June 25, 2021
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Sri Lankan Stalemate

Between the aid-donors and the warring LTTE factions, the government is in a bind. There is a stalemate at the peace front. There is a stalemate in Parliament, which has seen no bills but only blows since April. And there is a stalemate in the econom

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Sri Lankan Stalemate

The message was clear in Brussels when aid donors early this month warned Sri Lanka that the country would lose billions of dollars in aid if the peace process was not resumed.

The message was clear also from the rebel headquarters in northern Sri Lanka, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) warning the Sri Lanka government of dire consequences and a bloodbath if the interim administration it was seeking was not forthcoming, and if the government did not stop collaborating with the breakaway LTTE faction led by 'Colonel' Karuna.

However, the message, emanating from the Janadhipathi Mandiraya (President's House), was ambiguous or indecisive, giving rise to fears that the relative calm prevailing in the country since the February 2002 ceasefire agreement could be shattered any moment.

Handicapped by its lack of majority in Parliament and politically blackmailed by an anti-devolution and ultra-nationalist ally, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga is in a proverbial Catch-22 situation.

The government desperately needs the US $ 4.5 billion aid package, which the donors pledged in Tokyo exactly one year ago, to salvage a sinking economy that has been badly hit by high oil prices and the fast-depreciating rupee.

To get the aid, the peace process needs to be revived. To revive the peace process, the government has to agree to the LTTE condition that talks must focus only on the Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) for the North-East, and the government must abandon its rider that parallel talks should also be held on the final solution to the 21-year ethnic conflict. If the President says okay to the LTTE condition, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which accounts for one-third of the UPFA's strength in Parliament, has warned that it would leave the alliance.

It is this picture of no-war-no-peace that looms large over the country and it is against such a backdrop that President Kumaratunga invited a delegation of the LTTE-backed Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi, popularly known as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), for a crucial meeting on June 10.

The Tamil MPs, obviously attending with LTTE approval, stuck to their guns and thought they had extracted what they wanted. President Kumaratunga reportedly told them that she would study ways of bypassing Parliament and use her constitutional powers to meet the LTTE demand for an ISGA and agreed to defer the talks on the final solution - a major breakthrough or turnaround.

Alas, it was not to be. On Saturday evening, the state TV broadcast a pre-recorded policy statement by the President. Apparently under pressure from hardliners within the ruling alliance, the President again linked the talks on the ISGA with talks on the final solution, in a speech marked by ambiguity.

The President's apparent backtracking coincided with a statement posted on the LTTE peace secretariat website. It accused the President of political duplicity and warned of consequences that could lead to a bloodbath. The government declined to comment on the LTTE statement, saying it would only respond to an official LTTE letter, and reiterated its unwavering commitment to the peace process.

The main opposition United National Party (UNP), meanwhile charged that the UPFA had endangered the peace process by allowing internal contradictions within the ruling party to derail policy and described the President as a bundle of confusion.

Some observers say the President, who was flying out of the country to London while the state TV was broadcasting her address, is playing for time till the provincial elections are held on July 10, to go ahead with a move that is not so popular with the majority Sinhala people, and who went along with the UPFA's claim that the previous government had conceded too much to the LTTE and voted the UNP out of office in the April 2 general elections.

But the LTTE appears to mean business and it continues to jolt the shaky truce, keeping the Scandinavian ceasefire monitors busy. Mannar was tense on June 14 and 15 after an attempt by the Army to search two female LTTE cadres led to a near-confrontational situation. Tension is also building up over the Navy's refusal to accede to the LTTE's request for safe sea passage to transport cadres from Mullaitivu to Verugal, the base from which the LTTE launched its offensive against the breakaway Karuna faction fighters in April.

It is not only tension that is building up but also war-preparedness by both sides. The LTTE continues to recruit child soldiers while Air Force fighter planes have begun test flights. What is more alarming are the occasional discoveries of bombs in the city. Police on June 17 discovered the second bomb in as many months containing the same type of explosives. It is not clear as to who planted these bombs. The LTTE could have done it in a bid to send a strong message to the government. The government intelligence could have done it to send a message to the hardliners to win their support for peace moves - or even to the Tamils because, after the detection of the second bomb near a school, the area was cordoned off and scores of Tamils were arrested for questioning in scenes reminiscent of the situation prior to the truce.

These may appear to be routine activities of a rebel group and a government, but given the powder-keg situation in the country, they give the impression that both sides are drifting away from peace.

It is perhaps such a perception that prompted donors who met in Brussels to urge, in the strongest possible terms, a rapid resumption of the peace negotiations and warn that there should be no drift and no delay. "With so many other demands on donors, the record pledge of US $ 4.5 billion (or around 441 billion Sri Lankan rupees), may otherwise go elsewhere," the donors, including the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway, warned.

Be that as it may, besides the July 10 provincial elections, there are two other factors, which are contributing to the slow approach of the UPFA government to the resumption of the peace talks - the Indian factor and the Karuna factor.

The Sri Lankan government has been heartened by the positive response it is receiving from India's new Congress-led government. The Manmohan Singh government has given the green light for an Indo-Lanka defence agreement, while it has expressed its commitment to Sri Lanka's sovereignty, territorial integrity and the search for a solution within a federal system that would satisfy all sections of the people of Sri Lanka.

The thinking in government and political circles in Colombo is that the new Indian government, though its Lanka policy overtly is no different from its predecessor Vajpayee government, may act in a manner favourable to Sri Lanka, because of the Congress Party's strained and blood-stained relationship with the LTTE over the killing of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The LTTE is not unaware of this. In an apparent move to counter the Indian factor, the LTTE has turned to the international donor community to apply pressure on the government to accede to the ISGA, which it sees not only as a de facto autonomous political entity, but also as a mechanism to gain full control of the Eastern Province.

Though the LTTE has militarily crushed the Karuna rebellion, it is still not comfortable in the East - with Karuna's men striking at will in what is seen as a guerrilla war within a guerrilla war.

It is in this context that the Karuna factor assumes significance. The LTTE alleges that the Karuna faction has a collaborative relationship with the armed forces - a charge the government vehemently denies. However, it cannot be ruled out that the Karuna faction would be in the government's reckoning in the event that hostilities break out.

The LTTE is getting increasingly restless over incidents in the Eastern province where two prominent supporters of the Wanni leadership were killed by suspected Karuna faction members in the last week of May 2004. The two sides have also launched a propaganda war that has extended to the worldwide web as well, with a pro-Karuna group launching its neruppu.com website to counter numerous pro-Prabhakaran websites. As in any other war, truth appears to be the first casualty. A good example are the recent reports about scores of pro-Prabhakaran cadres being killed by the Karuna faction. These developments are certainly indications that the LTTE is not as comfortable as it used to be in the Eastern province.

In a statement issued following the cold-blooded killings of Eastern University dean P. Thambiah on May 24, and journalist Aiyathurai Nadesan on May 31, 2004, the LTTE issued an official statement that cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric. The statement, which was the first of the hitherto-released two official LTTE releases containing a warning after the UPFA assumed office, said:

"Killing of intellectuals, journalists and friends of Tamil people is abominable. Even during this time of peace, anti-peace forces are engaged in barbaric activities. These actions are bound to lead the people of this island to a period of calamity and destruction. Sri Lanka security forces and the militants who are assisting them must realise the consequences…"

A "period of calamity and destruction": the message is abundantly clear - and was repeated on Sunday, June 13, when the LTTE declared that the foundation for peace laid with international assistance during the past three years would be shattered, and Sri Lanka would again be subjected to a bloodbath. It accused the President of duplicity and trickery to mislead the donors and get the money so that she could wage war again.

Parallel to issuing warnings, the LTTE is also seeking direct aid from UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations for rehabilitation and reconstruction work in the war-ravaged North and East, with its planning and development secretariat functioning as the pivotal body. There is a warning to the government in this move as well. If the government delays the setting up of the ISGA, which the LTTE ostensibly needs to facilitate the rehabilitation and reconstruction process, the LTTE will resort to mechanisms and devices of its choice to get the donor funds.

Amidst these threats, Sri Lanka epitomizes what constitutes a stalemate in every sphere. There is a stalemate at the peace front. There is a stalemate in Parliament, which has seen no bills but only blows since April. There is a stalemate in the economy, which is slowly losing the steam that it derived during the two-year investor-friendly and pro-peace UNF regime.

The never-say-die Norwegian facilitators, in the meantime, have intensified efforts to keep the peace flame alive with shuttle diplomatic missions to Colombo, London and New Delhi.

Ameen Izzadeen is Deputy Editor of the Colombo-based Sunday Times. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

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