End Sri Lanka's Endless War

Third-party mediation could provide the necessary catalyst

Hatreds fuel the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka. Economic logic calls for the war's end.

As bombs in late October severely damaged two international hotels and Colombo's World Trade Center (which houses the central bank and several government ministries), and naval and Army skirmishes continued into November in the northeast section of the island nation, the Sinhala and the Tamils, Sri Lanka's competing peoples, reiterated their deep-felt grievances.

The Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority (74 percent of the country's 18 million people) excoriate the Tamil-speaking Hindu minority (12 percent, with the remainder largely Tamil-speaking Muslims), and the Tamils return the compliment. Sinhalas say Tamils unfairly gained prominence in the civil service and in commerce out of proportion to their numbers. The Tamils, for their part, have little regard for the majoritarian governments which, over the last three decades, have made promise after promise to the Tamils without keeping one.

Tamils, like the various ethnic groups in Bosnia, can trace the beginning of discrimination to the deep past. Sinhala-dominated parties, competing for the majority's vote since the 1950s, successively made Sinhalese the national language. This deprived Tamils (whose command of English had contributed to their striking success during British colonial times) of equal opportunity in government employment, where they had flourished. Majority-dominated governments also made it much more difficult for Tamils to enter university, thus marginalizing the success of a section of the population that was just as Sri Lankan as the majority.

Government vs. the rebels

For 14 years, officially - but actually for longer - Tamil-speaking insurgents from the north of the West Virginia-sized country have been fighting a succession of Sri Lankan governments, often in triumph. About 80,000 Sri Lankans have lost their lives since 1983.

In 1994, however, after the narrow electoral victory of her People's Alliance, President Chandrika Kumaratunga initiated a widely acclaimed policy of reconciliation. Her government entered into negotiations with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the main insurgent army. When the LTTE breached the cease-fire and attacked government troops, President Kumaratunga unleashed her soldiers.

Since 1995, the government has pursued a two-track policy. It seeks a political solution while attempting to crush the LTTE militarily. It has reclaimed Jaffna and the northern peninsula, long held by the Tigers, and now battles their hold on pockets of territory south of that peninsula and along the northeastern coast. In much of the northeast, the Army controls the roads by day, but returns to its barracks at night, when the LTTE rules.

Kumaratunga's government is seeking parliamentary approval of a carefully crafted decentralization and devolution package. It hopes that the possibility of holding power in semi-autonomous regions will appease Tamil rebels who have long demanded eelam, or secession.

Several critical details are not yet decided: the size and composition of the regions the LTTE might reasonably expect to dominate, the extent of autonomy in these regions, and the extent of their ability to collect and expend revenues without central government interference.

These issues might or might not influence the insurgents, who are led by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, an implacable, little-interviewed leader with autocratic tendencies and a flair for finance. Funding comes from exiled Tamil communities in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and India, and from the insurgents' own mercantile operations in Europe (where they allegedly run drug-smuggling rings).

Devolution of power also is debated by the many nonmilitant Tamils who reject eelam but demand improved treatment by the majority community. They don't question the president's sincerity, only her ability (or that of any Sinhala-dominated government) to deliver devolution in such a polarized nation. (The People's Alliance has a very narrow majority in parliament. The opposition United National Party has not yet agreed to provide the necessary two-thirds vote to pass the devolution proposals.)

Needed: intermediaries

The Sri Lankan conflict is ripe for third-party negotiation. Many senior Sri Lankans, Tamil and Sinhala, voice that need. The US, because it recently branded the LTTE a terrorist organization, may not be an acceptable mediator. Britain, the former colonial power, is handicapped by its historical role. India, because of its own large Tamil constituency, as well as its disastrous intervention of 1987-91, has no legitimate standing. Other countries, like Norway, or experienced private bodies, may prove the best intermediaries.

Well-meaning Sri Lankans rightly despair of their interminable civil war. They see no easy answers. Yet, Sri Lanka is no longer the tea-and rubber-producing pastoral nation it once was. About 70 percent of its exports are stitched garments, sent to the US. Its gross domestic product grows at 6 or 7 percent annually, despite the war. Peace would enable Sri Lanka to add another 2 or 3 percent to its per capita economic growth. For those reasons, as well as war fatigue, Sri Lanka needs and wants the settlement third-party negotiations could bring.

* Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

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