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The Sri Lankan Conflict- A Multi-Polar Approach

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The Sri Lankan Conflict- A Multi-Polar Approach
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Narrow interpretations of cultural identity and models of conflict resolution built on ethnic dualism contribute to ethnic polarization and inhibit sustainable peace. To improve both the analysis and processes of conflict resolution, it is necessary to move beyond the bipolar ethnic model and explore the multi-polar nature of conflicts.

The conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is commonly identified as a primordial ethnic conflict between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. But, much of the long pre-colonial history of Sri Lanka was characterized by ethno-religious pluralism and co-existence over antagonism and conflict. There has been tremendous inter-mixture between Sinhala and Tamil populations as well as the Muslims who are considered an ethno-religious group in Sri Lanka.

The dominant Sinhala vs. Tamil dualism projects Tamils and Sinhalese as two homogeneous categories overlooking the intra-ethnic conflicts and killings within the Tamil and the Sinhalese communities. It is believed that the Tamil Tigers have killed more Tamils than the Sri Lankan armed forces, especially given the fratricidal wars among Tamil militant groups since 1985. Likewise, the Sri Lankan security forces had killed more Sinhalese than Tamils by the end of the 1980s, particularly when it suppressed the JVP (Jantha Vimukthi Peramuna- People's Liberation Front) insurgency that arose against the 1987 Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, which was introduced to resolve the Tamil separatist conflict.

On the Tamil side, it is the 'partial and often partisan view' of the northern, especially Jaffna peninsula Tamils, that is often identified as the Sri Lankan Tamil perspective. This is largely due to the fact that the Tamil Diaspora in the west is drawn largely from that conflict-ridden region of the island. The Diaspora influence has prevented the international community from understanding 'the diversities and intricacies' within Tamil communities. Moreover, the Tamil Tigers who claim to be the 'sole representative of Tamils' have turned Sri Lankan Tamils, on the island and in the Diaspora, into a 'silent majority,' presenting the LTTE position as the only Tamil perspective.

Electoral politics has contributed to a vibrant multi-party democracy among the Sinhalese, but the entrenched party rivalry especially between the two major political parties, UNP (United National Party) and the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), has undermined a unified approach to eradicating terrorism and a political solution to the separatist conflict. The Muslims are generally left out of the dominant discourse on the Sri Lankan separatist conflict, yet they are a distinct island-wide community and the largest group in the Eastern Province claimed by the secessionists as part of its fictitious 'traditional Tamil homeland'. Like the Sinhalese and the Tamils, they too have significant regional and class differences.

Origins of the Conflict

The dominant ethnically based approaches portray the Sri Lankan conflict as a purely domestic conflict when in fact, it has been a regional South Asian conflict from the very beginning. After India adopted the draconian anti-secessionist amendment to its constitution in 1963, the South Indian Dravidasthan secessionist movement was halted, but, South Indian support for a "surrogate" Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka expanded. All Sri Lankan moderate and militant separatist groups, including the LTTE, were nurtured and protected by Tamil Nadu political parties. The LTTE's assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu in 1991 alone shows that the 'Sri Lankan' separatist conflict is a regional one. Even today, the manifesto of the MDMK (Marumarchi Dravida Munnetra Khazagham) in Tamil Nadu calls for autonomy for regional states in India and establishment of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.

The fault lines between the Sinhala and Tamil communities that show up in the modern Sri Lankan conflict were drawn during the period of British colonialism from1815 to1948. The island's conflict, like many other 'ethnic' conflicts around the world, emerged with democratization and the shift of power from privileged minorities, such as the Sri Lankan Tamils to the Sinhala Buddhist majority who had been marginalized under colonial rule.

Today, the Sri Lankan conflict has become an international conflict with serious implications for peace and security across the world. Over the course of the Sri Lankan secessionist war, the LTTE-banned in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, the EU, India, and Malaysia -has emerged as -the proto-type of global terrorism. According to the FBI, LTTE's ruthless tactics have 'inspired terrorist networks worldwide including Al Qaeda in Iraq'. The LTTE 'perfected the use of suicide bombers; invented the suicide belt; pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks'. It is also the first militant group to acquire air power.

Notwithstanding its multiplicity of intra-ethnic, regional, and international dimensions, the Sri Lankan conflict continues to be characterized as a primordial Sinhala vs. Tamil conflict and a domestic phenomenon. The failure to grapple with the multi-polar reality has in turn contributed to the failure of peace initiatives, especially the 2002 ceasefire agreement facilitated by Norway.


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