The ceasefire still holds, at least on paper. Neither the Government nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has yet given the 14-day notice prior to an announcement of withdrawal from the peace process. Yet some 135 people - troops and civilians - have been killed since Mahinda Rajapakse, backed by Sinhala nationalists, assumed duties as the fifth Executive President of Sri Lanka on November 17, 2005. The low-intensity violence, which began to surface in the aftermath of a split in the LTTE in April 2004 against the backdrop of a truce between the Sri Lankan security forces and the rebels, shows signs of picking up and this may be a harbinger of the country's slide back to war. Every major attack on the security forces after November 17 has had the potential to trigger the 'Eelam War IV'. The January 7, 2006, attack on the Sri Lanka Navy's Fast Attack Craft in Trincomalee, for instance, was reminiscent of the 1995 attack on a Sri Lankan naval ship - which marked the beginning of 'Eelam War III'.
The Sri Lankan armed forces have been under orders from the top to exercise utmost restraint in the face of LTTE provocations, although the troops have been implicated in the killing of five students on the Trincomalee beach, and the rape of a Tamil girl when some sailors went berserk this week in a Mannar village in response to a deadly attack on a Navy convoy, in which nine naval personnel were killed.
The spate of violence, especially in the North, points to a test of wills. On the one hand, the LTTE, apparently seeking to trigger a full-scale war, has repeatedly provoked the Security Forces (SFs) and, on the other, the Government has restrained its Forces from hitting back. The Government strategy of restraint has helped the Rajapakse Administration in winning international sympathy, after it had earlier earned the ire of the world community for not offering a 'viable solution' to the ethnic conflict and for veering away from a federal solution. The United States and Australia have now come out strongly against the LTTE for the violence perpetrated on the SFs.
The LTTE, however, does not appear to be ruffled by growing international opinion against it. The assassination of former Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, on August 13, 2005, demonstrated its supreme indifference to external sympathy or pressure. It is clear that the LTTE has now resumed its armed struggle, though it claims not to have withdrawn from the ceasefire agreement, and this points to a new strategy aimed at increasing its bargaining power. The pressure on the LTTE to resume peace talks is mounting. But the rebels apparently feel that they can get what they want only if they jack up the stakes.
The LTTE's strategy appears to be targeted at regaining Jaffna. It has chosen the northern capital because, unlike in the East where its power has been somewhat weakened after the Karuna rebellion in April 2004, it enjoys significant public support in Jaffna. Military analysts claim that the LTTE has raised a 'People's Force' (Makkal Padai) consisting largely of civilians to face any eventuality in its push for Jaffna. Civilians in Jaffna and other areas in the north have been brought to LTTE camps during the four years of the ceasefire and have been given basic training in how to handle an AK-47 and grenades, according to LTTE watchers. It is this Makkal Padai which urged the people in the North, on behalf of the LTTE, to boycott the November 17 elections. It also issued warnings to the Armed Forces in Jaffna, to leave the Northern city or 'soon face death'. The LTTE proxy has also claimed responsibility for some of the attacks against the SFs in the North and elsewhere.
The LTTE also feels that regaining Jaffna is now militarily viable. In the wake of its capture of military bases at Elephant Pass, one of the gateways to the northern peninsula, in 2000, the LTTE laid a siege on Jaffna and was on the verge of recapturing it. It was apparently an Indian warning that forced the LTTE to change its strategy and leave the northern capital. Today, however, the LTTE feels the political climate in Tamil Nadu is once again favourable to it, as this southern Indian State faces Assembly elections this year, with the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko espousing the LTTE cause openly and Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram refusing to meet the visiting Sri Lankan President in December 2005. Kindling anti-Sinhala sentiments, newspapers in Tamil Nadu gave wide coverage to the humiliation faced by Tamils when, during a recent police raid in Colombo, hundreds of Tamils, including women in night dress, were taken to police stations, photographed and questioned.
The theory that the recapture of Jaffna will enhance the LTTE's bargaining power apparently stems from its belief that four years of ceasefire have not brought any significant political gains to the Tamil people. It is a fact that the ceasefire agreement had made life relatively easy for the Tamil people in the north and the east till November 17, 2005, and freed themselves from the fear of violence, with the major highway connecting the north and the south opening up and prices of commodities declining. But the peace talks held in Thailand and elsewhere have not taken the Tamil people anywhere closer to autonomy or the LTTE's objective of 'internal self-determination'.
The peace talks had come to a standstill January 2004, when the then Ranil Wickremesinghe Government tried to water down the LTTE's proposals for an interim self-governing authority (ISGA). Just when the two sides were about to agree on a working document, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga, under pressure from her party members and hardline parties such as the Marxists-turned-ultra nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections, claiming that the Wickremesinghe Administration was granting too many concessions to the LTTE and endangering national security.
The elections in April 2004 brought the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its electoral ally JVP back to power, but the Kumaratunga Government failed miserably in reviving the stalled peace process, largely because of opposition from nationalist elements. It was amidst much opposition and a risk of losing its majority in Parliament that the Kumaratunga Government signed the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS), a Tsunami aid sharing mechanism, with the LTTE. It was expected that the P-TOMS agreement would revive the peace process, but the Supreme Court, on a petition filed by the ultra-nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya, a party of Buddhist monks, ruled that some clauses in the agreement were ultra vires the Constitution. The Tamils in the north and the east interpreted these developments as the unwillingness of the majority Sinhalese to grant political concessions that would lead to autonomy in the Tamil regions. Adding to this frustration was the political rhetoric of the Rajapakse Government, which came to power on a platform that offered no P-TOMs, no federalism and no recognition for the Tamil homeland concept. This injected new life into the Tamil struggle and made many Tamils to see reason in LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's heroes' day speech on November 27, 2005, which warned that the struggle for a Tamil homeland would be intensified over the coming year. Issuing a veiled threat in his heroes' day speech, Prabhakaran declared, "The ruling elites of southern Sri Lanka will never recognize our people's right to self-determination. The Tamil right to self-determination will never find space in the entrenched majoritarian Constitution and in the political system built on that constitutional structure."
Other disturbing reports from the North add fuel to the fire. Besides the horrendous killing of five students on the Trincomalee beach, the SFs and "other armed groups" (this is how the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission has described groups thought to be operating hand-in-glove with some elements in the Armed Forces) are being blamed for killings, rape and disappearances. The Karuna faction, in the meantime, operates freely in the Government-controlled areas of the east, though the Government claims it has nothing to do with Karuna. They kill and are killed, as intra-LTTE clashes continue.
Traders returning from Jaffna say the mood in the northern capital is one of preparation for a war, although most of the Tamil people remain opposed to war. If the November 17 election had been free of LTTE threats, it is thought that a majority of the Tamils in the north and the east would have ensured Ranil Wickremesinghe's victory in the expectation that he would have resumed the peace talks and offered a federal solution. But Prabhakaran and his advisors thought otherwise, believing that they could get what they want only if they increased their bargaining power.
LTTE suspects arrested during cordon-and-search operations in Colombo are reported to have confessed that the rebels would launch an all-out war some time after the Thai Pongal Hindu festival, which fell on January 14, 2006. But analysts believe that the shape of things to come will, in fact, depend on the outcome of the visit of Norwegian International Development Minister and former special envoy, Erik Solheim, to Sri Lanka on January 23.
The Rajapakse Government initially tried to sideline Norway, but ate humble pie and invited Oslo to continue as facilitator when India refused to play a direct role in the Sri Lankan peace process or to be the fifth member of the donor co-chairs. The Government then tried to keep Solheim out of the process alleging that he was not an honest broker, but little realizing that, in international politics, less powerful and economically weak states have little say. Whether the Government likes Solheim or not, it now pins its hope on his visit to avert a full-scale war, which neither side would be able to win.
Another Catch-22 situation confronts the Government. The LTTE insists that the next round of talks should be held in Norway. But the Government, under pressure from its hardline coalition partners, insists that the talks should be held in an Asian venue. If Rajapakse agrees to Oslo as a venue, he may lose his political allies and even his strength in Parliament. If he does not agree, he will play into the hands of the LTTE whose concentration now appears to be more on war preparations than on peace talks. The door for peace is not, at this point, totally closed, but time is rapidly running out. Rajapakse must decide - and decide fast.
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
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine