Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

As the battles rage in northern Sri Lanka, the Army is emaciated and Tamil separatist militancy marks a territorial high-point. The nation faces an uphill task of holding out against the big challenge.

MORE than ever before, Sri Lanka is today a nation on the brink. Confronted with the most malignant infliction of internal haemorrahage in its decades of countering secessionism, the ethnically divided island gears up to face its most severe challenge ye t.

As rebel incursions into the northern Jaffna Peninsula sent the nation into a state of alarm, the territorial, political, military and diplomatic consequences of the latest offensives by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are consider able. With daily rebel advances towards government-held positions in the Peninsula, imponderables confront the island on several fronts.

The territorial implications of the latest LTTE offensive conjure up an alarming picture. The Tigers have perforated Army defence lines along southern coastal Jaffna and permeated themselves across the Peninsula. Multi-pronged in their attacks and active ly present in at least three sectors, the LTTE is in a position to take the offensive into the government's strongholds in the Peninsula.

The worst-case scenario is one of Sri Lanka being forced to pull out its soldiers from the north and losing territorial control over the Peninsula. At best, the situation could be contained to a lower level of insurgency - an attempt which has been relen tlessly on for the past five years. If the Tigers were to wrest territorial control from the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) in the north, the situation in the east becomes unpredictable, with the Tigers already holding a part of Batticaloa district.

The offensive has had a debilitating effect on the armed forces, and that is what it aimed to achieve. The entrapment of nearly four divisions of the Army would be a telling blow on the security forces.

The indubitable reasoning behind Velupillai Prabakaran's siege over the Peninsula appears to be to emaciate the Army totally. The big change from the past is that the guerillas would capture the Peninsula with the significant addition of the Iyakachchi-E lephant Pass gateway garrison, from which the earlier Jaffna operations to push the LTTE into the jungle tracts commenced.

The offensive also marks a territorial high-point of Tamil separatist militancy, which has been on since the late 1970s. Several incidents over the past decades, if seen together, give a clear picture of the slow but steady distancing of the northern Pen insula from the mainland. If the 1984 bombing of the Yal Devi train to Jaffna set off the serious disruption of transport services, the stoppage of rail services since the 1990s has meant the loss of a vital lifeline of a nation.

Road links to the Peninsula have been disrupted in the fighting beyond the northern Vavuniya town. The LTTE's control over the seas off the Peninsula has resulted in a reluctance on the part of private transport operators to ply their vehicles. The minim al air traffic between Colombo and Jaffna has also remained hampered.

In addition to this severed logistics situation, the various checks brought in by the government to control terrorist movements has made the hiatus between the Tamil-majority north and the rest of the island near-complete. Entry for all civilians is rest ricted between rebel-held territories in the four northern districts - Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, parts of Mannar and Vavuniya. The media and the non-governmental organisations are banned from entering these areas. And the fact that there has been neither the decadal census updates nor the annual collation of vital economic and social statistics by the Central Bank from Tamil-majority areas portrays the stark distancing within the island. This has also resulted in place names such as Jaffna, Mullaitivu, M annar and to a lesser extent Batticaloa, remaining just images for a vast section of the people, mainly the Sinhalese. The vocabulary of the island also now reflects the us-and-them syndrome, with terms such as 'war', 'border villages' and 'occupation' g aining widespread use.

There are three plausible scenarios now:

1. An Eritrea-type of situation where claim and control over land precedes secession;

2. The Tigers agree to head to the negotiating table; and

3. A situation of containment, under which the LTTE's activities are curbed to the north, the government takes control over the east and ensures normalcy in the south.

Whatever the situation, the future portends a phased period of extended agony: international, more specifically, regional pressure is not loaded in favour of an Eritrea-type situation; all prior attempts at talks had turned out to be breathers before a n ext round of offensives and experience has proved that containing the Tigers in the north does not necessarily result in normalcy being maintained in the south.

THEREFORE, as the Tigers claw their way into the Peninsula, military action and diplomacy move in tandem. Mixing awesome firepower with ferocious terror tactics, the Tigers continue to pressure the state - directly in the north and the east, and, as a co nsequence, in the rest of the island.

The Sri Lankan conflict, more than anything else, has been a conflict in attrition - both politically and militarily. The few pro-active efforts at conflict resolution since the 1950s, such as the various pacts between governments of the day and Tamil po litical parties as well as the latest initiative at rewriting the Constitution remain unimplemented owing to a lack of political consensus.

The Tigers are back on the prowl five years after losing control over the Peninsula to Army advances. Closing in from several pockets on Jaffna's civilian, military and logistics strongholds, they have unleashed a series of offensives, keeping the Army g uessing about their next move.

After the security forces pushed the Tigers back to the Vanni jungles in 1995 in a three-pronged offensive, the LTTE vowed to retake Jaffna - a seemingly difficult task then, given the balance of manpower and military hardware between the standing Army a nd the rebel forces.

Continued bickering between the ruling People's Alliance (P.A.) and the Opposition United National Party (UNP) have skewed the political approach towards conflict resolution. The northern offensives are taking place at a time when parliamentary elections are on the horizon, with political players choosing to view the unfolding events through the electoral telescope.

From the perspective of the P.A., which came to power six years ago promising an end to the decades-long fighting, the LTTE push, if uncontained, would result in a considerable erosion of political credibility. The UNP, which declined to offer any suppor t to the government's efforts at peace-building through a draft Constitution aimed at providing greater powers to the region, seems all set to gain political mileage from the latest setbacks suffered by the P.A. regime.

Given the escalated bullet-ballot dynamics in the Sri Lankan polity, battlefield realities have a direct bearing on poll outcomes. If winning elections are all about success stories, the Chandrika Kumaratunga government would be on a weak footing, notwit hstanding the considerable improvement on the human rights front as well as its measures to bring in a more liberal political mindset in a nation which has witnessed brutal parliamentary majority as well as degrees of authoritarianism among their past le aders.

If the P.A. regime reached its high-point in 1995 by retaking Jaffna from the Tigers and putting in place a draft constitutional reform package, it seems to have touched a nadir in 2000 - politically and militarily. Not only has the political reform prop osal not moved an inch from the draft stage, all the military feathers in the government's beret are falling apart. The Vanni debacle in November vapourised in less than a fortnight all the territorial gains made by the island in the past five years.

Since December, the third phase of the LTTE's 'Operation Oyatha Alaigal' has been in force, lashing the island's political and military landscape with relentless fury.

That the government had initially brushed aside the Vanni debacle under the political carpet by accusing the UNP, sections of the media, sections of the Army and the LTTE of conspiring to ruin the chances of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the December presiden tial election, is an indication of the politicisation of the island's battlefield.

As a result, the military outcomes of the offensives are set to influence the political agenda as the island heads for parliamentary elections. The political ramifications of the battlefront developments are set to emerge as critical factors that will gu ide the immediate future.

Voter preferences are more likely to be divided along the lines of military expectations than realpolitik. The P.A.'s insistence that the war would continue, contrasts with the UNP's rather ambivalent attitude which prepared the ground for pushing the co ncept of a 'phased de-escalation' even during the run-up to the presidential election.

The UNP is all set to take the electoral offensive into the P.A. camp by ascribing the losses to the ruling party's handling of the ground situation. While the P.A. accuses the Opposition of spreading rumours about an already delicate military situation, the official line of thinking is that painting the present setbacks as a debacle would be akin to treason. In this backdrop, the imposition of blanket censorship is also viewed as a 'damage-control' exercise for the ruling party in the coming election.

The government's broad plan has been to keep three options open:

1. militarily defeat the LTTE, forcing it to head to the negotiating table;

2. keep the peace project on the table; and

3. involve an external interlocutor in the negotiated settlement.

Seemingly perfect, the broad plan, however, remains elusive on all three counts. With daily advances that take the battle into government positions, the LTTE is far from being a militarily weakened force. The broad consensus which the present leadership hopes to achieve, despite decades of failure to do so, remains as elusive as ever. And the expectations from an external interlocutor are drastically different from what they were in February, when Norway took upon itself the challenge of initiating dire ct talks between the government and the Tigers.

ON the diplomatic front, matters remain in flux. Neither side being in a position as they were, say a year ago, to emphasise the 'internal' nature of the conflict, nor willing to call for an externalisation, the island's foreign policy is, for all practi cal purposes, linked to the battlefield realities. So is that of India and other nations which are watching the unfolding politico-military dynamics in the island.

The eloquent and vocal Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, aptly explained the unfolding scenario with what should go down as a quotation reflecting the agony of pained nations during moments of crisis: "There is no such thing as a free lunch. We are paying for it. We are paying for it dearly," he told a press conference. Although the reply was in response to a query on the nature of the ongoing Israeli military assistance, at a larger level Kadirgamar's observation reflects the island's agony.

The island's underlying desire to consider the conflict an internal matter was also apparent when Kadirgamar told the first official press conference after the military developments and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's offer of mediation if invi ted by the Government of Sri Lanka, that India's offer was a very young offer."

The nuanced Indian offer, suffixed with a diplomatic 'if invited', set the island-nation debating on who should extend the invitation to resolve the crisis. "It is for the patient to go to the doctor, not vice versa," said the former Chief Ministe r of the North-Eastern Province, A. Varadharaja Perumal, who was elected the first, and till date, the only Chief Minister of the northeast, when the Indian Peace-Keeping Force was present in the island in the 1980s. Perumal left Sri Lanka along with the IPKF in 1990, and, after a decade-long self-imposed exile in India, returned to the island last year. He has been an active advocate of Indian intervention.

While the government maintained that it would respond to an "official offer" by India, that the open invitation could be picked up when the need arose was apparent with the Foreign Minister saying "let the nuance lie".

Considerable attention was accorded at the press conference to scenarios of Indian assistance. Asked about the government's response to the Indian offer, Kadirgamar said it would await a formal offer. "It won't be an interrogative approach," he said.

As diplomacy moved in tandem with battlefield developments, Sri Lanka kept its option for assistance, including humanitarian assistance, open but ruled out inviting foreign combatants. The external involvement would be confined to facilitating a dialogue with the rebels.

India has "ruled out military assistance, but has not ruled out humanitarian assistance," Kadirgamar said, adding that a situation "could arise" when humanitarian assistance would not be required. Defining the context for seeking such assistance as "dras tic humanitarian deprivation," he was emphatic that Jaffna was not facing such a situation.

India's decision to extend the ban on the LTTE, Kadirgamar said, was "not a fatal impediment" to the possibilities of a resumption of negotiations with an Indian initiative. He was also cautious about the multiplicity of offers made by states to resolve the island's crisis. "There are about 16 or 20 countries which have offered to help. If there are too many and everyone wants to add their two cents' worth, then it will not be useful," the Minister said.

That India was accorded primacy when Kadirgamar, commenting on the visit of the Norwegian Special Envoy Erik Solheim to New Delhi, told the Norwegians that "India must be kept informed" about the developments of the Oslo initiative, which seeks to initia te talks between the government and the Tigers.

To a question whether India had prevailed upon the Tigers to contain the offensive, Kadirgamar said, "I reject absolutely and totally that the Indian government has anything to do with the LTTE behind our back." He also said that "we are totally convince d" that India does not want a separate state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Admitting that the military situation had necessitated the resumption of diplomatic ties with Israel, Kadirgamar said the island was paying for all the military purchases it was making from seven countries.

Concerns of sovereignty have been dictating the foreign policy of the island ever since the sovereignty-human rights conundrum gained importance on the United Nation's agenda. On an earlier occasion, Kadirgamar responded to reported attempts by the U.N. offices in Colombo to involve pro-actively in the conflict situation by telling them to restrict their activities to containing "malaria and mosquitoes." In the immediate context, asked in a newspaper interview about "moves to bring a resolution at the U .N. Security Council by a Western nation to discuss the Sri Lankan situation", he reiterated that the conflict involved an "internal situation".

Expressing confidence that "the Chinese and the Russians will not allow the Security Council to get involved in Sri Lanka," he said, "This is our internal situation. We appreciate the help of friendly countries, but we must maintain dignity and self-resp ect, however small a country we are, whatever difficulties we have got ourselves into. Our position is still that sovereignty is paramount."

At the press conference, in response to a "hypothetical" situation of the U.N. assuming for itself a larger role in the island, he had said he would consider such attempts "a very serious interference" which he "would not tolerate."

On the request for Indian humanitarian intervention, he said, "By consent, a friendly government can ask a friendly government to help. Our sovereignty is our sovereignty. A Security Council decision is not necessarily by consent. That is a decision that can be imposed on a state."

The Indian policy of restricting its assistance to the humanitarian level has engaged much attention: A visible sadness among the Sinhalese that an active Indian military involvement is missing, contrasts with a subtle satisfaction among the Tamils.

On the Indian official response to the Sri Lankan developments, Kadirgamar said, "It is perfectly understandable that the government of India would take time to reach decisions on the Sri Lankan question."

Refuting charges that his comments to the media in India had pre-empted chances of Indian assistance, the Foreign Minister said: "It is incredibly naive to believe that Indian policy on such a sensitive issue as the current situation in Sri Lanka can be made or unmade on a chance remark. Indian policy has to take into account complex issues of domestic and international concern to India and her interests."

To the advantage of Sri Lanka's external policy is the near-total international posturing against separatism. However, given the international attention on the Jaffna offensives, and the drastic changes it could bring about in the island's polity, Sri La nka would have busy days ahead on the diplomatic front.

Even as the battlefield manoeuvres continued, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe held separate all-party confabulations on the unfolding scenario.

A confident Chandrika Kumaratunga told the political leaders that she was determined to go ahead with the constitutional reform proposals, with or without support from other parties.

She said she was holding discussions with various political parties on the draft constitutional reforms and was determined to introduce the devolution package.

On the LTTE's recent offer of a temporary cessation of hostilities, the President said that the offer was turned down as the Tigers were "not sincere". The government was open to genuine talks but ruled out withdrawal of security forces from Jaffna.

The left-radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which walked out of the meeting protesting against a delay in starting it, made a six-point representation. The JVP called upon the government to abandon its devolution package and treat all communities a s equal citizens.

Wickremasinghe, who stayed away from the meeting convened by the President, called upon the government to accept the Indian offer of mediation if invited. He called upon other political parties to urge the government to accept the offer. Holding the view that the nation was going through a "crucial moment", he demanded a political solution.

SRI LANKANS are war-weary. Although there is a semblance of normalcy, apprehensions run deep: the repeated pleas for the war to end, merely address the issue at a symptomatic level.

Decades of division, enhanced by entrenched militarisation, has left the society wishing for salve, yet it realises that the path to a solution is rough.

"The Tamils can come to the south, but we cannot go to the north," a taxi driver said, reflecting but a common grouse among the majority Sinhalese. "We do not know what awaits us in the south," say Tamil residents in Colombo. As if to confirm these appre hensions, some Sinhalese say, "We are watching the situation and are waiting for the signals."

At worst the situation is alarming. At best there is no cause for comfort as the rebel moves into the Jaffna Peninsula have stunned the nation beyond compare.

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