Conflicting signals

Published : Oct 20, 2006 00:00 IST

The conflict resolution process remains stalled though the government receives "positive signals" from the LTTE.


IT is more than three weeks since the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference on Sri Lanka, representing 58 donor countries and some of the influential countries in the world, gave the good news in Brussels about the willingness of the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to cease hostilities and "come to talks unconditionally". However, their September 12 declaration remains a mere wish even as fighting continues with alarming consequences to the civilian population in the island nation.

According to the latest ruling by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) on the major violations of the 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), 200-odd civilians were killed and thousands of people were rendered homeless in the violence between July 22 and September 26. United Nations agencies estimate that more than 2.3 lakh people have become internally displaced in the last five months.

The government and the Tamil Tigers, besides exchanging regular gunfire, have been indulging in some fine hair-splitting on the conditions that should precede a resumption of talks. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government wants "credible guarantees" from LTTE chief V. Prabakaran and the international community to the effect that a fresh round of dialogue would not be used yet again by the Tigers for military augmentation.

The Tigers, on the other hand, want the government to "honour" the CFA and stop the offensive. Both are blaming each other for the hostilities.

The SLMM, the mechanism appointed to oversee the implementation of the CFA, is in jeopardy in view of the LTTE's insistence on the withdrawal of European Union (E.U.) members from it. The truncated SLMM is faced with the gigantic task of documenting the ground situation. Besides, both the government and the LTTE have given enough signals about their lack of trust in the monitors. The government is livid with what it describes as repeated attempts by the SLMM to equate a democratically elected sovereign government with a terrorist outfit. The LTTE, equally disdainful of the monitors, has virtually evicted the SLMM from the territory it holds.

However, it must be said to the credit of the SLMM that it is doing a marvellous job despite all these constraints. Its latest ruling ( given on September 26) is a grim reminder of the growing human tragedy. It blames the LTTE for creating the situation that led to a major military offensive, by closing the Mavil Aru sluice gates on July 22. At the same time, the SLMM seems to make out a case that having completed a successful operation, the government is in no mood for talks now.

The ruling is particularly disconcerting, coming as it does after the Brussels declaration. The conference's appeal does not seem to have had the desired impact. At least not yet, despite Colombo's confirmation that it had received "positive signals" from the LTTE leadership on a resumption of the talks.

The impact of the hostilities on ordinary citizens is difficult to imagine. Reports from Jaffna town and Jaffna peninsula, which have been virtually cut off following the closure of the A9 highway for two months now, speak of severe shortages of food and medicine. Educational institutions have been shut down and students face the threat of losing an academic year. A litre of petrol in Jaffna town reportedly cost Sri Lankan Rs.500 in the second and third weeks of September.

The SLMM ruling says: "The humanitarian crisis in many areas in the North and in the East is steadily worsening with limited supplies being brought up to Jaffna and into various LTTE areas leaving thousands of people without basic necessities and paralysed economic activity. Aid agencies are in general prevented from going into LTTE areas. With the monsoon season on its way it is likely that the conditions of people in general will get worse.

"The situation in the Jaffna peninsula continues to be tense with intensified fighting between the LTTE and the security forces along the FDL [forward defence line] and a high number of assassinations and abductions. There are no indications that this will change in the upcoming week. The humanitarian situation is affected and there are indications of food, fuel and basic needs shortages, despite provisions coming in by boat.

"Curfew is lifted twelve hours a day in the whole area, apart from areas being closed for cordon-and-search when incidents have happened. It is expected that curfew hours will remain the same in the upcoming week.

"According to the Government Agent there are approximately 10,000 civilians who have registered to be transported by ship to Colombo via Trincomalee. The population on the peninsula seems to be pessimistic when it comes to ending the confrontations."

The ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka is no ordinary one in military or political terms. It has evaded solution for 23 years and cost at least 66,000 lives. The worst fears about its deadly consequences for the nation as well as for the region are confirmed in a study by a Mumbai-based think tank, the Strategic Foresight Group (SFG). According to the study, "Cost of conflict in Sri Lanka", Sri Lanka is the most militarised society in South Asia. It says the island nation has 8,000 military personnel per one million people. Even Pakistan - it is said that while every country has an army the Pakistan Army has a country - has only half that number, 4,000 military personnel per one million people. The figures for other South Asian countries are: Nepal 2,700, India 1,300, and Bangladesh 1,000.

In terms of military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) too, Sri Lanka spends the most: 4.1 per cent. In the case of Pakistan it is 3.5 per cent, India and Nepal 2.5 per cent and Bangladesh 1.5 per cent. The figures cannot be expected to be an accurate representation of the actualities as there is very little information and knowledge about the LTTE's military spending.

Sri Lanka's defence expenditure as a percentage of its GDP is not only the largest in South Asia but also higher than other conflict-ridden countries such as Colombia, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Sudan, the Philippines, and Uganda to name a few, the researchers, Semu Bhatt and Devika Mistry, note. In other words, the level of militarisation witnessed in Sri Lanka, a country variously described as "Paradise on Earth" and "Pearl of the Indian Ocean", could be much higher than in other countries facing internal strife.

The study has established a direct link between the ongoing ethnic conflict and the steep rise in defence spending. "Sri Lanka witnessed one of the most dramatic increase in military expenditure from an allocation of 0.5 per cent of the GDP in the 1970s to as high as 6.3 per cent in 2000," it says. It is supposed to have declined to 4 per cent of GDP after the CFA.

The figures cited in the study pertain to the 2004-05 period. With the CFA reduced to a piece of paper now, it is unlikely that the defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP for 2005-06 can be contained at the level seen in the period after the CFA.

The strength of the Sri Lanka Army has risen from 15,000 personnel in the early 1970s to 1.5 lakh. Its arsenal includes multi-barrel rocket launchers, long-range artillery, mortars, battle tanks, and armoured personnel carriers. The Navy is much smaller; it has 20,000 personnel and uses fast attack craft with 23 mm guns, inshore and offshore patrol vessels and landing craft. The Air Force uses Kfir supersonic fighter-bombers, MiG-23s, and choppers, including MI-24s.

The LTTE's estimated manpower is 10,000 but this does not reflect its actual capability given its use of suicide bombers and guerilla tactics. Its navy has about 2,000 personnel. The LTTE has no functioning air force and no anti-aircraft defences but it is said to have acquired about five small aircraft, and has constructed one or two airfields. The study puts the LTTE's annual expenditure on its cadre and military-oriented networks, both in the island and abroad, in the range of $8 million.

The study says that for the LTTE, which is essentially a military outfit, expenditure on weapons and the maintenance of a war economy gets top priority.

"It does precious little for the economic well-being of the people under its control, despite running a few social and economic organisations." However, given that the outfit's annual income is anywhere between $175 million and $385 m, the expenditure on its cadre and informer networks is "insignificant", the study says.

"The LTTE spends a minimum on its cadre and the maximum on sustaining a war economy and its support base internationally." Of the total income, $100 m to $250 m is believed to come from drug-trafficking, although there is as yet no direct evidence of the outfit's involvement in this trade. Local taxation and extortion are said to contribute about $30 m; human smuggling and funds siphoned off from non-governmental organisations gives $3m to $5 m; contributions from the Tamil expatriate community fetch about $40-50 m; and profits from businesses $35-50 m.

The SFG researchers say, "The possibility of it [Sri Lanka] becoming a less militarised nation lies only after 2011, conditional on the resolution of internal conflict before 2006-07." It is this frightening prospect that makes it imperative for all concerned to make a concerted effort towards a resolution of the ethnic strife.

Since the Brussels Declaration, public space in Sri Lanka is agog with debate among the moderates and the hardliners on the merits of engaging the Tigers now. The hardliners are seething with anger over the supposed role played by Norway in persuading the Co-Chairs to come up with a communique announcing a return to "unconditional talks". In their discourses they make out as if the whole world has hatched a conspiracy to dismember the island nation and give Tamil Eelam to the Tigers on a platter. They wonder why the rest of the world is pressing for a resumption of talks when the military is giving a bloody nose to the Tigers.

The "capture" of Sampur and the unexpected low-profile response of the LTTE only seem to have strengthened the views of the hardliners. The bottom line of this school of thought is, "why does it become an un-winnable war" every time we are winning? There is no dearth of voices within the Rajapaksa government which echo this sentiment, and the thinking of the regime appears to be largely influenced by it.

No one familiar with the LTTE's track record will dispute the Sri Lanka government's contention that it is futile to resume talks without credible guarantees. But the question is: how can the government expect the international community to "put in place" a practical mechanism to ensure that the Tigers do not exploit yet another round of talks to strengthen themselves militarily? A tall order for anyone, given the ground realities.

Rajan Philips, an engineer by profession, has attempted to answer a host of issues raised by the hardliners post-Brussels. In an article in the government-run newspaper Sunday Observer, titled "To talk, or not to talk" he says, "A military solution to the Tamil question can only mean one thing: turning the whole of the North and East into permanent high-security zones and feeding the people there with daily dry rations. Such an ending, even if it were feasible, will not bode well for the rest of the country politically, economically and socially. That will be the end of Sri Lanka as a moral entity."

Rajan says the LTTE has no moral bone in its body to complain on behalf of the affected Tamils but that does not excuse the state of its basic responsibility to all its citizens, including Tamils.

"A state consumed by military operations will invariably fall short of its civic responsibilities, and the state of Sri Lanka has fallen far, far short of this responsibility, time and time again. For this reason alone the resumption of talks should be welcomed as a positive development," he writes.

He further says that the government could and should act on reaching a consensus with the United Nationalist Party (UNP) in the South, opening a forum for identifying the concerns of the Muslims in the East, dealing with non-LTTE Tamil groups, and reaching out to the Tamil diaspora and that there is nothing preventing the government from acting on these fronts while engaging the LTTE in bilateral talks.

On why the government cannot launch an all-out offensive to "finish off" the LTTE, he makes interesting points. "The question has often been raised that if it was alright for the Army to crush the JVP [Janata Vimukthi Peramuna], why should there be qualms about letting the Army to finish off the LTTE now? The answer is simple: it is the ethnic disparity between the Army (which is all Sinhalese), and the LTTE (which is all Tamil) with the result that any fight between the Army and the LTTE takes a far heavier toll on non-combatant Tamils than the Army's attacks on the JVP (all Sinhalese) drew on the general Sinhalese population. The Army in fact saved the Sinhalese from the JVP, but the Tamils are tossed between the fire and the frying pan as the Army and the LTTE battle on."

He disagrees with the view that talks could further strengthen the LTTE and goes on to argue that the ceasefire and the political distractions played a role in the breaking away of `Col' Karuna, the LTTE's sacked commander of the Eastern Province, and the blunting of the LTTE's fighting edge.

On the treatment of the LTTE on a par with the government, Rajan says, "There is a widespread notion in Colombo that the LTTE has been given preferential treatment by the international community compared to other armed organisations in similar conflict situations, e.g. the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation], Hamas, IRA [Irish Republican Army], etc. What is unique about the LTTE, in comparable world situations, is that the international community has had no alternative Tamil agency to formally and effectively deal with."

His conclusion is: "The resumption of talks gives the government a new opportunity to address the omissions of previous governments in building a southern consensus, reach out to the Muslims and non-LTTE Tamil groups, address the needs of the displaced people, put an end to kidnapping and targeted killings, and develop a political solution to call the LTTE's bluff."

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