End Game in Sri Lanka

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall One of the world’s longest running and nastiest wars, in Sri Lanka, may be … Continued


By Katherine Marshall

One of the world’s longest running and nastiest wars, in Sri Lanka, may be near an end. Sri Lankan government troops have cornered remnants of a force called terrorists by some, nationalist guerrillas by others: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE. Over 70,000 people have died in a conflict that has raged, off and on, since 1983. Peace would indeed be a blessing.

But there are warnings of a “dark victory” and “a slaughter waiting to happen.” The long-term prospects for peace are uncertain.

The immediate problem is that about 100,000 civilians are trapped in the area of the confrontation, human shields of the rebels. Humanitarian groups cannot reach them or ship supplies, both because of fighting and because the government will not allow free access. The United Nations estimates that 7,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed between January 20 and May 7 this year; doctors in the area say at least another 1,000 have been killed since then. Hundreds, if not thousands, of combatants have also reportedly died, though neither side releases casualty figures.

These numbers exceed the casualty tolls this year for the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza combined. The fate of the trapped civilians is the current crisis.

The civilian catastrophe has led to fervent appeals for international action. The United Nations Security Council called for action last week, invoking the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P; in 2005, world leaders agreed that states have a primary responsibility to protect their own populations and that the international community has a responsibility to act when these governments fail to do so. President Obama made an appeal along these lines on May 13. Yet the calls to protect civilians seem to fall on deaf ears.

The diplomats are hard at work but their frustration is obvious. Few governments seem interested in punishing a country they believe is justifiably trying to crush a stubborn insurgency, however much sympathy they may have for the Tamil cause. Remember that LTTE is notorious for brutal terrorist attacks and assassinations that include India’s president Rajiv Gandhi, Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa, a long list of politicians, and religious leaders. Also, the levers of influence are weak. Fueled in part by its military spending, Sri Lanka’s government faces a looming financial crisis, and seeks a $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. This offers one pawn to prod the government into greater concern for the humanitarian crisis but it is a feeble one.

Stories of what is happening now and what has happened in the past are deeply worrying. Sri Lanka’s generals are not known as humanitarian paragons, and they want to end the war by any means. Human rights groups believe the horror stories coming from the war zone because the government’s campaign has been marked by gross disregard for the rule of law, especially as it applies to Tamils. But international criticism has sparked a backlash among many Sri Lankans, who see it as the work of rebel sympathizers in foreign capitals.

The immediate crisis is only part of the story. If, indeed, the guns are silenced this week, the real challenges begin. That’s why so many are concerned about the brutal end game. A conventional victory will hardly address the root causes of the conflict. A pro-rebel website quotes a senior Tamil Tigers leader warning that the Colombo Government’s effort to “finish the war in 48 hours through a carnage and bloodbath of civilians will never resolve a conflict of decades… On the contrary it will only escalate the crisis to unforeseen heights.” Opinion among the millions of Tamils around the world, especially those in southern India, is dangerously radicalized by images and stories of intense civilian suffering.

Religion is very much “part of the problem” and can and must be “part of the solution”. The Sri Lankan conflict is ferociously complex (the International Crisis Group has an excellent summary though it largely ignores the religious elements). Religion is part of the problem because the war draws heavily on ethnic and religious histories and narratives, with the government dominated by the Singhalist, mostly Buddhist population, the rebels mostly Hindu and Tamil, with significant Christian and Muslim minorities also involved.

That explains in part why some of the world’s leading peacemakers are hard at work in Sri Lanka. Religions for Peace, the global interfaith institution, has long been active, in public and behind the scenes. The Sri Lankan National Peace Council (NPC) works both to bring the warring parties together and to build community networks dedicated to peace. They call for international intervention and support. The Community of Sant’Egidio, renowned for its thoughtful and skilled peace making work in many corners of the world, is involved in confidential discussions on next steps. The Catholic Order the Oblates of Mary Immaculate is actively lobbying the US government and the United Nations to intervene.

If this war ends with a government victory, as now seems likely, it will be urgent to find ways for the two warring communities to live together in a pluralist society. This work must obviously be grounded in Sri Lanka, but international support, both active and as a neutral party, seems essential. The interfaith groups can be critical actors. Among those who also might be part of the solution is the Sarvodaya movement; an organization grounded in philosophical tenets drawn from Buddhism and Gandhian thought. Sarvodaya’s community work after the 2004 tsunami won worldwide admiration. Christian groups, though they are viewed with some suspicion, have an asset: Christianity is the only religion with both Tamils and Singhalese. The faith-inspired Non-violent Peace Force has made Sri Lanka one of its leading sites as it works to bring a Peace Corps like group of neutral international peace makers into action.

In the words of Bishop Gunnar Stalsett, long involved in Sri Lanka, with Religions for Peace and the Norwegian government, “in the aftermath of the present Armageddon, religious leaders can play an important role to bring together the various parties in the conflict.”

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.

By Katherine Marshall | 
May 18, 2009; 12:03 AM ET

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Faith in Action

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  • DaleMcGowan

    “The faith-inspired Non-violent Peace Force…”Though Nonviolent Peaceforce has had the support of many religious organizations and individuals, neither its founding nor its ongoing work are particularly “faith-inspired” — unless by this we mean the universal human faith in our own potential to achieve and maintain peace through nonviolent means. NP’s strictly non-partisan stance applies not only to the conflicts in which it works, but also to the many worldviews, both sacred and secular, from which this unique organization draws its inspiration.