A Disaster's Peace Dividend

by Los Angeles Times editorial, August 22, 2005

Editorial comment -- Much of the information in this editorial is correct, so it is surprising the conclusion the editor ends with.  One tip-off that the writer does not really know what he is talking about is his assertion that there has been a cease-fire in Sri Lanka for five years.  We know that it has been in effect for only three and a half years, although the Tigers first proposed one, which the government did not reciprocate, in Dec. 2000. 

Similarly, the writer mentions the 'thousands' of civilians killed by Tiger suicide bombings.  Not only is that figure quite suspect, but the fact that over 95% of the direct casualties in this war have been Tamil civilians killed by Sri Lankan security forces' activity, according to the government's own figures, is ignored.

Although there has always been much traffic between northeastern Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, it is only in the LA Times' dreams that Indian Tamils could be roused from their somnolence.  This anxiety does, however, demonstrate the US' policy concerns with conflict in Sri Lanka.

Of major import, at the end of it all, is the editorialist's conclusion that "Colombo has not been able to defeat them[the Tigers] militarily and needs to seek a political solution, as Indonesia did with the Acehnese rebels."

Short, to-the-point letters on this editorial can be sent to letters@latimes.com

THE TSUNAMI THAT DEVASTATED large swathes of Asia last December also sparked hope that it would force opponents in civil wars to abandon armed struggle in favor of cooperation and rebuilding.  That has been true in Indonesia but not in Sri Lanka.

Last week, Indonesia and representatives of rebels in Aceh province signed an agreement in Helsinki to stop fighting after nearly 29 years of conflict.  A former Finnish president mediated between the two sides; the rebels gave up their fight for independence, and the government agreed to let Acehnese form local political parties that can field candidates.

In a major concession, the government agreed to give the province 70% of the revenue that Jakarta collects from the substantial oil and gas reserves off Aceh's shores.

Depriving the central government of so much money is a risky gamble.  Indeed, a similar issue has proved to be one of the major stumbling blocks to a draft constitution in Iraq.  There, Kurds and Shiites are seeking a hefty cut of oil money when a permanent Iraqi government is formed.  The refusal of Sunnis to agree was one reason the deadline to write a draft constitution was extended.

Indonesian officials also were reluctant to give up so much revenue.  But the tsunami changed things.  When the floodwaters killed more than 100,000 people in Aceh, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government abandoned its policy of barring nearly all outsiders from the province.  Jakarta allowed U.S. troops and relief workers inside and later agreed to reopen peace talks with the rebels.  That decision paid dividends.

The tsunami's death toll far outstripped the number killed in fighting between Acehnese rebels and the government, but in Sri Lanka, the tsunami's death toll of about 30,000 was less than half the number killed in more than 20 years of fighting.

Five years ago, rebels from the Tamil ethnic group seeking independence for their region agreed to a cease-fire with the Sri Lankan government. But the truce has been fragile.

Leaders of the rebel group, the Tamil Tigers, complained after the tsunami that the government was not letting relief supplies get to their territory in the north and east. Recently, the foreign minister, a Tamil who had campaigned against the Tigers and denounced them as terrorists, was assassinated in his home in Colombo, the capital. The government blamed the Tigers, who denied involvement. The murder prompted a declaration of a state of emergency and threatened to destroy the truce.

Norway's foreign affairs minister and his deputy met in London last week with the chief Tamil Tiger peace negotiator. The Norwegian mediators were reported to have pressured him heavily to proclaim adherence to the cease-fire.

The Tigers have murdered thousands of civilians with suicide bombings in the past decades; their commitment to anything short of independence is doubtful. But Colombo has not been able to defeat them militarily and needs to seek a political solution, as Indonesia did with the Acehnese rebels. Instability in Sri Lanka could easily spill into India, which has a large Tamil population.

The depredations of terrorist groups, even those such as the Tamils, who have so far confined their murders to Sri Lanka and India, also should concern other nations at a time men find it increasingly easy to cross borders and bring their weapons with them.


Posted August 25, 2005