Deepening crisis

Print edition : July 14, 2006

Sri Lanka slips back to a phase of military conflict as the LTTE steps up its attacks and the Army readily retaliates.

A SRI LANKA Air Force reconnaissance flight close to an LTTE-controlled territory.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

WITHIN 12 hours after the assassination of the deputy Army chief, Lt. Gen. Parami Kulatunge, by a suspected suicide squad member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the outskirts of Colombo on June 26, the Sri Lankan military put out a press statement on the beefed-up security measures. The title of the public release, "Security strengthened after the suicide blast", was misleading, to say the least.

It was actually a major policy statement couched in the form of public information. The crux of the statement was that the new wave of violence in the country had left the government with no option but to revert to security regulations that were in force prior to the 2002 ceasefire pact with the LTTE. "Accordingly, the troops serving at all points including the new ones will conduct thorough checking with immediate effect after re-introducing road barriers and other checkpoints, as deemed necessary. Transport of all consignments of consumer goods and other items into cleared areas will also thus be brought under one hundred per cent checking at these points," the statement said.

The decision to return to the pre-2002 security drill could of course have been an unthinking reaction, particularly after the failure of the military to protect the number three in the Army hierarchy. It becomes even more appalling as a suspected cadre of the LTTE almost killed the Army chief in April. The military feels humiliated and is waiting to hit back.

The revival of the pre-2002 security measures, more than anything else, is an implicit statement by the Army that the latest peace process is dead for all practical purposes and there is no point in talking peace in a war situation.

The consensus within and outside Sri Lanka is that despite the ceasefire pact and the so-called process for conflict resolution, an undeclared war has been on in the country for almost six months now. The security environment has deteriorated so sharply in recent days that the often heard question is when the undeclared war would become a declared one.

The situation is so precarious that according to United Nations figures, the intensified fighting between the military and the LTTE in recent weeks has led to the displacement of nearly 40,000 people in the north and east of the country. That takes the total number of people rendered homeless because of the conflict to over 3.14 lakhs. In addition, around 3.25 lakh people are estimated to remain displaced by the December 2004 tsunami.

A recent report by Amnesty International said that over 5.6 lakh displaced people suffered effects of intensifying violence.

In a statement, the Asia Director of Amnesty International, Purna Sena, said: "The state's failure to provide adequate security and to ensure that attacks against civilians are prosecuted has resulted in widespread fear and panic. Almost every major attack in recent months has had a devastating ripple effect as people flee from their homes and villages in search of sanctuary."

The report said many of the displaced people - including those living in organised camps - continued to be extremely vulnerable to violence and harassment by the LTTE, other armed groups and even members of the Sri Lankan security forces. Increasing violence is forcing many Sri Lankans to flee the country - more than 2,800 people have sought international protection in India so far this year, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The government blames the LTTE for the people wanting to take refuge in India and sees a sinister plan behind it.

V. Prabakaran, LTTE leader, has a deadline to meet. In his Heroes' Day speech on November 26, which followed Mahinda Rajapakse's November 2005 presidential election victory, the LTTE leader had called upon the new President to put forward a "practical" solution to end the conflict. Ominously, he had also made a vague demand that such a move be made by Rajapakse within a year, failing which the LTTE would further intensify its "struggle".

Evidently, the "practical" solution expected by Prabakaran is the implementation of the LTTE's proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA), which it gave to the government in October 2003. The fine print of that document also points to an in-built timeframe for implementation. Hence, the LTTE's current militaristic mode comes as no surprise.

The LTTE's militarism is not confined to mere attacks on security personnel or to the unmarked battlefields that stretch all over the North and the East and Colombo. It has, of late, started to practise guerilla politics - the first manifestation of which was its refusal to send a negotiating team to the second round of talks in Geneva to discuss implementation issues of the ceasefire agreement. The surprise element was not exactly that the LTTE had refused to negotiate or that it had reneged on its commitment: it was the fact that it did so even at the cost of risking possible displeasure of the international community which had backed the ceasefire agreement and was keen on sustaining the political engagement between the government and the LTTE.

If the LTTE's decision to boycott the Geneva talks unilaterally was couched in its ongoing rivalry with the supporters of its former Special Commander for Batticaloa-Amparai V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna), there were no such spats to blame for its second show of guerilla politics. This came in Oslo in the second week of June when it refused to negotiate with the Sri Lankan government's team on issues concerning the safety and security of the ceasefire monitors. The excuses this time around were two-fold: that the government's negotiation team did not include a Minister and that the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission team included monitors from Scandinavian countries that had listed the LTTE as a "terrorist organisation".

If the Geneva pull-out was akin to testing the waters on the issue of international support, the Oslo refusal took the matter even further in the direction. There was criticism - both domestic and international - along expected lines on how the Oslo talks were doomed to be a non-starter.

The government was quick to point out that the LTTE team had left Sri Lanka fully aware of the composition of its negotiating team. The Norwegian government blamed the LTTE for the failure of the talks to get off the ground. Unfazed, the LTTE moved on to its next phase of guerilla politics. It sent out a unilateral communique which left itself open to any interpretation, but with a vague suggestion, if not a stated deviation from its prior commitment made in December 2002 at Oslo, to explore federal models for a solution within a united Sri Lanka.

In essence, the recent developments may be seen as part of the LTTE's plan to make matters difficult for Rajapakse to deliver on whatever he could within the constraints placed upon him by his allies - the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). With the death toll in the violence mounting, it could only be a matter of time before things spiral out of control.

The government's latest moves have two aspects. First, they make it clear that the government's terms of engagement with the LTTE have changed. In a distinct move away from the past, an LTTE attack is met with "deterrent strikes" on "identified targets".

This changed style of engagement conveys the message of a state that bears less tolerance to terrorism. However, it has also had a fall-out: the movement of refugees from Sri Lanka's North and East to Tamil Nadu, across the Palk Strait. By and large, this suits the LTTE's ploy of intensifying emotions in a country that matters most - India.

President Mahinda Rajapakse pays his last respects to deputy Army chief Lt. Gen. Parami Kulatunge in Colombo.-SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

The second aspect is related to the government's reading of the role for international players in the conflict-resolution process. Nearly a decade after the first phase of internationalisation of the conflict ended - the efforts by India to mediate a settlement in the 1980s - Norway was invited by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to "facilitate" a solution, in the late 1990s. The move, initiated by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, was continued with by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Notwithstanding the frequent and shrill political criticism, the Norwegians have stayed on as facilitators. Now, however, there are indications that the government and the LTTE would not be entirely uncomfortable if the level of international involvement is lowered. The LTTE, in 2003, cited "excessive internationalisation" of the conflict-resolution process as one of the reasons for its unilateral ending of the talks with the Wickremesinghe administration. This theme was to be brought up in limited but incremental measures as and when the situation flared up. The LTTE's disenchantment with the SLMM monitors is a case in point.

The government has reiterated its commitment to the ceasefire agreement and even appreciated the work done by the facilitators and the monitors. However, as Rajapakse made it clear in a recent interview to a Sri Lankan newspaper, he is personally not in favour of further internationalisation of the conflict-resolution process.

This is accompanied by continuing calls by Rajapakse's key ally, the JVP, that the Norwegians should be ousted, and a new belligerence among sections of the establishment that tend to look favourably at the prospect of a military offensive.

A possible course that the peace process could chart in the coming months is that of becoming more insular, with the international players having less, if not no, leverage over the two sides. At least that is the stated objective of the government.

However, the moot question is whether the Rajapakse government is in a position to deal with the emerging situation - militarily and politically - without involving the international community.

As things stand, it does not have the capacity to tackle the complex issues on its own. The biggest challenge for the government in the coming days is to work on an imaginative political package to reach out to all sections that feel alienated, even as it responds effectively to the military adventurism of the LTTE.

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