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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 table.

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 province.

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 for war.

( Published in The Pioneer, July 09, 2006)





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