island, home to three different ethnic communities is sought has a bearing on unity and peace. The latter are crucial for the well-being of future generations. This is where the dogmatic thinking runs the risk of endangering the future of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The political parties in Northern Ireland despite many difficulties succeeded in transforming the Good Friday Agreement into the political process that is now underway. India’s position in the Lankan ethnic conflict may be considered as similar to that of the Republic of Ireland in the Northern Ireland sectarian conflict. The Catholics and Protestants did not join forces to humiliate and bring about the withdrawal of the Irish Republic from involvement in conflict resolution. In the Sri Lankan conflict, both the LTTE and the Premadasa government jointly undermined the 1987 Indo-Lanka agreement and India had to withdraw her Peace Keeping Force after losing 1,200 soldiers in the effort to restore order and normality in North-East Sri Lanka. Now when the international community is keen on India’s pro-active role in settling the conflict, President Mahinda Rajapaksa does not want India’s direct involvement but only help in weakening the LTTE!

In Sri Lanka, there was no concerted effort to exploit the February 2002 CFA and initiate a political process. Why? Different parties will give contradictory answers. The stark truth is our leaders have not been moved by the yearning for peace of the majority of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims to transform the truce into a political process. It is their hunger for power that influenced their minds to stick to their own political ambitions, regardless of the adverse consequences the future generations will have to endure. The real motives of the CFA signatories were dubious. Both the government and the LTTE had no intention of going resolutely for permanent political settlement through compromise. Among the Sinhalese there are many whose hearts and minds are synchronized to take the bold move towards unity and lasting peace by adopting a federal structure but they are unable to influence the political leaders who seem to be concerned more about their future than that of the country. In the case of Tamils, the strategy of the principal power seeker is to eliminate the lot seeking an amicable settlement based on trust, internal and external realities and the future of the community in the new world.

In the talks held when the cease-fire agreement was largely observed with no major clashes between the government forces and the LTTE, both sides avoided discussing the core issues. The assassins and the targeted victims were mostly Tamils during this ceasefire period. The December 2002 joint agreement to explore a federal system for settling the conflict reached in the third round in Oslo was acclaimed by many yearning for lasting peace as a breakthrough in the sad saga of the island since independence. The international community welcomed the move and promised full support in establishing a suitable federal structure. Their backing was evident from the June 2003 Tokyo Declaration of the donors, including India the closest neighbour having special interest in the present and likely future developments in Sri Lanka in so far as these concern her own territorial integrity and stability. The light seen at the end of the tunnel vanished when the LTTE declared that there was no agreement to opt for a federal model in lieu of separation. This U-turn is widely known to be due to the rejection of the federal structure within united Sri Lanka by the top LTTE leader. It also highlighted the apolitical nature of the conflict.

The sad thing is the Tamils do not have leaders like John Hume and Martin McGuinness in some position of influence to initiate a realistic political process and ensure its success. The remaining few visionaries have little influence over the actors to avert the risk of losing even the position that the Tamils had in 1987. We seem to have reached a stage where only the gracious moves by others will avert the impending downfall. This seems to be the feeling now of many in Jaffna. In a recent interview the NDTV correspondent had with people there, he reported, “even people in authority like the catholic bishop of Jaffna ask for India to intervene again”. Bishop Dr Thomas Savundranayagam has said: “Certainly by ourselves we can’t achieve peace. We are a very small group of people, a minority. In other countries also peace was achieved by the intervention of international community. For us the best country is India. India must not be simply a spectator but must play an active role in bringing a lasting peace.” This realization should have dawned two decades ago.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

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