Peace and Conflict

Peace in Sri Lanka: Negotiating with the Northern ‘Separatists’?

Dr. Colin Irwin
Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool

August 2008


About this poll
Peace was achieved in Northern Ireland, after many years of bitter conflict, failed negotiations and broken ceasefires only when all the parties to the conflict and the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland were brought together in the same peace process. As part of that process a series of ‘peace polls’ were run to find out what the people wanted in terms of a just and lasting settlement. The first such peace poll run in Sri Lanka was completed between March and May 2008 in collaboration with the staff of Social Indicator of Colombo and Dr. Colin Irwin from the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool who developed the peace polls method. That poll included a random sample of 1,700 people from all parts of Sri Lanka with the exception of the Northern Province. As Social Indicator are presently not able to operate in this region of Sri Lanka arrangements were made for a separate poll to be undertaken by the academic community in Jaffna. This new poll was run in June and repeated all the questions asked in the previous poll with 200 interviews completed in 5 Divisional Secretariats (DS). The full results of both polls are available at the project website along with a more detailed explanation of the methodology used.

Can the Government of Sri Lanka negotiate a peace agreement with the people of the Northern Province? This question depends of course on a desire and willingness of both the Government in Colombo and the political representatives of the people in the North wanting to negotiate such a peace. But if we assume they do then is there a basis upon which such an agreement could be made between the Sinhala people of Sri Lanka on the one hand and the Tamils of the Northern Province on the other? Both the previous peace poll in this series and political developments in the rest of Sri Lanka suggest that a new dispensation between the Provinces and the Central Government could lead to such a peace. But what of the North, could a similar dispensation lead to peace there? With this point in mind all the questions asked in the first Sri Lanka peace poll were asked again in and around Jaffna. The results suggest, as in the rest of the country, that fully implemented constitutional reform coupled with effective measures to deal with problems of discrimination and good governance would enjoy wide popular support. It therefore follows that bringing the people of the North into the peace process, as full partners for peace could both strengthen the legitimacy of any agreements reached and hopefully make an end to hostilities that much closer.

The Problems
From a list of 51 problems given to the research team the top three items on the Northern Tamil ‘Problems’ list are ‘Escalating violence in the last 2 years’ and ‘Violence over the past 30 years’ 1st and 2nd, both at 72% ‘very significant’, followed by ‘The ongoing war’ 3rd at 71% ‘very significant’. These items are 4th, 5th and 6th on the Sinhala list so both communities share the same concerns on this point. However, beyond this common appreciation of the violence of war the ‘problems’ of the two communities diverge. First and 2nd on the Sinhala list is ‘The continued violence of the LTTE’ and ‘Abuse of human rights by the LTTE’ at 60% and 59% ‘very significant’ respectively while 3rd on the Northern Tamil list (after the issues of war) is the ‘Failure to implement language rights’ at 63% ‘very significant’. However, after this there is a degree of convergence again between the two lists. ‘Failure to bring human rights violators to justice’ is 5th on the Northern Tamil list and 11th on the Sinhala list while ‘The failure of successive governments to find a political solution’ and ‘Failure to provide Sri Lanka Tamils with a constitutional solution to their problems’ is 6th and 7th on the Northern Tamils list and 16th and 19th on the Sinhala list (out of a total list of 51 such problems). But ‘The continued violence of the LTTE’ and their human rights abuses are down at 38th and 30th on the Northern Tamil list while the ‘Failure to implement language rights’ is 33rd on the Sinhala list. Clearly not much meeting of minds on these critical issues that must necessarily be addressed by both communities if peace is to be achieved. So what of the ‘solutions’ to these various ‘problems’ is there a basis for negotiations there?

The Solutions
Security: In the second part of the questionnaire everyone interviewed was asked to indicate which ‘solutions’ they considered to be ‘essential’, ‘desirable’, ‘acceptable’, ‘tolerable’ or ‘unacceptable’ for lasting peace and stability in Sri Lanka. The options for security were then listed in order of priority calculated as the average ‘essential or desirable’ for both the Northern Tamils and Sinhala community. The first two items on this list are ‘All the people of Sri Lanka must come together through their representatives to solve the problem’ and ‘The political leadership representing all stakeholders must come together to solve the problem’ at between 72% and 85% ‘essential or desirable’ for both the Northern Tamil and Sinhala community. Rates of ‘unacceptable’ do not rise above 5% for these options. Next comes ‘Bring all IDPs under total civilian control’ between 67% and 71% ‘essential or desirable’ for both communities followed by ‘More inclusive and effective Peace Secretariat’ at 87% ‘essential or desirable’ for Northern Tamils and 51% for the Sinhala of which a 22% minority consider this option to be ‘unacceptable’. A consensus is restored again for ‘Reform the Police and eliminate corruption’ 5th on this list of 23 items with rates of ‘unacceptable’ at only 3% or 4%. Although the Northern Tamils strongly support the suggestion that ‘The government should also negotiate with the LTTE’ at 94% ‘essential or desirable’ the Sinhala are split on this proposal at 40% ‘essential or desirable’ and 37% ‘unacceptable’ with similar results for ‘Restart the peace process’ and ‘Stop the war’ at 8th and 9th on this list. Other options in this list then continue to look at these issues in some more detail but the basic conclusion to be drawn is that the Northern Tamils want an end to the war now while the Sinhala community are divided on this strategy. At the time of running this poll 75% still considered defeating the LTTE by military means alone to be ‘essential or desirable’ compared to only 17% of Northern Tamils who took this view which perhaps underlines the point that no community should be seen in simple ‘black and white’ terms. What both communities can agree to however is the necessity for their political leaderships to work together for a political solution to the conflict and for the institutions with responsibilities for establishing peace to be more effective and inclusive.

Human Rights: The question on human rights listed a variety of abuses ranging from ‘Attack civilians’ to ‘Deny freedom of movement’ and everyone interviewed for this question was asked if these actions should be allowed so that the LTTE or ‘government forces, police and associated paramilitaries’ could achieve their respective objectives. Generally speaking the results to this question are very reassuring with the Sinhala recording an average of 96% ‘unacceptable’ and Northern Tamils 94% ‘unacceptable’ over all. But some results are possibly matters for concern. In the Jaffna sample of Northern Tamils 7% considered LTTE attacks on civilians to be ‘tolerable’ and extra-judicial killings by the LTTE ‘acceptable or tolerable’ while 5% considered ‘Recruit Child Soldiers’ ‘acceptable’ and 9% thought ‘Launch suicide attacks’ was ‘tolerable’. In fairness it should be pointed out that our previous poll showed very little support for these particular kinds of human rights abuses when the various communities were looked at for the rest of Sri Lanka as a whole and it may be the case that a small minority of Sinhala living in the war zones are also wiling to accept lower standards with regards to the observation of these human rights. However 5% of Sinhala do consider it ‘acceptable or tolerable’ for the ‘government forces, police and associated paramilitaries’ to ‘Abuse emergency powers’ and this rises to 7% ‘acceptable or tolerable’ for ‘Arbitrary arrest and detention’ and 14% for ‘Deny freedom of movement’.

Discrimination: There is strong agreement between the two communities on measures needed to address problems of discrimination with ‘Effective steps to ensure balanced access to university education’ 1st at 97% and 76% ‘essential or desirable’ for Northern Tamils and Sinhala respectively. This is followed by ‘Effective steps to ensure balanced recruitment in the civil service at all levels’ at 84% and 69% 2nd then ‘Distribute the resources of the state on a per capita basis’ at 78% and 65% 3rd and ‘Affirmative action for rehabilitation and reconstruction’ 4th at 85% and 57% ‘essential or desirable’. Levels of ‘unacceptable’ range between 5% and 13% in the Sinhala community for these policies so they would meet with little resistance but they are split on ‘Ensure full implementation of Tamil as an official language’ at 32% ‘essential or desirable’ and 34% ‘unacceptable’. But as this reform is ‘essential or desirable’ for 94% of Northern Tamils this particular policy will need to be implemented all be it with some political care (it was also 4th on the Northern Tamil ‘problems’ list).

Good Governance: When it comes to measures needed to improve good governance there is very little difference between the two communities. Both Northern Tamils and Sinhala want to ‘Depoliticise the public service’ (81% and 87% ‘essential or desirable); an ‘Independent media’ (92% and 72%); ‘Effective institutions to combat corruption’ (79% and 74%); ‘Right to information except for matters of national security’ (88% and 64%); Reform of the criminal justice system’ (78% and 75%) and ‘Right to information at all times’ at 92% and 48% ‘essential or desirable’ for Northern Tamils and Sinhala respectively (of whom 16% are opposed to this policy as ‘unacceptable). Also both Northern Tamils (73% ‘essential or desirable’) and Sinhala (64%) prefer that ‘Appointments of Supreme Court Judges and other high posts should be made on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council established by Parliament’ rather than at the discretion of the President (61% and 31% ‘essential or desirable’ respectively with 31% of Sinhala also opposed to this policy as ‘unacceptable’).

Constitutional Reform: A consensus is reached on the first four items on the constitutional reform priorities for negotiations list. ‘Give equal status to all religious groups’ is at the top of this list of 27 items with 87% ‘essential or desirable’ for Northern Tamils and 73% for Sinhala. ‘Fully implement the 13th Amendment’ is 2nd at 64% and 68% respectively; ‘Clearly define the powers of the Centre and the Provinces’ 3rd at 83% and 46% (15% ‘unacceptable’ for Sinhala) and then ‘Fully implement the 17th Amendment 4th at 47% and 70% ‘essential or desirable’ for Northern Tamils and Sinhala respectively (17% and 13% ‘unacceptable). Clearly all these reforms can be done with the consent of the people. However the top priority for Northern Tamils is that ‘The North and East should be one province’ with 92% stating that it is ‘essential or desirable’. However, it comes in 5th on the joint list as only 21% of Sinhala share this view and 53% of them are opposed to this reform as ‘unacceptable’. But this item is probably something that will have to be negotiated with Eastern Tamils as well and early indications from their data suggest that they would also support a single province although not as strongly (64% ‘essential or desirable’ and 10% ‘unacceptable’ in an un-weighted sample from the first poll). The top priority for the Sinhala community is that ‘Sri Lanka should be a unitary state’ at 91% ‘essential or desirable’ with Northern Tamils opposed to this proposal at 75% ‘unacceptable’. But this leaves about 25% of Northern Tamils with mixed views on this point and this ‘split’ is reflected in a series of related questions: ‘Two completely separate independent states’ is considered ‘essential or desirable’ by 53% and ‘unacceptable’ by 28% of Northern Tamils; ‘Two states in a loose union like Europe’ is ‘essential or desirable’ for 39% but ‘unacceptable’ for 24% and finally in the constitutional package question ‘Two states’ is ‘essential or desirable’ for 47% of Northern Tamils and ‘unacceptable’ for 27%. This degree of consistency should be taken seriously and when combined with other results such as the full implementation of the 13th Amendment at 64% ‘essential or desirable’ and, for example, ‘Devolution with the same powers for all Provinces’ at 60% ‘essential or desirable’ and ‘No devolution’ at 69% ‘unacceptable’ then the prospects for a negotiated peace look very good indeed providing the extremists in both communities can be marginalised.

A Constitutional Package: Finding common ground and marginalising the extremists in any negotiation is never easy but hopefully an objective look at the positions of the two communities on the key constitutional issues will help each side understand better where agreement can be reached. With this point in mind an additional constitutional question was asked that presented the various options put forward by both communities as ‘constitutional packages’. As would be expected 95% of Sinhala reject the ‘Two State’ solution as ‘unacceptable’ and 83% of Northern Tamils (from the Jaffna sample) reject the ‘Unitary Sate’ option as ‘unacceptable’. But 58% of Sinhala consider ‘13th Amendment Devolution’ ‘essential or desirable’ with only 24% opposed to it as ‘unacceptable’ while 53% of Northern Tamils consider ‘Enhanced Devolution’ ‘essential or desirable’ with only 7% opposed to it as ‘unacceptable’. ‘Enhanced Devolution’ (paraphrased here as ‘Full implementation of the 13th and 17th Amendments plus the devolution of significant powers to autonomous provinces negotiated at a peace conference’) is arguably the expressed policy of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) and it is only opposed by 31% of the Sinhala community according to our polls. This may sound like a lot but it isn’t. For example the successful Belfast Agreement was opposed by 52% of Protestants in a comparable public opinion poll completed just before it was successfully negotiated and subsequently passed in a referendum. Given the political will of the elected representatives of the people of Sri Lanka and the support of the international community a peace agreement should be achievable in Sri Lanka also.

Implementation: Perhaps the problem in Sri Lanka is as much one of implementation as it is a matter of negotiation and with this point in mind two options were tested against public opinion on this issue. Both a Constitutional Council and a Constitutional Court were acceptable and with regard to the International Community India came out on top as the most acceptable partner to help facilitate peace with Norway second for Northern Tamils and SAARC second for the Sinhala. So perhaps the question Sri Lanka and her neighbours need to ask is not can Sri Lanka achieve peace but when?

  • Kayzee

    Dear Sir

    I have not gone through the complete document and I am not much concernede of the results as thefundamental basis of your community selection is WRONG. Please note the following

    1. There is no problem between Sri lankan government and People of northarn province. The issue is between Sri Lanka and the Tamil speratist group

    2. You have taken the presumption that people in the southern parts of the country are ALL Sinhalese. Which is completly wrong. I would presume majority of your interviewees would have come from colombo. And over 55 percent of the people in Colombo are Etnic tamils. You would have to identify what the tamils in the south have to say.

    3. The academic circles prbably are the worst method of selecting samples. How are you giving the assurance that acedemics took part from the north ware impartial and has selected the correct samples

    4. The people in the LTTE held areas are terrorised by the LTTE. Would you expect any of those people to state there opinions candidly.

  • Chaminda


    First, you have failed to correctly identify the two conflicting parties. You consider this conflict to be between the “Sinhala in the South” and the “Tamils in the North”

    If we consider the latter first, the “Tamils in the North” are only a sub-sector of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, You disregard and discount the struggle and the legitimate grievances of the Eastern Tamils, and the Central Tamils. Even within the Northern Tamils there are caste and religious conflicts at play.

    Then by branding the other party as the “Sinhala South”, you fail to appreciate the extremely wide gamut of ethnic identities in Sri Lanka. What about the significant Muslim Population or, as the previous reader pointed out, the 50+% population of Tamils in Colombo? The Christian Tamils and Sinhalas?

    An accurate representation would be to consider this a conflict between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka.

    The continuous assassination of 100s of Tamil politicians by the LTTE clearly indicates that they (the LTTE) are not the sole representative of the Tamil people.

    The government was elected by democratic means in a country with universal franchise. The elections in 2005 were considered fair and representative. (but a system in which minority representation should be improved)

    Therefore, considering that you failed to identify the research parameters at the onset, the usefulness of your results is highly compromised.

    The problem with a peace process in Sri Lanka is, unlike in Ireland, the government does not have a mature, representative political body to negotiate with. Most Tamil politicians were assassinated by the LTTE leaving behind a core of military personnel whose knowledge or desire for peace is miniscule.

    Sir, you are trying to push this square peg understanding of the Sri Lankan conflict into the round hole context of the Northern Ireland conflict.

    (Furthermore: a summary of this article highlighting key results and conclusions would have been much more accessible that the current form)


  • Often, the Northern Ireland events are compared to achieve peace in Sri Lanka(SL). In real sense, Northern Ireland cannot be compared to SL as Northern Ireland is bound together liguistically, culturally, historically and traditionally. In other words, they are one people.

    On the otherhand, in SL, Tamils and Sinhalese have different language, culture, history, traditional homelands and religions.

    Unitary state argumant for Northern Ireland is therefore irrelevant to any solution in SL although, the guerella war aspect is the same between the IRA and the LTTE and no solution would be workable without the LTTE, as it was with IRA for Northern Ireland..

    Countries all over the world have resolved problems such as the one prevailing in SL by Federalism, confederalism or separate states.

    The problems Tamils face in SL is the political craftiness, deception, reversals and the like practiced by the Sinhalese and their governments against the legitimate rights of Tamils.

    When that aspect is addressed half the problem would be solved.

    Therefore Tamils in the North East should have a solution that provides decisions for Tamil security, rights, freedom, finances and development in their own hands.

  • Ekcol

    Dr. Irwin,
    Thank you for providing your specialty to the survey. Opinion Polls surveys are generally full of problems of methodolgy, analysis and most importantly interpretation and conclusion for action. Social Indicator surveys have improved from their first few surveys at the initial stages. Considering the extremely difficult ground situation, hidden pits of dangers, the survey gives some inclination of the people at the time frame of the survey. A survey at this tragic times anywhere in SL on the conflict issue is fraught with problems of validity not to speak of dangers to the interviewers.

    One could publish the results of the survey with statements of the limitation of the study. Often results are published and interpreted in the media without the statement of the limitation so that the lay person could be cautious in accepting the results as truth now and forever!

    I think you went out on a thin limb when you made conclusion of optimism. A complex, long standing violent conflict such as the one in SL needs more than a survey to understand the wish of the people. A referendum, conducted by the UN for separation would result in at least 90 percent of the Sinhala voting NO, and 90 percent of the Tamils voting YES. Of course SL would never let it happen giving the excuse of Sovereignty!!! If they are sure two thirds of the Tamils will reject separation, they would welcome a referendum.

  • punitham

    Anyone (could even be a ten year-old) following what has been going on in Sri Lanka in the last sixty years can see that the block to the solution of the conflict is the lack of consensus on this issue between UNP and SLFP that have been alternately (by ethnic outbidding) forming the governments. In the case of Northern Ireland the British Labout Party and Conservative Party have one voice. This has been pointed out by natives and foreigners hundred and one times but recently also by a British Minister in London at the Royal Commonwealth Society meeting(4 June).