Peace on a short fuse

Print edition : July 04, 2003

The killing of EPRLF leader Subathiran and the sinking of an LTTE ship portend an ominous turn in the Sri Lankan peace process, with the Tigers being in no mood to renounce the path of violence.

in Colombo

ON June 14, northern and eastern Sri Lanka woke up to news of renewed violence, with the killing of a top Tamil leader opposed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the sinking of an LTTE ship, suspected to be an arms carrier, off the eastern shores.

Thambirajah Subathiran, the EPRLF leader who was shot dead on June 14.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

At the crack of dawn, Thambirajah Subathiran (45), the second-in-command of a faction of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), who went by the nom de guerre `Robert', was exercising on the rooftop of his office. Hundreds of yards away, a lone sniper set the cross hairs of his rifle on Subathiran's chest and pulled the trigger. That was the end of another "old guard" of Sri Lankan Tamil militancy. It was 6.18 a.m.

By the time `Robert' succumbed to a single bullet, action had broken out on the eastern seas. A Sri Lankan naval vessel had engaged an LTTE ship, "Soshin". According to the Navy, as it was checking the ship's credentials, a team of monitors from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) set sail from the eastern Trincomalee port. The engagement on the seas climaxed hours later with the sinking of the rebel ship.

These two incidents, more than anything else, are indication enough that Sri Lanka's peace process may be on a free fall and a fatal resumption of violence is on the cards. They are also clear signs that lulling a nation into a spell of non-fighting does not necessarily mean that lasting peace is round the corner. Coming just after the conclusion of the much-publicised two-day "donors' conference" in Tokyo (see separate story), which pledged $4.5 billion for the reconstruction of Sri Lanka, the present return to violence must serve as a reality check on how the island's latest peace bid is poised.

The new turn of events is particularly shocking because `Robert' was killed inside government-held Jaffna, which has a massive troop concentration. His office also happens to be located on one of Jaffna's main roads. All this implies that, as in the past, the opponents of the Tigers can, and will, be taken out at the latter's will. The police maintain that it was an "unidentified sniper" who killed Subathiran. The LTTE has neither claimed nor denied responsibility for the assassination, but Tamil political leaders opposed to the LTTE lay the blame on it.

`Robert', with his knowledge of the ground situation, was among the rapidly depleting crew of active senior militants who had switched over to parliamentary politics. He, along with a few others, including Douglas Devananda of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), formed a small core which disputed the LTTE's claim to be the "sole representatives" of the island's Tamils.

As a political leader working out of Jaffna, `Robert' was also the main whistle-blower on the Tigers. As late as June 4, he had issued a strong two-page statement criticising the LTTE for taking it out on its political opponents.

"Stop the murders by the LTTE now," Subathiran had said in that statement. Daring the Tigers further, he had said: "The cowardly leaders and the misguided hit men of the LTTE have neither the ability nor the courage to engage in political debate with the democratic political organisations of the Tamils. The only programme they advocate is one of liquidating all other Tamil political groups that refuse to capitulate. And this is the LTTE who speaks loudly about `peace and democracy'."

LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran, a file picture.-HANDOUT/LTTE/REUTERS

Expressing his angst about the international community's role, he had said: "Unfortunately it appears so far that the international community too has refrained from criticising these gross violations of human rights by the LTTE." He had reasoned that as the government and the LTTE were "dependent on the international community", if there was a global "protest and demand that the LTTE halt all the murders, abductions, extortions and acts of intimidation, before a single penny is given by way of aid to Sri Lanka, the government, though reluctantly, will be compelled to act and the LTTE is bound to retract".

The June 14 incidents were not entirely unexpected. They indicate that the stalled, 15-month-old peace process is now on a short fuse, with increasing possibilities of a relapse into armed conflict. Analysts see both political and military motives in the LTTE's actions. As the second-in-command of the faction led by the former Chief Minister of the North-East, A. Varadaraja Perumal, Subathiran was the leader of the EPRLF in Jaffna. With Perumal now in India, `Robert' was the head of his faction in the island.

On the military front, analysts saw the possibility of `Robert' working in tandem with the Sri Lankan Army as a likely damper on any future LTTE advance in the Jaffna peninsula.

Politically, as part of the core of a fledging, alternative Tamil grouping, Subathiran was seen as a possible non-LTTE member in any proposed interim administrative council for the North-East, in which the Tigers are demanding a majority stake.

While Subathiran was the seniormost anti-LTTE leader to be assassinated in a string of killings allegedly by the Tigers since last February's ceasefire agreement, the sunk rebel vessel is the second one `suspected to be carrying arms, ammunition and warlike equipment" to go down off the eastern seas since March. Recently, the LTTE had denied its involvement in any of the killings of Tamil informers since the ceasefire.

SUBATHIRAN'S killing came as a shock to several Sri Lankan Tamil politicians, who see the LTTE's hand behind the assassination. It has revived memories of the fierce inter-group killings that marked the early days of Tamil militancy in the island and the rise of the LTTE.

Political analysts see the killing as a reprisal on whistle-blowers and as the beginning of another round of the elimination of rivals by the Tigers before they commence another operation in the Jaffna peninsula. "This is a clear and ominous signal aimed at those belonging to other groups who are working in Jaffna and resisting the LTTE," an analyst said.

Robert joined the EPRLF in 1983 and was one of the few senior members of the Sri Lankan Tamil militancy to continue in active politics. The one-time military leader of the EPRLF in Jaffna was its seniormost leader to be killed since the group's founder, Padmanabha, fell to a hail of LTTE bullets on June 19, 1990 in Chennai.

Condemning the killing, Kethish Loganathan, Director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives and an EPRLF member until 1995, said: "The cycle of blood-letting and fratricidal conflict cannot continue. The use of force by the LTTE to annihilate alternative Tamil leaderships will only weaken the Tamil interest." The democratic alternatives to the LTTE would be "resilient as they will not roll over and play dead", he said.

Anti-LTTE military leaders killed recently in Sri Lanka include Razeek - who had left the EPRLF and worked with the Army - on November 18, 1998 in eastern Batticaloa town, and N. Manickadasan of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam on September 2, 1999 in northern Vavuniya town. Douglas Devananda, former member of the EPRLF and a fierce critic of the Tigers, has survived several attempts on his life, the last one in June 1998.

Among the scenarios ahead, one is a swift LTTE advance towards Jaffna. According to a political observer, "having come out of the process, it is not in the character of the LTTE to allow the process to go on".

Devananda says: "The LTTE has silenced the people with the power of the gun. But if there are leaders with alternative views, the Tigers'sole representative status will be challenged. If these leaders are eliminated, the Tigers can automatically claim the sole representative status when they deal with either national or international players at a future date."

The details of the latest sinking of the LTTE ship are still unknown, with the Navy and the Tigers giving conflicting explanations to the SLMM. The fate of 12 "Sea Tiger crew members, who jumped overboard", and a small boat that was operating near the rebel ship is unknown.

The SLMM sent a two-member team to investigate the incident. The Defence Ministry said that the ship was spotted at 3.15 a.m., "175 nm (nautical miles) off the eastern Mullaittivu coast". The LTTE, for its part, said the incident took place about 266 nm off Mullaittivu.

According to the Navy, the information given by the crew of the intercepted rebel ship - that its name was "Soshin", it was registered in Belize, and it was arriving from Surabaya (in Indonesia), - were false. The Sri Lankan Navy "exercised its right to self-defence" after the LTTE vessel opened fire at its naval craft with "medium calibre machine guns", it said. The rebel ship was reportedly sunk around 8.40 a.m., a Defence Ministry statement said.

In a statement from rebel-held Kilinochchi, the LTTE said: "An LTTE oil tanker vessel was attacked and sunk by the Sri Lanka Navy in international waters 266 nautical miles off the coast of Mullaittivu on Saturday morning". According to the Tigers, after the vessel was "intercepted" by a Sri Lankan patrol boat, the "captain of the LTTE vessel allowed the SLN personnel to board and inspect the vessel".

The LTTE leadership, which was notified of the events by the Sea Tigers, lodged a complaint with the SLMM immediately and requested their intervention, the rebels said.

Around 7.30 a.m., five other SLN gunboats (ID numbers P701, P330, P332, P341 and P340) approached the LTTE vessel "within close range and began firing indiscriminately at the LTTE vessel", the Tigers said. "Our crew was ordered by the Sri Lanka Navy personnel to take to the life rafts and abandon the ship," they added. On informing the "LTTE peace secretariat of the developments", the crew "abandoned the ship and took to the life rafts as ordered".

The statement said that the LTTE "again contacted the SLMM and asked them to visit the location of the incident to investigate and to ensure the safety of our crew and to prevent any maltreatment of the crew by the Navy". According to the Tigers, "two SLMM monitors were taken by the Sri Lanka Navy to a spot 110 nautical miles off the coast and were shown that this was the location of the incident". This, they aver, is different from the "exact coordinates where the incident took place 266 nautical miles off the coast of Mullaittivu". The fate of the 12 Sea Tigers who jumped overboard is not yet known. The Tigers claim that they were "arrested by the Navy".

The Navy says the incident took place "approximately 175 nm off Mullaittivu, within the EEZ of Sri Lanka", while the LTTE has "categorically indicated to the SLMM" that the "merchant vessel was attacked and sunk in international waters". Calling it "a gross violation of the ceasefire agreement", the Tigers said that "if any harm were to befall the crew of the LTTE vessel, then the sole responsibility for the events lay with the Sri Lanka Navy and that this incident would have very grave consequences".

The renewed violence in the North and the East could mean that the island's latest attempts to find peace will remain a non-starter.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor