Water war

Published : Aug 25, 2006 00:00 IST

The LTTE blockade of a waterway triggers a battle and a debate about the actions and intentions of the Tigers and the government.


THOUGH the two-week-old `water war' between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the east, has ended technically, the ethnic conflict in the island nation has taken a dangerous turn. The latest saga, involving the first deadly ground battles since the 2002 Norwegian-brokered Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced over 50,000 people.

This is in addition to an estimated 6,50,000 internally displaced, of whom the December 2004 tsunami accounted for nearly 3,00,000. The magnitude of the current phase of violence can be gauged from the simple fact that no one has a clear picture of the situation on the ground in the battle zones. They remain virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

It is indeed a telling commentary on the macabre nature of the conflict that for days on end affected people cannot be reached for even a preliminary assessment of the situation, let alone relief and rehabilitation. This is despite the fact that Sri Lanka plays home to a large number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the ethnic conflict has been on the global radar for nearly two and a half decades. The voice of the negligible civil society movements in the battle zones has been practically silenced. The brutal execution of 15 aid workers of a French NGO in Muttur town, the theatre of all-out war for nearly a week, best illustrates the point. The culprits behind the carnage might never be caught, let alone punished. Either the state or non-state actors executed the NGO workers. Obviously, the workers were witness to the gory details of the battle in the town, which interested parties wanted suppressed.

Predictably, the incident has shaken the NGOs and is bound to have an adverse impact on the humanitarian programmes run by voluntary groups across the island nation. The message from the episode is chilling. The ethnic conflict has taken a vicious turn and war norms have been consigned to the dustbin.

The `water war' began some time in the third week of July after the LTTE chose to block Mavil Aru, a waterway in the eastern territory under its command. It provides water to nearly 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) under cultivation by poor farmers and is the source of livelihood to approximately 15,000 families of all communities (in Muttur, Seruwila and Ichchalampattu). Initially the Tamil `Tigers' claimed that the blockade was imposed by the local community in protest against the failure of the government to construct a promised tank in the area.

If the LTTE is to be believed, a solution was worked out under which the government agreed to construct the water tank and the blockade was to be lifted. This version is, however, disputed by the Mahinda Rajapakse regime. On July 26, the Sri Lanka Air Force bombed select targets of the LTTE in and around the vicinity of the waterway. This paved the way for an escalation of the conflict.

In the words of the Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, no sovereign government worth its salt could be a silent spectator to the use of water as a `weapon of blackmail', especially when it endangered over 50,000 lives, and Colombo was compelled to take military action. The Minister told diplomats in the national capital on August 3 that the clear impression the government received through consultations with the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was that the LTTE was looking for a pretext to intensify the conflict rather than addressing people's problems as claimed.

"The government has given even a written commitment to fulfil the LTTE demand for a water tank. We know that the SLMM did all it can to try to persuade the LTTE by pointing out to Mr. Ellilan of the LTTE that by denying the water, the paddy harvest would be completely destroyed and the LTTE would not have any leverage for achieving the development objectives they claimed to entertain. The LTTE was clearly challenging the authority, and indeed the obligation, of the elected government to provide utilities to people of all communities - Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala - by creating this water blockade," he claimed.

He told envoys that the government was left with no other option but to use legitimate force to provide security to the irrigation officials in order to restore water supply. "This is not an offensive operation on any military or other target but a judicious use of force to ensure that objects and services indispensable to the survival of the civilian population are available, especially to the civilian population which is already under grave hardship owing to terrorist-instigated violence," Samaraweera argued.

Colombo made the case that the government had always taken serious humanitarian requests made by leaders of civil society, particularly concerning the livelihood of the civilian population, despite severe security constraints. For example, it said that despite security-related problems the government had relaxed the restrictions on fishing in Mannar and Trincomalee, to help the civilian population whose livelihoods were affected.

The government said that on humanitarian grounds it had conceded requests by even the LTTE. It cited the case of Daya Master, the LTTE spokesman, who was brought to Colombo for medical treatment.

What started as `limited operations' aimed at LTTE positions in and around the waterway spread to Trincomalee and Batticaloa. The Tigers launched a vicious attack on the main naval base of Sri Lanka in Trincomalee. A jetliner carrying 850 naval rankings escaped the attack narrowly. The objective of the LTTE was clearly to take the battle right into the camp of the government, and it did succeed although for a short period.

Having achieved their objectives in Trincomalee, the Tigers sprang another surprise on the Sri Lanka military by advancing to the Muslim-dominated Muttur town. The strategic coastal town under government control was the theatre of a deadly battle between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka military for six days, which caused untold misery and sufferings for the civilians.

Such was the intensity of the fight that virtually the entire population of the town took shelter in educational and religious institutions. At the end of the third day, over 25,000 people had fled the town and several thousands were preparing to leave. Calm returned on the sixth day after the LTTE chose to withdraw. Initial estimates suggest that over 150 civilians died.

The Tigers' decision to leave could have been influenced by the arrival of the Norwegian Special Envoy, Jon Hanssan-Bauer. He came from Oslo for talks with the warring sides on de-escalation and the future of the SLMM following the LTTE demand for the withdrawal of European Union (E.U.) monitors from the mission.

He did succeed in persuading the LTTE to lift the waterway blockade conditionally. The government, which said the water issue was non-negotiable, promptly rejected the deal, and continued the military operation to oust the Tigers and wrest control of the waterway. The position taken by the government has surprised several observers and strengthened the impression that the Rajapakse regime is keen on yet another `fight to finish' battle.

The LTTE claimed that the government went back on its word. A statement from the LTTE said: "On the same day, accompanied by the head of the SLMM Ulf Henricsson, and SLMM Trincomalee district head Ove Jansen, the LTTE Trincomalee political leader S. Elilan and protest leaders went to the dam location to open the sluice gate. Government forces began shelling the location. Some exploded very near the SLMM monitors . They and the rest of the party who went to open the sluice gate were forced to take cover in bunkers.

"With the full knowledge of the presence of SLMM monitors at the location and the decision by the LTTE to open the sluice gate, the government decided to shell the exact location. The LTTE considers this act as deliberate and strongly condemns the attack. The government action by implication not only rejected LTTE's good-will gesture, it also showed that the government is paying scant regard to Norway's peace efforts. Do these actions reveal anything about the government's intentions? It is the plea of the Tamil people to the international community that it understands the stark truth behind these actions."

There could be an element of truth in the charges levelled by the LTTE against Colombo despite the fact that it is the Tigers who started the water war. Norway, which facilitated the 2002 CFA, and the SLMM, which oversees its implementation, are also agitated over the approach of the government.

In an interaction with Colombo-based foreign correspondents much before Norway succeeded in prevailing upon the LTTE to lift the water blockade, the SLMM chief expressed serious reservations about the raids by the air force and wondered if water was the `real issue' behind the latest escalation. It certainly cannot be a coincidence that there were two air raids when Lt. Gen. Henricsson was in the conflict zone.

Sri Lanka has clearly failed to mobilise the international community on the water war. There was not even a single statement from the world community in support of the water war. Questions are being raised as to why Colombo rushed through aerial raids without adequate preparations on and off the ground. Ultimately it was in response to the Norwegian intervention that the LTTE chose to lift the water blockade in the name of humanitarian interests.

As though the water war is not enough, there is a little sideshow on in the island nation about the future of the SLMM. Following the decision by the E.U. to list the LTTE as a terrorist organsation in May, the LTTE responded by announcing that "the ban had seriously disturbed the neutrality of these countries" and insisted on the removal of E.U. nationals from the SLMM by September 1. Denmark, Finland and Sweden have already served notice to the SLMM, drastically depleting the strength of 59-member mission.

For the record, the government position on the SLMM is that it has established an institutional structure on which the ceasefire is dependent and it is vital that this most critical component of the peace process remains unchanged. However, the truth is entirely different. The Rajapakse regime is livid with Norway as well as the SLMM and would be more than happy if they shut shop and left the island nation. Many people in the regime believe that the ceasefire and the SLMM, creations of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government, have only helped the LTTE consolidate its position.

It is against this backdrop that speculations persist about whether the events unfolding are part of a plan for Eelam-IV for the Tigers or Fight to Finish-IV for the government.

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