The Sri Lankan government’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Tamil political leaders or consider reasonable forms of power sharing is heightening ethnic tensions and damaging prospects for sustainable peace.
Sri Lanka: Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines political opportunities and challenges in finding a realistic strategy for the Tamil community to claim its rights against a government that remains opposed to power sharing. The administration of President Rajapaksa has failed to honour agreements with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), broke promises to world leaders and refused to implement constitutional provisions for minimal devolution of power to Tamil-speaking areas of the north and east. Instead, the government is pursuing a policy of militarisation and biased economic development in Tamil and Muslim areas.
“Three and a half years after the end of the civil war, President Rajapaksa has delayed long-promised elections to the northern provincial council – elections the TNA would be nearly certain to win”, says Alan Keenan, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director. “Rather than address Tamils’ legitimate demands for a fair share of power in areas where they have traditionally been the majority, the Rajapaksa administration has begun discussing a new amendment to reduce provincial powers even further”.
The government’s position follows a long tradition in Sinhala nationalist thinking that rejects the Tamil and Tamil-speaking character of the north and much of the east. Military and economic policies have been institutionalising this ideological position with vigour. The de-facto military occupation of the northern province and state-sponsored cultural and demographic changes appear designed to undermine Tamils’ ability to claim the north and east as their homeland. In the face of the government’s aggressive policies, Tamil leaders are under increased pressure from their constituents to adopt more confrontational language and tactics.
International actors should press the government for the speedy establishment of an elected provincial council and full restoration of civilian government in the north. They should insist that the government start serious negotiations with the TNA and that it make no new moves to dilute provincial powers.
At the same time, Tamil leaders need to rebuild relationships with Muslims – damaged by years of war and Tamil Tiger abuses – while making clear the links between the Tamil struggle for equality and the growing unease among Sinhalese at corruption and government abuse of power. Tamils are likely to win their rights only when the broader national struggle for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, including the independence of the judiciary, has made substantial progress.
“So long as the government refuses to devolve power to those areas in the north and east where Tamils and Muslims have for centuries been the majority, separatist demands are likely to be attractive to large numbers of Tamils in Sri Lanka”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group’s Acting Asia Program Director. “This would be a recipe for continued ethnic polarisation and political volatility”.