Print edition : May 13, 2000

The military gains made by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in recent weeks have taken it within striking distance of Jaffna. As a beleaguered Sri Lankan government resolves to fight on and appeals for help from "friendly countries", India f aces a serious policy dilemma.

SRI LANKA was in war mode in the first week of May as the security forces, which have suffered a string of military setbacks in recent weeks, scrambled to contain advances by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was moving menac ingly ahead to take control of the northern Jaffna Peninsula.

Wounded in recent battles in the Jaffna Peninsula, a Sri Lankan soldier recuperates in an army hospital in Colombo on May 3.-PUSHPA KUMARA/REUTERS

Riding high on recent battlefield successes, the most recent of them being the takeover of the Elephant Pass base on April 21, the LTTE declared, in a statement released from its London offices on May 8, that it was prepared to declare a "temporary cease fire" and suspend all armed hostilities to facilitate the evacuation of the Sri Lankan armed forces trapped in the peninsula. Estimates of the number of Sri Lankan soldiers in the peninsula vary between 20,000 and 40,000, and the government is concerned about their safety; simultaneously, however, the Government is worried about the prospect of pulling out its forces and thus handing over the hard-won territory back to the Tigers.

The LTTE's "gesture of goodwill", the statement said, was intended to prevent further escalation of violence and "to create a congenial environment" for the soldiers to withdraw from the theatre of war "with dignity and honour". It called upon the island government to "consider our proposal seriously and respond positively". A "positive response," it said, would "create cordial conditions for a permanent ceasefire, peace talks and negotiated political settlement" of the ethnic conflict.

The statement, however, warned that the Sri Lankan government would bear responsibility for the "disastrous consequences of heavy military casualties if it rejects our proposal... and continues the war effort."

The Government promptly dismissed the offer and said that there would be no withdrawal of troops. Later that evening, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, in an address to the nation, said that there was no question of leaving over five lakh Tamils in the no rth to the "oppressive advances" of the Tigers. Terming the military situation as one of "temporary but serious setbacks", she vowed to "win the war as soon as possible".

IN the decades of fighting between the security forces and the LTTE, the battle for Jaffna, the heartland of the Tamil people in the island-nation, has become something of a military high point; and the swing in the battlefield fortunes was symbolised by which of the two combatants had control over the town. The political and military stakes in Jaffna are high, for the town of over five lakh people remains the epicentre of the ethnic earthquake that has shaken Sri Lanka for decades.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

When the Tigers were pushed out of Jaffna in a three-stage operation in 1995, international opinion swung overwhelmingly in favour of the Sri Lankan Government. Ever since then, the retaking of Jaffna has been high on the LTTE's list of military imperati ves. In a series of operations since December 1999, the LTTE built up its combat position around the peninsula and slowly but steadily gained control of territory and towns that had high strategic value in its quest to reclaim Jaffna. Late in April, in a stunning move, the LTTE took over the Elephant Pass military base, the strongest government position which served as the gateway to the peninsula.

The fall of Elephant Pass on April 21 appeared to shift the military balance decisively in the LTTE's favour. Pressing further ahead, the Tigers then lodged themselves in positions from where they could bring the northern Palaly airstrip within the range of their artillery guns.

As the booming guns threatened to pound Jaffna, Sri Lanka appealed to "friendly countries" to help resolve what it had said for the past few years was an "internal issue". The first appeal was to India. However, India, which has paid a heavy price for it s attempts in the 1980s to help resolve the ethnic conflict, reiterated that it would continue to abide by its hands-off policy of recent years.

The Opposition United National Party (UNP), which was in power in 1987 when the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement was signed, welcomed the Indian stand. It urged the Kumaratunga Government to respond to India's offer, as articulated by External Affairs Minister J aswant Singh, to media if it was invited by both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE.

The Sri Lankan Government then made a series of initiatives, directed internally and externally. A Cabinet meeting decided to place the nation in war mode, suspended all non-essential developmental activities, and reinvoked the Public Security Ordinance that gives wide-ranging powers to security forces personnel.

LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran, a file photograph.-K. GAJENDRAN

On the external front, diplomatic ties with Israel, which had been severed since the 1970s, were resumed with immediate effect. Over the years, relations between the two countries have waxed and waned in tandem with the island-government's handling of th e ethnic conflict. The Israeli link has, perhaps coincidentally, had its impact on the inter-ethnic dynamics.

Today, Sri Lankan security forces have deployed the Israeli K-fir aircraft and Dvora naval gunboats. In earlier decades, there was an Israeli connection to the resettlement schemes in the Mahaweli dry zone.

The unfolding events also pose serious challenges that will doubtless impact on Sri Lanka's identity as a nation-state. The loss of territory in the north to the separatist LTTE may trigger chauvinistic responses in the south of the island.

And the Government, which had until recently emphasised that the ethnic conflict was Sri Lanka's internal affair, is now desperately looking for external assistance. The immediate context in which these positions have been adopted is military rather than political.

Notwithstanding President Kumara- tunga's commitment to a lasting political solution to the conflict, the proximate reality is that she will have to ward off a serious military threat. To that extent, the state will be ready to accept any external assis tance, in whatever form, if it will help blunt the military thrusts of the Tigers.

Consequently, public attention is focussed on what the external players will do, rather than on the internal response. New Delhi and Tel Aviv, in that order, have for the moment eclipsed Oslo, which accepted the challenge of initiating direct talks betwe en the LTTE and the Government (Frontline, March 17, 2000). Norway's initiative was made in February, and although there were signs even then that the Tigers were making military advances, the overall mood in the Sri Lankan military estabishment w as one of optimism. The belief that the "war for peace" effort would pay dividends and that the Tigers would be pressed to come to the negotiating table had some takers.

The stunning defeats inflicted by the LTTE in recent weeks, most significantly at Elephant Pass, changed all that. Hardliners called for an escalation of the military offensive, but followed it up with the demand that India must step in. The demand seems perplexing, given the history of Indo-Sri Lankan relations over the past 15 years, but this stand is based on the reading that since the LTTE is a banned organisation in India, any Indian intervention would be directed against the Tigers.

The experience of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) cannot of course be forgotten. A decade after Indian troops, which were invited to Sri Lanka to implement the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987, were forced to withdraw from the island, India se ems wary of committing itself militarily in the affairs of its island-neighbour, particularly given the stridency of opinion in Tamil Nadu.

THERE has nevertheless been a measure of speculation about Indian involvement. The belief in some quarters was that India would help in withdrawing the Sri Lankan troops from the battle-scarred peninsula. Even though it may seem to be a non-military miss ion, it would be loaded with perils. Given the intensity of the military conflict, particularly the use of heavy artillery by the LTTE, even a single hit on an Indian aircraft/vessel involved in the evacuation process would transform the situation dramat ically. All it needs to change India's role from that of assistance to involvement is one single, well-aimed bullet.

The situation would be less complicated for India if the Tigers were not in a position to claim to be the sole representatives of the Tamil people on the island. The internal dynamics of Sri Lankan politics have, in their own way, complicated the plot. T he efforts to arrive at a power devolution arrangement for the north and the east went awry because there was no political consensus on this in the south. This has only served to strengthen suspicions among the Tamil people about the intentions of "Sinha la governments". And at a time when the Tigers' military fortunes are on the ascendant, popular Tamil sentiments tend to ride with them.

Owing to internecine killings among Tamil groups, the Tamil political setting is best defined as one in which there are "many leaders, no leaders". In the absence of a political leadership, the minorities are increasingly propelled to read the LTTE's vic tories as 'Tamil victories'. The Tamil United Liberation Front as well as erstwhile militant organisations such as the Eelam People's Democratic Party, the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation and the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front are in a position where they have nothing to show to the Tamil people by way of political achievements. An excessive dependence on the state, coupled with the fact that majoritarian organisations tend to expa nd their political base among Tamil voters at the cost of other parties, has thwarted any attempt by them to build up a Tamil political leadership. After elections to the local councils were held in Jaffna Peninsula, councillors' demands for funds have n ot been met. Tamil political leaders are therefore not able to tell their constituents that the political process has brought any benefits for the Tamil people.

Since the LTTE's claim to being the "sole representatives of the Tamils" goes unchallenged, any position that India takes would have to factor in the Chennai-New Delhi-Colombo-Jaffna linkage politics.

Given this backdrop, the expectations of an external role relate to the rapidly shifting military setting rather than to the larger end of reaching a political settlement between the Tamil and the Sinhalese peoples.

The Sinhala majority tends to see the battle against the Tigers as a do-or-die prospect: "the Tigers must be finished or else we are finished" is the view that prevails. The minority Tamils, on the other hand, see the LTTE's advances as posing a challeng e to the Sinhala polity.

It is in this context that both Tamils and Sinhalese are eager to see how India's policy on Sri Lanka will unfold. The Sinhala expectation is that an Indian involvement, of whatever nature and degree, would help contain LTTE military advances; Tamils wan t to see how India, which "watched the Sri Lanka Army push the LTTE out of Jaffna in 1995", will respond to the LTTE's gains in the peninsula.

A section of the Sinhalese believe, in fact, that since Tamil militancy gained strength in the 1980s with help from across the Palk Straits, India now has a 'moral responsibility' to step in to combat it. Additionally, there are some Tamils who believe t hat if India does not intervene militarily to check the LTTE's advance into Jaffna, the lives of those who do not support the LTTE will be in danger. Besides, if an external power were to fill the vacuum created by India's reluctance to take on a role in Sri Lanka, it might pose additional problems for India, particularly if the new player is not favourably disposed to India.

However, these sections admit that in the light of the IPKF's experience, India's reluctance to intervene now is understandable.

In front of a statue of Sri Lanka's first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake at Independence Square in Colombo, United National Party leaders protest on May 5 against the promulgation of the Public Security Ordinance, which gives the security forces sweep ing powers to effect arrests and seizures.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Israeli assistance, if solicited, could take the form of supply of military hardware or the sharing of the expertise of Mossad, the Israeli secret service. With the LTTE increasingly resorting to long-range artillery fire, the Sri Lanka Army would look t o acquiring adequate air support so as to get at LTTE gun positions. The provision of effective air cover for the Sri Lankan troopers could change the current military setting. Israeli expertise in air surveillance and night-bombing could also prove cruc ial.

The advantage with taking assistance from Israel would be that the present fleet of Sri Lanka Air Force aircraft comprise Israel-built K-firs, which Sri Lankan fighter pilots are familiar with. Additionally, there is speculation that Sri Lankan troopers could be given specialised training in combating the Tigers.

The revival of diplomatic relations with Israel could have one possible internal political fallout for the ruling People's Alliance (P.A.). The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which has a considerable presence in the Muslim-majority Amparai district in the ea st, has expressed its reservations about the decision. However, given the changed international situation as well as the political priorities within Sri Lanka, such opposition may not harden.

FOR large sections of weary southerners, for whom the conflict in the north is still a distant thunder, the present military situation is not easily fathomable. Until April 21, the Elephant Pass gateway garrison was considered the ultimate bastion agains t LTTE advances, and the sudden shift in the military balance has taken the people by surprise. And even before the loss of the army complex could be fully absorbed came the realisation that over 25,000 troopers were trapped in the war-torn peninsula.

Grim scenarios of Sinhala-Tamil clashes were painted, but fortunately nothing of that sort has happened. Social scientists believe that much has changed since 1983: the riots of 1983 were characterised by a certain element of choreography, which the pres ent Government is emphatic to avoid; besides, there is a greater "public acceptance of, or desensitisation to, battlefield realities" as a result of decades of fighting and violent disruption of public life.

Nonetheless, the Government took no chances, and for the third time since 1971 the Public Security Ordinance was invoked as the island geared up to face what is perhaps the most serious challenge in the decades of Tamil separatist militancy. On the earli er occasions, in 1971 and 1989, it was used to quell the southern insurrections against the state.

Chunks of blank space in a newspaper, after the government imposed a blanket censorship on media reports "which would or might be prejudicial to the interests of national security or the preservation of public order or the maintenance of supplies and services."-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

The Ordinance gives the security forces - the police and armed service personnel - wide-ranging powers to make arrests and effect seizures. Processions, strikes and demonstrations will remain banned, as will posters that incite hatred among communities. It was officially explained that the Ordinance was promulgated as a measure to prevent possible backlashes of the northern conflict.

In her address to the nation, Kumaratunga said that the Ordinance was aimed at protecting all ethnic groups from an adverse fallout of the military operations, and added that it would not be in force "for a moment more than necessary".

The situation in Sri Lanka has, to a certain extent, been accentuated by the politics of oneupmanship practised by the two main formations - the P.A. and the UNP. Political debates are punctuated by unproductive bickering, and the much-required sense of national urgency to tackle the northern conflict collectively is yet to manifest itself. Even as the bickerings continued, discussions were held between Chandrika Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe in order to evolve a southern consen sus over the proposed constitutional amendments.

At the popular level in Colombo, from high-society parties to street-corner tea shops, conversation invariably turns to what lies ahead in the immediate future. There is a sense of shared disappointment and concern, which is, however, manifest more among the Sinhalese than among Tamils.

The military authorities continued to exude a quiet confidence that matters are under control, and the political leaders speculate over the extent of impact that the attack on Jaffna will have on their parties as they prepare for parliamentary elections scheduled for August. The most significant political factor would be the consideration that all the military gains made since 1994, when the P.A. took office, have been virtually neutralised. More than ever before, Sri Lanka's politico-military dynamics is in full play now, with the LTTE calling the shots against a state which is battling to ward off the most serious challenge it has faced in decades.

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