Tensions mount in Sri Lanka

Even after three decades of civil war in Sri Lanka, Lakshman Kadirgmar’s death last August was different. In what was supposed to have been a period of ceasefire between the government and the Tamil separatists, he was felled by a sniper’s bullet as he was climbing out of his backyard swimming pool in the diplomatic district of Colombo.

Kadirgmar, a Tamil, had spent years pushing for a peaceful end to the vicious fighting, which had brought the assassination of one president and of another in waiting, the frightening spectre of children suicide bombers, and of Buddhist priests calling for a return to military campaigns. Viewed against the long and bloody history of the conflict, Kadirgmar’s death should have come as no great surprise.

Eight months earlier, the tsunami that ravaged Sri Lanka’s coast seemed to have swept away the ethnic and political tensions that had divided the island. There were stories of Sinhalese fishermen saving their Tamil neighbours, of aid being rushed through previously guarded control lines, and of Tamil Tigers, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), putting down their weapons to help anyone in distress in their territory. The tsunami had overwhelmed the ingrained distrust among Sri Lanka’s different communities and, for a time at least, made them seem trivial by comparison.

I was among a group of journalists that met Lakshman Kadirgmar in 2000, as the Tamil Tiger leaders were making the first overtures towards a negotiated peace. The meeting was in the Foreign Affairs Ministry in downtown Colombo, a Victorian-era building reminiscent of an English public school. The building was enclosed by a six-metre-high reinforced iron fence, installed after the Tamil Tigers set off a bus bomb that damaged it in 1998. Kadirgmar was then nearing the end of his first term as foreign minister in a government formed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

He arrived two hours after our group had been herded into the state room, preceded by stony-faced and heavily armed soldiers. He was eloquent and engaging, prepared to admit the faults and mistakes of past Sri Lankan governments with candid comments that set his staff fidgeting uneasily in their seats.

His theme was that peace could be negotiated, but only if the rest of the world recognised the terrorism of the LTTE and moved to prevent funds being remitted to them from the expatriate Tamil communities in Australia, North America, Britain and elsewhere.


Kadirgmar was typical of his countrymen in the way he extended warm hospitality to foreigners, be they Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim. On a visit I made to LTTE-controlled territory at Easter 2002, just weeks after the peace process had begun, I was welcomed by the political and military cadres in the Tigers’ self-declared capital Killonochi.

I spent four days in a plush, air-conditioned guest house with freshly painted walls that stood out against that featureless, war-ravaged landscape. My hosts could not have been more charming and accommodating.

But when I broached the subject of the civil war, their demeanour changed. Smiles disappeared, brows furrowed and courtliness gave way to comments about their political rivals that were shocking in their studied ferocity. It became obvious that the long-running civil war had turned most of the population into warmongers or paranoiacs.

All that seemed to change after the tsunami struck. Ordinary Sri Lankans learned to treat one another with care and compassion and many asked whether this might be a permanent change, that the return to hostilities that so many observers feared might never eventuate. The assassination of Lakshman Kadirgmar put paid to such optimism.

To date the LTTE has not claimed responsibility for Kadirgmar’s death. The killing had all the hallmarks of a Tiger operation, and it could well have been motivated by dissatisfaction with the current peace process, but it may well have been the work of an LTTE splinter group.

In 2004 there was a schism within LTTE, with a rebel group taking control of the east of the island, around Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The group was led by V. Muralitharan, who goes under the nom de guerre Colonel Karuna and is a shadowy figure even more opaque than the ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Tiger movement. A group impatient with the peace process and wanting to seize power within Tamil ranks would no doubt prefer a return to hostilities; they have no interest in lasting peace or democratic elections.

The Norwegian government, the United Nations’ peace broker, has been working hard to prevent the country from slipping back into civil war. However, a top-level peace delegation returned home recently without having secured agreements for face-to-face talks between the government and the LTTE.

The state of emergency imposed after Kadirgmar’s death remains in place, and an escalation of hostilities looks likely after attacks by the Tigers in Trincomalee and the victory of Mahinda Rajapakse in the presidential elections in November, through the support of Sinhalese hardliners. If the peace process, part of Kadirgmar’s legacy, is not dead, then it desperately needs the kiss of life. 

Jon Greenaway is managing director of the Brussels office of Diligence Inc, a business intelligence and risk management firm. He is a former deputy editor of Eureka Street.

 

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