Sri Lanka

Historic Cease-Fire

Sri Lanka Peace
Sri Lankans hold candles during a peace vigil in Colombo, March 7, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The country’s two most powerful people finally struck a deal. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and Velupillai Pirapaharan, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding for an official cease-fire on Feb. 23, termed D-Day.

In fact, the memorandum was signed on Feb. 21, but the media had been kept in the dark. The Island (Feb. 22) reported, “Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe will travel to Vavuniya to sign the historic agreement while LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan is expected to attest on LTTE’s behalf,” when in fact the document was already signed by that time.

The LTTE has been waging a separatist war for a Tamil homeland for nearly 20 years. The group was seen as a national liberation movement prior to Sept. 11, but afterward was tagged a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

  The Island
independent, Colombo
Daily Mirror
independent, Colombo
Daily News
government-owned, Colombo
pro-LTTE, Skanthapuram
independent, Colombo

On the event of the handing over of the document to Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jon Westborg, Wickremasinghe made a historic visit to the front-line town of Vavuniya, roughly 300 kilometers from Colombo, and to Omanthai, the last military checkpoint just 500 meters from LTTE-held territory. It was the first time in more than 10 years that a head of government had been there.

Drafts of the memorandum that were leaked to the media almost jeopardized the entire process and alerted all parties involved to the importance of confidentiality. As a result, the signing was completely concealed from the media.

Reportedly, the finalization of the agreement also came as quite a surprise to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga herself. The Daily Mirror reported on Feb. 23, “While Premier Ranil Wickremasinghe addressed the nation from an army camp in Vavuniya to outline the terms of the cease-fire, the presidential secretariat issued a tough statement saying President Kumaratunga was surprised and concerned about...some of the clauses in the memorandum.”

While most of the cease-fire agreement is similar to the one drafted in 1995 (also during Kumaratunga’s term in office), several groups have voiced concern about some of the clauses in the new document. A group of Buddhist clergy handed over a memorandum to the Royal Norwegian Embassy protesting the agreement, while two Sinhalese nationalist groups also filed petitions. The Marxist JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) party also has expressed its opposition. Even the influential Buddhist clergy is split in its stand. The only member of the clergy ever to enter Parliament “broke ranks with his PA colleagues in Parliament when he urged everyone to back the peace effort of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe,” stated the Daily News (March 6).
But both the Buddhist clergy and the JVP are key players in the peace process who have had problems with the LTTE. On Feb. 24, the day after D-Day, an LTTE newspaper, Eelanatham, headlined “Activities of PA and JVP make the Tamil distrust the Parliament” and published a statement by Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) parliamentarian R. Sampanthan, who has publicly stated that the LTTE are the sole representatives of the Tamil people.

“The JVP is continuing to issue opinions without understanding the problems relating to the democratic rights of the Tamil,” he said. “Now the JVP is attempting to disturb a favorable environment between the government and the LTTE.”

But with history as witness to failed cease-fires in the past, some skepticism prevails in the minds of the general population. “Now, we are told it is time for confidence-building measures to be put in place here for the cease-fire agreement to work,” said The Island, which is known for its Sinhalese nationalistic stand (March 6), “but only the LTTE seems to be benefiting from this confidence building.”

The skepticism was almost justified as the LTTE’s Sea Tigers and the Sri Lanka navy clashed off the coast of Mullativu on the eve of the signing. Divaina said (Feb. 24), “Many doubted whether an agreement of any sort could be reached with a cannibalistic group blinded by power.”

But as the cease-fire agreement gains wide acclaim locally and internationally, the opposing views of various groups seem to be overshadowed by a positive aura. In this vein, the Daily Mirror wrote (Feb. 28), “It is abundantly clear...that the vast majority of people in this country, nay, in the whole world, intensely desire peace and abhor armed conflicts that bring misery to humankind.”