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Sri Lanka's Prolonged Ethnic Conflict: Negotiating a Settlement

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Negotiations to resolve Sri Lanka's prolonged and deep-rooted ethnic conflict have a long history. The negotiations fall into two categories: those conducted locally between parties to the dispute, and those negotiated with the presence and under the auspices of a regional power, India in this instance. There have been several sets of negotiations of the first category, none of them successful. The Indian mediation in Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict which began in the early 1980s and lasted eight years, provides a classic study in the perils involved when a regional power seeks to negotiate and impose a settlement in an ethnic conflict in a neighboring state. That coercive intervention, with its ambiguous and eventually contradictory objectives, failed in almost all of its aims. Entering the dispute as a mediator with the avowed objective of protecting the interests of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, the Indian army eventually fought the principal representatives of Tamil separatism on Sri Lankan soil, a unique example of an external mediator's unintended transformation into a combatant. The failure of this enterprise aggravated the island's ethnic conflict, far from resolving it. It left successive Sri Lankan governments first negotiating with the most violent and intransigent of the Tamil separatist groups, and then continuing a military struggle once the negotiations failed. The Sri Lankan situation provides insights into the difficulties faced by democratically elected governments in dealing with a separatist movement captured by the most violent group within it, a group that has systematically marginalized its rivals and driven the traditional democratic forces among the Tamils to the periphery of the political system.

The new Sri Lanka government elected in December 2001, like its immediate predecessor, is intent on negotiations with the Tamils with the assistance of a Norwegian facilitator. There is little reason to be optimistic about the outcome of such efforts given the dismal record of previous episodes of negotiation between the Sri Lankan government and the principal Tamil separatist group.

Affiliations: 1: International Center for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka


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