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Continuous war or sustainable peace?

Published : Feb 19, 2000 00:00 IST

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On a cheerless Independence Day, President Chandrika Kumaratunga extends an olive branch to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which has stepped up its terror campaign against civilian targets in southern Sri Lanka.

D.B.S. JEYARAJ

THE extent of terror imposed upon the Sri Lankan polity by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was brought into focus on the island nation's 52nd Independence Day. On February 4, the country did not commemorate the anniversary of gaining freedom from the British in the customary atmosphere of festivity and jubilation.

For the first time, Independence Day was observed without the head of state participating in the official function and unfurling the national flag. With neither President Chandrika Kumaratunga nor her mother, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, attending the function, it was the lot of the Speaker of the Legislature, K.B. Ratnayake, to do the honours at a ceremony inaccessible to the public for security reasons. The venue was the Parliament complex, not the Independence Square with the usual march pasts . With the Opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Tamil parties boycotting the event, only a small group of government personalities was present. The Independence Day message to the nation by President Kumaratunga was issued from her official abo de, "Temple Trees".

The general movement of the public too was quite restrained on the day. Bombs had exploded in public buses in different parts of the country in the days preceding Independence Day. It was also widely feared that the LTTE would launch a fierce attack on s ome major target in Colombo. Although nothing of that sort happened, the trepidation was enough to curb public activity. Also, elaborate security arrangements prevented traffic on several roads. Ever since the ethnic crisis escalated, the Tamils of Sri L anka have not been observing Independence Day with enthusiasm and Tamil politicians have tended to describe it as a 'black day' on which Sinhala hegemony took over from the British. Now even the Sinhala people found themselves restricted on Independence Day on account of the security situation.

President Kumaratunga's Independence Day message was notably statespersonlike. Although she made no reference to the UNP offer to support her draft Constitution, she extended an olive branch to the LTTE publicly, inviting it to enter negotiations for pea ce. This gesture was reassuring in comparison with earlier pronouncements that seemed to reflect a tough line. Reiterating her intention of talking to the Tigers, Kumaratunga said: "The LTTE has a vital role to play in concluding this extended sadness fo r the Tamil people. The LTTE must also recognise that assassinating Sinhala and Tamil leaders and innocent citizens can never resolve the problems of the Tamil people or the minorities. It is urgent that we end this heartless violence of terror and its r esult, the war."

In spite of this public invitation, it was apparent that the Sri Lankan President was not taking any chances with the LTTE. She had in the previous week met her top defence officials and military top brass and stressed that possible negotiations would no t affect any preparations or strengthening of the armed forces. There would be no declaration of ceasefire or pulling back from entrenched territorial positions to facilitate talks.

In addition to this, there were media reports of the Army embarking on an ambitious bid to recruit a further 15,000 to enhance the ranks. Also, increased acquisition of arms and armaments was on the cards. A notable feature in this respect was the propos ed purchase of AN/TPQ-36 Firefinder Weapon locating systems from the United States. This would enable the Sri Lankan armed forces to detect and pinpoint enemy artillery and target them with precision. It is expected that this sophisticated and expensive equipment would help counter the LTTE artillery that has mainly contributed to the LTTE's recent military successes. Increased cooperation with and assistance from the U.S. in defence matters was also envisaged.

ON the political front, the People's Alliance Government decided to go ahead with the objective of seeking a wider consensus on the constitutional proposals. Interestingly, the Government seems to have restarted the process of consensus-seeking. The firs t stage of intra-government discussions is over and the second stage of consulting Tamil political parties has begun. Thereafter, the UNP and the LTTE will be consulted. One aspect that will be closely watched will be the proposed structure of the Sri La nkan state. Any intervention by Sinhala hawks to get the Union of Regions concept diluted will not be well received on the Tamil side.

On the other hand, the conduct of the LTTE too has not been encouraging in the least. When the Catholic Bishop of Jaffna, Rev.Fr.Thomas Soundra-nayagam, visited the LTTE-controlled regions of the Northern mainland of Wanni recently, he found the Tigers p reparing more for war than peace. The Bishop found it difficult to meet the hierarchy of the LTTE's political wing with which he wanted to pursue initiatives for a peace dialogue. Mid- level LTTE leaders informed the Bishop that the LTTE had declared 200 0 as "Por Aandu" or the Year of War. There were also reports of posters in the Tiger-controlled areas outlining "conditions" for the resumption of peace talks. Chief among these "conditions," according to newspaper reports, was a demand that the Army wit hdraw from some of its present positions.

The LTTE has also begun an intensive campaign in recent times. Though it has been unable to dislodge the Army from the strategic Elephant Pass camp, it has attempted to establish fixed positions in several coastal areas of the peninsula. The LTTE conduct s limited guerilla attacks and also launches artillery barrages from these positions.

Disturbingly, the LTTE has also begun a series of bomb attacks against civilian targets. The most lethal attack was the one at the Vavuniya Post Office. It is said that it was aimed at soldiers who were there to remit money home. Several civilians were k illed and injured in the attack. There have also been several instances of bombs exploding at random in crowded public buses. These have been in the predominantly Sinhala Southern areas.

There have also been several areas of friction between the Tamil public and the security forces. Faced with the phenomenon of suspected LTTE suicide squads infiltrating Colombo and its suburbs, the authorities have been conducting several counter-operati ons that cause hardship to the Tamil people. Sudden curfews are declared, areas cordoned off and house to house searches conducted. A number of young Tamils are hauled off to police stations or public schools and detained, pending investigation. The obje ctions raised are less to the anti-LTTE operations than to the insensitive manner in which they are conducted. There have also been some incidents in the North-East and in Jaffna which have complicated the situation on the ground.

In this difficult situation, the one bright spot is the expected peace initiative by Norway. Norwegian Foreign Minister, Knut Vollebaek, with a track record of peacemaking, was expected last month in Colombo but the trip was postponed because his Sri Lan kan counterpart Lakshman Kadirgamar was indisposed. Nevertheless, the Norwegian State Secretary for Development Cooperation and Human Rights, Leiv Lunde, was in Sri Lanka recently and met a cross section of Sri Lankan political opinion, including Tamil p oliticians.

Norway is engaged in preparatory work to play the role of a facilitator who hopes to arrange negotiations between the government and the LTTE. Norwegian representatives have interacted in this regard with the LTTE's political adviser Anton Balasingham in London, according to an LTTE press release. The general expectation in Sri Lanka is that this initiative by Norway may pave the way for a resumption of direct talks. Only time will tell whether the new third party initiative can produce positive results .

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 19, 2000.)

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