Setback for Tigers

Print edition : March 11, 2005

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam suffers a major loss when its Batticaloa leader is killed in an ambush. Adding to its discomfort, it is indicted by the United Nations report on child recruitment.

in Colombo

The LTTE's political wing leader E. Kousalyan, who was killed on February 7. A file picture.-AFP

EVEN as the legitimacy and international acceptance that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) sought continued to elude it, the rebel organisation suffered a major loss when its political wing leader for the eastern Batticaloa-Amparai district, E. Kousalyan, was shot dead in an ambush on February 7 at Welikanda, in the government-held north-central Polonnaruwa district.

Kousalyan was returning from a meeting in rebel-held Wanni in the north to his base in Batticaloa along with A. Chandranehru, a former Member of Parliament belonging to the LTTE-backed Tamil National Alliance (TNA), when the ambush occurred at 7-45 p.m. The attackers sped away under cover of darkness. The LTTE condemned the killing as an act of cowardice. TNA MPs stalled Parliament proceedings, saying the government cannot disown responsibility for the killing.

Adding a new dimension to the incident, the Tamil National Force (TNF), a para-military group under the joint command of former LTTE special commander V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna) and the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF), claimed responsibility for the killing. In a statement, the group blamed LTTE leader V. Prabakaran for the Tamils' inability to achieve the goal of Eelam. Striking a stiff posture, the TNF said that Prabakaran's supporters would be considered "traitors of the Tamils". The killing of Kousalyan, the group said, was "a direct attack", whereas Karuna's supporters were "shot when they were asleep". The TNF also refuted the LTTE's claim that the attack on Kousalyan was carried out by paramilitary groups working with the Sri Lanka Army.

On February 10, at Kousalyan's funeral, the LTTE was more vociferous with its charge against the government. A senior LTTE leader, V. Balakumar, said Kousalyan's "murder shows they [the Sri Lankan government] have not changed" and that "they are intent on crushing the Tamil nation by violent means".

The killing has raised issues that have a direct bearing on the fragile ceasefire. The immediate fallout is that the prospect of the government and the Tigers arriving at a non-political working arrangement appears to have receded. At the same time, the killing makes it clear that last year's rebellion by `Col' Karuna continues to draw support, affecting the strike capacity of the LTTE in its erstwhile stronghold.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at the end of his twoday visit to Sri Lanka on January 9. Annan's fifth report on Children and Armed Conflict to the Security Council indicts the LTTE.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

As the eastern ground situation seems set to plunge into a spiral of violence, the ceasefire agreement, which has been in place since February 2002, is facing another challenge. Japanese special envoy Yasushi Akashi, who was on his ninth visit to the island nation, said it was distressing that 66 killings had taken place in Batticaloa and Amparai since the March 2003 rebellion by `Col' Karuna.

THE post-tsunami situation has also seen a calibrated increase in the role of the United Nations in the conflict resolution process. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned Kousalyan's killing and expressed the hope that there would be no return to violence. Annan's statement condemning the killing did not find favour with hardline Sinhala nationalists.

But much to the LTTE's discomfort, Kofi Annan's report to the Security Council in February on the LTTE's recruitment of child soldiers provided another clear indication that the separatist conflict could occupy the attention of major international organisations. The indictment through the Secretary-General's fifth report on Children and Armed Conflict comes at a time when the LTTE has been inching towards international acceptance and recognition.

Instead of gaining international support, the LTTE has painted itself into a cul-de-sac. Going by Kofi Annan's recommendations (he has not minced words) to the Security Council, it appears that the LTTE could face international sanctions. Commenting on the Sri Lankan situation, the Secretary-General has said: "The LTTE has often carried out recruitment by force, abducting children while on their way to school or during religious festivities, and beating families and teachers who resisted the seizure of the children."

The ground situation in the island has changed quite drastically since the May 1998 visit of Olara A. Ottunu, the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Ottunu was the then senior-most international diplomat to have met the LTTE leadership in areas under its control. After the visit, he stated in Colombo: "The LTTE leadership, as of today, undertook not to use children below the age of 18 years in combat. They further undertook not to recruit children below the age of 17 years." A mood of optimism prevailed when the LTTE's political wing leader, S.P. Tamilchelvan, and chief ideologue, Anton S. Balasingham, made the commitment to the U.N. official. Time, however, has proved otherwise.

In 1998, Colombo and the Tigers were embroiled in a bitter battle, but they declared a two-day ceasefire to mark Ottunu's visit. Thereafter, the LTTE gained major battlefield victories and consolidated itself militarily - the biggest victory being the capture of the Elephant Pass military garrison in April 2000. Two years later, in February 2002, fighting stopped formally as the government and the LTTE signed a ceasefire agreement.

In July 2003, the LTTE agreed on an "Action Plan for Children Affected by War", in which it agreed to halt the recruitment of children and to release all children within its ranks. Annan's report is sceptical about the progress made since then. "Despite some progress" achieved by the Action Plan, the report said, "the LTTE has continued to use and recruit children".

In 2004, six years after Ottunu's visit, "more than 1,000 cases of new recruitment and re-recruitment were reported to the UNICEF [United Nations Children's Fund]." The regional pattern of recruitment - "a high percentage of them girls" - has also remained unchanged, according to Annan's report. "Re-recruitment was particularly high in the eastern part of the country."

LTTE cadre on the A5 highway. A file picture.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Since 2001, the report said, "there have been more than 4,700 cases of child recruitment, some as young as 11". Of those recruited since 2001, "more than 2,900 children had returned or been released to their families", and "at least 500 children have run away from the LTTE", leaving about 1,300 children still unaccounted for, and by implication serving in the ranks of the Tigers.

Annan recommended that the Security Council take "targeted and concrete measures" against parties named by him, including the LTTE, where "insufficient or no progress has been made". The measures suggested by him include the imposition of travel restrictions on leaders and their exclusion from any governance structures and amnesty provisions, the imposition of arms embargo, a ban on military assistance and restriction on the flow of financial resources to the parties concerned.

These recommendations, if accepted by the Security Council and applied to the LTTE, would cause a major setback to the rebel group. According to current indications, a spell of international lobbying by the Tigers appears to be on the cards.

THE significance of the U.N. report and the recommended ban is that they strike at the very root of what the LTTE has been working on for a long time - parity with the Sri Lankan state, legitimacy and acceptance. When the peace talks commenced in September 2002, LTTE's chief negotiator, Balasingham, made it clear that the rebels wanted legitimacy and acceptance. To a large extent, the lack of progress made on these fronts was one of the reasons for the LTTE unilaterally pulling out of the peace negotiations in March 2003.

The LTTE's unilateral "suspension" of talks was triggered by Washington's decision not to invite the rebels to a preparatory donors' seminar as it was described as a "terrorist organisation". Subsequent positions by the LTTE - including, the demand for a "politico-administrative" interim administration - have only reiterated the point that the Tigers are unwilling to yield on their basic positions.

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