Prospects for Peacemaking in Sri Lanka Simultaneously Advance and Retreat

Even as fighting between government forces and the separatist Tiger Tamils continues to claim many lives, political prospects for an eventual settlement of Sri Lanka’s long-lasting conflict have improved.

Since independence from Britain, Sri Lanka’s two leading Sinhala political parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SFLP) and the United National Party (UNP), have alternated in power. Both have repeatedly reneged on promises for equal rights and greater autonomy for the Tamil minority when they were in office. And when either was in the opposition, they stirred up Sinhala passions to thwart any compromise with the Tamils. In more recent years, the hold of these parties on power has weakened to the point where they needed the support of smaller parties to govern. Yet these parties have vociferously rejected any compromise and thus any political solution to the conflict.

Now, the SFLP (led by President Rajapakse) and UNP (led by former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe) have brokered an agreement to cooperate in solving the problems bedeviling the country. They pledged to work together on six crucial issues—not only the armed conflict, but also good governance, electoral reform, the economy, educational reforms, and social development. Any power sharing with the Tamils would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority in support of constitutional reform. The two parties jointly control 55 percent of the seats. Change is thus by no means assured.

Meanwhile, continued fighting may well darken the prospects for planned peace talks in Geneva at the end of October. Changes in battle fortunes could make one or the other of the protagonists less willing to resume talks. Government forces had achieved several military victories in recent weeks, and hardliners were intent on pressing their advantage to weaken the Tamil Tigers’ negotiation position. The Tigers in turn are believed to regard talks as a respite during which to regroup. Recent setbacks for the army, which suffered heavy casualties in mid-October, have changed the calculus, but it remains to be seen how both sides interpret these developments and whether they will be more, or less, prepared to talk.