Uncertain future for conflict in Sri Lanka

Friday, February 27, 2009 | 12:32 p.m. CST

Loory: A 25-year-old war in which 70,000 people have been killed is winding to a close. Maybe. An estimated 200,000 civilians are trapped in a tiny seacoast area that could be the last battlefield. It is all happening in Sri Lanka, but it is hard to find coverage of it among news organizations in the United States. This is an ethnic civil war. The Tamil Tiger rebels come from a group of 3 million in a country of 21 million. They have been seeking independence; the government has refused to grant it, and so the fighting goes on. Is this war really ending after all these years?

C. Bryson Hull, Sri Lanka and Maldives bureau chief, Reuters, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The conventional part is going to be over in a matter of days or weeks, depending on how the showdown happens. The military has overwhelming force and a plan to box the rebels into a strip of land bounded by water on both sides and two divisions on the north and south. The government says there are about 70,000 civilians; aid agencies say about 200,000 people are there. The military expects pockets of guerrilla activity will go on for about a year, but they say they are ready for that.

Loory: The Tamils are concerned about retribution by the Sinhalese and the government?

Hull: The Tamil Tigers are effective at putting out a message as a group; I feel the fear of retribution is overhyped. There are 70 million Tamils worldwide. Only a portion is here, most are in India. People do fear they might be confused with being a Tamil Tiger. The most deadly attacks are suicide bombings by people not in uniforms. The government has tried to disprove a long-standing notion that they mistreat them. This war has its roots in ethnicity, language and religion. The Tamil Tigers as a guerrilla force are not long for this world.

Loory: Why has India not been able to do more to bring a settlement to Sri Lanka?

Amrith Lal, senior editor, Times of India, New Delhi, India: They carried out an experiment in the 1980s, and its repercussions are felt in both domestic politics and in Sri Lanka. Intervention of that kind is unlikely to happen again. The situation in Sri Lanka has a resonance in Tamil Nadu, which is in the southern part of India. This region is going to elections and has a history of emotional political campaigns. The Tamil issue has become a rallying point for all political parties irrespective of their ideology. So, policy must be considered based on how it plays out in Tamil land, especially on the eve of an election.

Loory: The U.S. has never been extremely interested in Sri Lanka and the problems there. Why is that?

Evan Feigenbaum, senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, former deputy assistant secretary of state, Washington, D.C.: We have interest in the humanitarian and human rights situation, but we don’t have a vital interest there. There is a long history between the two countries. The U.S. does play an important diplomatic role through what is called the Tokyo Co-chairs, (a mediation group from the U.S., Japan, Norway and the European Union.) While the progress of the conventional combat may come to a close, the view of the administration is that it doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the conflict. The U.S. has tried to emphasize that there is not simply a military solution to the longer-term issues. The biggest source of frustration for the U.S. has been that the Sri Lankan government appears to believe it can win this on the battlefield.

Loory: Tell us about the differences between the Tamils and the Sinhalese and why there is this terrible ethnic conflict?

Tristan James Mabry, Department. of Government, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.: A case more familiar would be Ireland — an island, controlled by the British, who then brought in a minority and gave them dominant status. The problem for the Tamils occurred after the independence of the country in 1948. Analysts call it the phenomenon of a formerly dominant minority. There was a massive backlash, other examples would be the Tutsis in Rwanda or the Sunni Arabs in Iraq. In 1956, a notorious act was passed that made the Sinhalese language official, replacing the Tamil language almost overnight. Regarding India, it is important to remember that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 by a female suicide bomber from the Tamils. While the Tamils in Southern India may have one view, the majority of India may not agree.

Loory: Rajiv was assassinated because he tried to intervene, correct?

Mabry: Indian troops were trying to come in and be peacemakers. The Tigers thought India would be on their side because they were fellow Hindus and ethnic kin. India tried to be a neutral player, but it backfired.

Loory: How much are the British at fault for not dividing the island into two countries?

Mabry: The Tamils used to be more disaggregated on the island, including in Colombo. While the British may be responsible for the initial conditions, the way they left wasn’t directly responsible for what happened.

Hull: Tamils have been on this island in the north for over 2,000 years and there were separate Sinhalese kingdoms. Many wars were carried out between each other for 2,000 years with long periods of peace in between. The British complicated it by giving Tamils key positions in civil service. The Sinhalese felt the Tamils had much more than their share of power.

Lal: Separatism did not begin with the military; it is unlikely to end with a military event unless the root cause is addressed. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government has done little on the promise of devolution of power, which could buy the trust of the Tamils.

Loory: Sri Lanka is described as a democracy, yet the human rights situation is quite grim. Journalists are killed, their offices are ransacked, and there have been other problems.

Feigenbaum: There is concern about the immediate humanitarian situation in the North, with internally displaced persons. American officials have always tried to emphasize to the Sri Lankan government the immediate humanitarian situation and the more general human rights situation in the country. Then there are longer-term issues of democratic institutions and basic freedoms, particularly media freedom.

Loory: There has been some success in the East. Is that because the Tamils are a smaller proportion of the population in the East than in the North?

Hull: A turning point in the conflict occurred when they got 6,000 cadres from the Tigers in the East to come over to their side. This happened before the current president came to power, and they have exploited it politically to great benefit. Once the conventional part of this is over, the excuse for sweeping emergency power will be gone. President Rajapaksa has said his intention is to immediately hold elections once people are back in place in the Northern Province. The jury is still out on how things will unfold. Will they hold their promise for a political solution? Will they implement the 13th amendment, devolution of police power, something they are resistant to?

Loory: Explain devolution of police power.

Hull: The chief minister elected to a province is able to raise his own police force. This is similar to a colonial set up. Kenya had a similar situation; there was an administration police who answered to the provincial administration while there was a national police force. This government does not want to give up control in terms of security at this juncture.

Feigenbaum: That is true, based on conversations at very senior levels on the Sri Lankan government. However, the chief minister in the East and others would like to see police powers devolved. There is going to be an interesting dance between the government in Colombo on the one hand and these governments in the Eastern and presumably the Northern province.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, and Melissa Ulbricht. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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