Back to the Brink
As Sri Lanka burns, a new
reign of terror is about to descend ---- There has been a slow, appalling,
inevitability to Sri Lanka's steady slide into de facto war - a tattered
ceasefire still holds on paper - as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE) has relentlessly consolidated its capacities for combat during
the entire duration of the current 'peace process', has hunted down
and executed political opponents and key 'enemies' to their cause, including
a number of Tamil leaders and activists, waging a steady war of attrition
and assassination, even as it plays the injured party at the negotiating
After LTTE resorted to
open war in 2000 and launched their successful assault on the Elephant
Pass, fatalities in the conflict mounted to 5,973 between March and
December that year. Year 2001 saw another 1,822 killed. It was with
unqualified relief that all parties embraced the ceasefire of 2002,
abruptly bringing fatalities down to just 15 for the year.
It did not take long for
observers to notice that the peace was, on the LTTE's part, essentially
tactical. Feverish efforts were immediately initiated to restore military
capacities, augment arms and equipment, and secure new recruits - including
a significant number of children, despite continuous exposures and protestations
by the Government, the Norwegian mediators and international organisations.
At the same time, there was no evidence of any dilution in the organisation's
maximalist position on a separate Tamil Eelam. Efforts to consolidate
the LTTE hold on Tamil majority areas, including the hitherto largely
uncontrolled eastern province, and to violently cleanse all dissenting
opinion within the community, continued unabated.
Not surprisingly, violence
began to mount steadily; 59 killed in 2003, 108 in 2004, and 330 in
2005. After March 2004, the violence was fed continuously by factional
killings that followed the revolt by "Colonel" Karuna in the eastern
But the trajectory of
the past years had evidently failed to prepare Sri Lanka's leadership
and people for the sudden ratcheting up of violence and the current
regression to near-open warfare. 851 people have been killed between
January and June 2006, with April witnessing 193 fatalities, May 240
and June 272. On April 25, Army Commander Lt-General Sarath Fonseka
was critically injured and eight persons killed when a female suicide
cadre of the LTTE, disguised as a pregnant woman, blew herself up in
front of the military hospital at the Colombo Army Headquarters. This
was followed by the June 26 suicide bombing that killed the Army Deputy
Chief of Staff, Major-General Parami Kulathunge, and three others in
Pannipitiya, a Colombo suburb. The killings this year also include the
June 15 incident in which at least 64 civilians, including 15 children,
died and 86 others were injured when a state-run passenger bus carrying
150 passengers was destroy-ed in a twin side-charger claymore mine explosion
in Anuradhapura district.
Meanwhile, "peace talks"
were held at Geneva on February 22-23, 2006, with the LTTE and Government
representatives meeting after an interregnum of nearly three years .
The negotiations made little headway, with little more than a formal
commitment to take measures "to ensure that there will be no intimidation,
acts of violence, abductions or killings". Not surprisingly, a second
round of talks, scheduled for April 24-25, failed to materialise, with
the LTTE announcing on April 20 that it would not attend.
The head of LTTE's political
wing, SP Tamilselvan, warned that claymore bombs would continue to explode
until "the government stops acts of violence". The LTTE has now refused
to meet with Colombo's representatives currently in Oslo for scheduled
talks on July 6.
The continuous escalation
of violence occurred under a regime of benign neglect and the abject
failure of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and the Norwegian
mediators to secure a minimum compliance on the ground rules of the
ceasefire. Complaints of violations were, of course, duly and regularly
registered, but beyond well-intentioned remonstrations there was little
the foreign monitors could do, underlining the grave infirmities of
external interventions in "peace processes" between established governments
and ruthless terrorist organisations, particularly in circumstances
where the latter command adequate resour-ces and forces to sustain their
campaigns indefinitely. The impotence of the Norwegian mediators was
particularly underlined after the incident of May 11, 2006, when a cluster
of the LTTE's suicide boats attacked a heavy troop-transport vessel,
the Pearl Cruiser, with 710 troops on board, off the coast of Vettilaikerni.
The attack failed, but
at least 17 Sri Lanka Navy sailors and 50 LTTE cadres were killed. Three
SLMM monitors were on board SLN escort boats. Just before the attack,
LTTE had issued a "last warning" to the monitors not to go on board
government boats, claiming the SLN was using them as "human shields".
The SLMM had pointed out that, according to the 2002 truce, the Tigers
had no rights over the sea. But Tamilselvan insisted that the outfit
was not prepared to take orders from the Nordic monitors and that that
the LTTE had "sovereign rights" over the land they controlled as well
as the adjoining sea and air.
Utter contempt for international
mediators and opinion was also manifest after the LTTE was put on a
list of terrorist organisations by the European Union (EU) on May 31,
2006 (Canada had earlier proscribed the LTTE on April 10). Far from
deterring the LTTE, it provoked its leadership to order representatives
from EU countries out of the SLMM.
Similar arrogance is visible
in the LTTE's cavalier exhortation to India to "put the past behind"
with regard to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, even while the organisation
continues with its campaigns of political annihilation in Sri Lanka.
It is evident that the LTTE leadership believes firmly that it cannot
be held or brought to account for its past or present excesses.
For the moment, the increasingly
desperate Norwegian interlocutors are still asserting their commitment
to the mediation process, and there is evidence that the Government
believes that it may be able to buy peace. In a last-ditch effort to
halt the spiral of violence, the Sri Lanka Government, on July 6, set
up a 12 member multi-ethnic committee to advise on greater autonomy
in Tamil-majority areas. There is little prospect, however, that this
will even temporarily stem the LTTE's increasing belligerence. The tactical
peace has evidently secured its objectives; the Tigers are now prepared
( Published in The
Pioneer, July 09, 2006)