The two-day talks held between the government of Sri Lanka and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at Geneva in Switzerland on October 28-29, 2006, ended without any conclusive result and without an agreement on future engagement. The outcome – or lack thereof – reaffirmed the fact that the dialogue remains essentially tactical on both sides, and seeks principally to establish a facade to appease the international community.
The intent and orientation were already well in evidence long before the meetings at Geneva. The government defence spokesperson, Keheliya Rambukwella, had bluntly declared, on October 24, "We will be going for talks, not peace talks." On the other side and on the same day, the political head of the LTTE, S.P. Tamilselvan, told media that the LTTE’s participation in the talks was in respect of the call by the international community. The talks were facilitated by Norway at the behest of co-chairs of Donor countries, which, at their meeting on September 12, 2006, in Brussels, urged both parties to engage in talks to end the ‘undeclared war’. Geneva II, however, was an even more obvious failure than Geneva I (February 22-23, 2006), where the two parties at least agreed to meet later, on April 19-20, though that meeting never materialized.
According to preliminary reports, the discussions collapsed on the issue of the closure of the A9 Highway, which links Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the country. The LTTE claimed that the ‘peace process’ was contingent on re-opening of the highway, while the government said it was compelled to close the highway for security reasons and that the LTTE was raking up the issue as it was not serious about discussing "core political issues." The government alleged that the LTTE were keen on re-opening the highway with an eye on the revenue it generated.
In reality, the talks never progressed in real terms with both sides sticking to their own intransigent positions. While the government demanded that ‘core issues’ – democracy, multi-party system, pluralism, human rights, child recruitment, development of the North and East and devolution – be discussed within a time-bound framework, the LTTE emphasized that they would engage on ‘contentious political issues’ only after ‘immediate humanitarian needs’ – the opening of the A9 Highway being the most important – and concerns regarding the protecting human rights had been first addressed.
Recent events have done much to bolster the government’s perception of its strength, both militarily and politically. Colombo has secured significant advantages on the ground after its successes in Mavilaru, Muttur, Muhamalai, Sampur and Jaffna, even as it has secured the long elusive ‘Southern Consensus’ – for the first time in the country both the ruling party and Opposition have come together with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United National Party (UNP) on October 23. The MoU is the result of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s attempt to have a united South. After the signing of the MoU the President stated, "We needed a Southern consensus. That was what the LTTE and the international community were asking for. We have now achieved it." Under the circumstances, the government was disinclined to allow significant movement to a renewed cease-fire agreement which would provide the LTTE a respite and the opportunity to regroup. On the other hand, the LTTE had also secured a number of dramatic ‘successes’, particularly in its execution of a number of effective suicide attacks in the South, as well as by inflicting large casualties on the Sri Lankan Army forces in some of the major conventional confrontations in the North. At the present juncture, consequently, neither the government nor the LTTE was ready for a ‘decisive war’ or for ‘decisive talks’.
Unsurprisingly, the spiral of violence continues. 647 persons were killed in October 2006 alone, adding to 533 killed in September. 3,560 people have already been sacrificed to the violence this year (till October 28). The LTTE’s losses in conventional warfare have been significant since hostilities broke out in July 2006, with at least 1,746 cadres killed, an estimated 15 per cent of its total cadre strength. The LTTE has lost a total of 2,041 cadres through 2006 (till October 28). Progressively cornered in the North, it sought to startle the government ahead of Geneva II by engineering a series of suicide attacks, the worst of which was the October 16 attack that killed at least 102 Navy personnel at Habrana in the Matale District. It has also inflicted severe blows on government forces in the fighting in the North. The worst single engagement for the SLA was on August 11, when the government lost 129 of its troopers in fighting at Jaffna. A total of 505 Security Forces (SF) personnel have been killed since July 2006, and 701 through the year.
The issue of reopening of A9 highway, which was closed by the government in August 2006, is critical for the LTTE. By closing the highway, the government has stifled the LTTE economy, since this route was the main source of local income for the rebels, who patrol a stretch of this road from Muhamalai to Omanthai in the Northern Province. The LTTE levies taxes and tolls on goods, persons and vehicles passing through this stretch of road. According to the Website of the Ministry of Defence of the government of Sri Lanka, "It is believed that the LTTE daily collects more than (Sri Lankan) Rs. 900,000 in the form of illegal tax and other revenue in this road. From Omanthai in the cleared area [area under government control], an average of 7000-8000 civilians and 1000- 1200 vehicles cross the stretch of land daily. Records revealed that the LTTE extortions to be an estimated sum of Rs. 200- 300 million from Jaffna bound cargo passing from its entry-exit point in Pallai. The estimated illegal tax revenue for the LTTE from the goods sent to Jaffna through A-9 road from June 01st to 19th is Rs. 65,721,821. LTTE also earned Rs. 285 million from goods to Jaffna, during March-April, on the festive eve on the Sinhala-Tamil New Year."
As a counter, the government has sought to maintain the sea routes to Jaffna as the principal supply line, but the LTTE has declared that it would not allow government vessels to use the sea because the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) has not distinguished marine areas controlled by the government from those controlled but the outfit. As one commentator notes, while the "CFA had demarcated these areas on land, it had not done so in the sea, as it was then agreed that the sea was the exclusive preserve of the Sri Lankan state. While banning the use of the sea, the LTTE offered to open the land route or the A9 highway. But the government is not keen on taking the offer of the land route because of the fear that the LTTE may hijack a part of the supplies or illegally tax the consignments en route."
Several changes have taken place between Geneva I and Geneva II, infinitely compounding the situation, both politically and militarily: The Sri Lanka Supreme Court’s October 16 ruling that the temporary merger of the northern and eastern provinces, effected in 1987 and extended annually, was "null and void and illegal" and that the President has no powers to effect a merger of provinces under Emergency Regulation, and only Parliament could decide on the subject; the European Union’s ban on the LTTE as a terrorist organisation; mounting fatalities – totaling 3,413: 788 civilians, 664 troops and 1,961 LTTE cadres in the intervening period; the emergence of the Southern Consensus; the government’s military gains, and the LTTE’s escalating campaigns of violence. Unsurprisingly, Geneva II achieved even less than the notional gains of Geneva I. Almost immediately after Geneva I, intelligence sources stated that a large-scale LTTE war drill was in progress in the Kanjikudichcharu area of Ampara District. This time around, the ground situation can be expected to worsen, unless international community is able to exert real and irresistible pressure on both sides. If the mounting number of CFA violations is any indicator – 3,737 by the LTTE and 280 by the government between February 22, 2002 and August 30, 2006 – the ceasefire is over, and the country has returned to real war.
Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal