Pacification efforts in peril

Print edition : June 06, 1998

Two assassinations, suspected to be the work of the LTTE, and a military stalemate in the North have dented Colombo's efforts to "reintegrate" the Jaffna peninsula with the mainstream.

SRI LANKA today faces challenges on three fronts. Colombo's strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the minority Tamils in the northern Jaffna peninsula is under threat. On a parallel track, the Army's year-long campaign against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Vanni, the longest single military operation in Sri Lanka's post-Independence history, has run into rough weather. The third challenge, not directly related to these two, arises from the response of the United States to Sri Lanka's support for India's stand on the Pokhran nuclear tests. Colombo needs the goodwill of Washington, which has identified the LTTE as an international terrorist organisation and commended President Chandrika Kumaratunga for having evolved a draft Constitution which could, in the U.S. view, serve as "a solid basis" for peaceful political negotiations among "all" Sri Lankan parties.

Jaffna residents pay homage to Mayor Sarojini Yogeswaran, who was gunned down at her residence on May 17.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Two assassinations, both suspected to be the handiwork of the LTTE, in the first half of May stunned Colombo. Both were aimed at reversing - in different ways - the Sri Lankan military's pacification drive in the Jaffna peninsula.

On May 14, Brig. Larry Wijeratne, who had served in Point Pedro for two years and had been transferred out, was killed in a suicide bomb attack when he was returning to his Army base camp at Point Pedro after bidding goodbye to the people of the town. A male suicide-bomber set off the bomb as Wijeratne's vehicle slowed down at a speed-breaker. It was a rainy afternoon, and the bomber slipped on the road, but managed to activate the detonator in time. Col. Sanath Karunaratne, who succeeded Wijeratne, was elsewhere in the town at that time.

During his two years in Point Pedro, Wijeratne, who was posthumously promoted to the rank of Major-General, had become synonymous with the military's efforts at wooing the estranged Tamils back into the "national mainstream". His office had served as a bridge between the Army and the Tamils.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga with the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremasinghe, at the 15th annual convention of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in Colombo on May 23.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

On May 17, the newly-elected Mayor of Jaffna, Sarojini Yogeswaran, was shot dead at her residence. Her assassins - two young men - gained access to the unarmed and unprotected Mayor on the pretext of wanting to discuss some matter of public importance. Based on eyewitness accounts, the authorities said that the assassins used a T-56 rifle with a sawn-off barrel that helped them conceal the weapon. On taking over as Mayor in February, Sarojini Yogeswaran had declined all offfers from the military for a comprehensive security cover, saying she wanted to move freely among her people.

Sarojini Yogeswaran, in her early sixties, hit Jaffna's grassroots political turf during the civic elections held there on January 29 (Frontline, March 6) as part of Colombo's efforts to revive civilian governance in the war-ravaged northern peninsula. Her husband V. Yogeswaran, a well-known political leader in the region, was killed along with Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader Appapillai Amirthalingam in 1989 in similar circumstances: the assaassins gained easy access to them on false pretexts. Sarojini Yogeswaran's brief public life was a mini-profile in courage.

The LTTE sought to distance itself from Sarojini Yogeswaran's assassination: it neither confirmed nor disputed a claim by a little-known group called Sangaliyan Force that it was responsible for the killing. (However, the Force later appeared to say that it had nothing to do with the murder.)But the authorities have no doubt that the killings - of Wijeratne and Sarojini Yogeswaran - had the hallmark of the LTTE. Her party, the moderate TULF, did not identify the LTTE as a culprit, and it decided, after some soul-searching, to nominate P. Sivapalan to succeed Sarojini Yogeswaran as Mayor although he was not a municipal councillor in Jaffna.

The forces opposed to the reintegration of Tamil-majority areas with the Sri Lankan state had struck. At the other end of the spectrum, a prolonged military stalemate almost redefined Colombo's strategy of "reunifying" Sri Lanka by opening a land corridor to the Jaffna peninsula from areas predominantly inhabited by the majority Sinhalas. The planned corridor passes through pastures and jungles controlled by the LTTE in the Vanni heartland that lies just south of the northern peninsula. One of the objectives of the ongoing "Operation Jayasikuru", launched on May 13 last year, is to defang the LTTE. The military has so far wrested roughly about one half of the land route from Vavuniya to Kilinochchi, the northernmost point under the Government's control south of Jaffna peninsula. The current battle for Mankulam, which has strategic significance, on this route has dragged on for weeks, with the Tigers offering fierce resistance.

Brig.Larry Wijeratna, who was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Point Pedro on May 14, at a civic function.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

INDIA has always been a critical factor in the collective consciousness of Sri Lanka - the Sinhala and Tamil segments as well as Muslims. Not surprisingly, it was even rumoured that Sarojini Yogeswaran was killed because she had, only a couple of days before her assassination, held parleys with the first Indian diplomat to visit Jaffna since the pullout of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1990. The diplomat, R.K. Sachdeva, had gone there to assess the feasibility of India providing humanitarian assistance to Jaffna in the present circumstances. Sri Lankan military officials, however, discounted this theory: in their estimation, the plot against Sarojini Yogeswaran would have taken a few months to plan.

FOREIGN policy does not always produce a ripple effect in Sri Lanka's domestic politics. But a clear message was sent to the Sri Lankan parties by Sushma Swaraj, the first Minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian Government to visit Colombo. She said in Colombo on May 24 that the Government in New Delhi "will never support the LTTE." When, according to her, the Vajpayee Government "committed itself to not promoting any kind of terrorism in the neighbouring countries, all the alliance partners (in the Indian Government) committed themselves to that agenda." Asked about the possibility of the LTTE trying, albeit behind the scenes, to woo the BJP-led Government by playing the so-called Hindu card, Sushma Swaraj said: "I don't think that even they think like this."

Besides holding talks with Chandrika Kumaratunga and Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe on subjects of mutual concern, Sushma Swaraj opened a new chapter in India's ties with this island by meeting Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader M.H.M. Ashraff. Ashraff expressed no apprehensions about the BJP, "unlike Muslims of other countries", Sushma Swaraj said; in turn, she seemed to have conveyed to him that India would not be unmindful of the interests of Muslims of Sri Lanka too.

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