High-stakes zones

Print edition : January 31, 2003

A family passes through the Sri Lanka Army's high-security zone in northern Jaffna on January 1. - ERANGA JAYAWARDENA/ AP

The partial compromise at the fourth round with regard to high security zones hardly marks a resolution of the complex issue.

FOR all the heat generated by it, so far the controversial issue of high security zones (HSZs) in Sri Lanka's northern Tamil peninsula of Jaffna seems to have been tackled satisfactorily. Both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continued their pragmatic approach of strategic flexibility when they met for the fourth round of talks in Thailand. Although the volatile and politically sensitive HSZ issue seemed irreconcilable at one stage, deft manoeuvring by both sides led to a partial compromise. However, major decisions were deferred for another day. It was agreed that international expert assistance would be sought for the purpose. As a result, the head of the government delegation, Gamini Lakshman Peiris, was able to assert confidently on January 7: "Those who expected the talks to break down will be greatly disappointed. The talks were very constructive and [held] in a friendly atmosphere. We did not encounter any of the problems that were expected in certain quarters."

The LTTE theoretician and chief negotiator Anton Balasingham was in a buoyant mood while addressing sections of the Tamil media. The Tigers had achieved periya vetri (great success) on the HSZ issue, he said. According to Balasingham, there were four significant gains that were made. First, the government had agreed to delink the question of disarming the Tigers with that of the Army vacating the HSZs. Earlier the Northern military commander, Major General Sarath Fonseka, had proposed that the issue of vacating the HSZs be tied up with that of the LTTE laying down arms gradually.

Secondly, the government had agreed to address urgently the issue of resettling displaced people in areas outside the HSZs. The armed forces will therefore withdraw from these places. Around 250,000 displaced persons were expected to be resettled thus.

Thirdly, according to Balasingham, the sub-committee on de-militarisation and normalisation headed jointly by Defence Secretary Austin Fernando and the LTTE's Eastern `commander' Col. Karuna will be de-activated. The question of resettling internally displaced persons (IDPs) in HSZs will be handled by another sub-committee on immediate humanitarian measures and resettlement that is jointly headed by Peace Secretariat director Bernard Gunatilleke and the Tiger political wing head Thamilchelvan.

Fourthly, international experts will study issues relating to HSZs and submit an advisory report on how the HSZs could be de-militarised. The former Indian Deputy Chief of the Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, will provide the expert report.

Whatever the merits or otherwise in Balasingham's claim that the LTTE had achieved "success" on the HSZ issue, there is no doubt that whatever forward movement recorded is only ephemeral. What has been decided upon so far is to defer addressing the HSZ issue till a report by experts is compiled. Peiris told the press: "We are awaiting some reports of international experts whom we have appointed for this purpose and who will be able to give us valuable advice. That was acceptable to both sides for the time being."

While there is no doubt that the involvement of Gen. Nambiar in his personal capacity could help narrow down mutual incompatibility on the issue, there is no guarantee that both sides would agree to abide by his suggestions if these are regarded as unpalatable from their respective perspectives. Despite the apparent bonhomie between the protagonists at the Thailand confabulations, the HSZ issue is an ultra-sensitive one over which the stakes have been raised to such an extent that none can afford to show too much leniency.

The ongoing peace process facilitated by Norway has registered commendable progress thanks to a remarkable degree of flexibility displayed by both sides. Thus, several issues that threatened to disrupt the talks have vanished. A convergence of interests by both sides has resulted in a joint "side-stepping" of contentious issues and their relegation for further consultations. This approach is sought to be rationalised on the basis of the argument that a conducive climate has to be created as a prerequisite for talks on the fundamental or `core' issues that are to be discussed. The creation of a conducive climate required a certain degree of de-militarisation and consequent normalcy in the Tamil areas. There are two important requirements for this normalisation process. One is for the armed forces to reduce their presence in the North-East and the other is for displaced people to be resettled.

Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary Austin Fernando and Army chief Lionel Balagalle at a press conference in Colombo.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/ AFP

It was on the basis of such an assessment that three sub-committees were appointed. One sub-committee was to oversee de-militarisation and security-related matters. Another was to supervise resettlement. A third one, to be in charge of political matters, was to study and recommend suitable political models for emulation in Sri Lanka.

Obviously it was this third sub-committee, co-chaired by the chief negotiators from both sides, that was the most important among the three as it was going to help resolve substantive issues. Paradoxically, this committee received the least attention, and the pride of place was given to the other two, particularly the one concerned with de-militarisation.

The LTTE was able to reduce to some extent the overwhelming military presence in the Tamil areas through the implementation of the ceasefire agreement which stipulated that the armed forces would vacate schools, places of worship and public buildings during prescribed periods of time. The armed forces, however, remained in several camps housed in civilian complexes. The status quo, however, prevailed within the HSZs. Moreover, some new areas were declared as HSZs after the ceasefire came into effect.

The HSZs comprised large chunks of territory surrounding or encompassing strategic military installations. The largest and most important one is in Valigamam in North Pradeshiya division in Jaffna. This was set up and later expanded in order to protect the Palaly airport and the Kankesanthurai harbour, both in this region. There being no direct land link between Jaffna peninsula and the south, the air and sea supply routes to the armed forces in Jaffna relied on these two facilities. Indeed, they constitute the lifeline to the military in Jaffna. Since the LTTE has anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles and long-range artillery in its arsenal, an extraordinary amount of territory has had to be maintained as an HSZ in order to foil any attacks.

HSZs were declared in other parts of Jaffna too, in order to protect certain camps located strategically and also the headquarters of certain military brigades. HSZs were set up also in order to prevent Tiger invasions into the peninsula from the northern mainland by sea, lagoon or land. In the Jaffna peninsula there are approximately 18 HSZs, from where all civilians have been expelled.

According to Jaffna newspapers, today HSZs constitute about 190 sq km of Jaffna's total area of 880 sq km. This area includes 82 sq km along the coastline. About 1,30,000 people, including 20,000 farming families and 8, 000 fisherfolk families have been displaced. Nearly 275 schools and 300 places of worship fall within areas designated as HSZs, comprising 64 grama sevaka divisions. At least 25 important roads are no-go areas. It is also stated that nearly 30,000 dwellings stand within areas declared as HSZs, although the Army puts the number at 10,000.

Having succeeded to some degree in its bid to downsize the overall military presence in Jaffna, the LTTE started the next phase of its strategy by focussing on the HSZs. An early signal came on November 27, 2002 when LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran delivered his Great Heroes Day (Maaveerar Naal) address. He said: "Under the cover of high security zones, the Sinhala armed forces are occupying residential areas and social, economic and cultural centres... As several villages, houses and roads are entrapped by occupation, several thousands of internally displaced are unable to return to their residences. Unless this problem is resolved there, there is no possibility of normalcy and social peace be<147,2,1>ing restored in Jaffna."

Subsequently, at the third round of talks in Oslo in the first week of December, the LTTE alleged that Maj. Gen. Fonseka was adopting an intransigent attitude with regard to HSZs and demanded that they be dismantled. It was agreed then that this issue would be taken up at the meeting of the sub-committee on de-militarisation. It was decided at the meeting on December 14 that Fonseka should submit a proposal for a gradual de-escalation in the HSZs. While addressing presspersons after the meeting, Karuna was critical of the process. He warned that unless positive action on the issue was taken, the Tigers would not attend further meetings of the sub-committee.

Maj. Gen. Fonseka submitted a schedule for de-escalation to the Norwegian monitoring mission through the government on December 21. These proposals ruled out effective vacation of the HSZs at this juncture. While two small areas of possible resettlement were identified, the overall concept of dismantling HSZs was linked to decommissioning of arms, particularly artillery and heavy weaponry, by the Tigers whom Fonseka described as "terrorists". This proposal infuriated the LTTE. Adding to the chagrin of the Tigers was the public comment made by the head of the Norwegian monitoring mission, Trond Furuhovde, on Fonseka's proposals. He seemed to approve of Fonseka's concern over security.

This in turn provoked a harsh rejoinder from the LTTE, which reprimanded both Fonseka and Furuhovde. On the other hand, President Chandrika Kumaratunga agreed with Fonseka's position on HSZs. In an exceptional gesture, the Army chief, Gen. Lionel Balagalle, also went public defending the Army's position. While many Sinhala Opposition parties and organisations publicly supported Fonseka's stance, the LTTE, the Tamil parties and the media launched a frenzied campaign against it. The United National Front government was caught in the crossfire.

IT was amid this controversy that the fourth round of peace talks took place in Thailand. In spite of its hardline rhetoric, the LTTE seems to have made a climb-down here at least for the present. The reasons for this `soft' approach are not hard to seek. In the first place, it is entirely consistent with the LTTE's strategy so far in the talks. There are grounds to believe that the Tigers are engaged in a tactical shift to secure short- and long-term objectives through the talks (Frontline, January 3, 2003). Arguably, it has some distance to cover before these objectives are achieved. Therefore rocking the boat now could be inopportune.

Besides, breaking off talks and possibly returning to war could be politically counter-productive. It would be a glaring contradiction indeed if the LTTE broke off talks on the grounds that the people were being denied normalcy because of HSZs and resumed the war. That would only give a new lease of life to the HSZs. Also, whatever the rhetoric, even the LTTE knows that it cannot afford to break off talks on weak pretexts. The inexorable logic of peace negotiations is a binding factor too. Another point is that the Tigers will face much criticism within Tamil ranks if the talks broke down over the HSZ issue alone.

The LTTE has been trying to take the moral high ground on this issue by depicting it as a humanitarian problem. The military, on the other hand, focusses more on the militaristic dimension. The HSZs in Jaffna have displaced only about 130,000 persons. But there are nearly 250,000 other displaced persons in the peninsula and more than 500,000 IDPs in the rest of the Northern Province and the East. If the Tigers ignore the plight of these people and concentrate only on the HSZs in Jaffna, it will be criticised for its lack of concern for the others. Also it would provide credence to the charge that the LTTE is interested in effecting a de-escalation in the HSZs for the sake of gaining military advantage.

With the LTTE appearing to be amenable to reaching some form of compromise, there is a reprieve. It can, however, be only an exercise in buying time. For one thing, even the military officials could continue to exert pressure on the government not to relent on these issues even if the sub-committee becomes defunct. It is doubtful whether the Army will be prepared to vacate all areas outside the HSZs in order to enable the speedy resettlement of civilians. Even if the Army is willing to do so, there will be many logistical problems. More important, it is unlikely that either side would abide by the expert's report on HSZs if the move is perceived to be disadvantageous. Since the issue has received much media attention and virtually polarised political opinion on both sides of the ethnic divide, a mutually acceptable solution may remain elusive.

It is felt that military logic should not be allowed to pervert humanitarian judgment on this issue. At the same time, the legitimate security concerns of the armed forces have to be taken into account. In the short term, the armed forces must be persuaded to dismantle HSZs wherever possible. In the longer term, negotiations have to be intensified and speeded up in order to achieve a permanent solution and peace. The strategy of ushering in normalcy as a prerequisite for negotiated peace has its limitations. Certain obstacles to normalcy cannot be removed unless a permanent peace is achieved. The security apparatus in the North-East cannot be dismantled, downsized or transformed completely without a tangible political solution being achieved. So it is imperative that the negotiating parties delve into the substantive issues speedily. While the process of de-militarisation is expedited and expanded, as far as possible the question of an ultimate political settlement too must be addressed constructively and quickly. Unless this is done, any "progress" achieved in normalising the situation can only be thought to be temporary.

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