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Point of no return

Print edition : Feb 01, 2008 T+T-
The body of T. Maheswaran, Tamil Member of Parliament of the Opposition United National Party who was shot dead inside a temple in Colombo on January 1, being taken for cremation in Colombo on January 3.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

The body of T. Maheswaran, Tamil Member of Parliament of the Opposition United National Party who was shot dead inside a temple in Colombo on January 1, being taken for cremation in Colombo on January 3.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

The abrogation of the ceasefire agreement re-inaugurates in no uncertain terms a period of intense war escalation.

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THE announcement made by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government on January 2 to abrogate the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was hardly a good New Year gift presented to the people of Sri Lanka.

In fact, the New Year began literally with a bang. An assassin shot and killed T. Maheswaran, a Tamil Member of Parliament belonging to the United National Party (UNP), the main Opposition party, inside a Hindu temple in Colombo when he was performing religious rituals. The next day came the news of the government walking out of its international commitment to the CFA.

While many political and ideological actors in Sri Lanka cheered the governments decision, the UNP, peace constituencies and some governments abroad expressed dismay over the decision, considering its possible consequences.

The way in which Sinhalese nationalist groups and the pro-government media welcomed the governments move to annul the CFA, which has been in operation for five years and 10 months, indicated a sense of relief they seem to have experienced at the prospect of life without the CFA.

It was like the removal at last of a great burden, or a millstone around the neck, that the Sri Lankan state carried for years against its own will. In a dissenting reaction, the UNP, which signed the CFA on February 22, 2002, while in power, warned that the CFAs abrogation would only strengthen the LTTEs secessionist thrust.

Why did the Rajapaksa administration take this decision knowing quite well that it would generate serious international concerns while damaging irreparably the regimes credibility abroad? There are two explanations, one military and the other political. The military explanation posits that since the government has been planning a major military offensive against the LTTE, it did not want any constraint to be in force inhibiting the actions of the armed forces.

Even though the CFA has not prevented the escalation of hostilities during the past two years, under its terms the government as well as the LTTE had to maintain some sense of responsibility towards the international community. The presence of the Nordic ceasefire monitors, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), in conflict areas has been a key mechanism through which the international community could observe directly and comment on the actions of the parties to the conflict. Now there are no such external constraints. As the Sinhalese nationalist groups would put it in great joy, the Sri Lankan state has at last reclaimed its lost sovereignty in the conduct of war, the great patriotic war against the Tamil terrorists.

The political reason is linked to the agenda of survival of the regime. The Rajapaksa regime, a coalition of several parties, does not have a majority in Parliament.

At the voting for the budget in December, President Rajapaksa needed the support of the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has 39 seats in Parliament. The JVP extended its support to the governments budget not by voting for it but by abstaining, thereby thwarting the Opposition plan to defeat the government.

When some key ethnic minority allies of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) regime threatened to leave the coalition at the time of the voting on the budget, the JVP seems to have obtained a valuable quid pro quo. That was a guarantee from Rajapaksa to implement two of its key demands, the abrogation of the CFA and the proscription of the LTTE.

The JVP has made these two demands for the past two years, but Rajapaksa has managed to resist them. Now, of course, full-scale war and JVP support are crucial for the survival of the regime. The ban on the LTTE is most likely to be the next in line, before long. It will please the JVP and further ensure the survival of the regime.

The much-maligned, and now-abandoned, CFA has a colourful history. It was signed on February 21 and 22, 2002, as a part of the political engagement between the LTTE and the United National Front (UNF) government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The UNF won the parliamentary elections in December 2001 at a time when President Chandrika Kumaratungas strategy of war for peace had produced serious setbacks on the military and economic fronts.

A negative growth in the economy, a costly stalemate on the war front and instability within the Peoples Alliance (P.A.) regime had also created conditions for a new approach to the ethnic conflict. The UNF won the election on a peace platform. Soon, the unofficial, unilateral and ad hoc ceasefires observed by the new government and the LTTE for several weeks were formalised through Norwegian assistance. It appeared that the Norwegians had done the drafting of the text of the February 2002 CFA.

There were some unusual dimensions to the political context in which the CFA came into being. First, when Wickremesinghe signed it, he did not have the constitutional authority as such on matters of war or peace. That authority rested with his political rival, President Kumaratunga. Since the President and the Prime Minister came from rival political camps, there emerged a new situation of fractured governmental authority. Wickremesinghes constitutional transgression occurred in this context and its justification lay in the parliamentary electoral victory of the UNF.

Second, in the backdrop of this fractured political authority, in which President Kumaratunga continued as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces with direct control over them, the heads of the armed forces were not adequately consulted in drafting the CFA, which was actually about cessation of the war. They were shown the draft at the last moment but their views were not solicited.

Third, the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration was not much worried about the clauses of the CFA that reflected and indeed formalised the military balance as it existed on the ground at the time. Moreover, the CFA was a sort of formal recognition of a particular power equilibrium on the grounds that in a way served the LTTEs claim for parity of status.

All the three aspects noted above provided the context for sharp polarisation of political opinion about the CFA of February 2002. Critics of the CFA saw it as an act of treachery by the UNF government. As a milder version of the same reaction put it, Wickremesinghe bent over backwards to please and appease the LTTE.

One reason why the CFA enraged its critics in Sri Lanka and across the Palk Strait is the assessment that while institutionalising a military balance in favour of the LTTE it also accorded the rebels a degree of legitimacy they did not deserve on any account.

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These debates and controversies apart, the CFA was to provide a concrete starting point for direct negotiations between the UNF government and the LTTE. On that score, the CFA achieved a favourable record. After much haggling and with patient facilitation by Norwegian diplomats, direct talks began in September 2002. After five rounds, negotiations reached a deadlock in April 2003, just eight months since talks began in Sattahip in Thailand.

It is surprising that the 2002-03 peace process did not produce a settlement agreement. It produced only the Cease Fire Agreement, which prevented the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE from returning to large-scale hostilities at least for five years. That is the most simple, yet fundamentally positive, story of the CFA.

Meanwhile, despite the CFA, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and the LTTE resumed the war in 2006 and escalated hostilities in 2007. Until January 2008, the two sides have been waging an undeclared war. Both the LTTE and the government have violated at will the terms of the CFA. Those who reify numbers have reported that the LTTE violated the CFA many times more than the armed forces.

There is absolutely no point in blaming the CFA for those violations, which the parties committed with a sure sense of impunity. After all, ceasefires are about the political will and commitment of the direct parties to de-escalate hostilities, refrain from military engagement and stay, in a process of political engagement.

Violation of the CFA began slowly in 2002 and picked up pace after the replacement of the UNF regime by the UPFA in April 2004. The LTTEs violation of the CFA began early, when it assassinated some intelligence operatives of the Sri Lankan military.

Interestingly, despite the CFA and the absence of open war, the covert war between the intelligence wings of the two sides continued even during direct negotiations between the UNF government and the LTTE. Confrontations between the Sri Lanka Navy and the LTTEs sea wing also continued.

But in 2002 and 2003, these clashes did not lead to major setbacks, primarily because of the prevailing political atmosphere of engagement backed by the CFA, the SLMM and the international support for peace.

The SLMMs role in defusing tension and resolving and managing conflicts between the government and the LTTE during these years is hardly recognised in Sri Lanka. The SLMM got a rough deal from the LTTE as well as its counterparts in the Sinhalese polity.

It is the breakdown of negotiations in 2003 and the change in the political atmosphere in 2004 that really led to a process that eventually resulted in the demise of the CFA. The Opposition parties led by Chandrika Kumaratungas Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) used the negotiations with the LTTE and the CFA as their primary targets of attack in the bid to topple Ranil Wickremesinghes UNF administration.

The LTTEs intransigence in boycotting negotiations and the shortcomings of the ceasefire process were thus cleverly exploited by the newly emerged UPFA, a coalition jointly led by the SLFP and the JVP. Their constant appeal to the fear and insecurities of Sinhalese voters, combined with the subtle Sinhalese racism and xenophobia, was a powerful force to undermine and de-legitimise the basic norms and policy values on which the negotiations and the CFA were based ethnic accommodation, inter-ethnic tolerance, peace by peaceful means, reconciliation among adversaries, and external assistance.

Ironically, what appeared quite disturbing in Sri Lanka is that after two to three years of the ceasefire, some influential political forces, particularly in the Sinhalese polity, wanted the war back, as if the relative absence of war had robbed them of something really valuable and un-retrievable. In the LTTE, too, an argument seems to have developed that re-sharpening of contradictions between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil polity by military means was necessary to take the self-determination project forward.

Against such a backdrop of re-militarisation of the state-LTTE engagement, the very notion of peace became a dirty proposition in Sri Lanka, even among influential sections of the Buddhist clergy. One most disquieting thing to note, though, is that politicians and the media have succeeded in turning the war and violence into a popular desire. Thus, the abrogation of the CFA has taken place against the backdrop of a specific mass psychology of war.

Where will Sri Lanka go from here without the CFA?

In political terms, the abrogation of the CFA is a triumph for militarist forces in both Sinhalese and Tamil political formations. It re-inaugurates in no certain terms a period of intense war escalation between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE. Hereafter, it would be the logic of war that will propel the islands politics forward.

What is scary in this post-CFA scenario is that both adversaries are preparing for what each of them may see in its own terms as the final war. If the language of extreme belligerence being used of late is an indication, the government seems to think that this war can send the Tigers into extinction. The LTTE in turn has given hints of its ability to carry out hugely destructive pre-emptive strikes. No one can guess what these would entail. But one thing is clear, when the two sides are fighting to resolve the fundamental question and dispute about state power, the war this time around has sharpened all the contradictions between them to a point of no return.

The sheer logic of the present context in which the hostilities are escalating indicates that the government will aim at destroying the military capabilities, men and women combatants, and the entire military infrastructure of the LTTE. The armed forces seem to be determined, more than ever, to destroy the LTTE, all its material and its leadership and fighters.

The other side of the logic is that the LTTE might also be preparing to deliver a crippling blow to the Sri Lankan state. In this logic, the LTTE will also try to intensify the war on its own terms and through its own methods. Thus, one does not have to be a soothsayer to predict that the coming war is not likely to be an ordinary war.

Alarmingly, Sri Lankas war is not likely to generate much international attention unless it produces a massive humanitarian emergency. At a time when the world is pretty much preoccupied with West Asia and Africa, Sri Lankas conflicting parties will continue to enjoy a great deal of autonomy from international pressure to take their war forward. There are no regional actors seriously committed to preventing Sri Lanka from moving fast on the path to the abyss. Any new political initiative to grapple with Sri Lankas conflict will have to wait until the outcome of the present phase of the ethnic war becomes clear.