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Undeclared war

Print edition : May 18, 2007 T+T-

The LTTE resorts to air raids as a desperate step and the low-intensity war in Sri Lanka escalates.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Colombo

ON the night of May 3, after several hours of agonising over the April 29 aerial raid by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on two fuel depots - one of them partly owned by the Indian Oil Corporation - that feed the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), the political and military managers of the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to shut down the country's only international airport for night operations. The decision, to be effective from the night of May 9/10, is a costly one since an estimated 40 per cent of the civilian air traffic to and from the Bandaranayake International Airport (BIA) will have to be re-scheduled or cancelled.

The government perhaps had no other option as the latest Tiger plane raid had plunged Colombo into chaos and any of the incoming international civilian flights could have suffered damage in the anti-aircraft fire from the guns triggered at several points. Such was the confusion on the day, when virtually the whole city kept awake to catch the Australia-Sri Lanka World Cup Cricket final live, that there were reports of ordinary citizens being injured and several buildings hit.

On August 11 last year, the government shut down the A9 highway, though it is the only link to the Jaffna peninsula from the rest of the island, on grounds of national security. The government did not relent on demands for lifting the blockade, on the plea that it would offer the Tigers an excellent opportunity to collect illegal taxes to finance their war at a time when it was conducting a serious offensive to weaken their military muscle.

The suspension of night-time operations at the BIA and the closure of A9 together mark a virtual acknowledgement that the undeclared low-intensity war between the government and the Tigers has escalated into a full-fledged, undeclared war. The development comes as no surprise to Sri Lanka watchers as 2007 was predicted to be a bloody year in the two-and-a-half-decade history of the ethnic conflict. The periodic bombings and political assassinations, the collapse of the Geneva-II talks in October, the November 27 declaration by LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran that "Sinhala duplicity of war and peace has left Tamils with little option but to fight for political independence" and the conclusion of the Rajapaksa government that there could be neither peace nor development as long as the LTTE was not defanged militarily, formed the build-up to the current situation.

The war-like situation has already had a devastating impact on the ground. Estimates by the United Nations and other international agencies suggest that close to a million people have been displaced by the escalation of hostilities; they include those displaced by the 2004 tsunami. According to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), over 4,000 people were killed in the 15 months up to February 2007. The North and the East are reeling under a severe shortage of essential commodities and medical supplies. The educational system has almost collapsed.

The tourism industry, which fetches about 30 per cent of Sri Lanka's foreign exchange revenues, is in a state of paralysis. Most of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Members of Parliament have not had the courage to travel to their constituencies for periods varying from six to twelve months. A weekly flight to Jaffna is the only mode of transport that has been available since the A9 closure.

With the LTTE air raids, the entire nation is psychologically wounded and there is a widespread paranoia. Adding to the woes of war is a spate of abductions and killings for ransom by paramilitaries and underworld gangs. A thousand such cases have been reported by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) looking into the phenomenon. In the matter of press freedom index, Sri Lanka has slumped from the 55th rank in 2002 to the 145th rank in 2007.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? Undoubtedly the Tigers have to take the bulk of the blame, and the beginning of the current phase can be traced to the assassination of Foreign Affairs Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005. Of course, the Rajapaksa government cannot escape blame completely. Instead of focussing on building consensus for an early resolution of the ethnic strife, it invested excessively in a military strategy.

Managers of the government argue that they have convincing reasons to push the military strategy to the logical end as in their perception there is no way the Tigers would agree to any solution short of Eelam. The assessment is strengthened by the tape of a speech made by Prabakaran weeks after he lent his signature to the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA). In the tape, he is seen telling his senior commanders to use the CFA for a brief rest before the bigger battle.

However, there is a flaw in the argument advanced by the Rajapaksa administration. Several political and non-political entities within and outside Sri Lanka have been trying to impress upon the government the need for an imaginative formula to resolve the conflict, pointing out that it is the only way to isolate the Tigers. The government does not seem to be impressed with the logic and insists on putting `annihilation' of Tiger military assets on top of its agenda.

This mindset is reflected in the May 1 devolution package mooted by the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) headed by Rajapaksa. Little wonder that almost all the parties, pro- and anti-government, have denounced the proposals as inconsequential. These include abolition of the executive presidency and replacing it with the Cabinet system of government led by a Prime Minister, subject to consensus; making the district the unit for devolution of powers; and the creation of a bicameral legislature.

The SLFP says the objectives of the package are to achieve "a lasting and honourable solution to the ethnic issue in the country"; to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and the identities of different communities; and to ensure the peaceful coexistence of these communities. It recognises the multilingual, multireligious and multicultural character of Sri Lankan society.

There will be strict implementation of the constitutional provision for the use of Sinhala and Tamil as the national languages. The package also includes a promise to establish two independent permanent commissions for land and water.

The SLFP seeks to restore the parliamentary model of government. While the unit of devolution would be the district, two districts could amalgamate and form one unit. However, the amalgamating units should be in the same geographical division and be contiguous. Most political parties in Sri Lanka have termed the proposals as falling below expectations, impractical and unacceptable. The SLFP, however, defended them, saying that they were meant for wider debate and were not final.

The most strident statement against the package came in the form of a joint statement from the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). Leaders of these parties are opposed to the LTTE and have stood behind Rajapaksa in his campaign to weaken the Tigers militarily. Yet, they were left with no option but to characterise the proposals as something that would not meet the aspirations of the Tamil people.

"Instead of taking the peace process forward, it has made it difficult to find a reasonable solution. Furthermore, being the ruling party's proposal that should form the guideline for a solution, it had made even the proposals of other parties irrelevant," a statement signed by V. Anandasangree, D. Sidhathan and T. Sritharan said. The statement said the powers to be devolved under the SLFP proposals did not even come close to the powers vested with the provincial council, formed under the 13th amendment to the Constitution. The amendment is a by-product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.

It said: "Fifty years of agitation by the Tamil-speaking people to win their rights has brought them back to square one. After so much loss of life and destruction to property and having failed to find a solution under a unitary system, the Tamils will not accept any solution less than one under a Federal constitution."

The EPDP, a constituent of the ruling combine, felt that the provincial councils should be the unit of power devolution. Party leader and Social Welfare Minister Douglas Devananda said the northern and eastern provinces should be remerged with more `asymmetric power' compared with other provinces. There should also be autonomous power-sharing arrangements for Muslims within the province, he said. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader and Post and Communications Minister Rauf Hakeem said the SLFP proposals fell short of his party's expectations. But it was prepared to discuss them further, he explained.

The main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), is yet to respond formally to the package. K.N. Choksy, UNP MP who represents his party at the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), said that the proposals for the establishment of district councils were impractical. He is of the view that there are good reasons for the UNP proposal to continue with the provincial council as the unit of devolution.

Pro-LTTE TNA MP Suresh Premachandran said the proposals were a step backward and there was no point in discussing them. If the government could not understand the gravity of the `Tamil national question', there would be dire consequences, he said. However, the APRC Chairman, Minister Tissa Vitharana, is hopeful of building consensus on making the province the unit of devolution though the SLFP has favoured the district as the point for power-sharing as a solution to the ethnic issue.

Vitharana's observations came even as the extremist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) joined several other parties in opposing the SLFP devolution package. The JVP has contended that the SLFP package is against Mahinda Chinthana, the November 2005 presidential election manifesto of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The party argues that the proposals do not envisage a provision to preserve the unitary character of the island nation.

Vitharana told Frontline that the devolution package made by the SLFP was not a final document and would be subject to discussion and amendments at the APRC. "The APRC at the last meeting agreed that the basis for future discussion should be the document circulated by the APRC Chairman. The APRC also agreed that where they differ from the proposals, they would submit specific amendments," he said.

According to insiders in the SLFP, the President at the moment has deliberately opted for a `minimalist approach' as it would leave scope for bargaining with various parties in a bid to build consensus. It appears that the SLFP draft initially proposed the province as the unit for devolution but it was changed in the last minute.

The issue is not expected to be settled immediately and the focus will continue to be firmly on the undeclared war. The top-most priority of the government is to neutralise the nascent air wing of the Tigers, and Colombo and New Delhi are jointly working on a strategy.

Besides the two air raids in Colombo, Tiger planes attacked the Palaly airbase in Jaffna on April 23. The stories coming from the LTTE and the government are highly divergent but it seems that at least six soldiers were killed and some ammunition storage facilities were damaged. This has, however, not been confirmed by the SLMM.

From the SLAF side, attacks continued on the Vanni area. There were eight reported air strikes inside Vanni, of which three were carried out at night. The latest situation report of the SLMM, dated April 30, noted, "It seems that SLAF emphasis has shifted somewhat from the Eastern Coastal areas to areas closer to Kilinochchi. Half the above air strikes have taken place within 8 km from the town and one as close as 3 km from the SLMM office."

In the northern and eastern areas the situation remains tense. In Jaffna, there was shelling throughout the week after the heavy shelling on May 1.

Unless something dramatic happens, the situation can get worse in the coming days and weeks. There are efforts by players outside the island nation, such as a British parliamentary group, to hold a summit meeting of the government, the Tigers and Norway, the peace broker. But, given the current mood such efforts are not likely to bear fruit.