Choosing war

Print edition : November 03, 2006

OFFICIALS AT THE wreckage of a truck loaded with explosives, which an LTTE suicide bomber drove into a Sri Lankan Navy convoy, killing nearly 100 sailors. - GAMINI OBESEKARA/AP

Negotiations between the government and the LTTE falter as each attempts to gain the upper hand through military victories.

THE increasing violence between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suggests that the low- and middle-intensity war that the two sides have been conducting for the past few months is now reaching a new phase of high intensity. If one may hazard a guess, the LTTE seems to have seized the initiative from the Rajapaksa administration in defining the pace, depth and duration of this emerging phase of war in Sri Lanka.

A new round of peace talks is scheduled for October 28 in Geneva. There is intense international pressure on the government and the LTTE to return to negotiations. But talks can hardly produce any constructive outcome at present when both parties approach negotiations from a perspective of unilateral strategic advantage. Although, as Winston Churchill once said, "it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war", the latter is emerging as the dominant trajectory.

Looking back at events during the past several weeks in Sri Lanka, one can see a build-up to a new phase of war. The logic of this escalation has been the commitment of each side to gain military advantage over the other, whether negotiations take place or not.

The chemistry of the relationship between the Rajapaksa regime, which came to power late last year, and the LTTE has never been conducive to mutual accommodation through constructive political engagement. Even after the limited talks the two sides held early this year in Geneva, they returned as antagonists committed to further intensifying their enmities. Neither side showed the willingness to pursue political engagement as a necessary and serious option. Actually, they seemed to explore war as the preferred first option. The only deterrent to war exploration both Colombo and Mulaithivu encountered was the pressure from the international community, particularly the Co-chairs (the European Union, the United States, Japan and Norway) and India.

Clearly, then, there has been and continues to be a distinct logic, or dynamic, specific to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE that has pushed them to the option of war. Since this is a point that many observers on Sri Lanka seem to miss, let me briefly describe this logic of war exploration.

The Rajapaksa administration was formed in November last year in the context of extreme disenchantment among Sinhalese nationalist political forces with the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) of 2002 and the United National Party (UNP)-LTTE negotiations. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her advisers had by that time successfully and irreparably undermined the political legitimacy of both the CFA and the negotiations. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe's laissez faire attitude to the political complexity of negotiations, coupled with the LTTE's repeated violations of the CFA and insistence on a maximalist interim solution contributed in great measure to this Sinhalese nationalist backlash. In that background, the argument for a military solution to the ethnic conflict re-emerged. The United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which won the parliamentary election in April 2004 and the presidential election in November 2005, was essentially a coalition against the LTTE, built to defeat the UNP.

The UPFA coalition under both Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa created a new ideological front, led by the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The new alliance also sought to redesign the engagement with the LTTE in military terms. Thus, during 2003-05, three arguments concerning how to engage the LTTE emerged within the UPFA coalition, with adherents in the military and the media. The first was that the war against the LTTE could be won if professionals, meaning the Generals, were given a free hand, without interference by political leaders, to conduct the war. Past military failures of the state were attributed to the `wrong' approach of politicians conducting the war. The second argument was that the war against the LTTE could be won if the armed forces were given the correct ideological leadership. In the emerging political configuration, the JVP and the JHU were seen as the new ideological leadership in the war for national unification. The third argument was for the Sri Lankan government to establish military alliances with the U.S., India, China or Russia in order to link the war against the LTTE with the global war against terrorism. In this new thinking, negotiations with the LTTE were seen primarily as a tactical component of a larger war strategy.

Interestingly, the LTTE had also reached similar conclusions through a different path of reasoning. The LTTE seems to have concluded that the 2002-03 peace process did not produce any favourable outcome. On the contrary, it had weakened the LTTE militarily and politically in the Eastern province and entangled the movement in an international web of pressures for a political settlement of somebody else's - choice - in this case the international community. The LTTE seems to have interpreted the failure to establish an administrative mechanism for cooperation in post-tsunami reconstruction as final confirmation that the Sinhalese political class was not willing to try even a minimalist compromise. Thus, bringing to an end the political engagement with the Sri Lankan state became a short-term strategic objective of the LTTE.

There seems to be another significant reason for the LTTE to opt for the escalation of violence and war - the need to sharpen the contradictions between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil polity. One crucial criticism that emerged among LTTE ranks concerning the 2002 CFA and negotiations was that they not only failed to produce a favourable political outcome, but also led to lessening the contradictions embedded in the ethnic conflict. `Re-sharpening contradictions' seems to be a strategic path that the LTTE entered in the latter part of 2004. This perhaps explains why the LTTE imposed a poll boycott in the North on the day of the presidential election, thereby paving the way for Rajapaksa, in alliance with the JVP and JHU, to win.

However, Rajapaksa faced a huge policy dilemma. Implementing the hard-line, pre-election agenda was not feasible. But his government's parliamentary majority depended on the support of the JVP and the JHU. In his early months in office, Rajapaksa seems to have designed a strategy that appealed to his hard-line coalition partners and the international community. The main feature of that approach was to negotiate with the LTTE, but from a position of military strength. It also kept open the possibility of a military victory. It is a strategy that maintained both the military and negotiation options while at the same time accommodating contradictory pressures coming from different sources, domestic and international.

ARMY CASUALTIES of the battle at Muhamalai, a failed offensive of the government on October 11. The picture was released by a pro-LTTE website.-AFP

The government's strategy of negotiating from a position of military strength and the LTTE's strategy of re-sharpening contradictions between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil polity worked well to produce the present level of conflict. Rajapaksa on his part seems to have delegated the function of conducting the war to the Generals and the Ministry of Defence. The pattern of military offensives launched by the government during the past two months indicate that a key component of that strategy has been to defeat the LTTE in the Eastern province with the assistance of the breakaway Karuna group. The battles in Sampur and Muttur a few weeks ago revealed the LTTE's military vulnerability in the Eastern province. The Sampur and Muttur victories created such a sense of euphoria and military triumphalism in Colombo that the government's key strategic planners appeared to have believed that the LTTE could be further weakened in the North. That, to some extent, explains why the government agreed to peace talks in late October, in the hope that yet another major battle could be won ahead of the negotiations.

Meanwhile, analysts speculated that a decisive government offensive to capture Elephant Pass was going be launched in mid-October. The military commenced a major ground offensive in the early hours of October 11 in the southern plank of the Jaffna peninsula. But it failed within a few hours, thwarting the government's hopes to go to Geneva with one more battle won. Nearly 130 soldiers died in a `conventional' battle and hundreds suffered injuries. The details emerging from the Muhamalai battle indicate that the army had walked into a well-prepared trap laid by the LTTE, and highlight the vulnerability of the government's military machine in a high-intensity war with the LTTE.

A great debate has now erupted in Colombo about what even the pro-government media in Colombo calls the `Muhamalai Disaster' of October 11. The media sympathetic to Rajapaksa portray an interesting picture in which the President or the defence establishment in Colombo was not aware of this major military operation. Some media suggest that one or two ambitious Generals may have initiated this costly military misadventure. If that actually is the case, serious questions arise with regard to the governance and defence decision-making process in Colombo. If military offensives of huge proportions can be launched without the knowledge of the President and the Defence Secretary, and since this story came out only after a defeat, it does not say much about Rajapaksa's policy of `war by delegation'.

A story making rounds in Colombo is that there is a planetary transition in the solar system that will bring disastrous military and political consequences for Sri Lanka in October and November. One version of it says that the period up to mid-December will be extremely bad for the government, but in late December the President will emerge victorious. This is how people in Sri Lanka cope with unpredictable political crises; they recognise how bad the present situation is, and hope for a unilateral victory at the end.

Meanwhile, the proposed Geneva talks may not even take place. The government may find it difficult to meet the LTTE face-to-face in the immediate aftermath of two major disasters, first in Muhamalai and then in Habarana, where the LTTE rammed a lorry full of explosives into a Sri Lanka Navy convoy, killing about 100 sailors on leave on October 16. On the other hand, the LTTE might want to take the war to a new stage of high intensity at a time favourable to its kind of war. If the two sides do meet, the facilitators will have a difficult job handling the hostility and recriminations that are likely to occur between the two delegations.

In this grim scenario, the international parties who are so keen to beat the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE back to the negotiation table should realise that talks will not produce any tangible outcome until the outcome of the present phase of war becomes clear. The battles that the two sides will fight until December, as the astrologers have uncannily speculated, will shape the future directions of Sri Lanka's conflict and peace processes. Until then, an agenda for de-escalation seems impossible.

Jayadeva Uyangoda is a Professor of political science at the University of Colombo.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor