An agenda for de-escalation

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

Lt.-Gen Satish Nambiar's report on the high security zones in northern Sri Lanka rejects the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's demand for unilateral de-escalation and makes its search for military parity even more difficult.

in Colombo

"Any dismantling of the High Security Zones or the forward defence lines of the Sri Lanka Defence Forces will have to be matched by simultaneous dismantling of LTTE operational military positions."

- Lt.-Gen. (Retd) Satish Nambiar (Report on the Aspect of High Security Zones)

THE most-awaited document so far in Sri Lanka's latest peace process, turned out to be a slender, eight-page report with a strong message that a rebel group in search for parity during a peace process will have to earn it.

Authored in his personal capacity by Lt.-Gen. Satish Nambiar, the first Force Commander and Head of Mission of the United Nations peace-keeping forces in former Yugoslavia, the "Report on the Aspect of High Security Zones (HSZs)" is a document shaped as much by the prevailing ground situation as its aim to balance the civilian and military imperatives of conflict resolution.

In 25 paragraphs, Nambiar seeks to place the contentious northern high security zones (HSZs) in a politico-military-humanitarian context.

Clearly, despite all the distracting noises, the issue of HSZs was the only point on which the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) differed openly. It is also the prime reason for the stalling of the peace talks.

Only self-delusion can conceal the fact that the Tigers walked away from the talks because the gains have not been commensurate with their stay at the negotiating table. Behind the brinkmanship being displayed at present by the Tigers are two unmet aspirations. One is the domestic level - the continued presence of the Sri Lanka Army in the northern Jaffna peninsula. The other, at the external level, is the "terrorist organisation'' tag that continues to be attached to the LTTE, which was, made evident when Washington excluded the group from the preparatory seminar in April.

It is in the domestic context of the demand for de-escalation in the northern HSZs that the Nambiar report gains relevance. The build-up to the report - essentially one by an individual in his capacity as a military expert - has a lot to do with the manner in which the peace process is being handled.

Nambiar's involvement in the peace process, on the invitation of the Sri Lankan government, was a low-key affair, and related to a range of situations from military management to the rehabilitation and absorption of LTTE cadre into the state forces. That started just before the peace parleys commenced in September 2002. However, it hit the public domain only when the peace process started showing signs of cracking up. Before the run-up to the January talks in Thailand, the LTTE gave a clear sign that it was not happy with the way things were progressing on the HSZs front. After the issue was raised last November by LTTE leader V. Prabakaran, the Ranil Wickremasinghe administration referred it to the Sub-committee on De-escalation and Normalisation (SDN), headed by Defence Secretary Austin Fernando and the LTTE's military commander for two eastern districts, Karuna.

By December, the SDN was, for all practical purposes, defunct after the Sri Lanka Army resisted de-escalation in the north. The government negotiators proposed in January that the two sides wait for a report "by an international military expert". It was clearly an exercise aimed at gaining time.

Months rolled by, and the public focus gradually shifted towards issues such as "federal models", "human rights" and "finances for the reconstruction of the northeast". The Tigers, however, kept their eyes set on de-escalation in Jaffna. The Nambiar report, it was then indicated, would be ready before the now-suspended seventh round of peace talks, scheduled for late April.

Even before his role was made public, Nambiar had made his "observations and reflections" on the HSZs. After a visit to the island last December, he had noted: "Any review of the scope and content of the HSZs will only come about if the LTTE deposits its weapons to neutral supervision and initiates measures to withdraw from frontline positions into nominated areas."

The basic thinking, clearly, was set out at that time in his "observations" on the HSZs, which was a part of a larger report. The door was closed even then on the main rebel position - a unilateral de-escalation of the state's "occupying forces" from Jaffna. That December report also observed that confidence-building measures (CBMs) would have to be put in place. It also read the situation as one in which the Tigers would not disarm before the Army pulled out as "the LTTE does not consider it a defeated organisation" and that it "appears to consider itself at par with the Sri Lanka Army".

The eight-page report, submitted to the Prime Minister in early May, only stressed the point that there could be no case for a unilateral de-escalation by the Army in the north. Paragraph 13 makes this point: "Any dismantling of the HSZs or the forward defences of the Sri Lanka Defence Forces (SLDF) will have to be matched by simultaneous dismantling of the LTTE operational military positions." Pointing to the importance of the resumption of negotiations between the government and the LTTE, the report continued: "There will, therefore, need to be an agreement to this effect at the peace talks."

Broadly put, the Nambiar report recommends a linked, two-phase de-escalation - initially in and around the largely civilian areas of the Jaffna peninsula and later in the zones of strategic military importance.

Under the first category are areas such as Muhamalai and Nagarkovil, the promontories south of Chavakachcheri, and places along the beach road south of Jaffna and along the coastal areas. These areas, he said, "may be considered for dismantling in appropriate stages in the first phase of the process".

Evidently the report does not commit itself on what constitutes "appropriate stages", thereby leaving it to the government to determine that situation.

In the second phase, according to the report, "the HSZs around Palaly airfield, the Kankesanthurai harbour and the Point Pedro harbour should be considered for reduction in size to the extent of perimeter security as for any other vital defence installation. Together with this, HSZs in other sectors could also be considered for dismantling or reduction in size taking into account the ethnic sensitivities."

Evidently, if the government hopes to win the Tigers back, that will be difficult to achieve as the proposals - which include various CBMs - weaken the case for unilateral de-escalation.

Nambiar also noted that his suggestions "can only be effected provided" certain CBMs were in place. While recommending steps to be taken for a phased and linked de-escalation, the report also pointed out that his suggestions "will need to be carefully calibrated against the ethnic dimensions for implementation". This gives the scope for the government to decide on the continuation of its forces in sensitive areas, particularly in the east.

The need for an agreement between Colombo and the Tigers on linked de-escalation "at the peace talks" was also stressed by the General. The political and military aspects were not ignored when he made the point that Sri Lankan military commanders "seem to have much difficulty in coming to terms with the reality of the status of the LTTE as a party to the peace process that has been put in place". He also referred to the "posturing of various political parties in the south'' as imposing limitations on field commanders. Moreover, the fact that "there is deep suspicion about the activities of the LTTE's political leadership and its cadres" also prevailed.

On the issue of the rebel armoury, Nambiar suggested that the LTTE's "long-range weaponry can be placed in designated areas under international monitoring", or, if the Tigers found it "unacceptable", they could be kept in existing deployed areas, but still under international monitoring. As the Tigers are unlikely to agree to a unilateral arrangement, the SLA "will also need to subject itself to such an arrangement", he said, adding that field commanders "did not seem to have any reservations about this possible requirement".

Among the CBMs, Nambiar mooted the use of the Jaffna-Kandy highway, which runs through rebel-held areas. During the 15-month ceasefire, government troops had not taken the A-9 highway. The first CBM suggested by Nambiar is that international observers should accompany the Army convoys through LTTE-held areas and that these "should not be stopped or searched by the LTTE, nor should they be escorted" by the rebels.

Other CBMs include "placing small teams of international observers, including police, at designated locations on both sides"; and training or practice firing in areas in the north and east only "with intimation to the other side and with the nominal presence of the international observers".

The core concept behind the report is something over which there is considerable political posturing in Sri Lanka and serious differences of opinion abroad - that of the LTTE being a partner in the peace-building process. Nambiar says: "The LTTE is a signatory to the ceasefire agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka and hence has to be treated as a partner in the process unless it reneges on the Agreement." On the domestic political situation, he prefixes this ground situation with this observation: "Insofar as the status of the LTTE as a partner in the peace process is concerned, it is imperative that a consensus is evolved with at least the major political parties in opposition that the ground reality cannot be changed." The military, he says, "at various levels seems to have much difficulty in coming to terms with the reality of the status of the LTTE as a party to the peace process."

The political pressures vis-a-vis de-escalation also find mention early in the report, when Nambiar states that "the posturing of various political parties in the south imposes limitations on the SLDF commanders; they would not wish to be perceived as having endorsed measures that may be portrayed as concessions to the LTTE."

A grey area in the ceasefire agreement, which Nambiar feels should be sorted out, is in defining the LTTE's "political activity". Without renegotiating the ceasefire agreement, which would "open a can of worms", he says it would be "useful to raise, discuss and clearly define to the extent feasible, what constituted "political activity" under the terms of the CFA. A suggestion "to subject SLDF commanders to some education on what constitutes political activity" has already drawn angry responses from sections of the media.

The LTTE has not yet reacted to the report, but the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has termed it "militaristic" in approach and that "it has nothing in it to be considered". According to TNA sources, who met the LTTE leadership in rebel-held Kilinochchi on May 13, the Tigers said they had not yet received the report officially and that they would reject it once it reached them. Nambiar's earlier observations were turned down by the LTTE as "militaristic" in approach. The core of the report - that there can be no unilateral de-escalation - remains the same as it was in the earlier observations. However, with southern political parties remaining silent on the report, the Tigers could well be waiting to score another point on possible southern political divisions.

Whatever be the political postures likely to be adopted by the main players in Sri Lanka's conflict resolution process - the ruling United National Front administration, the Opposition People's Alliance and the LTTE - what is evident is that the Tigers still have a long way to go, and a lot to undo, before they can "earn" the elusive military parity.

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