Sri Lanka heads into crucial elections later on in the year with the stalled peace talks firmly placed on the backburner. Truce monitors of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission
(SLMM) warned that the elections had undermined the chances of rekindling high-level talks. As SLMM spokesperson Helen Olafsdottir noted, "Other issues are dominating the limelight now." Earlier, just before the Supreme Court made the announcement that the Presidential Election was due this year, there had been a flicker of hope that talks, suspended since April 2003, would recommence.
This was when, following the murder of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Government agreed to resume talks. Many observers believe that the decision to return to talks was primarily the result of international pressure.
While the murder was condemned outright, all international players had made it clear that they wanted the peace process to continue. The pressure on the Tigers, who were blamed for the Kadirgamar assassination, was very high. Indeed, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who initiated the latest moves for talks by writing to the Norwegians, was criticised by hardliners in Colombo for giving the Tigers a way-out when they were under tremendous international pressure.
But elections have now left Colombo bereft of steady leadership, opening the room for the Tigers to argue that they can only talk with a more stable order. Kumaratunga is in the last leg of her 11 year stint as President. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, the presidential aspirant from her party, has aligned himself with the nationalist People’s Liberation Front (PLF) and is projecting himself as a hard-line Sinhala leader to the southern polity. The PLF set the stage for elections earlier, when it pulled out of the Kumaratunga administration after the President signed the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (PTOMS) agreement with the Tigers to share tsunami aid and resources.
Rajapakse’s main rival, Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, is appealing to voters on a platform based on a federal power-sharing mechanism as a solution to the ethnic conflict, and on market-based economic revival. Early indications were that he would be supported by the Tamil-dominated areas in the North East and will gain a sizeable chunk of the minority vote if the Tiger-backed Tamil National Alliance stays out of the presidential race.
However, the likelihood of all-out war also remains very slim. The Tigers cannot afford to go back to war and risk international condemnation and, more importantly, military help to the Sri Lankan Forces. "The ceasefire will hold, but LTTE will continue to provoke the Government," according to international terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna.
It was evident last week that killings and attacks would continue, especially in the volatile East. On August 30, the LTTE said that cadres and civilians in Kirimichchi were attacked by soldiers and paramilitaries working with renegade commander Karuna. The location lies just inside areas held by the Tigers in the East and has witnessed several similar attacks since Karuna defected to the Government side in April 2004.
The following 24 hours saw six attacks targeting Army check-points and policemen. On one occasion a convoy that was escorting a magistrate was attacked leaving two policemen injured. The Army blamed the LTTE for the attacks but denied any responsibility for the ambush at Kirimichchi. The Army said that it was the work of a ‘rival LTTE faction’, in other words, the Karuna group.
The Karuna faction has made life very difficult for the Tigers, especially in the East. Most of the cadres supporting the renegade commander hail from the region and are masters of the terrain. They use the border areas between Government-controlled and LTTE-held areas and those between Sinhala/Muslim areas and Tamil areas as staging grounds for attacks and as hideouts.
Though Karuna claimed in a recent interview that he has the support of 5,000 cadres, only several hundred are believed to be actively engaged in taking on their erstwhile brothers-in-arms in the East, since the internal rebellion. However, when he fled the LTTE, Karuna released 2,437 child soldiers and several hundred other cadres from the fighting ranks.
Since its takeover of the East in April 2004, the LTTE has been keen to keep its cadre levels high, leading to persistent allegations, by UN and other agencies, of child recruitment and forcible conscription of adults. The Tigers have taken trouble to keep the Eastern situation within control, leading to the tit-for-tat attacks such as last week’s. Truce monitors located in the East likened the situation to being tied to a swinging yo-yo, one day it can be all bonkers, the next day absolutely calm.
Two senior military commanders on par with Karuna, Bhanu and Balraj, have been placed in the East on either side of the main town, Batticaloa. The Tigers have inducted specially trained units from the northern theater to confront attacks by the rival faction and to act as buffers.
However, the battle has been more a war of attrition than of face to face confrontations. The Tigers have been targeted inside Government areas, where they cannot officially operate with arms, or close to the line of control, as in Kirimichchi, making it that much more difficult for them to pursue and engage with their rivals. The Tigers have, consequently, targeted informants and ranking members of the Government intelligence units as a counter attack.
The Tigers have also mobilised their civilian support base in northern Jaffna and areas under their command as a voice supporting autonomy. Two months ago, a series of public events were held in Tamil dominated areas including Batticaloa under the banner of the Tamil National Resurgence Convention. A proclamation adopted at the rallies read:
We demand through this proclamation that the occupying Sinhala forces must vacate our land and seas with immediate effect.
We proclaim that an environment must be created to enable us to decide our destiny and our people are continuing to rise as a force to procure the goal of a sacred and higher life of freedom.
At the same time while making this proclamation, we seek the recognition by the international community of our basic rights and life of freedom with peace on the basis of our traditional homeland, our nationhood and self rule and struggle for sovereignty.
The finale was held in the LTTE political centre, Kilinochchi, last week amidst a large gathering. Plans to hold a similar event in Jaffna as a finale appear to have been shelved following the Kadirgamar assassination and the earlier killing of a high ranking police officer in Jaffna.
The Tigers have also not been loath to advertise that they continue to impart basic military training to civilians. Even during the ceasefire, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have charged that the Tigers were training civilians. In early August, there was a large training session in northern Pallai under Tiger rule and on August 30, 2005, a similar event, including a ‘passing out ceremony’, was held inside Tiger-held areas in Trincomalee.
Trincomalee military commander Sornam, who attended the ‘passing out ceremony’ as chief guest, acknowledged that Tigers relied on civilian support during major military operations. He said that the LTTE was able to thwart Government efforts to wrest control of the main A9 highway that links the Jaffna Peninsula as a result of help from civilians, who were involved in light military work. Analysts believe that, when the main units are forced into action, the Tigers use civilians for back-up duties and logistics. Sornam also said that the Tiger military strength was one of its prime strengths at the negotiating table and should be reinforced further.
While the Tigers appear to be manoeuvring on different fronts, a southern backlash against the Norwegians has grown louder since the Kadirgamar assassination. The Norwegians have been criticised for allowing the Tigers to continue with attacks and assassinations, and there have been calls for wider international and regional involvement in the roles of facilitators and monitors. Gunaratna asserts, "LTTE has never stopped fighting. Norway has gravely failed as a mediator. India is the solution." India, however, had its fingers badly burnt the last time it got directly involved in the Sri Lankan conflict when it sent in the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987.
The Norwegians have been aware of the growing dissent regarding their role for some time. In private conversations, Chief Peace Negotiator Erik Solheim has, nevertheless, dismissed possibilities of any other party – including India – taking up the thankless task in the foreseeable future. Last September, at the end of yet another frustrating visit to Kilinochchi, Solheim remarked, "Some people think that the Norwegian facilitators are some kind of semi-gods or magicians. I can tell you it will not happen. It will not be over by one visit. Even if Jesus Christ or Buddha came, they will not be able to do this easily."
With the political equation further destabilized by the approaching elections, the role of the mediators will become the more complex, and more controversial, as the LTTE can be expected to exploit the political vacuum for further consolidation and the systematic targeting of its rivals and opponents.
Amantha Perera is Contributor, Inter Press Service and The Sunday Leader, Colombo; Lecturer in Journalism, Sri Lanka College of Journalism. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.