In The News

In Sri Lanka: Politics and the Ceasefire Agreement

January 9, 2008

The Sri Lankan government’s decision to abrogate the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE on January 2 is the final act in the long, slow unraveling of Sri Lanka’s peace process. The CFA has only existed on paper for the past two years; both the government and the LTTE abrogated it long ago through their actions. Now the CFA is no more in word as well as in deed. While it marks with some finality the end of one campaign — the formal search for peace between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE ” it marks the beginning of another: the campaign for the next parliamentary election, now two years away, based on new political and social divisions. It draws a sharp battle line between two opposing camps. On the one hand are nationalist forces led by the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ” that are unequivocally committed to the destruction of the LTTE. On the other hand is an opposition led by the United National Party (UNP) that vacillates between wanting to appear just as tough on terrorism in order to appeal to Sinhalese voters, but not so tough that it alienates minority voters ” an important element of its vote bank — and the international community which it has tried to use as a counterweight to a popular president.

The SLFP government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to have abrogated the CFA as part of a bargain with the nationalist People’s Liberation Front (JVP), renewing the alliance that won Rajapaksa the presidential election in November 2005. Last month, in December, the government was on the brink of losing the vote on the national budget which would have triggered the automatic dissolution of parliament and a snap general election. Facing defections in its ruling coalition, the government was saved when the JVP abstained rather than voting against the budget as it had done during the first reading in November. Abrogating the CFA appears to have been one of the JVP’s conditions for coming to the government’s (and its own) rescue. The JVP would have stood to lose most of its 39 seats in parliament in a snap election if it parted company for good with President Rajapaksa and the SLFP. In the last parliamentary election in April 2004, the SLFP and the JVP ran under the same banner and won a plurality of seats. The President probably calculated that he could not win the same number of seats in a snap election without the JVP and the JVP was prepared to play chicken to get what it has long wanted: the abrogation of the CFA and a single-minded commitment to defeating the LTTE.

The battle between the SLFP and UNP for control of the state is the enduring, titanic struggle in Sri Lankan politics. The ethnic conflict which has been reduced since 1987 to a war between the government of the day and the LTTE often appears a secondary contest, one that is used by one party to gain political advantage over the other. It may be bewildering to some, especially foreign, observers as to why the government should risk international opprobrium and blame for formally starting a war that actually began more than a year ago — which the LTTE arguably provoked — through this supreme act of symbolism in abrogating the CFA. But seen in the context of electoral politics and competition for power at the center, the government’s decision, while not without its risks, makes sense and throws down the gauntlet to a UNP already in disarray. It signals that the SLFP under President Rajapaksa will not break with its nationalist allies, will reconstitute the same electoral alliances that led to victory in 2004 and 2005, and will stake its political future on virtually one issue: defeating the LTTE and, in its words, ridding the country of terrorism.

Nilan Fernando is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Sri Lanka.

View all posts by Nilan Fernando

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