War clouds on the horizon

Print edition : July 30, 2004

The prospects of a resumption of the peace process in Sri Lanka are made uncertain by the shooting of LTTE functionaries on Black Tigers' day and the retaliatory steps from the Tigers.

"Even now we are prepared to face a war, if it is thrust on us. However, we do not want to be responsible for the outbreak of the fourth Eelam War."

- S. Ezhilan, LTTE's Trincomalee political wing leader, at the July 5 Black Tigers' day celebrations (as reported on TamilNet, a Sri Lankan Tamil portal)

The mother of 'Capt.' Miller, the first Black Tiger, Garlands his statute at a Black Tiger day ceremony in Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka on July 5.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

TWENTY-ONE painful years after Sri Lanka's worst anti-Tamil pogrom, the island's dreaded month, `Black July', started on an ominous note. On July 5, as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was preparing to commemorate its first suicide bomber, the first shots that heralded another round of violence were heard in eastern Sri Lanka. The unmistakable retaliation for the shooting of LTTE functionaries came in the form of a suicide attack in Colombo, execution of `rebel traitors' in Batticaloa, and a grenade attack on a Buddhist temple in north-central Polannaruwa.

The two years of non-fighting is now likely to come to an end with the LTTE making it clear that it is losing faith in the Sri Lankan government. Past experience has shown that the LTTE refuses to be politically engaged by Colombo when it either feels weakened or is diffident over the outcome of parleys; hence the much-awaited resumption of talks is likely to be delayed further.

Black July started on an ominous note, with the LTTE finding itself on the wrong side of the barrel. Its political wing leader for Batticaloa town and its environs, Senathy, was shot at and wounded on the morning of July 5. About an hour later, a political activist of the LTTE was gunned down just outside Batticaloa. The pattern was similar: both were going on motorcycles to attend a function to commemorate slain Black Tiger members when unidentified gunmen pulled up, shot at them and fled.

Across the northern and eastern provinces, however, Black Tigers' day was observed by the Tigers. In northern Sri Lanka, LTTE chief V. Prabakaran garlanded the portrait of the first Black Tiger `Capt.' Miller - who drove an explosives-laden truck into an Army camp on July 5, 1987 and killed himself in the attack.

A brief statement condemning the killing and blaming the "cohorts of the Sri Lankan military intelligence" was the LTTE's first response to the shooting. Since the March 2 rebellion by V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna), the LTTE's former Special Commander for the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Amparai, its control over a region that was once its strongest point has now collapsed. The power vacuum and the multiplicity of players have made matters worse.

The July 5 attacks were the latest in a series on LTTE cadre in Batticaloa since Karuna's rebellion. The LTTE has been blaming sections of the Sri Lankan military and "forces loyal to Karuna" for the attacks. The Sri Lankan government initially denied any role in the attacks, but later conceded that "some individuals" in the military could have assisted Karuna but categorically maintained that there was nothing official about it.

Two days after the Tigers honoured publicly the memory of 262 Black Tigers, on July 7, around 12.30 p.m., a suicide bomber struck at a police station in the heart of Colombo, killing herself and four police officers and injuring 12. The suicide bomber, Jeyarani, identified as a native of Manipay in Jaffna peninsula, was on a mission to assassinate the LTTE's most vocal critic and Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister Douglas Devananda.

With the aid of a woman accomplice, reportedly a former member of Devananda's Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), Jeyarani had reached the door of Devananda's room in his Ministry, under the pretext of seeking a job. As she objected to being frisked, she was refused entry into the Minister's room and was taken for interrogation to the nearby Kollupitiya police station. As she was being frisked at the police station, Jeyarani detonated the explosives strapped around her waist, bringing her failed mission to a bloody end.

For the first time in its history, the LTTE denied any role in the suicide bombing and went on to "condemn" it as an act by those who wanted to "destabilise" the peace process. The government, for its part, downplayed the bombing and its Minister for Internal Security, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, termed it "an isolated incident" that was "not an obstacle to the current peace efforts".

The LTTE's formal denial came against the backdrop of the internationalisation of the conflict resolution process. But there are not many takers. According to a political analyst, "if the LTTE's denial is to be taken seriously, it implies the existence of another group with the capability to deploy suicide cadre. That means the government and the LTTE should first identify this group and factor it in before proceeding any further."

V. Muralitharan, or 'Col'. Karuna, at his base in Batticaloa district in eastern Sri Lanka on March 9.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

The international community, led by the United States, condemned the bombing. The U.S. Embassy in Colombo issued a statement asking the government and the Tigers to end the violence. "Strongly condemning" the suicide bombing, it said that the attack bore "the hallmarks" of the LTTE. It also "encouraged" Colombo and the LTTE to continue to uphold the ceasefire.

A government statement issued after the attack did not name the LTTE but merely said that the "perpetrators" of the suicide bombing were "reverting to violence".

Defence analysts see the latest attack on Devananda, who has survived at least four attempts on his life, as one that was "provoked by his open support to Karuna" whom he wanted to bring into mainstream politics.

Devananda, for his part, reacted with characteristic nonchalance and wanted the LTTE chief to enter the political mainstream. The militant-turned-parliamentarian told Frontline: "This is not something new or surprising or something that one should be afraid of." "I am willing to forgive this," he added.

Starting as a militant in the 1970s, Devananda took to parliamentary politics after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. He wanted his long-time foe, Prabakaran, to follow suit. "If he is keen on the interests of the Tamil people, he must abandon the wrong path and come into the political mainstream." Devananda also offered "to step down from competitive politics" if Prabakaran took to the political mainstream. "My appeal to him is to meet ideology with ideology, not killings," Devananda said.

In 1995, after surviving an LTTE gunman, Devananda told The Hindu, that the LTTE could not kill him with a sniper and would have to send a suicide bomber. After evading the suicide bomber now, he told the Sri Lankan media that he could not be killed until peace returned to the island.

To President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose party he has supported since 1994, Devananda's appeal was to "continue undeterred with the peace process".

The prospects of a continuation of the peace process were further shaken when the LTTE executed two of "Karuna's cohorts" in the east. In another development, a priest was injured in a grenade attack on a Buddhist temple from where some armed supporters of Karuna had been arrested.

At the core of the attacks is the long paw of the wounded Tiger, reaching out far to either get at, or at least isolate, its enemy before it can consider resuming negotiations with Colombo.

AS the spell of non-fighting came under increasing strain, `Col.' Karuna made public his intention to start a political party. In an interview to BBC Tamil Service radio on July 11, Karuna accused his former leader of pursuing a war strategy and claimed that he had personally handed over an arms list to Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP), the LTTE head for arms procurement, during his trips to Thailand as a member of the LTTE's peace negotiating team.

Rejecting charges that his supporters were behind the eastern killings, Karuna struck a note of warning and said "the eastern people" would "rise in revolt" against Prabakaran if he continued to test them. Claiming that he was in Batticaloa, Karuna dismissed as "completely false" the charge that the Army intelligence was backing him. Admitting that he had come to Colombo "with the help of friends", he said: "We made the necessary preparations and we are now back with our people."

The contention that he had "abandoned" his supporters after the April attack on his base, "is a false assumption", he said. Considering the history of fratricidal wars in the past, he had wanted to "avoid bloodshed". After the March 2 rebellion, "Prabakaran sent Batticaloa cadre from the Vanni. If we had fought, we would have lost thousands of lives. Even now we are asking about 300 cadres who are still remaining to return home."

Accusing the LTTE chief of preparing for war, Karuna said: "During the negotiations, there was a good opportunity, but Prabakaran was not forthcoming." During peace talks "he was more interested in procuring arms than in making peace", he said. The former military commander said he would start a political party "very soon, within a month", but added that it was difficult to surface in public in the current situation.

He said: "They are killing innocent civilians. We are very careful. We don't want to go public. We are leaving everything and returning to the democratic fold, but let there be no doubt that in case [the LTTE] wants to test the eastern mindset, the eastern people will revolt against Prabakaran."

UNDENIABLY, Karuna's rebellion has completely changed the dynamics of conflict resolution. The manner in which `Col.' Karuna whisked himself away from LTTE's direct clutches has in its own way "externalised" what the Tigers describe was an "internal" issue. The involvement of an Opposition MP, who resigned after acknowledging his role in providing safe passage to Karuna to Colombo, and the admission by the government that "some individuals" in the military had sheltered Karuna mean that "confidence-building" measures with the LTTE would have to start afresh.

Before agreeing to be politically engaged by Colombo, the LTTE is bound to harden its position further on a resumption of talks. There is also the possibility that as time passes, the LTTE, initially through its supporters, will revert to the theme that "separation is the only way out" and that "Sri Lanka's Tamil community has lost confidence" in the state's ability to give it a federal solution.

To that extent, the Tigers, who are tactical in every move, could only be expected to exploit Karuna's continued defiance - once termed as "an internal issue" of the monolith but let to spill over to Colombo - to their advantage, opening up another front in their war of alternating military and political offensives against the Sri Lankan state.

In the meantime, as the LTTE's suspicions about the government's good intentions rise further, it could drift the island nation back to violence and war.

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