Sri Lanka: Talking Peace, Waging War

As representatives of the Sri Lankan government and the rebel LTTE travel to talks in Geneva—the first since February—there is uncertainty whether the negotiations will make a dent in the spiraling violence and improve prospects for a settlement of the conflict, or simply be another milestone of failure. More than 2,700 people have been killed since December 2005. As The Economist put it in a recent article: “No one talks peace while waging war better than Sri Lanka’s government and Tamil rebels.”

A number of developments—military, political, and legal—are likely to have a decisive influence on the outcome. Both the government and the LTTE have engaged in skirmishes in the hope of gaining bargaining power ahead of the Geneva talks. It appeared that military defeats suffered by the LTTE would allow the government to dictate peace on its terms. Yet, the army subsequently had several hundred soldiers killed and wounded, and the two sides come to Geneva without either having an upper hand. Pressure from foreign donors is also mounting on the government.

A memorandum of understanding between the governing and opposition Sinhala parties, signed October 23, promises to create the political space needed to engage in serious negotiations with the Tamils. Together, the two parties—the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SFLP) and the United National Party (UNP), control 135 seats in the 225-member parliament. Still, they fall about 25 votes short of a two-thirds majority needed for any constitutional changes that would be required for a devolution of power and greater Tamil autonomy.

Sri Lanka’s media and business interests have called for an alliance like the one now agreed for years. Yet, hardliners may well score political gains by opposing peace efforts. A spokesman for the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a hardline Buddhist party, threatened to sabotage the SFLP-UNP alliance.

And the recent ruling by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court that a 1987 merger of the Tamil majority Northern and Eastern provinces is unconstitutional has “put the fat in the fire” just before the Geneva talks. Despite the changing demographic makeup of the Eastern province due to increasing numbers of Sinhala settlers, Sinhalas would remain in the minority relative to the Tamils in a combined province. The Court’s ruling is thus seen by Tamils as a further blow to their demand for a homeland.