The LTTE and the 2002-2006 Peace Process in Sri Lanka

The Politics of Transformation

by Suthaharan Nadarajah & Luxshi Vimalarajah, Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, Switzerland, 2008


Berghof Foundation logoIntroduction
The conflict in Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most protracted and multi-faceted. It has been aptly described as a conflict “where economic, political and cultural deprivation and grievances of a minority have provoked a violent rebellion against a state that has come to be seen as representative of only the majority ethnic group” (Orjuela 2003:198). Since long-simmering tensions between the island’s Tamil community and the Sinhala-dominated state erupted into open confrontation between several militant groups and the Sri Lankan armed forces in the early 1980s,the conflict has grown in intensity and complexity. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),which emerged as the dominant Tamil protagonist following a number of early confrontations within the broader Tamil resistance movement, has since developed both a conventional military force and a substantial civil administrative apparatus in the parts of the island it has established control over. Since the conflict began, there have been five formal attempts to resolve it through negotiations. All, including the Norwegian-facilitated peace process which began in 2002, have proved abortive, with the fighting resuming with greater ferocity each time.
This study examines the substantial non-military activities of the LTTE since the internationally-backed Norwegian peace process began in 2002 against the wider foil of transition from war to peace. The possibilities for transforming or resolving a protracted conflict such as that in Sri Lanka cannot be discerned without understanding the evolving socio-political conditions in which armed political movements emerge, grow and function. For example, the label ‘non-state actor’ when applied to the LTTE, which controls a clear and demarcated territory and has established a substantial governance structures in these areas, obscures significant aspects of the conflict and the organisation itself. A ‘state within a state’ (Kingston 2004) would seem a more appropriate term in this context and one we look at more closely below. More generally,a nuanced understanding of the LTTE that goes well beyond the nondescript label of ‘armed group’ or ‘non-state actor,’ and of the wider dynamics of the conflict in Sri Lanka, are essential to promoting peace there. This principle underpins this study. Such understanding, we also argue,requires a systemic approach to analysis. Piecemeal approaches – for example, focusing solely on the efficacy of electoral processes in Sri Lanka – which do not consider the historic trajectories or overarching context of Sri Lanka’s politics, or the prevailing conditions, are futile. Intractable conflicts must be studied in their entirety.
Furthermore, in examining the political transformation of armed movements, we do not take a normative approach. We examine key processes and dynamics without taking a moral stance on the use of political violence (or even specific modes or acts of violence). We seek to provide insight into the decision-making process within the LTTE and its logic in pursuing particular strategies, into how LTTE actions and policies are intertwined with those of other actors within the conflict system and how these came to reinforce each other, thus producing a destructive cycle of escalating antagonism that contributed heavily to the slide into renewed violence that followed the initial optimism generated by the Norwegian initiative…
This paper examines the activities and conduct of the LTTE against the foil of‘political transformation’, focusing in particular on the period since 2002, when the heavily internationalised, Norwegian-led peace initiative in Sri Lanka began in earnest.The LTTE’s stated goal is self governance for the island’s Tamils in their historical habitation in the Northeast.The LTTE thus faces both issues outlined above. As a liberation movement fighting for independence,the LTTE represents a fundamental Tamil challenge to the legitimacy of the Sinhala majoritarian state. Moreover, having captured a large swathe of territory from the state, the LTTE has set up a parallel civil administration in it. Both these aspects, as noted earlier, present specific challenges to the LTTE engaging in the linear ‘transformation’ outlined above. Nonetheless, this paper argues,throughout the conflict and especially since 2002, the LTTE has engaged in substantive and multi-faceted non-violent political activities, whose transformative potential has been insufficiently examined and engaged with as a result an overly narrow focus on the electoral politics (with the concomitant insistence on disarmament and demobilisation).
Drawing on a review of the non-military activities of the LTTE since 2002, this paper makes two central arguments. Firstly, the popular conceptualisation of ‘political transformation’ is overly restrictive and prescriptive, so much so that activities outside of and beyond an armed campaign which actually embrace and operationalise the values underpinning the normative demand for political transformation, are simply not considered. Secondly, even within the commonly accepted framework of transformation, a focus on the behaviour of the armed movement alone, divorced from the (political and socio-economical) local and international environment in which it operates,fails to recognise key (structural and other) impediments to such ‘transformation’ and, therefore,key steps being undertaken by the movement towards this. The paper also argues that as a consequence of external actors’ adopting too narrow a focus on the (lack of) specific behaviours by the armed movement, its efforts to embrace international values fail to get recognition and,more importantly, the necessary international support to sustain them. Indeed, international failure to support the LTTE’s efforts to adopt and entrench international values in its administrative apparatus helped to undermine the potential for conflict transformation in Sri Lanka and,arguably, contributed to the subsequent disintegration of the Norwegian-led peace process. In short, a combination of international policies dictated by state doctrine and international actors’4 scepticism of the LTTE’s willingness to ‘transform’ led to a failure to recognise and support key steps by the movement, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophesy that progressively hardened attitudes in both international actors and the LTTE. We examine this crucial point in detail below,but it serves to note here that the international community has a key role in the transformation of the LTTE. As this study later elaborates, the armed conflict in Sri Lanka is a direct consequence of not only majoritarian oppression of a numerically smaller ethnic community, but also the manifest failures of internal mechanisms for resolving ethnic tensions as they emerged. In terms of Sri Lanka’s transition from war to peace, therefore, the international community has a crucial role in underwriting security, especially human security5, and in guaranteeing the stability and durabilityof any negotiated agreement. The LTTE, like other actors, has its own agency, but we argue thatits transformation hinges very much on the relationships between the organisation and the international community and less so on its relationship with the Sri Lankan state. The focus here is therefore on the former.

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