With the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) virtually in tatters, Sri Lanka oscillates between hope and despair as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) keeps everyone guessing. Amidst bloodshed and mayhem, the rebels send conflicting signals which, at times, tempt the war-weary and desperate people to defy reason and entertain a glimmer of hope. But the ground realities present a different and bleak picture – Sri Lanka is fast sliding back to a full-scale war.
There is no gainsaying that the country is already in the midst of a low-intensity war, and the only factor that prevents analysts from describing the situation as an all-out war is the regular statements the rebels issue, expressing their ‘commitment’ to the CFA. But then the rebels do not match their words with deeds.
An overwhelming majority in the Sinhala community, including those who have long given the LTTE the benefit of the doubt in the interests of peace, now believe the LTTE can no longer be trusted. It is also the case that some Tamils, whom the LTTE claims to represent, are also unhappy with the present developments. The Tamils, who believed that the CFA the Tigers signed with the Sri Lankan government would help them win autonomy within a federal Sri Lanka, blame both the government and the Tigers for not conducting negotiation in a spirit of give-and-take, blaming both sides for squandering an opportunity for peace at the Geneva talks on February 22-23, 2006. Save the handshake at the beginning of the Geneva talks, it was a war of words between the two sides waged for two days at the Swiss chateau.
With hindsight, it can easily be seen that, throughout Sri Lanka’s 23-year separatist war, the LTTE has been setting all the traps — either in war or in peace — and the governments of the day have simply walked into these.
Many a Sinhala hardliner stands vindicated today for warning the governments not to trust the LTTE, describing the LTTE’s peace gambit as a ploy to regroup and rearm for another major offensive. Had the LTTE been keen on a political solution, it would not have engineered the victory of Mahinda Rajapakse, who aligned himself with hardline Sinhala parties at the November 2005 presidential election. If the Tamils had been allowed to vote freely, opposition candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe would have won the elections and the LTTE would have secured a Tsunami aid-sharing mechanism as an initial concession and would also have won some form of political and administrative authority for the north and east. But the LTTE, clearly, had different plans – indeed, a multiplicity of contingency plans.
The government is not lost to the reality that the war cannot be won, although hardline parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), in an apparent bid to gain political mileage, arouse Sinhala nationalist emotions and promote the view that the separatist rebellion could be militarily crushed. The government is also aware that India will not get militarily involved in the Sri Lankan conflict to help crush the LTTE. Neither will India allow another country or even the United Nations to intervene in the Sri Lankan conflict.
The government is also aware that the international community will continue to stress a peaceful solution to the conflict even though more and more countries brand the LTTE a terrorist organization. The fact that the international community holds the purse strings and is in a position to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan government and to focus on human rights violations, is also not lost on the Rajapakse Administration.
These circumstances have forced the government to resort to a measured response in retaliation to the LTTE’s acts of violence against civilians and military targets.
Since April more than 700 people — half of them civilians — have died in renewed violence. The government exercised restraint at the beginning but launched military operations of a limited nature when a suspected LTTE suicide cadre blew herself up in an attempt to kill the Army Chief on April 25. A month later, when some 64 civilians were killed in a rebel attack on a passenger bus in a frontline village, the government again launched limited air strikes against LTTE positions, and claimed that the air strikes caused damage to the LTTE’s airstrip in the Mullaitivu jungles, though there is no independent verification of this claim.
It appears, however, that air strikes and artillery barrages by the security forces have not caused any significant losses to the LTTE. If anything, it is the civilians living in the LTTE-controlled territories who have suffered the brunt of these attacks, with many leaving villages, while others stay back to tell their woes to the outside world. Even Tamil people living in government-controlled areas speak of atrocities by the security forces, and there have been allegations of rape and looting by men in uniform wearing hoods.
The Security Forces are also said to be hitting back at the LTTE, using the rebels’ own tactics. Deep penetration units of the security forces, with the help of the Karuna faction, have planted claymore bombs aimed at vehicles carrying top LTTE cadres inside rebel-controlled areas. Citing these incidents, pro-LTTE websites justify LTTE attacks in Colombo.
Strangely, the government launched no retaliatory strikes when the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Parami Kulatunga, was killed in an LTTE suicide attack on June 26, 2006. The attack on Lt. Gen. Kulatunga came a week after a botched attempt by the LTTE to attack the Colombo harbour, on June 19.
Whether the government’s restraint is due to intelligence advice or its desire not to scuttle renewed efforts at resuming the peace process is not clear. What is obvious, however, is that the security situation in the country is becoming volatile by the day. Some military analysts, who take LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s ‘Heroes Day’ speech in November 2005 seriously, say the LTTE is preparing for the decisive phase of the Eelam war. According to these analysts, the focus of the LTTE on attacking targets in Colombo and suburbs is not without strategic significance.
Under the CFA, the LTTE allowed international organizations to remove landmines from the northern and eastern battlefields, sending signals to the world that it was serious about the peace process. With large parts of the north-east being de-mined to a great extent, the security forces can gain unimpeded access to Tiger areas if full-scale hostilities break out. Therefore, the LTTE apparently feels that the war should be taken outside the areas it dominates, and particularly into Colombo, its suburbs and other important cities in the south. Military strategists say such a move will require a greater security forces presence in Colombo and other areas in the south, effectively implying a weakened presence in the north and east. If full scale war breaks out, consequently, the theatres of conflict will not only be the north and the east, but also the capital.
The economic costs of such an eventuality would be devastating. While the government will have some success in the eastern front because of its alliance with the Karuna faction, it will find it difficult to control the north and to keep Colombo safe. The government, of course, officially denies it has any dealing with the breakaway LTTE faction.
The fear of war coming to Colombo and damaging the economy has fuelled President Rajapakse’s efforts to strike a direct but secret deal with the LTTE. Two weeks ago, he contacted the editor and the publisher of the Jaffna-based pro-LTTE newspaper, Udayan, and asked them whether they could use their good offices to arrange talks with the LTTE, bypassing the Norwegians, the facilitators of the current Sri Lanka peace process. The media duo conveyed the President’s message to the LTTE, and in turn delivered the rebels' reply to the President. Although the LTTE rejected outright the President’s call for secret talks, it forwarded five proposals to stall the outbreak of a full-scale war and create conditions for a resumption of the dialogue process. These were:
1. The Security Forces and the paramilitary groups (an obvious reference to the Karuna faction) should halt all hostile acts against Tamils.
2. All paramilitary groups should be disarmed and removed from the north and east.
3. The government must lift the limited economic embargo that was imposed in the wake of recent violence.
4. Stop abduction of children by the Karuna faction. (Even UNICEF, on June 22, 2006, expressed concern over child soldier recruitment by the Karuna faction).
5. Stop subjecting LTTE delegates to humiliation and desecrating LTTE war hero cemeteries.
In substance, once again, the whole issue boils down to one factor – the Karuna group. It is on this issue that the second round of Geneva talks scheduled for April 19-21, 2006, did not take place. But the government does not want to take risk antagonizing the Karuna faction, though at the end of the Geneva talks in February, the government had pledged that no groups other than the Security Forces would be allowed to carry arms in government-controlled areas. But it took little action by way of fulfilling this pledge. It is, consequently, doubtful that the new LTTE proposals will stir hopes of peace.
With questions hanging over the fate of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) after the Tigers protested the presence of monitors from the European Union, which recently put the LTTE on its list of terrorist organizations, indications are that there is little to stem the country’s rapid slide back to a major war. The Norwegians, whom the President is once again is trying to bypass, convened a meeting on June 29, 2006, in Oslo to discuss the future of the SLMM. At the meeting the truce monitors decided not to give into the demands of the LTTE. In other words, the ceasefire monitoring operation is also stuck in a limbo.
In a nutshell, the peace in Sri Lanka has been, and remains, a deadly tool of war. This is the irony of the Sri Lankan conflict.
Ameen Izzadeen is Deputy
Editor, The Sunday Times, Colombo. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence
Review of the
South Asia Terrorism Portal
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