ON the evening of July 11, Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa took off on an unannounced visit to Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. Colombo, the capital of the island-nation, was abuzz with speculations about the mysterious visit to India, especially since Sri Lanka is scheduled to host the 15th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on August 2 and 3. Forty-eight hours later, it became clear that Rajapaksa was on a pilgrimage to the abode of Venkateswara.
Significantly, even before the Presidents plane had touched down at Tirupati, the political wing leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), A. Nadesan, was on one of the Indian television channels. He waxed eloquent on the readiness of the Tigers to cease hostilities and commence talks with the Sri Lanka government. He said the Tigers had always been in favour of peace and resolution of the ethnic conflict through dialogue, but the Rajapaksa government, representing the Sinhala majority, was hell-bent on war. It was nothing more than a game plan to embarrass Rajapaksa while he was on Indian soil.
Rajapaksa was well prepared for the salvo from the Tigers. I am ready today. Let them keep their weapons down, because whenever they are weak they are ready for talks, the President responded when a journalist raised the issue with him.
The LTTE is cornered by the Sri Lanka military like never before. After their ouster from the East in 2007, the Tigers suffered a series of major losses in the north, in Mannar, Mullaithivu and Kilinochchi. The LTTEs quest for a ceasefire and resumption of negotiations is rooted in the rapid advances the military is making into Tiger-controlled territory. The Tigers are falling back on their tested method of putting pressure on Colombo through the international community for a cessation of hostilities and talks; they badly need a break on the battleground, to rest, recoup and restart the fight. Over 9,000 Tigers have been killed since the resumption of hostilities in August 2006.
It is against this backdrop that the dramatic July 21-22 midnight announcement by the LTTE on its decision to halt all military operations from July 26 to August 4, coinciding with the 15th SAARC Summit, has to be viewed. The LTTEs political wing said in a statement that the Tigers would observe a unilateral ceasefire that is devoid of military action during the period of the SAARC conference and give their cooperation for the success of the conference. At the same time, if the occupying Sinhala forces, disrespecting the goodwill gesture of our people and our nation, carry out any offensives, our movement will be forced to take defensive actions, the statement said.
Within hours, the government rejected the offer. Minister and Chief Negotiator on behalf of the government with the Tigers, Nimal Siripal de Silva, told Parliament that the government was not ready for a ceasefire. He argued that it would only provide oxygen to the Tigers, now cornered by the military on the battleground.
Though it is for the first time that the LTTE has expressed in writing its inclination for a ceasefire since the government abrogated the 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), for several weeks now the Tigers have been talking of a desire for cessation of hostilities. However, the Rajapaksa government is in no mood to indulge them. Political and diplomatic observers believe that the July 22 announcement was yet another attempt to embarrass the government and score brownie points vis-a-vis the international community. That it impressed no one was evident from the silence of the rest of the world.
Within hours of the ceasefire announcement, the Norwegian Ambassador to the island-nation called on the Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohana, and sought the governments reaction. The envoy, whose country continues on paper to be the official negotiator of peace between the government and the LTTE, undertook the job more as a ritual than with any hope. Kohana told the envoy that the LTTE had used ceasefire and negotiations as a tactic whenever it was militarily weak; he said the government could consider the offer only if the Tigers were ready to demobilise.
That the government intends to carry on with the military operations was evident when the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) claimed on July 22 morning to have bombed a facility hosting Tiger suicide bombers; 21 Black Tigers were killed at the Uddayarkattukulam LTTE camp in Mullaithivu district. The Sri Lanka Navy, for its part, claimed that an LTTE boat was destroyed and two others heavily damaged when the formers Fast Attack Craft engaged a cluster of LTTE boats, detected in the seas off Pulmoddai the same day.
The Sri Lanka government and military are convinced that there can be no solution to the ethnic conflict without weakening the LTTE completely. In such a scenario, there is little chance of a let-up in the current phase of hostilities between the two sides.B. Muralidhar Reddy in Colombo