War by other means

Print edition : July 01, 2005

With the shadow war between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE spreading to new areas, the three-year-old ceasefire agreement is going through testing times.

in Colombo

The body of Major Tuwan Nizam Muthaliff being taken for funeral in Colombo.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

ON May 31, Major Tuwan Nizam Muthaliff, Commanding Officer of the First Intelligence Corps of the Sri Lankan Army, was waylaid and gunned down in Colombo. The attack added an extra dimension to the island-nation's shadow war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the security forces.

Three years after the ceasefire agreement, which was meant to be a forerunner to lasting peace, over 400 persons have been killed in continued low-intensity warfare. Although there has been no direct confrontation between the state and the insurgents after the ceasefire agreement was signed in February 2002 by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader V. Prabakaran, killings of key individuals had not stopped. Among the Sri Lankan security personnel killed were over 30 intelligence officers. The LTTE lost several cadre, the senior-most being the eastern political leader E. Kousalyan.

According to the Army's statistics, 409 persons have been killed since February 2002. They include civilians killed by the LTTE (147), political activists (36), and security personnel (37). The war between the LTTE and its former Special Commander `Col.' Karuna accounted for the death of 189 cadre (124 of the LTTE and 65 owing allegiance to Karuna). These figures, the Army said, did not include the exact numbers killed in rebel-controlled areas in the north and east.

Apparently, the ceasefire is currently going through testing times. The attack on Muthaliff, who was a key figure in the Army's Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP), pointed to the LTTE's continued ability to kill at will in any part of the country, including the capital Colombo. He had served 15 of his nearly 20 years in the Army as an intelligence officer. Muthaliff was travelling in his car to attend a computer course on the outskirts of Colombo. The Army escorts were on leave for the day. As his car slowed down near a traffic signal, Muthaliff's driver noticed two gunmen on a motorcycle approach the vehicle and cautioned the officer. Muthaliff reached for his weapon, but the assassins were quicker on the draw. Muthaliff was gunned down and the assassins fled on the motorcycle. The critically injured officer was rushed to a nearby private hospital, but he succumbed to injuries sustained on the head and the chest. Media reports said 18 bullets were recovered from his body.

Muthaliff, who was posthumously promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, was the senior-most Sri Lankan Army officer to be killed since the ceasefire. The Army described him as "a very capable officer", who underwent intelligence training in the United States, Bangladesh and India. He worked for a large part of his career in the intelligence wing in the northern government-held town of Vavuniya and in Jaffna for over three years.

The LTTE did not claim responsibility for the killing. A Tamil website, however, described the Army officer as "an enemy of the Tamils" and said he was involved in various "abductions" when he served in Vavuniya a few years ago. The government condemned the killing. The Opposition United National Party (UNP), for its part, blamed the government for failing to protect military personnel.

Muthaliff's killing came in the backdrop of the recent "disappearance" of a senior LTTE intelligence leader, Newton. He is considered to be close to the former military commander of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Nagalingam Manikkadasan. The PLOTE leader, who was known for his targeting of LTTE cadre, was killed in a claymore explosion in Vavuniya on September 2, 1999. Moreover, Muthaliff was seen as a key person who aided `Col.' Karuna after his rebellion against the LTTE leadership last year. The newspaper Tamil Guardian reported that much of Muthaliff's career was spent in "organising and supervising Tamil paramilitary groups' activities in Sri Lanka's counterinsurgency campaigns against the LTTE".

Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse at a ceremony to mourn the victims of the tsunami in Colombo in December 2004.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

A few days after Muthaliff's killing, two Tamil youth were shot dead in Colombo when they were waiting at a bus stop. The police said four identity cards were recovered from the youth, who hailed from Jaffna. Tamil media reports said the youngsters were prospective migrants to Canada. A day later, another Tamil youth was shot dead in Colombo. He had a pass given by the LTTE to move from the rebel-held northern Wanni to areas outside LTTE control.

A DEFENCE analyst saw the twin motives of "retaliation and pre-emption" in the long list of killed intelligence personnel, both Army officers such as Muthaliff and those who worked with the security forces, such as PLOTE leader Mohan. All those killed, he pointed out, were directly involved in anti-LTTE operations in the past. For instance, Tamil Guardian said: "It was under Muthaliff's leadership, the LRRP killed one of the LTTE's top officers, Col. Shankar (September 6, 2001), and a senior Sea Tiger Commander, Lt. Col. Kangai Amaran (June 29, 2001)."

The "pre-emptive strike" theory is based on the reading that the LTTE, which kept its powder dry and bolstered its arsenal during the ceasefire, wants to deprive the Army of its eyes and ears before the next military operation. "All this points to a bad augury," a veteran soldier said. "The killings will definitely distance the parties more and more," said Brigadier Daya Ratnayake, the spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Army. As a uniformed force, the Army "is not surprised" by the killings, he said. "When we deal with an organisation of the calibre of the LTTE, we expect these things. That is why we are able to prevent more killings. Although more than 400 people have been killed, this figure could have been much higher but for the preventive measures we have taken," Ratnayake said. The main objective of the LTTE, he said, was to "neutralise" the opposition and "clear the obstacles" during the ceasefire.

The reason for the Tigers' "hot pursuit" of intelligence cadre is not far to seek. When they chose to talk with the government a few years ago, the decision did not have much to do with the U.S.' "war on terror" in the aftermath of 9/11. The defence forces believe that it was the LRRP's effective targeting of the LTTE's top leadership that prompted the rebels to hasten towards the path of negotiation, which they opened as early as December 2001, with the offer of a unilateral ceasefire.

THE killings have not gone down well with international observers. In its harshest criticism yet of the continued violence in Sri Lanka, the New York-based Human Rights Watch spared none of the main players - the government, the LTTE, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and the international community - and called for an independent commission to probe "killings and abductions in order to identify those responsible and recommend measures to end the abuses". Human Rights Watch's remarks came a week before Muthaliff's killing.

Terming the continued killings as "part of a concerted campaign to destroy opposition voices", the human rights organisation blamed the LTTE for "many of the killings". It pointed out that the government had "not responded forcefully". While the SLMM "stopped short of investigating the killings", the international players, particularly Norway, Japan, the U.S., and the United Kingdom, had "chosen not to use their leverage to demand an end to the killings," it said.

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the ceasefire agreement was being used by "some" as an "opportunity to kill their opponents". While "everyone hopes for a lasting peace", the continued violence "raises serious questions about what kind of peace it will be for the Tamils who fall out of favour with the LTTE or other factions," he said.

Human Rights Watch termed the April 28 abduction and killing of senior Tamil journalist D. Sivaram "by unknown assailants" as "only one of a long line of assassinations of outspoken members of the Tamil community". It said an "estimated 200 Tamils have been killed for apparently political reasons" since February 2002. On the continuing abductions, Human Rights Watch said: "As of November 2004, there had been 900 reports of abductions, of which almost 400 have been certified by the Norwegian-led SLMM as violations of the ceasefire agreement."

Blaming the LTTE for most of the killings, it said most of the victims "were considered to be LTTE opponents and in many cases there is circumstantial evidence of LTTE involvement, such as threats from LTTE members or agents prior to a killing". Referring to the internecine killings following `Col.' Karuna's rebellion, Human Rights Watch said "other killings have been linked to persons loyal to Colonel Karuna".

LTTE leader V. Prabakaran at a function to honour cadre killed in the war.-AFP

While the LTTE "denies all involvement", the government "has not responded forcefully to the killings" and "claims it can do little to protect even obvious targets". The "few investigations" into the killings conducted by the government "have been ineffectual". Its "failure" to "pursue these killings" was "particularly troubling and raises serious questions about its stated commitment to take Tamil human rights concerns seriously", Human Rights Watch said. It added: "In all these years of killings, we have yet to see the government seriously investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for politically motivated killings of Tamils."

The international community remained "largely silent", Human Rights Watch said. It went on to say that the SLMM had "only recently acknowledged that political killings of opposition Tamil activists by the LTTE are violations" of the ceasefire agreement, but "disturbingly" stopped short of probing the killings, despite its mandate. Pointing out that the European Union and Canada "have spoken out more recently in strong terms", the international human rights organisation "called on all external actors with influence in Sri Lanka to also speak out forcefully".

Supporting calls by Sri Lankan human rights groups for the setting up of an independent and impartial commission of inquiry into the killings and abductions, Human Rights Watch said "such an effort may serve as a deterrent to future violations and could start to address the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka". On the security concerns raised by such organisations, the organisation said the LTTE had "effectively silenced" human rights groups in the east "through fear and intimidation" and "there is a real danger that a commission probing the killings would be similarly silenced".

MEANWHILE, the LTTE went on the verbal offensive on June 7 - the 1,200th day of the ceasefire agreement. It said the agreement "is under serious threat" owing to the "actions and inactions" of the Sri Lankan government.

The Tigers highlighted the government's withdrawal of the transport facilities offered to its cadre and leaders travelling between the northern and eastern territories. The area that lies between the LTTE-controlled northern and eastern territories is managed by the government. After the agreement was signed, the Sri Lanka Air Force provided air transport to key leaders. Immediately after Muthaliff's murder, this facility, described by sources close to President Chandrika Kumaratunga as "essentially a confidence-building exercise", was put on hold. Irked, rebel leaders told the Norwegian envoy, Hans Bratskar, who met them on June 7 in rebel-held Kilinochchi, that they would "consider reverting" to their "own transport arrangement as was practised before the ceasefire agreement" if the government did not guarantee security. This was the strongest public statement by the LTTE of a possible reneging on the agreement.

Talking to mediapersons later, the LTTE's political wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan, said Colombo's "refusal to continue this arrangement has forced us to plan our own means of providing travel arrangements using our own land, sea or air capability".

His reference to the "air capability" - which was made to journalists, but did not find mention in the official note issued by the LTTE - is interpreted as the first public acknowledgement by the rebels of reports that the LTTE had acquired two aircraft.

Tamilselvan told mediapersons that the LTTE's "military capabilities" were not aimed at threatening "neighbouring countries or any other people". Asked about India's concern and reported offer of support to Colombo over the LTTE's "air capability", Tamilselvan said though he was "not certain" of the "veracity of these reports" the Tigers "categorically say that all military infrastructures we have built are solely for the purpose of providing safety and security to our people". The LTTE leader said if India offered military help to Sri Lanka "as a response to our air capability, we will regard that as an act meant to legitimise the killing of thousands of our people by aerial bombardment by the Sri Lanka Air Force. We don't seriously believe India will take that stand".

Tamilselvan stressed the "fragile nature" of the ceasefire agreement against the backdrop of "violent killings that take place in government-controlled areas" and Colombo's "negative attitude" in providing transport facilities to its eastern commanders and divisional heads through government-controlled areas. He mentioned the "religious tension" in eastern Sri Lanka following the erection of statues of the Buddha. Tamil parliamentarians see the "pattern of colonisation" repeating itself in the eastern Trincomalee district. This comes as a dangerous pointer to a possible slide in ethnic relations unless it is addressed.

THE larger fallout of the continuing shadow war between the government and the rebels could be the declining level of confidence and the erosion of willingness on the part of key players to stay the course, making resumption of peace negotiations a more challenging task for the political leadership. Given the emotion-charged nature of the public responses, every successive killing further widens the dangerous chasm between Sri Lanka and prospects for peace.

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