The Sri Lankan standoff

Print edition : June 10, 2000

The present lull in the war for Jaffna has, ironically, affected the peace process: neither the government nor the LTTE would agree to a ceasefire, for such a step would be considered a sign of weakness.

SINCE April, there has been little that the Sri Lankan government could take comfort in. Beginning with the capture of the Elephant Pass garrison by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it was one military disaster after another. The biggest blow was India's rebuff of its request for military assistance as its security forces were on the brink of collapsing in the face of the LTTE's three-pronged assault in the Jaffna Peninsula. The disappointment was all the more greater because President Chandrika Kumaratunga had appeared to have forged closer links with India compared to what any of her predecessors had done.

Thomas Pickering, U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in Colombo on May 29.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

However, the last week of May brought some succour. In Colombo, the earlier mood of a government under siege relaxed palpably as the Tigers lost some military momentum in the Jaffna Peninsula. The one event that really boosted government morale, at least in the capital, was the visit of Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering of the United States, who brought from Washington a powerful message of support for the Sri Lankan government.

"As I have said in both India and Pakistan, the U.S. does not envision or support the establishment of another independent state on this island, nor do we believe other members of the international community would support it. We continue to urge all parties to the conflict to negotiate a peaceful resolution of this country's ethnic conflict," Pickering said, briefing reporters after his discussions with Chandrika Kumaratunga, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe.

In what has been one of the most powerful statements against the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam, Pickering said it would be "a dead planet" without recognition by the international community. "In effect it is the international community that is the arbiter of who becomes a state and who does not, through a process of recognition and establishment of relations. At the moment, I see this (an independent Eelam) as sort of becoming a dead planet, if that is what it wants to be," Pickering said.

Although the U.S. stand on the LTTE and an independent Eelam has been known for some years, Pickering's utterances in Colombo were widely welcomed and interpreted as the emphatic last word on Velupillai Prabakaran's political aspirations. The show of solidarity by the U.S. came at a time when there was a deep sense of disappointment among Sri Lankans about India's stand. To observers, Pickering's statements seemed far stronger compared to India's position, though in the final analysis both countries are staunchly opposed to the LTTE and Washington even acknowledged India's pre-eminent role in South Asia.

It is precisely this recognition of India's pre-eminence in the region that rankled Colombo. Some commentators were of the view that if India wished to be the South Asian superpower, then it should act like one, and not drag its feet when its own security and that of a friendly neighbour were threatened by a group that it branded as "terrorist". They criticised the "servile" attitude of the Chandrika Kumaratunga government vis-a-vis India, which finally paid no dividends, and praised her decision to stick with Norway as the "chief facilitator" for a peace process.

AS the battle in the north morphed into a stand-off, it seemed that Pickering's visit had had the effect of shifting the forward line to the diplomatic battlefield, one in which the Sri Lankan government's firepower and strategies are better than those of the LTTE. While Colombo undoubtedly has the international community on its side, one important test for Chandrika Kumaratunga's government in the diplomatic arena is still to come, and that is how it will address itself to the concerns of about 4.5 lakh civilians who are trapped in the embattled Peninsula.

Pickering articulated the concerns of the international community as a whole when he said there was a "humanitarian catastrophe in the making" in northern Sri Lanka. Aid agencies estimated that the war had already driven an estimated 1.5 lakh people in the Peninsula out of their homes while the rest were living in fear. Initial fears that there would be an exodus towards the Indian coastline have proved misplaced, with the dislocated population preferring to remain in the Peninsula with friends and relations, and in schools, churches, temples and other public buildings in areas that have not yet been affected by the fighting. But it is feared that with the stand-off threatening to continue indefinitely, the plight of civilians will deteriorate.

In response to the concerns raised about the trapped people, Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry launched a diplomatic offensive by inviting select heads of diplomatic missions in Colombo to a briefing on the "measures undertaken by the government towards the continued welfare of the civilian population in the Jaffna Peninsula".

Briefing the diplomats, Major-General Sarath Munasinghe, who was the commander of the Elephant Pass garrison a few months before it caved in to the LTTE and who has now been appointed Commissioner General of Essential Services, painted a picture of near-normalcy in the Peninsula. He indicated that there was no disruption of transport services except in areas affected by the fighting and said that only 8,352 people had registered themselves at government welfare centres. But, he added, it was very difficult to provide a "precise assessment" of the number of dislocated civilians.

Munasinghe also said there was no shortage of medical supplies in the Peninsula, though there was "a staffing problem" at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital and the hospital at Point Pedro. Doctors from southern Sri Lanka posted in these two hospitals were reportedly evacuated as soon as the fighting began.

According to some analysts, the international community's articulation of concern for the civilian population may, in fact, be an indirect way of trying to persuade both sides to stop fighting. Ketheesh Loganathan of the Centre for Policy Alternatives said: "Pickering's statement about a 'humanitarian catastrophe...' could be an indicator that the U.S. is expecting both parties to the conflict to go for a ceasefire." As yet, neither side has shown signs of preparing for a ceasefire, and the lull in the fighting may just be the calm before the storm.

Perversely, the improvement in the military situation for the government may have actually served to delay peace process. It is believed that Norway is in touch with the LTTE as well as the government in its efforts to facilitate a dialogue between the two sides, but at the moment both sides may prefer to wait for the military balance to shift conclusively before agreeing to negotiations.

In the early days of the battle for the Peninsula, when it seemed that the LTTE would indeed wrest control of it from the security forces, one school of thought was that it would be easier to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table after it had Jaffna under its belt. It may also be easier to persuade a decisively defeated LTTE to come to the negotiating table, but for that to happen the government troops must first push the Tigers out of the Peninsula.

This point of view seemed to be implicit in a statement made by Pickering while responding to a question about how long it would take to bring the government and the Tigers together for talks. He said: "It's already taken much too long. The real question is, we have not been able to do it. The government with all its efforts and we in all of our efforts haven't been able to do it. I think the military situation has a lot to say... and I think that has to be watched very carefully. Often, as military situations change, sometimes the opportunities for getting people to the table to talk change."

Going by this view, the present stalemate is not conducive to talks because neither side wants to be the first to agree to a ceasefire as that could be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

With the standoff likely to continue unless there is a dramatic development, supporters of Chandrika Kumaratunga's devolution proposals have urged her and the main Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), to finalise and put them on the table quickly. There is the need for a credible alternative to the LTTE's Eelam that will address the aspirations of the Tamil community and has the support of both the Sinhala-dominated national parties. Chandrika Kumaratunga continues to hold talks with the UNP, the Tamil parties and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), but the contentious issues - the unit of devolution, the structure of the state and the control of land - have not yet been resolved.

There have also been contradictory signals from the government about holding talks with the LTTE. In a recent interview to the BBC, President Chandrika Kumaratunga said there was no possibility of holding "unconditional talks" with the LTTE because it had proved itself untrustworthy. She said that the LTTE was unwilling to come for talks through all the years when the only condition imposed by the government was that there should be a time-frame for peace talks. Now, if talks were to take place, the government would impose certain conditions, which would be considered when the time came, she said.

On the other hand, Lakshman Kadirgamar said in a separate interview that the government was prepared to hold talks with the LTTE at any time and the only conditions were that there should be a ceasefire, that the talks should be about a political solution, and that they should be conducted within a given time-frame. Kadirgamar went to the extent of saying that the government was prepared to discuss the Thimphu principles, which included the right to self-determination for Tamils, recognition of a Tamil nation, and the territorial integrity of the Tamil homeland. He is reported to have even said that the principles have been "provided for" in the new constitutional proposals "without spelling them out in substance".

In any case, it is unlikely that talks will be held soon.

Dr. Jehan Perera, Director of the National Peace Council, a Colombo-based think-tank, said: "The main priority at the moment is for the government and the UNP to reach an agreement quickly on the main principles of devolution, that is, the unit of devolution and the structure of the state. This is important for two reasons: one, to avoid a backlash in southern Sri Lanka, and two, to present a credible offer to the Tamil people."

Tamil politicians believe that India could play a role in that direction. Former Chief Minister of the northeastern province A. Varadaraja Perumal said: "Before mediating between the LTTE and the government, India should mediate between the government and the Opposition in order to bring about a Sinhala consensus on devolution."

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