Peace process in Sri Lanka in comparison to Northern Ireland

Presented at the meeting in Derry on 14th May – organised by European United Left/Nordic Green Left


Sri Lankan state today can only be described as a dictatorship with thin veneer of democracy. Defence budget is all time high and public services a severely undermined. Every state affair is controlled by presidents family. Family control and militarization had been on the steady increase ever since the so called end of thirty year long war in may 2009. What took place in that last war also left a huge scar. It was a brutal military operation what Sri Lankan government called a ‘largest hostage rescue mission in the world’[1]. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tigers in short)[2] controlled area was surrounded by the military along with around half a million population lived inside and heavily bombed. When LTTE suffered a huge loss they begun to retreat. Army then forced the total population in to the tiny strip of land of the size of football pitch and indescribably shelled inside the crowd[3]. Around 150 000 are estimated to have been slaughtered, most of them getting killed in the last weeks alone. If you consider that the total Tamil population in the country is around 5 million[4] and half a million lived in this war territory you will see the colossal nature of the slaughter that took place.

This extreme horror took place following one of the best attempt made to broker a peace. On which I want to comment on briefly below.

In Northern Ireland and in Sri Lanka when governments engaged in ‘peace agreements’ the main focus has been the ending of the ‘armed conflict’. Having achieved relative success in Northern Ireland,  Western governments now hail the Good Friday Agreement as a model for conflict resolution across the world. The impact in Sri Lanka may not have been direct but there were some consequences.

The origins and brief historical background.

Many groups that consider themselves to be ‘national liberation movements’ take inspiration from each other. The Palestinian struggle had a major impact in Sri Lanka in the 1960s and 70s. The Tamil Liberation Organisation (TLO), the first armed organisation formed in the Tamil-populated north of Sri Lanka, was named directly after the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)[5]. Many of the liberation struggle organisations that took up arms have their origins in common experiences. In Northern Ireland, internment without trial, Bloody Sunday and the 1981 hunger strikes were important events that led to many Catholic youth joining paramilitary organisations. Similarly, the Black July of 1983[6] in Sri Lanka was a turning point. Tamils were viciously attacked by government-sponsored Sinhala nationalist gangs, an event that has its own background factors and history[7]. The historical development of the Sinhala ruling class and its struggle for political domination over the strong working class organisations was a key factor. To illustrate this strength it must be remembered that almost uniquely the first political party to be formed in Sri Lanka in 1935 was a left party called the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP).

For scholars of Sri Lankan history a pattern emerges. Every time the working class showed its strength, but insufficiently to form a government, there followed an episode of ethnic-related violence – often brutal attacks by the gangs under government protection. So the 1953 general strike was followed by the 1956 ‘riots’ and the Black July of 1983 came after the 1980 general strike. My reading of the history of the workers’ movement in Ireland is the same; when progressive, working class struggles that bring Catholic and Protestant workers together are defeated or setback, there is a tendency for reactionary sectarian forces to step into the breach, deepening divisions.

The Tamil-speaking population, a minority population, faced multiple discriminations. These included denying suffrage and citizenship rights to the Hill Country Tamils, which had the direct effect of reducing significantly the electoral base for the left. A quota system in education was introduced which meant higher marks were demanded of Tamil students in order to gain entrance to university. This so-called standardisation was the final blow that forced many Tamil youth and students towards struggle against the state.

As in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, a united struggle could have been possible if the leadership of the workers’ movement had responded directly to the key issues facing working people, by mobilising a mass campaign for civil and democratic rights, jobs and housing for all and against state repression and sectarian division.

In Sri Lanka the LSSP made the fatal error of forming an opportunist coalition government with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Against this background an uprising of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, the People’s Liberation Front) attracted thousands of Sinhala youth. Tamil youth turned towards ‘liberation ideology’. Angry Tamil youth connected their democratic demands to their ‘historical claim of homeland’. The government met this development with brutal suppression. Similarly in Northern Ireland, in the absence of a unifying alternative, while Catholic youth ‘abandoned’ politics and turned to the republican paramilitaries, many Protestant youth joined the loyalist paramilitaries.

The Sri Lankan government did not compromise or take any steps to ‘reach out’ or reduce the suffering for which it was directly responsible. This sharpened the antagonism between the state and its victims. The youth and students were pushed in a more ‘extreme’ direction – armed opposition.

In the context of Cold War politics, India provided weapons and a cash supply to the numerous militant groups that mushroomed among the angry Tamil youth in the 1980s. Out of this emerged the LTTE, which demanded outright impendence and vowed to build a conventional army to achieve this. In the three decades-long war that followed, until May 2009, over 250,000 lives were lost[8]. Tens of thousands of people were made refugees.  This brutal conclusion to the ‘armed struggle’ was not expected by the masses during the time when LTTE had control of parts of the territory. Lessons should be learnt from this. The oppressed masses have the right to defend themselves, of course, against state violence . How this is linked to mass struggle needs to be examined, and the need for mass participation and democratic control over all aspects of mass resistance and in the struggle for national, social and economic liberation. Otherwise,  no matter how heroic the youth, the armed struggle can objectively lead to greater divisions among the working classes and will be unable to defeat the state.


Peace attempts and similarities with Northern Ireland


Starting with the Thimpu negotiations in 1985[9], many attempts at peace talks took place in Sri Lanka. Among them two particular times stand out when relatively long-term peace could have been achieved if any sensible concessions had been made.

First was in 1987 when the Indian army entered Sri Lankan territory illegally, supposedly to ‘keep peace’. Another was in 2002 when Norway led peace negotiations.

In 1987 the LTTE had not begun fully to act as a conventional army. The neoliberal offensive, spearheaded by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher internationally, was being implemented by president JR Jayewardene in Sri Lanka. Hatred of Jayewardene in Sri Lanka was comparable to that felt towards Thatcher in Britain – among miners, printers and all suffering under the Iron Lady’s brutal boot. The Jayewardene government’s seemed to have taken the idea of conducting a massive offensive on working class living standards, to its heart. Of course, the resulting mood to resist strengthened the forces that argued for a military campaign.

There are also comparisons with Thatcher’s hard-line stance against the IRA. In 1987-88 around 19 IRA volunteers were killed under the ‘shoot to kill’ policy[10]. In Sri Lanka, the neoliberal executive president under Jayewardene launched a major military operation in 1987. The government’s military operation, given the Orwellian name ‘operation liberation’, was on the verge of a major victory when the Indian army intervened. The Indian army called their operation ‘operation garland’ after some Tamils, weary of war, welcomed the soldiers with flowers initially. This reception was more short-lived than the welcoming of British troops with cups of tea in Derry and many Catholic areas of the North in 1969, where people feared an all out assault from the Unionist state[11].

Prior to this, the installation of ‘Voice of America’ radio in Trincomalee, a strategically important harbour in the Indian Ocean, was a key signal to the Indian ruling class that Sri Lanka was making a considerable shift towards the US. Which was from the point of view of India a security threat[12]. Under the auspices of conducting a peace process the Indian authorities negotiated with the Sri Lankan government – but it was the Indian regime that benefited. Once the two governments had agreed on a compromise, the result was forced on the Tamil masses as a ‘solution’. Having offered no serious concessions, another war was inevitable.

The second opportunity opened up while former US President George W Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair were promoting their concept of the ‘war on terror’. The justifiable horror felt after the indiscriminate 9/11 bombing of Al-Qaida was used by imperialist powers to consolidate support for themselves as ‘saviours of democracy’. Having established this backing, they proceeded to plunder resources across the planet. Finishing off any forces that attempted to stand in their way was packaged as a war on terror.

The Tigers’ international operation suffered hugely as a consequence. A number of western countries proscribed its operations[13]. Prior to this in 2000 the LTTE was able to demoralise the Sri Lankan military through successful operations against them and by capturing Elephant Pass, a strategic military position that connected the Tamil north and the south[14].

After 9/11 the government used its favourable situation to force the LTTE to the negotiating table. There are many references made to Northern Ireland at that time[15]. It had some impact on the leaders of the LTTE, who thought they could emerge as a political force. Pulling together various ‘old’ figures they established a political organisation called the Tamil National alliance (TNA) and announced that they would participate in political activities through it. LTTE military leaders swapped their uniforms for civilian clothes and travelled to the north and abroad for negotiations. Enormous hope was created.

Though there are similarities, but there are also fundamental differences between the Irish and Sri Lankan experiences. The Tigers operated as a conventional army. They had the control of a section of land and had almost established a de-facto state within it. The LTTE was the only banned ‘terrorist’ organisation at that time to boast a small air force[16].

Having removed all other political voices in the Tamil community, the Tigers had no problem achieving an overwhelming majority to vote for the TNA[17]. But the peace process led by the Norwegian government representative Eric Solheim, begun to sway for various reasons. A key ingredient was the strengthening of Sinhala nationalist opposition, expressed in the form of opposition from the JVP, which also began to make an impact inside the SLFP. The JVP eventually joined the SLFP-led coalition which carried through the 2009 massacre to end the war.

But critical remarks must be made about the peace process model. Governments and their allies do not often enter ‘peace negotiations’ if they have any other means to suppress the ‘problems’ or ‘terrorism’ or ‘troubles’ – or whatever name they choose. When they do enter peace negotiation it is often to advance their class or national interests or to weaken the opposition. Depending on the perceived strength of the opposition compromises are made, not on the basis of genuine intentions to address the root causes of a conflict. In many countries common features exist in this peace process model, though each has its own unique particularities.

It is an established fact that the long-term solution is never considered in this model. The aim is to secure agreement to achieve temporary calm. Often this process is also linked with promoting the interests of big businesses in that interlude[18]. Claims are made that such relative economic development would win the masses away from their national aspirations. This process has provided cover for bankrupt leaders of the struggle to pass over to the world of establishment politics. Through this they ruling classes aim to either split the struggle or subdue it.

This top-down process fails to address the actual root causes of conflicts, the discrimination and tensions that gave birth to the opposition movements initially. Compromises are often made by opposition nationalist leaders that are very far from the original aims of their movements, the core issues will not disappear and can come back to life with a vengeance. Temporary proposals are not even connected to the causes.

Furthermore these processes do not engage all the parties involved. For a long time the British government refused to have talks with Sinn Fein and the IRA. Similarly when the Sri Lankan government initiated talks with the LTTE, the Sinhala nationalist forces were ignored, which proved to be a fatal mistake later.

The idea that ‘economic development’ will sink the national question is a core of this model. The JVP was able to mobilise opposition among the Sinhala working masses by ridiculing the Norwegian officials who led the peace negotiations as ‘salmon-eating busy bodies’[19] referring to Norwegian economic interests in the fisheries of the north and east coasts.

Unquestionably relative peace and development brings benefits for ordinary people, which they welcome and support. Armed conflict devastates the living conditions of the people. The resulting life of fear and deprivation means there is always initial support for processes that claim they can bring an end to the conflict. The LTTE announcement at a major mass meeting in 1987 that they will lay down their weapons received huge applause. But it did not stop the LTTE getting support for the continuation of the war when insufficient concessions were offered. Making concessions to improve living conditions, while welcome, without meeting the demand for fundamental democratic rights or resolving national aspirations and national, ethnic and sectarian divisions, always limits the scope for achieving long-term peace. The demand for a United Ireland, or for a separate Tamil Eelam, in the case of Sri Lanka, remains as the leverage for those who continued to argue for the military campaign.

Though the Sri Lankan government was not completely successful in drawing the whole LTTE leadership into establishment politics, they were able to split away the Eastern commander, a key leader of the LTTE who later joined the SLFP[20]. The LTTE’s military strength was severely undermined. The changing geopolitics in south Asia also meant that the Chinese as well as Indian military and other logistics were made available to the Sri Lankan military. The Chinese government was investing billions of dollars, particularly in the building of a strategically important port in the south[21]. Their influence in particular reinforced the military, which changed the balance of forces completely. This ‘peace process’ was comfortably buried by the government in preparation for a brutal military operation against the LTTE[22].

What resulted was a massacre of an estimated over 100,000 Tamils; over 300,000 were put in detention camps[23]. If we consider that number as a proportion of the population the true scale of the attack is clear. The whole of the LTTE leadership was massacred and every single person who lived in the LTTE-controlled areas was sent for so-called ‘rehabilitation’ in the horrible detention camps. Once it had the means, the Sri Lankan regime preferred a bloody and rapid military offensive to achieving temporary peace through long negotiations. This approach of ending conflict by brutal force is inherent to all government policies. However the scope for success varies from place to place according to specific factors.

One view is that peace processes for capitalist governments are in reality motivated by desire to establish their control and economic domination, rather than by their opposition to the violence. At times, war or state violence are preferred to control the situation. The role of British imperialism in the bloody illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq illustrates this point dramatically.




After the war the government of Sri Lanka executed a rapid cover-up operation. The entirety of the war-torn area was isolated to allow for a major ‘cleansing’ and access was forbidden to all. Due to certain internal and external pressures, the government also set up a sham investigation called the ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC). The LLRC was led by government-supporting officials and completely ignored some of its own research and evidence it had gathered. The LLRC’s final report contained some recommendations that were so basic that the government need not oppose it. However, not only did the government ignore the recommendations, it also made efforts to reverse the agreements made during the Indian military’s presence. Tamils are now forced to sing the national anthem in Sinhala and learning Sinhala has become mandatory. On top of the land-grab taking place, the government also plans to change the electoral constituencies in such a way that it can reduce the number of Tamil parliamentarians.

All democratic rights are under attack and dissent is crushed. A peaceful university students’ protest was brutally crushed and a number of students were sent to detention camps for ‘rehabilitation’. Many remain imprisoned[24].

In summary, every action of the Sri Lankan government undermines any possibility of reconciliation. The so-called ‘international community’, however, provides full support for the government-led reconciliation and the LLRC. Whether it be via a US-led resolution in the UN or the report of the South Asian delegation of the European Parliament, all call for the implementation of the LLRC. There is no attempt made by these powers to push the government to implement even these puny recommendations. Instead the British ruling class argues it would like to ‘engage’ with the government of Sri Lanka. A spokesperson for the Queen has made strong assurances that her absence from the Commonwealth meeting (CHOGM) being held there is not political[25].

Western governments, by providing the government with logistical and other support for the war, as well as their continued protection of the regime, were complicit in it. This role may not be so obvious in other parts of the world. Differently to Sri Lanka, all sides  engaged in a long peace process in Ireland, that led to the Good Friday Agreement. But in this case also, outside powers, particularly the US, added pressure for an agreement, which was linked to their own geo-strategic interests and also those of US corporations.

Understanding this immediately brings into question who does the ‘reconciliation’, and how. Any reconciliation process should involve, at its heart, the ‘victims’ if it is to have any credibility. The personnel and organisations who are conducting this must be trusted by the oppressed and mass of working people.

This is why there is an argument, for example, that the war crimes inquiry or reconciliation process should involve the elected representatives from the communities and be monitored by trusted human rights organisations, trade unions, etc. there is also another important argument that reconciliation is not possible without bringing to justice the very forces and personnel who caused the crimes. Efforts should be made to address the root causes of the problem.

Without which, we will face again the situation like that of South Africa. The Marikana massacre of mine workers in 2012 in many ways marked the end of a phase of ANC rule. Continuing poverty and a sense of deep alienation in townships and workplaces over repression and corruption has opened a desire for a new viable alternative, giving raise to initiatives such as WASP (Workers and Socialist Party)[26].

To conclude, we should also address one of the key questions thrown at the left in general while dealing with conflict resolution. If the root cause of the problem has to be addressed to solve conflicts, then the question may be asked immediately of whether it is possible at all.

A majority of conflicts can be traced back to the various legacies and contradictions that stem from direct colonial and imperialist rule and the character of the development of capitalist society. In both Sri Lanka and Ireland we see the baleful legacies of national, ethnic, religious and sectarian divisions. Most political parties on the two islands base their support on a continuation of these divisions and they are also committed to the market economy and profit system. On this basis, how can they or the ruling elites possibly find a long term solution to the conflicts?

For the Left, this poses the question of replacing the profit- system, with all its resulting want, exploitation and divisions amongst the masses, as the starting point of a real, longterm solution.

A socialist alternative must be put forward. A socialist society, which would entail a democratically managed planned economy, utilising society’s resources for the many, which would begin to remove the material conditions that give rise to the conflicting national aspirations and divisions of the mass of people. However this is not a precondition to the Left being fully involved in today’s struggles for democratic and social rights. In fact, the Left should lead the way, on the basis of building the strength of mass movements that unite Tamil and Sinhalese, and Catholic and Protestant working people, against oppression, discrimination, poverty and joblessness.



[1] Ministry of defence, Sri Lanka. Also refer to: Indian defence review,
[2]Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam- LTTE is an armed guerrilla group which demanded separation of North and east part of the country as homeland of Tamils called Eelam.
[3] The Cage: The fight for Sri Lanka and the last days of the Tamil Tigers, By Gordon Weiss.
[4] There is no reliable survey available regarding population size. However, among the total population of 21 million inhabitants, around 75% is believed to be native Sinhala-speakers. They are concentrated mainly in the southern and western parts of Sri Lanka. Tamil-speaking people in Lanka are made up of three main groups. The current native Tamil population who are different from the Tamils from South India are estimated to be around 12%. Tamil speaking Muslims are estimated to make up around 10% of the population. Tamils living in the Hill Country areas have traditionally been isolated, socially and geographically, from the other sections of the Tamil-speaking population. Colonial exploiters in the 19th and 20th centuries brought them to the island from Tamil Nadu, India to work in the tea plantations. They constitute around 5%.

[5]   My witness in Eelam struggle, S Pushparajah

[6] 1983 Pogrom and the beginning of civil war. Tamil Solidarity,
[7]   Please refer to: History of resistance, TU Senan
[8] There are no accurate information about the total number of lives lost in the conflict. UN report ( accepted that at least 70,000 were unaccounted for in the final phase of the war in 2009. Yasmin Sooka, a co-author of this report, reported in a meeting in London that the real figure could be over 100,000. Based on government data the Bishop of Mannar made a submission that 146, 679 were missing in the last war ( It is generally accepted that around 100,000 to 150,000 may have been killed prior to this in the 30-year old conflict.

[9] The first negotiation between the Sri Lankan government and militants was held in Thimbu, the capital of Bhutan.
[10] Beyond the troubles? Northern Ireland Past and future, Peter Hadden
[11] Short note on British soldiers role, their initial welcome and collusion is listed by BBC journalist Vincent Kearney:
[12] India’s regional security doctrine, Devin T. Hagerty p351
[13] International dimensions of the Sri Lankan conflict, Centre for peace and conflict studies, This study includes various international operations and links of LTTE.
[14] The taking of elephant pass, D B S Jeyaraj, Frontline may 13-26 2000,

[15] Though the LTTE made no comments directly about modelling on IRA, they preferred certain comparisons and association to Sinn Fein. Martin McGuinness meeting with LTTE was positively reported. McGuinness at that time also gave support to the LTTE campaign to de proscribe it in the west. However critics of LTTE were eager to point out that the TNA is not LTTE’s Sinn Fein ( Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lankan envoy to UN from 2007 – 2009 and ardent supporter of current regime also take keen to show the difference beteen LTTE and Sinn Fein (Sunday Island, Latest on this is a general accusation that takes place along the line of that the LTTE leader did not have the political gift of Gerry Adams. (

[16] Considerable details provided by pro LTTE media can be found here:
[18] Investment is promised by the US from the beginning. investment conference also held later in Belfast. ( Evaluation of Norwegian Business related assistance, Sri Lanka case study (

[20] We trapped and split LTTE, sank their ships, says UNP (

[22] Sri Lanka: Failure of the peace process. International crisis group. Asia Report 124. Nov 2006. p10


[24] For latest failings please see:  Human rights watch, world report 2013 ( and latest report by Amnesty international :

[25] Spokesman said: “It is nothing to do with the political situation in Sri Lanka. The key point here is that the Queen will be represented, although she not there in person, by the Prince of Wales”.