July 02, 2020
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Sri Lanka

A Temporary Reprieve

When the new Mahinda Rajapakse government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam agreed to hold another round of talks in Geneva between April 19 and 21, there was a collective sigh of relief, but how long will this troubled peace last?

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A Temporary Reprieve

Nineteen million Sri Lankans heaved a collective sigh of relief when the new Mahinda Rajapakse government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam agreed to hold another round of talks in Geneva between April 19 and 21, at their meeting at the same location after a three-year hiatus. Despite a four-year ceasefire, (it was signed on February 22, 2002, four years to the day when last week’s talks commenced), talks have been stalled since April 2003, when the Tigers pulled out after being shut out at a donors’ meeting in the US.

A little over a month before the latest round of talks, violence, especially in the north east had pushed the truce to its brink. Claymore mine attacks became rampant, targeting the armed forces. The Sri Lanka Navy became one of the main targets when its craft came under repeated attacks in the north eastern and north western waters. In one of the major hits, 13 sailors died and the Israeli built Dvora attack craft, in which they were patrolling the north eastern waters off Trincomalee, was sunk on January 7, in what the Navy now suspects to be an attack launched by an LTTE suicide cadre.

The fresh wave of attacks commenced on December 4, 2005, a week after LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran warned, in his annual Heroes’ Day speech, that the Tigers would ‘have no option’ but to return to hostilities if President Rajapakse failed to come up with a viable power devolution proposal. Rajapakse had been sworn in just seven days before the speech, after winning the tightly contested election by a slim 140,000 votes, that too with the help of hard-line parties in the south, who oppose wide power-sharing with the Tigers.

The Tigers, however, denied any role in December-January attacks and responsibility was claimed by a shadowy front organisation calling itself the Tamil Resurgence Force (TRF). The TRF claimed, in a number of letters, including one to the truce monitors, that it consisted of ‘armed civilians’ inside government-controlled areas, on the ready to attack the security forces. Significantly, the Tigers imparted basic military training to civilians in areas under their rule before the attacks commenced.

Government forces, however, clearly blamed the attacks on the Tigers and their active supporters, claiming the cover of civilians. In the ensuing violence, 120 persons, including 80 service and police personnel and scores of civilians, have died. In one particularly ugly incident, five Tamil youth were killed in Trincomalee in execution style just five days before the Navy gunboat was blown up. Thirteen members of the Sri Lanka police have been taken in for questioning on suspicion for the attack.

More than 16,000 people have fled government areas to Tiger-controlled territory, and the northern Jaffna Peninsula, which is under the government, once again looked like a garrison town.

Only international pressure – the Americans made a not-so-veiled threat in Colombo that they would assist the government in the event that hostilities erupted again – and doggedness on the part of the Norwegian peace brokers salvaged the situation and reopened negotiations. However, when the two sides were making last minute preparations for talks in Geneva, Norwegian Special Peace Envoy Erik Solheim cautioned against entertaining high expectations. His anxiety was partly influenced by the violence of the last two months, as also by the fissures that had erupted between the two sides since they last met. In fact, other than the Norwegians, only three of the 2003 representatives had made it back to negotiating table. Consecutive government changes in Colombo guaranteed that the entire government delegation was new. From the Tigers’ side, only chief negotiator Anton Balasingham, Political Wing Head S.P. Tamilselvan and Balasingham’s wife, Adele, who acts as a secretary at talks, remained. Crucially, one of their former co-negotiators, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan alias Karuna, had broken ranks in early 2004 and launched a rebellion against Prabhakaran’s leadership in the eastern parts of Sri Lanka. The Karuna rebellion constitutes a serious headache for the Tigers, and was one of its main complaints at the Geneva talks.

The government side had its own list of grievances, the most prominent of which was the August 2005 assassination of former Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, blamed on the Tigers.

The talks got off to a rough start, with the two sides bickering over who should have first claim on the floor, and over talking to the Press. Both sides came to Geneva pushing widely divergent agendas. The government wanted the truce agreement, signed by the 2002 government under the stewardship of a political opponent, amended. The Tigers had the disarming of the Karuna faction on the top of their list.

In his opening remarks, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, the head of the government delegation, declared: "Our delegation affirms and emphasizes the position of the government of Sri Lanka that the Ceasefire Agreement entered into between the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and Mr. V. Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, on 22nd February 2002 is contrary to our Constitution and law." He added further that the LTTE had taken "undue and unfair advantage of the ceasefire to strengthen its military capability". Balasingham countered in his opening statement with the argument: "I should say that it is the truce agreement that has helped to avert the outbreak of an all-out war and created the present environment where both the parties could engage in dialogue."

At times the talks appeared to be little more than a trading of charges. De Silva listed 3,519 cases of ceasefire violations by the Tigers and a further 5,368 cases of under-aged combatants in Tiger ranks. Balasingham said that 28,830 house-owners had been forcibly evicted and 13,000 acres of farm land taken over by the Army to establish High Security Zones in Jaffna. The only point of apparent convergence was that the truce agreement was the only way to pursue a negotiated settlement. At the end of the two-day meeting, the Norwegians released a short statement seeped in diplomatic jargon, but with few specifics:

The government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE are committed to taking measures to ensure that there will be no intimidation, acts of violence, abductions or killings.

The LTTE is committed to taking all necessary measures to ensure that there will be no acts of violence against the security forces and police. The government of Sri Lanka is committed to taking all necessary measures in accordance with the Ceasefire Agreement to ensure that no armed group or person other than government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations.

Both sides hailed the outcome of the talks as a victory for their respective delegations, and the Norwegians declared that the result had exceeded their expectations.

Finally, however, everything will boil down to the manner in which the agreements arrived at in Geneva will be implemented on the ground back in Sri Lanka. In the past, both parties have been reluctant to carry out recommendations made by the truce monitors, and there is no indication that there has been any radical change of attitude.

Further, even while the Geneva talks were on, Karuna warned that he expected the government forces not to move on his loyalists who operate in the east, his former base. In any case, there are influential allies of the Rajapakse administration who feel that the Karuna factor is one of the biggest cards the government has up its sleeve.

Nevertheless, at least for the time being, Sri Lanka has won a temporary deferment of war, and can breathe relatively easily, till the next round of talks pushes up the stakes again.

Amantha Perera is Lecturer, Sri Lanka College of Journalism, Colombo. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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