Basics of making peace

by Tasha Manoranjan

Any meaningful steps toward a viable peace process,
let alone a stable peace, must start with the
demilitarization of Tamil areas.

In the past two weeks, many families in Sri Lankan government-
controlled areas have begun fleeing to Tamil Tiger-controlled regions
- with good reason: casualties are mounting rapidly amid retaliatory
violence by the increasingly hard-pressed Sinhala-dominated military
against local civilians. Jaffna has grown increasingly anxious and
volatile as ‘disappearances’ again become routine, women are
sexually assaulted, and civilians are mercilessly beaten or shot.

Law and order in Jaffna has almost completely degenerated in recent
weeks. The government machinery – save the military occupation –
has essentially shut down in Jaffna. Even foreign non-governmental
organizations are now not free from attack (six de-mining workers
from HALO Trust and the Danish De-mining Group have been
abducted in Army-controlled areas this week). Little wonder families
are fleeing from military persecution to the Tiger’s de facto
administrative capital of Kilinochchi, several miles south along the A9.
Almost two thousand families have decamped, according to aid
workers there.

The University of Jaffna has remarkably reopened, even after its
protests against military excesses were violently put down by the
Army, whose troops even forcibly entered the campus and assaulted
students and professors alike. However, those people remaining in
Jaffna are facing more violence from the military amid a further
degradation of ceasefire. With attacks on soldiers and retaliatory
attacks on civilians rising, the idea of a ceasefire has grown
laughable to Jaffna residents. Little wonder that violent protests are
easily provoked and many civilians areas are turning to thinly
disguised LTTE fronts for protection.

The international community meanwhile continues to call for the Sri
Lankan government and the LTTE to go back to the negotiating
table. The upcoming visit of Eric Solheim, Norway’s former Special
Envoy to Sri Lanka and now Oslo’s International Aid minister, is
undoubtedly to foster this end.

However, simply returning to peace talks is nothing more than a band-
aid solution to a much more systematic problem. The dynamic in the
Northeast has changed greatly since the 2002/3 talks and the
landmark Ceasefire Agreement before that. The trust that emerged
between the government of the time and the LTTE has eroded slowly
but surely amid a series of pernicious actions by Sri Lanka’s leaders.
Today both sides are much farther from achieving a consensus on
most peace related matters than ever before – except times of open
conflict.

But the unqualified international insistence on new talks reveals a
fundamental divergence between the interests of the international
community and those of the Tamil community. This is not an
ideological problem, but a practical one. The former does not have to
live near High Security Zones (or in displaced camps as a
consequence of the HSZs), suffer harassment on the way home from
school, fear arbitrary arrest or summary execution on a daily basis.
Thus, whilst international representatives chant the mantra of talks
being the only way forward, the Tamil community is more concerned
with clear and ever present safety fears.

Since President Mahinda Rajapakse was elected on the hardline anti-
peace platform, it is unlikely either he or his Sinhala nationalist
political allies would uphold, let alone consolidate, earlier progress in
the peace process. Any talks would thus begin further behind than
where they stalled and stall again even sooner than before. Under
such conditions, what does it mean to rush for peace talks?

Instead of blindly demanding the resumption of talks, the
international community should first demand the full implementation
of the ceasefire, in particular the restoration of normalcy. This would
greatly diminish the ongoing violence in Jaffna by actively
demilitarizing the peninsula. Sri Lankan troops would finally leave the
homes of local residents. Women would not fear sexual assault;
youth need not fear arrest or disappearance. The media, NGOs and
local civil society can function freely.

The ‘shadow war’ has been ongoing for at least two years now,
bringing the risk of sudden death or worse to every Tamil street and
home in the Army-controlled parts of the Northeast. The government
must be compelled to disarm paramilitary groups to regain the trust
of the Tamil people, let alone the LTTE, in the peace process. Sri
Lankan troops are understandably on edge now due to escalating
violence by Tigers or Tiger-backed groups. But for a considerable
time, the Tamil Resurgence rallies have seen swelling attendance,
reflecting long-simmering anger at military occupation and daily
harassment. Now that anger is being channeled into undisguised
support for the Tigers.

This weak start – demilitarization - is all that can be asked for. In any
other country, it might be reasonable to demand the government
investigate and punish military/paramilitary attacks on civilians. But in
Sri Lanka, justice has been replaced by a plethora of forgotten
committees and commissions. The culture of impunity that is allowing
and exacerbating attacks on Tamils must be convincingly eliminated
for people to believe that anything other than the threat of LTTE
realiation can deter military excess. Only this week the Asian Human
Rights Commission (AHRC) decried the six-year delay in prosecuting
the soldiers responsible for the murders of those buried in the mass
graves in Chemmani. AHRC condemned the attorney general’s office
itself, stating: “delays in court trials as well as due process amount to
a clear betrayal of justice.”

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said recently his
government is “still willing to walk that extra mile for peace.” But any
meaningful steps towards peace must start by demilitarization. That
means ending the shadow war and the harassment of civilians.
These steps are not bargaining chips for the negotiation table; they
are fundamental steps of building confidence. They are the basic
steps of peace itself.
[TG]