Sri Lanka has been fortunate to survive without war for the past three years, and a sigh of relief passed across the country as it marked the third anniversary of the ceasefire agreement signed between the
government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on February 22, 2002. Even ardent opponents of the truce acknowledge that the ceasefire and the absence of a full-scale conflict over the past three years has saved valuable lives and property.
Behind this positive picture is a different and melancholy story - a story of lost opportunities and lack of progress. Three years ago, there was enthusiasm all round, with peace talks resuming in the Thai resort town of Satahip. There was an economic boom riding on the expectation that the curse of two decades was finally over. Three years later, there is no peace, no war, and no talks. The only reality is the ceasefire agreement, which the two parties continue to adhere to for strategic reasons, despite ceasefire violations by both sides. Meanwhile, efforts to bring them together have not ceased, with Norwegian peace facilitators making regular visits, shuttling between Colombo and the LTTE base in Kilinochchi and also between Oslo and London where the LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, is domiciled.
Norwegian Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, was in Sri Lanka last week in yet another effort to bring the two sides face-to-face. This time, his effort was aimed more at reaching an agreement on a joint mechanism to handle the tsunami aid and relief work in the North and East, than the peace process per se. But there was no breakthrough, and he had to leave empty-handed - a situation, which the Norwegians have become accustomed to - after listening to complaints from both sides.
Both the government and the LTTE need the foreign funds to bolster their respective positions. The LTTE also eyes a big share in the multi-billion-dollar aid package, which the international community has promised - though much of this aid remains only a distant promise. There appears to be significant donor pressure on the government to come to some sort of a deal with the LTTE on the tsunami relief work before they release any funds. Earlier the donors had linked the release of a 4.5 billion dollar aid package to the resumption of the peace process.
A desperate government, caught in a catch-22 situation, cannot accede to the LTTE's demands without risking its narrow Parliamentary majority. On Wednesday, February 23, 2005, the government Information Department issued a statement declaring that the government was prepared to resume talks to set up, first, an interim arrangement to handle the urgent humanitarian needs of the people, and then to proceed to discuss the final solution to the prolonged ethnic crisis. The remarks drew an angry response from the coalition partner, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which threatened to walk out of the government if the talks on the interim authority took place before a final solution to the ethnic conflict was found. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) welcomed the government's statement and offered its unstinted support.
But just as Kumaratunga defied the JVP threat and agreed to go the extra mile for the sake of peace, the LTTE appears to have toughened its stance and escalated demands. The LTTE's position was that the talks should focus only on its proposals for an interim self-governing authority for the North and East. But in the aftermath of the killing of the LTTE's eastern leader, E. Kaushalyan, on February 7, 2005, the rebels are now demanding that the government should dismantle all paramilitary groups - an obvious reference to the breakaway Karuna faction. The LTTE accuses the government of complicity in the Kaushalyan killing and strongly believes that the military is providing shelter to renegade LTTE cadres loyal to Karuna.
On February 14, 2005, Tiger ideologue Balasingham told Solheim at a meeting in London that the Sri Lankan government had to take steps to restore confidence in the peace process, in particular by disarming paramilitaries working alongside its armed forces, and to establish a joint mechanism with the LTTE for post-tsunami aid. The two new demands have not only made the Tiger's stance tougher but also made the government's search for peace difficult.
The President's response to Tiger allegations came in a statement on Friday, February 25, 2005, which quoted Chandrika Kumaratunga as having told Solheim that there were no paramilitaries working with the armed forces and unreservedly condemned the killing of Kaushalyan. She also expressed her government's commitment to discuss "a working arrangement with the LTTE for the equitable allocation and implementation of post-tsunami aid".
Whether the Tigers would accept her words or insist on action is yet to be seen.
Against this backdrop, a political crisis is brewing inside the government with President Kumaratunga, who is on her last year in office, now apparently regretting her alliance with the JVP. Two Sundays ago, addressing a public gathering, she fired salvos at the JVP, accusing it of being an obstacle to peace and asking it to leave the government if it did not agree with her policies.
If the JVP, which has 39 seats in the legislature, quits, her government can survive only if she gets the support of her main rival, the UNP. But, with battle lines being drawn for a presidential race this or next year, the UNP's cooperation will not be forthcoming or will be limited only to the extent of securing political gains. Adding to the crisis, the Ceylon Workers Congress, a party which derives its strength from the people of Indian origin, has decided to withdraw its support to the government. If the party carries out its threat, the government would once again lapse into a minority, with the joint opposition calling the shots.
The Tigers will certainly be keeping close tabs on these political developments, since southern politics is one of the factors that shape the peace process. The Tigers may also cling on to the ceasefire till the current political crisis has produced an outcome. The Tigers are also aware that they can get foreign aid for development only if they keep away from violence. They are, however, also aware that if the current situation of 'no war, no peace,' continues it will make them politically and administratively impotent and lead to the erosion of their support base. In the words of one pro-Tiger analyst, a politically and administratively impotent LTTE that cannot deliver anything socially or economically concrete to the Tamils should, in theory, crumble inevitably if it is held for a sufficiently long time in a no war no peace situation.
The LTTE is not unmindful of this stock counter insurgency wisdom.
At Kaushalyan's funeral, the LTTE said its patience was running thin and warned the government of a 'fitting response'. On Wednesday, February 23, 2005, LTTE cadres killed a soldier and wounded another in Killali in the North. The LTTE did not mince words to claim the responsibility for the incident. "Yes, we did it, so what" was its attitude.
In the three years of ceasefire, Wednesday's incident was just another violation. When the Tigers are accused of ceasefire violations they respond with ease by pointing to the government's ceasefire violations, which are largely unseen. They claim, for instance, that the government has not fulfilled its pledges to vacate all public buildings and homes in the North East and to disarm paramilitaries. Besides, the LTTE claims that the government has also upset the military balance by buying arms from Iran and Pakistan under multi-million dollar credit lines, adding that the flow of tsunami aid has emboldened the government to take this step.
On the other hand, the government accuses the LTTE of covertly building up its military machine even as the country was grappled with the tsunami disaster. It is alleged that the Tigers have obtained military hardware under the cover of tsunami relief. Tsunami aid cargoes destined for the LTTE and detected at the airport have included two helicopters, ammunition and a consignment of body armour.
The government fears that the LTTE has grown from strength to strength during the ceasefire. According to defence officials, it has not only accrued air power, but also swelled its ranks with child soldiers. As of February 2004, there were more than 1,250 child soldiers in LTTE camps, but the real figure could be much higher, according to UNICEF. If a resolution currently being discussed by the United Nations Security Council is adopted next month, there would be targeted sanctions against governments and rebel leaders who continue to recruit child soldiers. The LTTE is likely to play the peace card to circumvent international sanctions.
Thus the no-peace-no-war situation is expected to continue till the LTTE finds the correct political and military coordinates to take its next step. In Sri Lanka's conflict resolution exercise, it is the LTTE which still calls the shots.
Ameen Izzadeen is
Deputy Editor of the Colombo based Sunday Times and Daily Mirror.
Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal
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