The cease-fire is losing its allure


                                     Tamil Guardian, February 26, 2003


Under Pressure

The cease-fire is losing its allure

When it was signed last February, the cease-fire between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government was, quite rightly, hailed by the island's residents and the international community as a significant breakthrough in the Norwegian peace process. Although the guns in South Asia's longest war had in fact been silent for over two prior months amid unilateral cease-fires, the new mutual agreement went beyond a mere cessation of offensive action: it provided for an active process of normalisation of civilian life. In particular, it set out the phases for the restoration of normalcy including the ending of military restrictions on fishing by the Tamil populace and the withdrawal of security forces personnel from occupied homes, schools, places of worship and other public places. The agreement also included an international monitoring mechanism.

Understandably, hopes were therefore high. The United National Front (UNF) government's dramatic victory in the parliamentary elections of December 2001 on a mandate for peace through negotiations with the LTTE, and the visibly rapid progress of the Norwegian peace process fuelled unprecedented public optimism. But one long year on, this has largely evaporated to be replaced by cynicism at best and outright disillusionment at worst. The causes, as this newspaper and the rest of the Tamil press has been repeatedly pointing out throughout the past year, are clear: the Sri Lankan military has refused to honour the normalisation aspects of the truce. There are two resulting effects. Firstly, the truce is now contemptuously lumped with umpteen past agreements that the Sinhala leadership signed with the Tamils and then nonchalantly abrogated. Secondly, the seemingly unenforceable cease-fire agreement has singularly failed to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people who remain displaced while the Sri Lankan military remains in occupation of their towns and villages.

Then it got worse: with the timetable for withdrawal and lifting ofrestrictions rendered utterly irrelevant, the issue of normalisation was taken up at the direct talks between both sides. Notwithstanding the controversy generated when the Sri Lanka Army demanded the LTTE surrender its weapons before troops permit Tamil civilians back into their homes and properties, several new agreements on normalisation have also been reached and then simply forgotten by the government on its delegates' return to Colombo. The UNF's excuse - that President Chandrika Kumaratunga, not Parliament, retains control of the military - is now ridiculous. When agreements reached by negotiators are simply ignored by their principals, the credibility of the former - and thereby the viability of the peace process itself - inevitably suffers.

Affected sections of Tamil civil society are now staging repeated protests and demonstrations against the non-implementation of the truce. The few public places that Sri Lankan troops begrudgingly vacated are unusable for a multitude of reasons, not least the proximity of the new military positions to the old. Meanwhile a handful of displaced people have been able to return to their homes but the overwhelming majority of them cannot. This, and the suspiciously slow pace of reconstruction and rehabilitation in the north and east, are primarily responsible for the prevailing disillusionment amongst the Tamil people. The Sinhala-dominated parts of the island are, however, reaping a substantial truce dividend: tourism and economic activity is accelerating while conflict-related tensions have completely dissipated in the south.

Even the only successful component of the cease-fire agreement, the cessation of offensive actions, has not been flawless. Apart from the major standoff - on the anniversary of the truce - between Sri Lanka Navy personnel and LTTE cadres, the exact circumstances of which are being ascertained as this issue goes to print, there have been far more serious incidents: Tamil, Muslim and - in error - Sinhala fishermen have been fired on by the Navy, leading to deaths and sinking of civilian vessels. LTTE political activists, permitted to work in government held areas  under the truce, have regularly been arrested and assaulted by Sri Lankan military personnel. The disarming of Tamil paramilitaries working with the military has, meanwhile, not been done. Little wonder then that as the anniversary passes tensions are rising in some places between troops on both sides and between Sinhalese personnel and Tamil residents.

On the other hand, the truce has largely held with only a very small number of deaths amongst combatants caused by enemy action. This is undoubtedly due to the work of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) which has intervened to preempt incidents and defuse those underway. But the monitors are also under justifiable criticism for remaining silent as large and important parts of the cease-fire agreement - with regards normalisation - are simply being ignored or insufficiently addressed. The central issue, for those  concerned with the achieving peace in Sri Lanka, ought to be how to restore Tamil public confidence in the cease-fire agreement and thereby bolster support for the peace process. We argue that international support is, as ever, key. Firstly, Colombo should be persuaded to ensure its military ceases to block civilians' return to their homes. Secondly, the reconstruction effort, presently mired in Sri Lanka's traditional bureaucracy, should be expedited with foreign assistance. In the meantime, the cease-fire is under increasingly effective pressure from the Sinhala nationalists in Colombo and the extremists within the Sri Lankan military.