Truce under test

Print edition : February 10, 2006

Renewed hostilities in the north and east of Sri Lanka put severe pressure on the conflict resolution process between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

A funeral procession of five Tamil youth who were killed in Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka on January 5.-REUTERS

"Sri Lanka is at a tricky point in its history. It's not clear if it is at a crossroads, or a cliff's edge."

- Jeffrey Lunstead, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka on January 9, 2006.

AS violence continued to escalate in the northern and eastern districts of Sri Lanka, a flurry of diplomatic, political and propaganda activity began in order to ensure that the February 2002 ceasefire agreement between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government was not cast away. More than 120 people, 70 of them belonging to the security forces, have been killed in reported rebel attacks since early December. By all indications, the LTTE has upped the stakes for the next round of engagement with the government - be it military or political. The current situation is perhaps a sparring for a big fight. The pattern and spread of attacks could well delay the prospects of early peace.

The most devastating attack till date was on an Israeli-built Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FAC) of the Sri Lanka Navy off the eastern Trincomalee harbour on January 7. At least 13 sailors, including two officers, were presumed dead.

According to the Navy, the FAC was about to set out on patrol when an explosives-laden boat rammed into it. The explosion sent shock waves across the government and the international community. The Navy said "a woman LTTE cadre had been tasked to take on the target". When the Black Sea Tigers struck, there were 15 personnel on board, of whom two were rescued.

Immediately after the attack, President Mahinda Rajapakse held an urgent meeting with the Chief of the Defence Staff, Daya Sandagiri, and senior defence officials. Rajapakse, who was elected President on November 17, has maintained that he favours negotiations with the LTTE.

Sources in the security establishment said the LTTE's suicide craft was among "hundreds of fishing boats" that were at the harbour on the day of the attack. "There is no way we could differentiate between fishing vessels and a suicide craft," the source said.

The Navy termed the attack, by an "LTTE Suicide Sea Tiger Craft", as part of the "continued blatant violations" of the ceasefire. "This incident is the latest act of the LTTE to fulfil its undeclared aim of attacking the Navy in the guise of fishermen," it said. The incident was also the most serious in a string of recent attacks on security forces, including the killing of at least 13 sailors in an ambush on a road convoy in the northern Mannar district.

The attack, coming at a time when Sri Lanka was bracing itself mentally for a possible resumption of hostilities, revived memories of the short-lived ceasefire in 1995. On April 19, 1995, LTTE frogmen blasted two naval gunboats in Trincomalee, and sparked a five-year war, referred to as the third Eelam War.

Reports of the presence of an LTTE-trained civilian force, which security sources estimate to be about 10,000 strong, and certain claims by self-styled Tamil civilian groups have added to the fears of war and made difficult an objective assessment of the ground situation in the north-east.

THE suicide attack was against the backdrop of a continued deadlock in the resumption of direct talks, stalled since the LTTE's unilateral pullout in early 2003. Although the government and the rebels agreed in principle to discuss issues relating to the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, sharp differences persist over the choice of venue. The government changed its earlier position that talks should be held only in Sri Lanka and consented to any Asian venue. The LTTE insists that the talks, at least the first phase, be held in Oslo.

A familiar feature of the latest round of killings is the LTTE's denial of its involvement in them. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), the European ceasefire monitors, however, has dismissed the denials and, in a strong condemnation, described the attacks as a "serious blow" to the ceasefire agreement.

The SLMM said: "The LTTE claims that `the people' are behind the attacks on the military. SLMM finds this explanation unacceptable. It is safe to say that LTTE involvement cannot be ruled out and we find the LTTE's indifference to these attacks worrying."

In a comprehensive statement, it asked the government and the LTTE to come up with "confidence-building measures" and show "more commitment" if they did not want Sri Lanka to relapse into war.

Striking an ominous note, the Mission said it "believed that if such attacks or retaliation of such attacks continue, the CFA [ceasefire agreement] will be over." Pointing out that more than 100 people were killed in December, half of whom were civilians, it said "the situation is getting worse", and that "it is our assessment that if the parties [the government and the LTTE] do not react immediately, they risk going back to war".

The SLMM, whose members are drawn from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, came into force in 2002 after the signing of the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement. Its field officers monitor the situation in the northern and eastern districts, including the areas under LTTE control. Since December, the SLMM has expressed concern over the rapidly declining security situation in the light of a sharp rise in attacks on security forces.

The monitors also pointed out that there were "several reports of civilian harassment by the security forces in relation to increased security measures" which "often takes a form of harsh treatment of the Tamil population in relation to the attacks". It urged the government and the security forces "to prevent such actions from taking place".

The SLMM's note on civilian harassment is to be seen in the context of the cordon-and-search operation in several pockets of Colombo on New Year's eve, in which 900-odd civilians were detained for questioning and subsequently released. The police said the search operation was part of measures to catch fugitives.

Yet another complicating factor is the feud within the LTTE since the 2004 rebellion by its former eastern special commander, `Colonel' Karuna. Internecine killings have taken a heavy toll. Referring to the high militarisation in the east, the SLMM said "alternative armed elements have been able to operate freely in the East in government-controlled areas, which had the effect of destabilising the ceasefire".

As this was among the "major reasons" for the "increased tension" between the government and the Tigers, the SLMM urged the government to "face up to its responsibility to disarm" the "other armed groups", paving the way for reinstating "the rule of law in the affected areas".

The Mission also urged both parties "to consider carefully how they can mend the situation instead of merely pointing fingers". The government and the Tigers "need to come up with firm confidence-building measures with the truthful aim of reaching a peaceful solution. Actions speak louder than words and we feel that we need to see more commitment from the two parties if war is not to break out in Sri Lanka," it said.

The strongest international condemnation of the current spate of violence came from the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jeffrey Lunstead. He criticised the LTTE for "undermining" the organisation's "claims to legitimacy" through its "pursuit of violence".

Using admittedly "blunt language", he said: "The LTTE's current actions call into question its `leadership' of the Tamil people. What kinds of leaders block their people from realising their most fundamental democratic aspirations? What kinds of leaders allow their people to continue to suffer from a lack of investment and industry? What kinds of leaders continue to pursue violence when the clear benefits of peace are obvious? These are not acts of leadership. They directly undermine the LTTE's claims to legitimacy and they keep the aspirations of the Tamil people bottled up."

Lunstead's criticism of the LTTE's leadership role is also to be seen against the backdrop of the organisation's claim to be the "sole representatives" of the Tamil people, the broad acceptance of such a status by Colombo and the ground-level military reality.

Urging the Tigers to abandon violence, Lunstead said: "There can be a role for the LTTE in future development of Sri Lanka, but only if it returns to the peace table, renounces terrorism in word and deed and becomes a responsible participant in Sri Lanka's future. And this will lead to a better life for Tamils and all Sri Lankans in the north and east."

Referring to the current political and economic situation in the island, he said, Sri Lanka was at a "tricky point" in its history and "it's not clear if it is at a crossroads or a cliff's edge".

On the possibility of a return to violence, the envoy cautioned that "if the LTTE chooses to abandon peace, we want it to be clear, they will face a stronger, more capable and more determined Sri Lankan military. We want the cost of return to war to be high". He also reiterated Washington's continued support for a "strong, unified Sri Lanka that seeks peace and prosperity and that offers an atmosphere of respect and justice for all citizens regardless of religion and race", and urged "others in the international community to do the same".

Norway, Australia and the European Union have called for an end to the spiral of violence and a resumption of talks.

THE violence in the north and east could also be an attempt by the LTTE to capitalise on the political dynamics at play in Tamil Nadu, India, where elections are due to the State Assembly this year. There are attempts by some political groups in the State to raise the Sri Lanka issue.

For an organisation that has admittedly lost international support, a sudden spurt in hostilities in the Tamil-dominated areas of Sri Lanka when Tamil Nadu is preparing to go to polls, is best suited to attract attention to the ethnic problem, for any breakdown in the conflict resolution process is likely to become a strong debating point among Tamil Nadu's political parties.

It is against this backdrop that the continued reports of violence gain significance. The government, for its part, has maintained that it would observe maximum restraint and aim at restarting the negotiations. The crux of the matter, however, is on a core political issue - that of the Sri Lankan state's willingness and ability to adopt a power-sharing mechanism that would put an end to the conflict.

Sections of hardline Sinhalese continue to believe that the issue should be resolved within the framework of a unitary state. This would entail a militaristic mode - an option that the LTTE appears to be prepared for.

Indications are that the Tigers would seek to secure the maximum possible leverage - in political, diplomatic and propaganda terms - in case of such a turn of events. This also explains the rationale behind the LTTE influencing the outcome of the November presidential poll. For an organisation that remains unchanged in its goal of a separate state, the political and diplomatic battlelines would become clearly demarcated in the case of Sinhalese hardline rhetoric prevailing during a spell of military hostilities.

The single largest feature since the 1990s has been that despite no effective change in political power-sharing with the Tamils, there has been a significant downplaying of Sinhalese chauvinism. With the rise of a nationalistic Right among the Sinhalese, accompanied by an outbreak of hostilities, Tamil nationalists would see the possibility of furthering their goals.

It is critical for the Sri Lankan state to recognise that moving out of the conundrum requires the ushering in of an effective political power-sharing mechanism that meets the "aspirations of the Tamils" without raising real "fears of separation" among the Sinhalese. The international community, while stating that conflict resolution requires a home-grown solution, has also indicated its preference for power-sharing.

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