Sri Lanka Violence Threatens Cease-Fire

Steve Inskeep talks to Dumeetha Luthra of the BBC about the political changes in Sri Lanka after last year's tsunami. Despite a 2002 cease-fire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger movement, the peace process has been deadlocked for the past two years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So that's how the tsunami altered the politics of Indonesia. Thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean, the waves also smashed into Sri Lanka one year ago. That island nation has its own history of civil war and we're going there next to BBC reporter Dumeetha Luthra.

Dumeetha, there was already a truce in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck. What happened next?

Ms. DUMEETHA LUTHRA (BBC Reporter): Well, after the tsunami, there'd been real hope that this disaster would actually bring the two sides together. But although there's been a cease-fire that was signed almost four years ago, the peace process itself has been deadlocked for the past two years. So there was a real hope that the devastation that was wrought across the country would actually bring the two sides together.

And initially there was moments where they did work together and so much money came into Sri Lanka, the plan was to make sure that there was an equitable distribution between the Tamil Tiger areas and the government areas so there was talk of a post-tsunami aid sharing deal.

INSKEEP: What went wrong?

Ms. LUTHRA: Well, it took five months to hammer out and I think that was an indication of the level of distrust between the two sides. And once it was finally signed, the hard-liners within the government actually took it to the Supreme Court to challenge it and won. So parts of it won't be able to be implemented and subsequently it just was dropped. And since a new president's been elected in November, he's just canceled the entire post-tsunami aid sharing deal completely. In fact, from a year ago, where there were hopes that the two sides could work together and it could move to a lasting peace, what in fact has happened is at this point in time, they're further apart.

INSKEEP: Remind us what the basic differences are between the government in Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers, as the rebel group has been known.

Ms. LUTHRA: Well, the Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting for over two decades for an independent homeland and there have been discussions before where both the government and the Tigers have talked about a possible federal solution. But at this point in time, based on the newly elected president has said, is that Sri Lanka must remain as a unitary state. There's no room for federalism.

INSKEEP: So there was hope for progress after the tsunami.

Ms. LUTHRA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: That hope seems to have dissolved. And what has happened in the last few days as the anniversary has approached and passed?

Ms. LUTHRA: In the last few days, things have just got worse. In fact, this has been the bloodiest month in Sri Lanka since the cease-fire was signed. Just today we've had 10 soldiers killed in an ambush in the north of the country and an anti-personnel mine as a convey was passing through exploded. Last Tuesday, a week ago, 13 sailors were killed in an ambush. In the past month we've had more than 40 military personnel killed.

INSKEEP: As this anniversary is coming and violence has come with it, have people looked across the water at Indonesia where the tsunami seems to brought at least a temporary peace and wondered what might have been in their own country?

Ms. LUTHRA: There's a lot of frustration here that the tsunami didn't actually bring both sides together. When you speak to the average person, they say, `We wish.' But at the same time, there is a feeling here. It's quite incredible. There is a feeling when you talk to people, `Well, look, we've had this violence. It's carrying on. What was the point of the cease-fire? We haven't seen a peace dividend. Well, maybe war will be the solution.' And when you put to them, `Well, hang on, you've had two decades of civil war and that hasn't resulted in a solution.' Their answer is, `Well, neither has the cease-fire.'

INSKEEP: We've been talking to the BBC's Dumeetha Luthra in Sri Lanka.

Thanks very much.

Ms. LUTHRA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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