An air of apprehension

Print edition : January 27, 2006

While violence rises in Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapakse's visit to India yields no cause for cheer as the latter reiterates its policy of not intervening directly to resolve the conflict.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran pays his respects to the slain Member of Parliament, Joseph Pararajasingham, at an undisclosed location in northern Sri Lanka.-AFP

"Through the night of doubt and sorrow Onward goes the pilgrim band Singing songs of expectation Marching to the Promised Land."

- Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), English clergyman.

AS 2005 ended on a violent note for Sri Lanka, the focus of the island-nation was largely fixed on the first state visit to India by newly elected President Mahinda Rajapakse. Sri Lankans hold a myriad of expectations for the new year. But the outlook appears gloomy. Continued killings have made a mockery of the 2002 ceasefire agreement.

When Rajapakse flew to New Delhi, the security situation in the northern and eastern districts of Sri Lanka was on a bloody downslide. Elected by a narrow margin at the November 17 presidential poll, Rajapakse, while visiting India, was also on his first overseas call as head of state. In Sri Lanka, it was marked by the expectation of a possible change in India's policy of non-direct involvement in conflict resolution, adopted since the 1990s.

At worst many hoped that India would join the four international co-chairs of the Sri Lankan peace process - the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway. A best-case scenario for the majority Sinhala people - particularly since the Indian ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for its involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi - has been a direct role for the Indian government.

Beyond the glitter and gloss of diplomacy, the Indian position was pretty much clear. There were a few nuanced but significant outcomes from the joint statement, but none of these would provide comfort for the hardliners backing the President. A verbatim reproduction of the joint statement's reference to the ethnic conflict is:

"The President of Sri Lanka briefed the Indian leadership on his approach to the peace process to achieve maximum devolution which preserves the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The two sides agreed that an enduring solution can emerge only through internal political processes that promote consensus and reconciliation. India reiterated its support for a process of seeking a negotiated political settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society within the framework of an undivided Sri Lanka and consistent with democracy, pluralism and respect for human rights. India continues to maintain an abiding interest in the security of Sri Lanka and remains committed to her unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Indian side expressed the hope that a political settlement of the ethnic issue based on devolution, openness, transparency and inclusivity would emerge through negotiations between the parties concerned, so as to ensure a peaceful and bright future for all Sri Lankans in an undivided and democratic Sri Lanka."

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The first significant nuance is the absence of the phrase "unitary state" - the core of Rajapakse's approach to conflict resolution. With federalism very much a stained word in Sri Lanka - disdained by Sinhala hardliners and mocked by Tamil separatist nationalists - the phrase "maximum devolution which preserves the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka" is pregnant with statecraft. In short, it could be an acknowledgment of the need for federalism as a solution, though it should be noted that the Indian state made no mention of `federalism' directly.

The recognition that an "enduring solution" could "emerge only through internal political processes" was the shortest and most direct diplomatic answer to repeated calls for greater Indian involvement. The Indian government, however, made several critical reiterations that are nonetheless significant. These included: India's support for a negotiated settlement conforming to democracy, pluralism and human rights; its continued "abiding interest" in the security of Sri Lanka and its "hope" that a "political settlement" would emerge through "negotiations" adhering to the precepts of "devolution, openness, transparency and inclusivity".

The Indian position is to be viewed against the sharply polarised domestic expectations in Sri Lanka. Simply put, after two decades of bloodletting there is little by way of change in the perspectives of the hardliners on both sides of the Sri Lankan ethnic divide. While Sinhala hardliners would be content with a solution within the status quo of a unitary state, Tamil nationalists still adhere to the separatist option. The missed opportunities during the 11-year-rule of President Chandrika Kumaratunga - largely on account of both the LTTE's refusal to look at devolution packages and continued bipartisan political bickering between Sri Lanka's main parties - are now coming home to roost.

In short, the message from India is that the solution to Sri Lanka's crisis largely rests within. Indeed New Delhi's condemnation of the ceasefire violations amidst a sharp escalation in killings in the north and the east of Sri Lanka was a disappointment for those who had hoped for an Indian condemnation of the LTTE.

From early December 2005, there has been a steady but ghastly increase in violence in the northern districts. Claymore attacks and gunfire have claimed the lives of at least 45 security force personnel, the highest number of casualties among security forces since the 2002 ceasefire agreement. And the death toll, according to the grapevine, could be even higher. A number of factors appear to have arisen in drafting the final statement. Indian domestic political sensitivity appears to be one - particularly with elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly a few months down the line. Another is the new trend of the security forces and the LTTE trading charges over the killings. Needless to say, the LTTE's fingerprint is quite evident - the Indian statement mentioning it or not.

ON the other issues relating to the Indian visit - economic, cultural, trade and development - there were unmet expectations for New Delhi. There was hope that progress could be made on bilateral economic agreements. However, negotiations appear to have foundered on matters relating to critical minutiae - credit rates, terms of reference and so on. The two sides expressed their usual optimism on the progress of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement; they "noted with satisfaction" the progress of bilateral relations; they reflected "the long-standing consonance of view" between the two "friendly nations" on issues such as opposition to terrorism. Sri Lanka reiterated its position on and reaffirmed its support for India's "legitimate claim" to a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. And so the bilateral visit concluded, but not entirely according to format.

Following this, an expected meeting between Rajapakse and Tamil Nadu Chief Minster Jayalalithaa did not take place. The cancellation, officially due to the Chief Minister's schedule, should be placed in the context of the coming Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and possibilities of a re-arrangement in the coalitions of regional parties.

Thus President Rajapakse's first state visit ended. With its bag of unmet expectations, it appears that there is to be no public change in the positions adopted by the major players in Sri Lanka's elusive quest for permanent peace.

IF December was a particularly bad month for peace in Sri Lanka, January appears even worse. A death a day at a minimum is a sign of the times ever since the LTTE, reportedly through its front organisations, fired the first shot in Jaffna in late December.

Successive claymore mine attacks have taken their toll on security forces. The geographical map of violence and the killing tactics have widened and expanded. Reports about an LTTE-trained militia in the north give no cause for comfort. The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have highlighted the incidents of killing to the international community in the expectation of support to their respective sides, when the ceasefire cookie crumbles.

The blood-list is long, but three incidents are illustrative.

On December 23, a convoy of four trucks with Sri Lankan navy personnel was winding its way along the roads of Mannar in the northern province when it was attacked. There was a suspected LTTE claymore explosion, followed by gunfire and rocket-propelled-grenade attacks. The death roll is as yet unclear, though the Defence Ministry said that the bodies of 13 sailors had been "traced". Military experts have not ruled out higher losses.

Two days later, on Christmas Day, Joseph Pararajasingham, a Member of Parliament from the eastern Batticaloa district, was shot dead at close range inside a church. The MP had remained a known supporter of the LTTE, even after the revolt by the LTTE's former eastern special commander, `Colonel' Karuna. The Army blamed the LTTE's pistol gang for the killing. In return, the Tigers blamed chauvinistic elements in the Army, significantly naming a key presidential ally, the hardline, all-clergy Jathika Hela Urumaya, for influencing the course of events. The blame game was hotting up.

In early January, five youth who were on a beachside in eastern Trincomalee were killed. There are conflicting reports about the motive as well as the background of the youth. They had finished school and one had gained admission to an engineering course in a university near Colombo. A grenade exploded at the place where they were standing. Subsequently, they were found dead.

The blame game continued. The Army called them "Tiger terrorists" who had succumbed to an "accidental grenade explosion". However, the post-mortem report established that they died of gunshot injuries - three of them were shot in the ear, one each on the stomach and abdomen. President Rajapakse has appointed a high-level probe into the matter. The way out, all agree, is a resumption of negotiations. However, conceptual agreements are easy to come by in Sri Lanka. There is an expectation that a short operation by the Tigers, probably in the northern theatre, is in the offing. Such predictions have been going on for quite some time, and the manner in which the deadlock on the peace front is resolved in 2006 will determine the course of events. The outlook thus far is that LTTE operations in the north and east are unlikely to stop.

The LTTE's endgame clearly is to beat the Sri Lankan state and the international coalition supporting peace in the region into accepting its de facto state in the northern and eastern provinces. This long-promised Tamil homeland will remain elusive on account of both the internal dynamics of bloodletting and geopolitical realities.

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