A return to turmoil

Print edition : July 02, 2004

Conflict resolution in Sri Lanka takes a back seat as the security situation in the East worsens, the peace process remains stalled, and the political uncertainty in Colombo deepens.

in Colombo

"Killing of intellectuals, journalists and friends of Tamil people is abominable. Even during this time of peace, anti-peace forces are engaged in barbaric activities. These actions are bound to lead the people of this island to a period of calamity and destruction."

- The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in a statement on May 31 condemning the killing of an Eastern journalist.

A YEAR-LONG lull in the peace process, the fast-deteriorating situation in the East and the legislative chaos in Colombo together appear to indicate a difficult phase ahead for the Sri Lankan polity. The situation in Eastern Sri Lanka has been deteriorating steadily since May.

Sri Lankan soldiers carry the coffin of a slain military intelligence member for burial in Meerigama near Colombo on May 12. He was shot dead by suspected Tamil militants in Batticaloa on May 9.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

The killing of Aiyathurai Nadesan, a senior journalist, in the Batticaloa on May 31 clearly indicates that the quest for peace in Sri Lanka's Eastern killing fields, swept by fresh turmoil following the March 3 rebellion by the former military commander of the LTTE for the region, V. Muralitharan alias Karuna, is likely to be a long and arduous one. Riding his motorcycle to the Inland Revenue Department on a quiet Monday morning, Nadesan, the part-time correspondent of a Tamil newspaper and a contributor to several news organisations, would not have realised that it would be a one-way journey.

At 9-30 a.m., Nadesan was shot dead by "unidentified gunmen" who opened fire on him with 9 mm pistols and fled the scene on their motorcycles. Nadesan fell from his vehicle and staggered into a drain. His body was fished out from the drain by passers-by, who informed the police.

The previous day, in his column in Sunday Virakesari, Nadesan had lamented the spiralling violence in the East that had claimed the lives of 35 people, including five civilians, since Karuna's revolt.

It is not yet clear who is responsible for the killings, but theories abound; the most popular one implicates a group of Karuna loyalists. But Karuna's precise whereabouts are still unknown although he is likely to be somewhere in the Eastern region. Clearly, the euphoria that the LTTE experienced after it brought Karuna's rebellion under control with the offensive on April 9 has waned. Suspicions of the involvement of the Karuna group were strengthened when LTTE cadre were shot dead in rebel-controlled Batticaloa last month. The killers could not be traced and after initially blaming "forces loyal to Karuna" the Tigers directly implicated collusive action by the Sri Lankan security forces and "forces opposed to the peace process" as being responsible for the act.

Earlier, K. Thambiah, a Professor of the Eastern University, was shot dead by "unidentified gunmen" at point-blank range. According to the police, the difficulty in identifying the assassins is a fallout of the intra-LTTE fighting. "It is the LTTE. The ground situation points to nothing else. The only problem is, which faction," a senior police officer told Frontline.

Ever since Nadesan's killing, an uneasy calm has prevailed in Batticaloa. According to informed sources in the East, the LTTE is yet to disband the eastern forces and close down the rebel `police stations'. The worsening ground situation in the East is also reflected in the fact that LTTE cadre were killed inside rebel-controlled territory and in government-held parts of Batticaloa. All the six civilian victims were shot dead in government-held areas. In addition, 21 LTTE members, seven supporters of Karuna, and police and Army informants have been killed across the district in both Army-controlled and rebel-held territories.

Although it is stuck on several fronts in the Eastern districts, the LTTE has not taken the killing of its cadre lightly. As Nadesan's body was being taken through LTTE-held northern Sri Lanka to his birthplace in Jaffna for the final rites, the Tigers paid him rich tributes and hailed him as a "nationalist". The political wing leader of the LTTE, S.P. Tamilchelvan, and other leaders paid their last respects and the cortege was escorted by LTTE cadre.

The LTTE condemned the killing and issued a warning to the government. "These actions are bound to lead the people of this island to a period of calamity and destruction," it said.

Nadesan's colleagues in the Sri Lankan Tamil media were of the view that the Tigers were simply turning his death to their advantage. Pointing out that any mediaperson working in the East had to toe a difficult line, a journalist said, "They have now made him a Tiger."

Political and military observers see the killing as an indication of the resumption of hostilities. "The East is never going to be the same again. We don't know which side is involved. This makes matters worse for us," a resident said.

According to a former militant, the situation in the East is completely different from that which existed before the rebellion. "Before March, the LTTE could sweep into government-controlled Batticaloa if required. Now the reverse could be a possibility," he said. Karuna's move to disband the rebel forces, he said, had dented the LTTE's capability. However, the Tigers maintain that all is well and that they can take on the security forces if the need arises.

The University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna (UTHR-J), in its latest report, has warned that given LTTE leader V. Prabakaran's "proclivity to provoke a war whenever he feels cornered, the prospect of one is nearer now". The report says that the LTTE leader is "almost exclusively dependent on his intelligence chief Pottu Amman and a handful of other northern cronies, backed by 500 or so northern cadres, to restore his control in Batticaloa."

Latest reports indicate that a change of guard in the LTTE in the East cannot be ruled out. Unconfirmed reports speak of leaders from Trincomalee and the Vanni being deputed to head the LTTE in the East, reflecting the deteriorating situation in the region.

Even as the East plunges into deeper turmoil, the larger process of conflict resolution remains mired in differences of opinion between Colombo and the Tigers. A prolonged stalemate in the peace process and a continued sense of overall insecurity in the East will make conflict resolution a more difficult task. The manner in which the current impasse would be tided over depends on how effectively the Eastern killing fields are insulated from the larger negotiating process.

POLITICAL battle lines have been sharply drawn in the island nation's 225-member Parliament. On June 8, when Parliament met for the fourth time since the April 2 elections, the race for numbers between the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the Opposition United National Front (UNF) was in evidence. With the UPFA continuing to be a minority group in Parliament, efforts have been on to reach the magic figure of 113, which would give it a one-seat majority in the House. Earlier, the UPFA lost the Speaker's post to the Opposition.

On June 8, differences between the government and the Opposition over the swearing in of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) MP Akmeemana Dayaratna Thera, a Buddhist monk, in the place of Kataluwe Rathanaseeha Thero, another monk who had resigned his seat, marred the proceedings of the House.

Rathanaseeha Thero, one of the nine JHU monks elected to Parliament, had opted out of the April 2 polls but made it to the House as his name was already listed in the ballot papers. He was among the two JHU monks who rebelled against his party's decision to abstain and voted in favour of the government's candidate in the April 22 election for the post of Speaker. Subsequently, Rathanaseeha went missing for a couple of days, and then came to Parliament and resigned his seat. The government charged a section of monks with "abducting" the MP.

No sooner had the Speaker, W.J.M. Lokubandara, invited Dayaratna to be sworn in than members of the treasury benches were on their feet. The government said that the Speaker was bound by the interim orders of the court. However, the Speaker maintained that he was not served the order and went ahead with the formalities.

This provoked the government MPs, who invaded the well of the House and physically blocked the MP-elect from moving towards the Speaker's chair. Dayaratna was then led through the Opposition benches to the Speaker's podium.

Meanwhile, an MP, reportedly from the treasury benches, grabbed the ceremonial mace, which symbolises the progress of a session, and ran away from the chamber. As the Speaker called for the names of two other MPs-elect to take their oaths, they refused, sparking a standoff. Later in the day, two Buddhist monks were admitted to a nearby hospital with "internal injuries". The government denied the Opposition's allegation of the monks having been assaulted. Said a senior Minister: "It was only a difference of view, we did not assault the monks."

With the mace still to be found, the proceedings of the House were stalled for four hours. The parliamentary sitting came to an end with Lokubandara adjourning the House until July 20. With the government and the Opposition sticking to their positions, a potential standoff between the judiciary and the legislature is in the offing.

Behind the noisy scenes within the Sri Lankan Parliament is the UPFA's elusive search for a majority. According to media reports, attempts by the UPFA to win over the eight-member Ceylon Workers' Congress have been futile with the latter demanding two key Ministries. Against this backdrop, the JHU has indicated that it will work along with the UNF in Parliament.

In addition to the Eastern impasse and the legislative drift, the LTTE's insistence that its proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) be discussed has resulted in peace talks being delayed. On the economic front, it means that international donor assistance amounting to $4.5 billion, to be distributed over four years, for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged economy will not be forthcoming.

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