Why a political settlement with the LTTE to peacefully end the war was not possible

Wednesday, 29 May 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

On 18 May 2009, the 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka ended in massive bloodshed—the UN estimated that 40,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the war alone. According to the UN Panel of Experts report1, during the final stages of the war, the Sri Lankan army relentlessly shelled hospitals, the United Nations hub, food distribution lines, as well as ships “near the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that were coming to pick up the wounded and their relatives from the beaches”.  

In addition, the Sri Lankan Army raped and executed surrendering LTTE cadres and carried out enforced disappearances. With respect to the LTTE’s atrocities during the final stages of the war, according to the UN report, the LTTE used Tamil civilians as human shields, as well as “point-blank shooting” of Tamil civilians attempting to flee the conflict zone, and carried out tactics to deliberately blur the distinction between its own combatants and Tamil civilians, thereby exposing Tamil civilians to additional harm. 

While reports were emerging about the dangerous escalation of the civil war during its final stages, presumably, to Sri Lankans living domestically and abroad, the thought must have occurred as to what went wrong for the civil war to escalate to such a high degree of violence. Why wasn’t a political settlement to peacefully end the war possible? Was a violent solution the only way to end the war? 

Ultra-Tamil nationalists assert that the reason why a politically negotiated settlement to peacefully end the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government did not occur is solely the fault of successive Sri Lankan governments, whereas Sinhalese nationalists assert that the reason why a peaceful solution to end the war did not occur is solely the fault of Prabhakaran. If we are to be true to history, neither ultra-Tamil nationalists nor the Sinhalese are correct. The true reason why a peaceful settlement to the war was not possible is a result of both Prabhakaran’s unwillingness to genuinely consider a political solution to the end the war as well as party rivalry between the UNP and the SLFP. 

There were two golden opportunities—in 1995 and in 2003—of which if the UNP, SLFP, as well as the LTTE had taken advantage, could have resulted in a peaceful resolution to the war and saved thousands of lives.


The first ceasefire

In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga won the Presidential elections with more than 62% of the vote while campaigning explicitly on a platform of reaching a political settlement to the ethnic conflict. Upon assuming power, CBK initiated peace talks with the LTTE. On January 1995, a ceasefire between the LTTE and the CBK Government was reached. While the ceasefire was in place, the CBK Government was working on a set of constitutional reform proposals which would be, up to that point, the most progressive and far-reaching constitutional reform proposals in Sri Lanka’s history. In a 5 February 1995 interview, the LTTE chief political ideologue Anton Balasingham commented on the Government’s upcoming proposals: “We are told that the Government is working on a substantial set of proposals. Once the proposals are given to us we will study it and respond accordingly—we will have to find out whether it satisfies the aspirations of our people.” 

On 18 April 1995, Prabhakaran abruptly broke the ceasefire with the Sri Lankan Government “when the LTTE sank two navy gunboats (a fourth of the Sri Lankan navy’s entire gunboat fleet), wiped out a military camp killing at least 30 soldiers, and destroyed a police post killing another six.”

Prabhakaran publicly explained his reasoning for breaking the ceasefire: “In the peace negotiations we argued that talks should proceed stage by stage and that the urgent and immediate problems of our people should be resolved at the early stages of the dialogue. The Government agreed to this. The Tamil people have been subjected to enormous suffering as a consequence of the economic embargo, fishing bans and the blockade on traffic imposed by the previous Government. In the peace talks, we requested nothing other than the removal of these bans to alleviate the suffering of our people.” Prabhakaran then asserted that throughout the peace talks, the Government conflated serious problems faced by the Tamil people as “specific demands of the LTTE”. Furthermore, Prabhakaran asserted that the Government viewed the LTTE’s demands, such as lifting the economic embargo, as “linked to national security and any effort to resolve them would result in military repercussions.”  


Ultra-Tamil nationalists assert that the reason why a politically negotiated settlement to peacefully end the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government did not occur is solely the fault of successive Sri Lankan governments, whereas Sinhalese nationalists assert that the reason why a peaceful solution to end the war did not occur is solely the fault of Prabhakaran. If we are to be true to history, neither ultra-Tamil nationalists nor the Sinhalese are correct. The true reason why a peaceful settlement to the war was not possible is a result of both Prabhakaran’s unwillingness to genuinely consider a political solution to the end the war as well as party rivalry between the UNP and the SLFP


The political negotiations revolving around the January to April 1995 ceasefire certainly were flawed, with academics such as Jayadeva Uyangoda asserting that both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government lacked a concrete agenda during the negotiations. Nevertheless, in order to maintain the ceasefire with the LTTE, CBK asserted that she did give into many (but not all) of the LTTE’s demands. CBK asserted that she even went against the advice of the Army in doing so. Prabhakaran cited the CBK Government’s reluctance in fully implementing in practice its pledges to remove the bans as his reason for breaking the ceasefire. However, as asserted by Sri Lankan academic Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, if Prabhakaran was serious in his commitment to peace, he would not have broken off the ceasefire with that excuse; what Prabhakaran would have done instead was to maintain the ceasefire and try to find points of agreement with the Government at the negotiating table and seek ways in which both the Government and the LTTE could mutually reinforce each other during their journey to a peaceful settlement. 

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa
Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran

From the beginning of the peace talks, CBK was continually exchanging letters with Prabhakaran, trying to get Prabhakaran to commit himself to a political solution—supposedly to get the LTTE involved in discussions on constitutional reform; however, Prabhakaran simply refused to join hands with the Government on this matter. What Prabhakaran refused to realise was if the LTTE made good progress in negotiating with the Government on a political settlement (i.e. constitutional reform) this in turn would then give the Government greater trust and credibility with the armed forces and the Sinhala public in general to fulfil more of Prabhakaran’s demands in lifting the remaining embargoes and restrictions on the northeast. 


‘Federalism in all but name’

In an attempt to resuscitate peace talks, on 3 August 1995, the CBK Government released an outline of its constitutional reform proposals, widely known as the Union of Regions proposals. Upon its release, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu asserted that the proposals were “federalism in all but name.” At that point in time, the proposals were the most far reaching and progressive in Sri Lanka’s history. The 3 August proposals sought to divide the island into eight autonomous regions, and Sri Lanka instead of being known as a unitary state, would be recognised as a union of regions. As highlighted in an article by author Partha Sarathy Ghosh, the 3 August proposals advocated that regions be “fully autonomous both in terms of executive and legislative powers. Article 76 of the Constitution which gives absolute power of legislation in the country to the Parliament is to be abrogated as the same power is now to be shared by the Regional Councils as well.” 

The 3 August proposals went beyond and even sought to resolve many of the problems faced within the Indo-Lanka Accord. A fundamental problem with the Indo-Lanka Accord is that whatever powers the Central Government gave to the regions could in effect be taken away. In addition to abrogating Article 76 of the Constitution, the 3 August proposals abolished the concurrent list as contained in the 13th Amendment born out of the Indo-Lanka Accord. By removing the concurrent list, the 3 August proposals made powers between the Central Government and the region more defined and distinct, and the proposals implemented checks that made it more difficult for the Central Government to unilaterally usurp powers given to the regions. 

The proposals, with the removal of the concurrent list, advocated that “the respective powers of the Centre and the regions are contained in the Reserved List and the Regional List, respectively. To ensure that the Centre does not meddle in the affairs of the region, [the proposals] clearly provided that the Chief Ministers cannot be removed from office so long as they enjoy the confidence of the Regional Councils. The Governors are not supposed to be the watch dogs of the Central interests as is the case in India and their appointment by the President will be strictly with the concurrence of the Chief Ministers. To resolve disputes between the Centre and the Regions or between and among the regions, there will be a permanent commission on devolution appointed by the Constitutional Council. The Commission would have powers of mediation as well as adjudication.” 

Another flaw of the Indo-Lanka Accord which the 3 August proposals addressed was the fact that the Indo-Lanka Accord gave, as asserted by constitutional scholar Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, “extreme dependence of the province on the centre with regard to financing.” The 3 August proposals gave regional councils the power to borrow as well as set up their own financial institutions; in addition, the proposals advocated that there will be “a National Finance Commission entrusted with the job of allocating grants to the regions keeping in view balanced regional development.” 

In sum, the 3 August proposals advocated for devolution of powers in an unprecedented manner, giving an unprecedented level of autonomy to regions of Sri Lanka including the northeast. As articulated by Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, the 3 August proposals were the “boldest attempt to redress the imbalance in the relationship between the different ethnic groups.”

Back in February of 1995, as mentioned in a previous paragraph of this article, Balasingham said the LTTE would respond to the Government’s proposals. What was the response of the LTTE to the proposals? Dead silence. There is good reason to suspect that Prabhakaran feared those proposals. Prabhakaran perhaps thought that if the CBK Government succeeded in winning support for the proposals with the political forces in the south, this would have boxed Prabhakaran into a corner and forced Prabhakaran to negotiate with the Government’s constitutional reform proposals. However, Prabhakaran’s fears soon disappeared as the UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to negotiate with CBK’s proposals. 

The CBK Government needed support from the Opposition for the required two-thirds majority to implement constitutional reform. Subsequently, Prabhakaran was able to play off the rivalry between CBK’s People’s Alliance Government and the UNP to his advantage, increasingly preaching to his Tamil nationalist base that the ongoing rivalry between the UNP-SLFP is even greater evidence that the Sinhalese can’t be trusted. Prabhakaran also made sure to kill dissenting political voices such as Tamil politician Neelan Tiruchelvam, a key contributor to the formulation of the 3 August proposals. 

CBK asserted that had Ranil accepted the proposals, it would have most definitely forced Prabhakaran to negotiate with the proposals. Ranil’s official position for refusing to negotiate with the proposals is that the content of the proposals—especially its reference to Sri Lanka as a union of regions instead of a unitary state—was simply unacceptable to the people in the south. However, this is simply not true. 

CBK came into office with 62% of the vote, on an explicit platform of reaching a constitutional-political solution to the ethnic conflict, and by 1995 the Sinhalese in the south were simply tired of prolonged conflict and would have gladly accepted such a proposal if presented to them in the proper manner. Most likely, the reason why Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to negotiate with the proposals was because he did not want CBK to be given credit for ushering into Sri Lanka a new constitution—even if it meant that such a constitution would have compelled Prabhakaran to seriously negotiate a political settlement with the CBK Government, thereby providing the needed basis to end the ethnic conflict. 

CBK’s Government, in an attempt to compel the UNP to accept the proposals, repeatedly diluted the proposals from the original in 1995. On 3 August 2000, the official constitutional proposals were introduced into Parliament and were so diluted from the original that not only did the UNP not accept the proposals, but even the Tamil political party, the TULF, refused to accept them. When the proposals were presented in Parliament, the UNP actually lit the proposals on fire in the chambers of Parliament.

On 11 March 2003, at the opening of an LTTE bank in Kilinochchi, Anton Balasingham made a startling revelation regarding the CBK Government’s proposals. The speech was reported in full in the Jaffna based ‘Uthayan’ of 13 March 2003. 

Translated from Tamil, Anton Balasingham said, “Neelan Tiruchelvam presented in 1995 a draft amending the Constitution. That was a correct draft. That was acceptable. But later in 2000 CBK submitted an amended version based on that draft. This one was only a half-baked version of the earlier draft by Neelan Tiruchelvam.” This statement by Anton Balasingham begs the question, if the original 1995 proposals were a satisfactory basis for negotiation to the LTTE, why didn’t the LTTE express an interest with the Government to negotiate with them in 1995? 

G.L. Peiris, the Constitutional Affairs Minister and a key architect of the constitutional reform proposals, responded to Anton Balasingham’s assertion: “Anton Balasingham never expressed any of these intentions in 1995. So, these are mere excuses. Throughout the sequence of events, the LTTE resorted to the practice of blaming everybody other than themselves. If something went wrong, it was somebody else’s fault. They forgot their own atrocities, their own intransigence, [and] their absolute refusal to be accommodative or flexible in any manner whatsoever. So they felt, they absolutely refused to turn the searchlight inwards and to identify their own infirmities and weaknesses, all they saw were the purported weaknesses of other people. So I’m not really impressed with that statement.”

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu also responded to Anton Balasingham’s assertion: “That’s very much a political statement because 2003 happened [the Norway talks] and the 2000 proposals happened because the LTTE was not playing ball. [The LTTE] could turn around and say ah, what was presented in 1995 was much better. Why didn’t they accept it in 1995? If they accepted it in 1995, there would have been no reason to do anything else. So that is purely a political ploy on the part of Balasingham, although I think someone like Balasingham would have been more amenable to a federal solution with the Oslo declaration in the talks that happened later on than Prabhakaran.” 


The second ceasefire

During the Norway-brokered peace process, with respect to the LTTE’s political aspirations, the LTTE viewed Ranil Wickremesinghe far more favourably than Chandrika Kumaratunga. For instance, during the peace talks, Ranil proposed concepts such as asymmetrical devolution or asymmetrical federalism, which the LTTE responded to favourably. 

On asymmetrical federalism, the chief facilitator of the peace talks, Erik Solheim, asserted: “At this point such a solution would have been acceptable to nearly all Tamils and a vast majority of Sinhalese as well. Then there could have been a referendum: police, land, other such powers would be given over. And Prabhakaran could have been the prime minister of that area. Ranil took the view that Tamils are generally more successful, that the Sinhalese should learn from the Tamils and that way Sri Lanka would develop better. Economic prosperity was his agenda.” 

However, while Ranil was in control of the peace process, CBK felt increasingly excluded and did not feel she had the ability to give input. It was also suspected that CBK felt Ranil was being too lenient with the LTTE. Party rivalry was once again rising to the surface, and the rivalry ended up significantly damaging the hope for a peaceful solution to be reached during the Norway-brokered peace process. 

In October 2003, during the Norway brokered peace process, the LTTE for the first time released a document that gave a glimpse into its political governing aspirations. The document was known as the Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) Proposal. The ISGA, as discussed in detail in Mark Salter’s book—‘To End A Civil War’—consisted of “an absolute majority of LTTE appointees alongside Government and Muslim representatives would preside over an autonomous set of institutions—judicial, legal, fiscal and law and order-related with powers of governance including all powers and functions in relation to regional administration exercised by the Government in and for the northeast.” 

However, around the time the proposals were released, CBK usurped control of the peace talks from Ranil and dismissed the proposals as being too maximalist. This was the wrong move on the part of CBK. Although the proposals were maximalist, given how the proposals went outside of a federal framework, as Jehan Perera argued, the LTTE in its ISGA proposals listed demands seeking complete autonomy “in virtually every aspect of political and economic life”. Nevertheless, to their credit, the LTTE explicitly said the ISGA proposals were “negotiable.” 

In the art of negotiation, initial proposals have a tendency to be maximalist in nature, and it is the responsibility of the two opposing sides to then take that proposal, negotiate, and cut down the proposal to a mutually agreeable document. CBK, owing to her rivalry with the UNP, and the need to take control of the peace process, dismissed an opportunity of meaningful negotiation with the LTTE.

In addition to the party rivalry between the SLFP-UNP, another previously unstated factor that may have led to the collapse of the Norway-brokered peace process, as well as the bloody and brutal end to the war, was the side-lining of Anton Balasingham at the hands of the LTTE leadership. 


The side-lining of Balasingham

Within the LTTE, Anton Balasingham was the political ideologue, a man who advocated pragmatic solutions. Prabhakaran was the military mastermind. When this writer interviewed Erik Solheim, he described their relationship “as that of a husband and wife,” always needing each other but at the same time always fighting with one another. “Together, when [Balasingham and Prabhakaran] combined their forces, they were a strong team. Separately, neither of them could lead the struggle.” Balasingham, for the latter part of his life, would spend all his energy attempting to convince Prabhakaran that the ethnic conflict can only be solved under a united Sri Lanka. A separate state was not viable.

LTTE leaders like Nadesan and Thamilselvan were all junior both in age and experience to Prabhakaran and did not express any form of independent political thinking that deviated from the LTTE-status quo as it pertains to how to solve the ethnic conflict. Balasingham was one of the very few Tamil people, if not the only Tamil person, who had the unique power to criticise Prabhakaran directly to his face, and have dissenting views from Prabhakaran, without facing deadly consequences. 

Prabhakaran regarded Balasingham as an elder brother. Even though they had bitter disagreements, they both loved each other. When Balasingham required critical medical attention in 1999, it was Prabhakaran who organised Balasingham’s journey to Thailand to seek treatment. It is largely owing to Balasingham’s efforts that Prabhakaran even agreed to peace talks. Balasingham, before having joined the LTTE, lived abroad for several years, sharpened his education with a master’s degree studying philosophy and politics at a university in London, and was a formally disciplined pragmatic thinker. 


On the 10th anniversary since the end of the war, many Tamils in the diaspora are asserting that the Sri Lankan Government carried out genocide against the Tamil people. Tamils in diaspora who claim that a genocide occurred against Tamil civilians only speak about the atrocities carried out by the Sri Lankan Government while omitting the atrocities on the part of the LTTE, which played an equal role in contributing to the violent end of the civil war. In order to truly understand why a political settlement did not occur, it is required that the wrongdoings of both the Sri Lankan Government as well as the LTTE are analysed


Balasingham voiced disappointment at the fact that he was largely excluded throughout the ISGA drafting process. According to Solheim, Balasingham regarded the proposals as being too maximalist. Balasingham believed it would weaken Wickremesinghe’s position in the south. Balasingham, in a conversation with journalist DBS Jeyaraj, attributed his exclusion from the peace process to the fact that other senior LTTE leaders like Thamilselvan, Castro, Pottu Ammaan and Ruthirakumaran prejudiced Prabhakaran’s mind against him after the Oslo talks between Wickremesinghe and the LTTE. 

On numerous instances, Balasingham stated that the LTTE does not operate on the concept of a separate state but that of a homeland and self-determination. And a homeland, Balasingham argued, does not mean a separate state but a territory where Tamil-speaking people live. Balasingham always knew that it would be impossible for Tamils to gain a separate state; however, he was never able to make Prabhakaran fully understand this reality.

At the very end of Balasingham’s life, Prabhakaran and Balasingham were not on good terms and allegedly did not speak to one another. Balasingham, in the last weeks of his life, met with Erik Solheim and told Solheim that the LTTE would lose the north and east. According to Solheim, Balasingham was disillusioned with Prabhakaran and may have viewed Prabhakaran as part of the problem. Balasingham predicted a bloody end for Tamils, in part due to Prabhakaran’s actions, and that is exactly what happened. The politically pragmatic Balasingham prophetically predicted, in a conversation with D.B.S. Jeyaraj, that “China, Japan, Pakistan and India were going to back the Rajapaksa regime and ensure that the LTTE was militarily defeated and destroyed.”

Prabhakaran, in Balasingham’s own words, was “a war lord who has no real interest in political concepts”. Prabhakaran was a man who had virtually zero understanding of the political consequences to his actions. It would be Prabhakaran’s lack of political understanding that would seal the LTTE’s fate. 

This was obvious in many instances. The most obvious case was Prabhakaran’s decision to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. The least talked-about case within the Tamil diaspora is how Prabhakaran, by boycotting the 2005 Presidential elections, was responsible for getting Mahinda Rajapaksa elected. Prabhakaran wanted to re-energise support for the separatist movement. Prabhakaran thought that by electing a Sinhala-Buddhist hardliner like Rajapaksa, he would get more sympathy for his separatist cause from the international community. This was, like most of Prabhakaran’s political decisions, a stupid one. 

The other senior leaders, according to Balasingham, foolishly influenced Prabhakaran into thinking that the world would back the LTTE if Rajapaksa was in power. The side-lining and death of Balasingham left the LTTE without its main strategic political ideologue and left Prabhakaran to solely listen to the political advice of ultranationalist Tamils who did not have the political strategic thinking that Balasingham possessed. 


Could the war have ended sooner?

Given the two aforementioned obstacles, on both the Government and LTTE side, preventing a political settlement to the ethnic conflict, one can certainly argue that perhaps a violent solution to eliminate the LTTE was the only option for peace in Sri Lanka.

Former Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, in his book ‘Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy’ takes this argument a step further by stating: “Indeed, one must logically ask the question, would an earlier adoption of the more brutal methods of the last thirty months of the war have brought it to an earlier end and actually saved lives and minimised the war’s deleterious effects? This is a recurrent problem in statecraft…the strategist Edward Luttwak argues that there are situations in which one should give war a chance. Was Sri Lanka one of them, where peace building efforts and international mediation only prolonged and worsened the agony?”

It is uncertain had previous governments adopted the brutal methods used by the Rajapaksas whether the LTTE could have been defeated. The Rajapaksas continuously proclaim that their Government eradicated terrorism from Sri Lanka. However, it is somewhat misleading to give Rajapaksas sole credit for eliminating the LTTE. 

Prior to the Rajapaksas coming to power, two key factors occurred which paved the way for the Rajapaksas to annihilate the LTTE: first, the Karuna faction’s breakaway from the LTTE, which drastically militarily weakened the LTTE, and second, under the CBK Government, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar played a key role in getting foreign governments across the globe to designate the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. Following Menon’s suggestion, for instance, had the CBK Government in 1995 escalated its military offensive against the LTTE to a Rajapaksa-style offensive, the Government would have been unsuccessful in completely militarily defeating the LTTE because the LTTE simply was too militarily powerful at the time. 

Those two factors, especially Karuna’s breakaway from the LTTE, needed to have occurred in order to internally weaken the LTTE to the point that they could be defeated. It is unclear whether those two factors could have occurred any sooner than when they did. Especially, with respect to the second factor of internationally designating the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, given that absent 9/11, it is unclear whether the Sri Lankan Government would have obtained the needed political ammunition to successfully champion for the designation of the LTTE as a terrorist organisation on the global stage.

On the 10th anniversary since the end of the war, many Tamils in the diaspora are asserting that the Sri Lankan Government carried out genocide against the Tamil people. Tamils in diaspora who claim that a genocide occurred against Tamil civilians only speak about the atrocities carried out by the Sri Lankan Government while omitting the atrocities on the part of the LTTE, which played an equal role in contributing to the violent end of the civil war. This writer believes that in order to truly understand why a political settlement did not occur, it is required that the wrongdoings of both the Sri Lankan Government as well as the LTTE are analysed.  




(The writer is an administrator of a Facebook-based social group, Stop Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka, which seeks to expose past and ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka carried out by both state and non-state actors. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree with High Distinction in political science and criminology. He could be reached via email at pitasanna.shanmugathas@mail.utoronto.ca.)