Building a Peace Culture after a Vicious Civil War


One of the greatest difficulties in a democracy is to mediate fair decisions between ethnic majorities and minorities. This issue has led to terrorism and internal conflict, even in countries as economically advanced as Spain (Basque) and the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland).

Democracy is a system predicated upon majority rule, with an implicit assumption that the majorities formed will be political majorities and likely to shift over time as needs and interests evolve. However, when a society has an ethnic majority, it is a permanent majority that can be resistant to change. When groups perceive their interests to be demarcated along strictly ethnic lines, ethnic majorities will politically dominate other minorities.

The main ethnic community in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese, comprise 15 million of Sri Lanka’s total 20 million population, or about 75%; the main minority, the Tamils, just 3 million. (There are about 2 million Sri Lankan moors, referred to as Muslims.) The root of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is based in these demographics. Many Tamils, feeling marginalized by the voting majority of the Sinhalese, supported an armed resistance militia aimed at establishing an independent Tamil state of Eelam on the island. For nearly thirty years, Sri Lanka was locked in a cycle of ethnic warfare and domestic terrorism. The tumult ended only in May 2009, with the government’s military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Sri Lanka was a part of the British colonial empire for about 150 years until 1948. The centralized state inherited by the newly independent country in 1948 effectively transferred political power into the hands of the Sinhalese majority. The inability of the political elites belonging to the different ethnic communities to share power among themselves led to a series of broken agreements and to acute mistrust between the communities.

The difficulty of protecting minority interests in a unitary system of government in which majority-minority relations are strained is exemplified by Sri Lanka’s modern political history.  As the Tamils from the north in particular were rarely represented in the higher rungs of the government, they were unable to sway government decisions to take their concerns into account.  The inability of Tamil politicians to obtain adequate redress to their grievances eventually led to the buildup of separatist sentiment, militancy, and war.

Between 1979 and 2009, Sri Lanka descended into increasingly brutal warfare between governments that were not prepared to devolve power to the Tamil majority provinces and a Tamil militant movement that wanted nothing short of a separate country.  The last phase of the war was one of the most challenging in the annals of modern warfare. It ensured that the Sri Lankan war took the headlines of the international media.  The LTTE in its retreat herded the Tamil population of the northern territories it once controlled into a tiny patch of land.  Using more that quarter of a million civilians as human shields they sought to keep the Sri Lankan military forces at bay, and buy time for some change to ensure their continued survival. Despite international appeals to safeguard civilian life, the Sri Lankan government sent in the military for the final battle that eliminated the LTTE at a heavy cost of life.


It is a matter of historical record that five successive governments of Sri Lanka, including the present one, attempted to resolve the conflict in the country through negotiations. Many of Sri Lanka’s past leaders accepted the need for a political solution based on devolution of powers and inter-ethnic power sharing. The primary structural problem in Sri Lanka’s political infrastructure is its unitary and centralized constitution that enables political leaders from the Sinhalese ethnic majority to monopolize the democratic process, and either exclude or include the ethnic minorities at their pleasure.

Successful negotiations can lead to outcomes in which all sides gain rather than one or more sides losing, but the logic of separating interests from positions could not be applied to Sri Lanka. State power is difficult to award to two contestants as the Sri Lankan experience has shown.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and LTTE signed a ceasefire agreement, brokered by the Norwegian government. The accord appeared to offer the real prospect of resolution. The ceasefire between the government and the LTTE held for nearly four years despite significant problems affecting the peace process, problems that led to the LTTE’s withdrawal from the peace talks. The ceasefire collapsed entirely in early 2006 with a series of ambushes of government soldiers by the LTTE.

The Ceasefire Agreement of 2002-2006 and the peace process that accompanied it offer many valuable insights about how to negotiate a peace between two sides mired in intractable conflict, and also of the potential stumbling blocks.


The Sri Lankan government recently appointed a Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation in 2011, which has been conducting public hearings in all parts of the country, including those affected by war. The submissions for the hearings were made by a wide range of government officials, civic and religious organizations, academics, and regular citizens.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was appointed in response to calls for an independent international commission to investigate the allegations of human rights violations and war crimes committed during the closing stages of the war. In appointing this Commission, the government reiterated the need for restorative justice for the Sri Lankan people. Its findings, it said, would seek to take the Sri Lankan nation towards the common goal of a multi-ethnic polity. This goal, the government insists, can be pursued in a spirit of cooperation, partnership, and friendship, learning the lessons from recent history to ensure that there will be no recurrence of such tragic conflict in the future.

The National Peace Council, to which I belong, is an NGO with a mandate to work for peace and inter-ethnic justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and was one of the organizations to give evidence before the Commission.  Most of its peace education and reconciliation work has been with grassroots communities.  The opportunity to engage with a high level body such as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that can affect national policy on the subject was deemed an opportunity to be grasped.

The NPC’s submissions to the Commission regarding the failure of the peace process can have relevance to other conflict resolution processes and were as follows:

1. Agreed Parameters

Given the fears, suspicions, expectations and positions of the government and LTTE it was important that the parameters of the final settlement be agreed to at the outset, or if not at the outset, at some time at the beginning of the peace process.  These parameters ought to have included the unity and indivisibility of the country which the international community as a whole stood by in principle. This was in the minds of those who supported the Ceasefire Agreement and peace process, but evidently not in the mind of the LTTE.  This was to be seen in the Interim Proposals they made for an Interim Self Governing Authority, which appeared to be a half-way house to a separate state.

2. Bipartisan Consensus

The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 was the first attempt to reach a negotiated settlement of the ethnic conflict.  This and all succeeding attempts failed in part due to an inability of the government and opposition parties to reach a bipartisan agreement on the envisaged political reforms.  The Ceasefire Agreement and the political negotiations between the government and LTTE proved to be no exception.  The government that signed the agreement and attempted to negotiate with the LTTE did so without the support of the opposition.  The government was also internally divided on the issue, with the Prime Minister and his government not receiving the support of the President of the Republic who was kept out of the process by the government.  As the ethnic conflict is an emotive issue with primordial fears contained in it, there is a necessity for a broad government-opposition consensus for a solution to be developed.

3. Public Participation

In a democratic society it is important that the electorate and the population at large be apprised of political developments that matter to them.  The issues need to be explained and the consent of the people needs to be obtained.  The government had pledged to arrive at a ceasefire in its election manifesto.  But once the peace process commenced it did not adequately address the people about the dilemmas it was facing or take them into confidence about the hard choices it had to make.  This task was largely left to civil society and NGOs to do, which was insufficient as the government has much more power to reach a mass audience.

4. Human Rights Violations

Human rights violations took place during the period of the Ceasefire Agreement.  In particular, the LTTE assassinated its political rivals, government intelligence operatives and embarked on large scale recruitment including child recruitment during the period of the Ceasefire.  Many national and international organizations concerned with peace were cautious in highlighting these violations on the grounds that this might induce the LTTE to leave the peace process early and re-start the war that had ended and which had already led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  The return to war was not seen as an option by those who supported the peace process, and the emphasis was on averting a return to war. It was important that human rights be protected in full, and not in part, at every stage of the peace process from beginning to end which did not happen.

5. Restricted Information

The necessity to fight the war appears to be widely accepted, not only in Sri Lanka but also internationally.  However, the human costs of the fighting and the fact that hardly any independent information was available has had an international backlash.  Both the international media and international humanitarian organizations only had very limited access to the war zones.  As a result it was difficult to obtain independent verification of what was happening in the war zones and the casualties. This may account for international human rights groups and the UN Secretary General taking a focused interest in the last days of the war.

With regard to the post war phase it was observed that:

1. IDP Welfare

During the last phase of the war it became evident that there would be an influx of internally displaced persons.  The government announced that it was setting aside land and putting up shelters to temporarily accommodate these people.  But this was not done adequately.  When the 300,000 displaced persons crossed over into government-controlled areas, they had very little by way of planned and organized facilities to house them.  Preparing the ground for these people to come out would have demonstrated that the government was concerned about their welfare and conducting, along with the war, a humanitarian operation on equal scale on their behalf.  This needs to be redressed today by the rapid provision of permanent housing, infrastructure and livelihood.

2. NGO Access

There are still tens of thousands of displaced persons remaining in camps, in temporary shelters and with relatives in various parts of the North and also some parts of the East.  Women and children are in a particularly vulnerable situation.  There are many women-headed households amongst the war victims.  At present many of the resettled people have been sent back to totally destroyed and virtually jungle-like areas to fend for themselves with hardly any resources. While army personnel are assisting the people in their resettlement efforts, they have few resources and need more. NGOs have specialized competencies in the areas of rebuilding communities and reintegrating ex-combatants into civilian life.  Restrictions placed on the work of non-governmental organizations which have human and material resources to offer need to be minimized.

3. Demilitarization

There is presently a close involvement of the military in the life of the civilian population in the North and East where the military continues to play a role in governance.  The fact that the military is engaged in civilian activities may be a result of the government’s desire to utilize the excess manpower for constructive purposes now that the war is ended.  However, this should be a temporary arrangement pending the re-establishment of civil administration in those areas. In addition, the ethnic composition of the security forces needs to reflect the ethnic pluralism in society.

4. Peace Education

One of the challenges to national integration and reconciliation will be to give people from different ethnic communities a better understanding of those from other communities.  The stance of politicians from rival camps tends to get replicated among their grassroots communities, furthering divide and promoting ethnically polarized voting patterns.  The work of politically nonpartisan civic groups is important to bind up the wounds created in the bid for political power.  They should be encouraged not stymied by various government imposed restrictions.  There needs to be greater trust built between government authorities and civic groups working for peace and reconciliation through dialogue and not only regulation.


One of the most unexpected outcomes of the end of the war was the government’s decision to continue to increase the military budget and further increase recruitment to the armed forces.  In most countries the end of a period of war is welcomed as providing an opportunity to reallocate both economic and human resources to civilian welfare.  But in Sri Lanka, it is military spending that appears to have been given first priority.  This may be due to the government’s belief that a strong military that makes its presence felt in all parts of the country is needed to ensure national security.  However, the lessons of the past suggest that the government will be making a mistake if it believes that it can utilize military resources at its disposal to control extra-parliamentary action that might arise.  In the 1960s and late 1970s as well, previous governments sent in military forces to quell public unrest in the Tamil areas.  The end result was terrorism and war.

A shift in change of governmental priorities away from the militarization of society, to the pursuit of a political solution to ethnic minority grievances and to consensus-building with the opposition is what Sri Lanka needs.  The government’s concern regarding a possible resurrection of Tamil militancy is likely to be a key determinant of the government's security policy for the foreseeable future. Following international pressure the government has completed most of the resettlement.  However, vast tracts and extents of land taken under military control as “high security zones” continue to remain  in place, although their original rationale for these no longer exists in the absence of the LTTE and its long range artillery.  Instead of the demilitarization of the Tamil majority areas of the North and East, the military presence is being consolidated by the building of new military bases with living quarters for the families of the military.  All of this sends a message of mistrust and alienation to the civilian population.

The availability of repressive laws and a powerful military machine would send a message to the larger society of a potentially repressive climate of governance that can reproduce the root causes of conflict.  The use of the security forces to suppress fringe political and terrorist groups will no doubt be acquiesced in by the general population which has no stomach for any return to war, either now or in the future.  The Sri Lankan government emphasizes the need to maintain a strong military to cope with the possible resurgence of the LTTE which the government claims that sections of the Tamil diaspora and international community are bent on doing.  However, preserving peace through military repression is untenable in the longer term.  It is important for the government to engage in political reform that would provide these mainstream opposition parties with incentives to stay within the framework of parliamentary politics.

As in all wars, unless work is done at the grassroots to get rid of the injustices which caused the war, unless people are treated with respect and the rule of law prevails, and unless peace with justice is made real, there is the danger of resentments spilling over into renewed conflict. Unless investigated and remedies found, there is the danger of an expansion of abuse of power into other parts of the country also. Totalitarian trends in one part of the country could easily spill over to the rest of the country. There needs to be a break with the past.

After a protracted and costly war as occurred in Sri Lanka it is necessary to start with political reconciliation between the different ethnic communities and also between the government and ethnic minorities. It is not easy to heal the nation after such a traumatic conflict. The hurt and harm inflicted on the victims especially the loss of lives, homes and livelihoods caused during the war would have caused deep scars. This reconciliation cannot be achieved without democratization and among the people of different communities, the government and political parties.

There are some confidence-building actions that can be urged by those with an intention of fostering a meeting of minds.  A confidence building measure that the government needs to take with respect to moving forward in the political process would be to conduct provincial council elections for the Northern Province, which is the only province that is bereft of a provincial government.  The people of the north who suffered most from the war need to enjoy the same rights and privileges in respect of devolution of power that the people in the rest of the country enjoy.  The establishment of a Northern Provincial Council would also enable the people there to experience the workings of the devolved system and clarify their priorities.  It would permit the future Chief Minister of the Northern Province to sit with colleagues from the other provinces in the Chief Ministers Conference and provide them with partnership, insight and leadership.

A key area of devolution of power where a future Northern Provincial Council could give leadership would be fiscal devolution.  At the present time, the proportion of the national budget that goes towards the functioning of the provincial councils is too small to enable them to do anything much more than pay salaries and maintain the infrastructure they already have.  This is why teachers and parents of schools that are on the provincial list are glad when the central government takes them over as national schools.  They believe that they will get more resources through the central government than through the provincial council.  This imbalance needs to be changed for the devolution of power to become effective.


Apart from political reform there also needs to be social and cultural changes. One of the leading scholars in international peace studies, Professor Johan Galtung has said there is a difference between negative peace and positive peace.  Negative peace is the absence of war, which is the present reality in Sri Lanka. Positive peace is where there is reconciliation, a change of heart, and a change of political structures that gave rise to war.  In this respect Sri Lanka has to move forward to positive peace.  At the present time, the Tamil people continue to vote against the government. At every election after the war, they have voted against the government. The government in turn is increasing the size of the military budget even though the war has ended.  There is continued military domination of the north and east where Tamil people live and where the thirty year war was fought.

At the peace memorial museum in Okinawa, and also in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is a lesson that Japan can offer to Sri Lanka.  Those museums are designed to heal wounds and not to make them worse.  In Okinawa there are photographs of all the 200 children who were recruited to the student medical unit of the Japanese army. Most of them died in the fighting, although they never killed or harmed anyone. They reminded me of the children forcibly recruited by the LTTE and who died in confrontation with the Sri Lanka military. They remind the present generation of mistakes that must not be repeated, and of suffering that must not happen again.  Hundreds of school children come every day to those museums along with their school teachers.  They come to learn about a peace culture in which violence has no place.

There is a great potential to set up peace museums in Sri Lanka as part of a system of education that provides a peace culture to the people.  It will be harder for us today in Sri Lanka, than it is for Japan today. Sri Lanka’s war is only over 2 and half years, and so the wounds of war are raw.  Peace museums require a non-partisan approach that is not the tool for one-sided propaganda.   But today the government is partisan; the Tamil opposition is partisan.  This is where multi ethnic civil society groups can play an important role in establishing peace culture

There are also other examples of best practices we can take from Asia.  In Vietnam, there was also a war between the North and South, but today there is reconciliation and a Prime Minister who comes from the defeated South.  In Indonesia, there was separatist war in Aceh that has ended with a peace settlement and autonomy.  In the Philippines the involvement of civil society in local government has been formalized in the law.   In Pakistan, there is a strong civil society movement, led by lawyers and journalists, that has done much to change a dictatorship into a democracy.  In China, the abuse of power by government officials is increasingly being challenged by ordinary citizens who use the internet to inform each other and to protest.

Today, unfortunately, Sri Lankan civil society is facing a challenging situation.  All NGOs have to register under the Ministry of Defense, as they are seen as potential threats to national sovereignty.  Their links with foreign donors is suspected to influence their activities in unpatriotic ways.  Only last week many news websites were shut down by the government.  Even though the government won the war against the LTTE over two years ago, it feels itself to be under continued threat from hostile forces.

Although the open conflict has ceased, the divisions that existed in the past are still very much alive in Sri Lanka today. The violence, suspicion, and segregation of the conflict have become deeply embedded in social and political life.  The differences that exist between communities are mobilized by political leaders to further communal agendas. The economic progress taking place in the country can be threatened by instability due to the increased political polarization.

Thus peace building and reconciliation continue to remain as critical needs in this post-war era. The present political circumstances in the country demonstrate the need for a new paradigm of governance that is more appropriate for the plural and diverse society in Sri Lanka.  Although the stalemate is now ended with the elimination of the LTTE, significant obstacles stand in the way of a return to normalcy in the country. This is on account of the nationalist forces on both sides that were unleashed in the course of the war and which cannot be suppressed in the short term. The militarily victorious Sri Lankan government now has the challenge of promoting reconciliation and lasting peace in Sri Lanka.■

* Jehan Perera is a Harvard scholar and Executive Director at National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.