International Pressure and the Conflict in Sri Lanka

by A.R.M. Imtiyaz

Political science studies suggest that international leverage has a significant impact on the decision-making process of a ruling elite and other actors. In this increasingly interdependent world, no country can independently survive unless it is remarkably stable and strong enough to defy international leverage. Small, weak states, which have attractive resources or are strategically located, always attract huge international attention. Influential international actors apply leverage on that particular country’s ruling elite to effect a shift in the country’s domestic policies, whether on issues of economic reform, democratization or conflict resolution.

International leverage often meets domestic opposition from nationalists and anti-globalists. It is true that international leverage has the potential ability to violate national sovereignty.

It is also true that international leverage may bring a positive outcome in favor of oppressed or affected minorities in divided societies, in which the state, ruling elites and politicians make policies and influence state institutions to act partially in favor of the majority ethnic or religious group.

In one such case, international actors need to apply pressure on Sri Lanka’s ruling elite in order to seal an agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam (LTTE), the major politico-military movement representing oppressed NorthEast Thamils, to establish a joint mechanism for tsunami relief and reconstruction in the NorthEast, the region most heavily hit on December 26, 2004.

Why with the LTTE?

Beyond one's own preferences, the LTTE is a major actor in the Thamil struggle. It is true that the LTTE has committed numerous political mistakes and acted beyond human values while confronting its opponents and NorthEast Muslims, many of whom have lost their trust in the LTTE leadership. Nevertheless, those murky issues should not blind us from understanding the ethno-political conflict, which is a product of the Sinhala elites' struggle for vote maximization. I would argue that the LTTE is a revolutionary product of the Sinhala elites' vote maximization efforts since independence.

Though some Thamil political parties and organizations still operate with Sri Lankan support for their paramilitary arms, they do not demonstrate real willingness to represent the oppressed NorthEast Thamils. Political science shows that no movement or organization will survive in conflict with a dominant group or with the state unless it advocates logical goals to win the oppressed group’s legitimate rights with winnable strategies. It is also true that no movement can seek redress for an oppressed group while the movement obtains refuge from their oppressors.

Political science theories on conflict clearly suggest that any deal concerning the oppressed group should be done with the major stakeholders in the conflict. In the Sri Lankan case, in any political business - no matter what the conflict resolution or the relief and reconstruction mechanism is - the Sri Lankan state needs to come to terms with the LTTE. This is not to suggest that other parties should be ignored. Sri Lanka and the LTTE also must hold negotiations with other actors in the conflict.

In fact, Sri Lanka will not do any good for the people in the NorthEast without the LTTE’s blessings. This statement is not an exaggeration. Ground reality proves my point. As I mentioned in the Sangam website some time ago, "…the LTTE should have been given sole authority to handle the disaster situation in the region. The Sri Lankan state and its institutions have delivered virtually nothing in the Northeast. Although the state and its institutions still hold some control over the Muslim-dominated parts of the Eastern region, the truth is that nothing can be done effectively without the LTTE's fullest cooperation. That is to say, the Sri Lankan state and its institutions do not have real political legitimacy in the Northeast of Sri Lanka ("

Therefore, the Sri Lankan state needs to make a deal with the LTTE to assure a smooth and stable flow of international funds to the NorthEast to help rebuild the tsunami-hit region. To make the deal practical, international actors have to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan ruling elite.

Why not Muslims?

The good news is that the Sri Lankan ruling elites are now expressing some sort of willingness to accept the Norwegians' recommended joint mechanism with the LTTE to help northeastern relief and reconstruction.

The bad news is that Sri Lankan Muslims, who lost more than 20,000 people in the tsunami - one percent of its total national population - and faced 60% of the damage, are being ignored both by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state. That is to say, neither the Sri Lankan ruling elites nor the LTTE have so far considered including the Muslims in the proposed joint mechanism.

Unlike the oppressed Thamils, Muslims in Sri Lanka have been running without effective and strong political leadership. It is important to note that no oppressed or affected group can win political or social demands unless the particular oppressed or affected group voices their demand through a relatively powerful political movement or party dedicated to the relevant group cause. An absence of effective leadership with logical working programs has put the Muslims in Sri Lanka in a desperate situation.

Further, it seems to me that international actors have not paid much attention to the plight of the Muslims who had undergone much suffering since the tsunami. It may be due to failure of the current Muslim political leadership, which has abjectly failed to make a case for the Muslims. Whatever the reason may be, it is a moral responsibility for the international actors to apply leverage both on the LTTE and on Sri Lankan state to include major Muslim political and social forces in the joint mechanism for northeastern relief and reconstruction. Muslim cooperation for the joint mechanism and the peace process might be difficult to win, if international actors are not interested in bringing Muslims into the joint mechanism.

The LTTE has to play a big role in accommodating Muslim representation and needs in the joint mechanism. This approach would help to re-build the already shaken ethnic relations between the Muslims and Thamils.

The key point is that things might go harder for the LTTE and Thamils as long as NorthEast Muslims continuously resist cooperation with the LTTE and Thamils. I will say again what I suggested before in the Sangam website, "Arrangements should be made in the interim body for representatives of the northeast Muslim and Sinhalese to participate."

If this is the case, the LTTE should demonstrate its real ability to re-build the tsunami-affected Eastern Muslim region. The Rauf Hakeem-led Sri Lanka Muslim Congress can be approached for this purpose. Any failure in this project would not only further damage the existing Thamil-Muslim relationship, but would also strengthen the Muslim elite's interests in trusting the Sinhala state. If things go well, the LTTE's impartiality might raise a new hope of cooperation among Thamil and Muslim subcultures at the elite level.

Also, cooperation would give the masses new hope in the already-affected relations. The LTTE can instigate this duty if it is really interested in Thamil-Muslim ethnic harmony ( ). I would argue any failure in this cooperation not only would encourage Sinhalese extremists’ forces in their hunt for Muslim support against the Thamil struggle, but also strengthen the anti-peace forces among the Muslims.

Will international leverage be able to confront the extremist forces in Sri Lanka?

It is generally understood that effective international leverage may push the ruling elites or actors in a conflict to shift from a rigid stance on the respective issues. The more international pressure is applied on domestic actors, the more the domestic actors demonstrate their flexibility. Nevertheless, this relationship faces serious difficulties when international leverage meets resistance from the ruling elites or its allies, which comfortably sell the political capital they have earned from nationalist or extremist agendas. Ruling elites or nationalist actors in a conflict generally have the potential ability to challenge international actors’ demands. Ruling elites do not easily give up their own agendas unless a domestic opposition group challenges their support and /or international actors continuously tight their grip on them.

In the Sri Lanka case, the ruling elites had demonstrated a degree of resistance to the pressure of international actors till the killer tsunami hit the country. However, the ruling elites have severe difficulties running the country without international financial assistance. International actors have hardly pushed the ruling elites and actors in the conflict to clinch the pact for the joint mechanism as a first step towards resuming the peace talks to seek a power-sharing agreement.

The sad reality is that Sri Lanka's ruling elites still hesitate to do business with the LTTE. Their primary fears hang on the coming elections. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala elites and politicians outbid their opponents on anti-Thamil or anti-LTTE programs to win and hold political power. Sinhala elites and politicians do not have a sincere interest in settling the ethno-political conflict, which is a result of five decades of the vote maximization game.

Sri Lanka's current ruling elites are very well aware that its ultra-nationalist ally, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a major partner in the coalition government, would dump the government if President Chandrika Kumarathunga agreed to a deal with the LTTE on the joint mechanism for relief and reconstruction. It is obvious that the President shares willingness to wrap up the deal with the LTTE, but she is not an angel to defy even ordinary resistance. The bottom line is that the President is under pressure, both from the JVP and from an influential wing of her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by her brother, to defy any international pressure which calls for immediate action to release promised funds for relief and reconstruction.

Though both the ruling elites and the LTTE’s response to the draft joint mechanism are encouraging, clouds are still out there. However, I can unreservedly point out that the Sinhala ruling elites’ refusal to work jointly with the LTTE to establish a joint mechanism for relief and reconstruction will persuade Thamils to lose even more trust in the Sri Lankan state and its institutions. Also true is that the LTTE’s refusal to accommodate the Muslims in the joint mechanism will smash up Muslim trust in the LTTE’s promises and fortify anti-peace elements among the Muslims.

International actors have plenty of roles to play to settle the difficulties Sri Lanka is currently confronted with. However, the key question is, "Will international leverage have the ability to confront the domestic actors’ doggedness?" History will answer!

(The author is a Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA and can be contacted at



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