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War by Other Means

A tremendous escalation in violence in Sri Lanka saw 446 killed in the first half of October, adding to the 533 in September and 1,289 killed in August. Over 3,359 people have already perished in 2006, as against 330 in 2005. The preceding three years, since 2002, when a mediated process of negotiations commenced, saw a comparatively low 183 fatalities. As the country now hurtles towards open positional warfare, fear is endemic, and the Norwegian interlocutors are making desperate attempts to revive the disintegrating ‘peace process’. There is, in the international community, an amazing incomprehension regarding the ‘sudden’ breakdown of the ‘peace process’, and the explosion of violence at such high intensities.

The widespread astonishment at the collapse of the peace process in Sri Lanka is a true measure of the human capacity for delusion. Tragic as the current violence and the mounting fatalities are, there was an awful inevitability about them. The cumulative evidence of the past years demonstrates clearly that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had engaged in the peace process on purely tactical considerations and was using this entire period to augment and consolidate its military capacities, to acquire the firepower for a more devastating confrontation with Colombo. At the same time, they continued with a sustained campaign of targeted violence, making no less than 33 assassinations. At no point during the peace process — which came to a standstill in April 2003 — has the LTTE diluted its maximalist demands for a separate Tamil Eelam (Homeland). The ‘peace process’ was only a secondary pathway to the same end. Through it, the LTTE established a strategy of simultaneously talking and killing, slowly, systematically consolidating its position, even as it secured greater legitimacy and an international political status for an organisation that had previously been uniquely thought of as nothing more than an exceptionally lethal terrorist group.

Between February 2002 and April 2006, the LTTE was ruled to have committed no less than 3,639 violations of the Ceasefire Agreement. In addition to a significant number of assassinations and killings of civilians and security forces personnel, these included large numbers of child and forcible recruitments, abductions, intimidation, extortion, assault and torture, among others. It is a measure of the moral parity that the peace process has publicly secured between the LTTE and the state that an almost reflex response to the disclosure of ceasefire violations by the LTTE is the protestation that the state ‘also violated the ceasefire’. It is important, consequently, to note that, in comparison to the LTTE’s 3,639 ruled violations, the government forces were ruled to have committed just 177 violations over the same period.

Since late 2005, the LTTE has steadily sought to escalate violence to exert coercive pressure on the peace process. This culminated in the standoff over an irrigation dam at Mawilaru, when the LTTE shut down the sluice gates, cutting water supply to people in government-controlled areas in July 2006. The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) retaliated with exceptional force to secure control of the dam. Shortly thereafter, the SLA attacked the LTTE stronghold at Sampur. The LTTE — which had been in control of Sampur since 1997 — suffered a humiliating defeat as its forces fled the town. Subsequent fighting has become progressively bloodier, with evidence of significant tactical reverses for the LTTE. Finding itself at a disadvantage in conventional warfare, the LTTE has unsurprisingly unleashed a succession of suicide attacks, the worst of which was the October 16 attack which killed at least 98 Navy personnel at Habrana.

Despite the tremendous escalation in violence, neither side has rejected talks, and great hopes are now being pinned on the meeting scheduled in Oslo on October 28-29. With both the LTTE and the government having tasted blood in different theatres, and each believing that it has the other pinned down, each side can be expected to seek to press its advantage if they meet at Oslo. Under the circumstances, even a limited outcome will, consequently, be infinitely more difficult than it has been at any time in the past four years of this deceptive ‘peace process’.

In any event, the various agreements of the past have proven to be mere lines in the sand. The harsh truth is that the outcome of the conflict in Sri Lanka will be decided by the simple equation of power between the two sides. The LTTE’s leaders know this, and seek to relentlessly augment their power through all possible means, even as they talk.

(Published in Daily News & Analysis, Mumbai, October19, 2006)





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