Friday, January 11, 2008

Full Blown Conflict -I

The island republic of Sri Lanka is now officially engulfed by civil war. With the breaking up of the farcical ceasefire agreement (CFA) between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government has now acknowledged that it has plunged headlong into a full fledged war against insurgents in control of territory in the northern parts of the country. A series of articles will therefore focus on the current situation in the country, a background of the grievances that have created this quagmire and perhaps work out a way out of the impasse. The first part of the series will focus on the events as they stand.

The CFA was signed in 2002 between the two parties, brokered by a group of international monitors led by Norway. The agreement was welcomed widely as it had laid down the possibility of a lasting solution to the ethnic crisis in the nation, torn as it was by years of civil war and strife between the majority Sinhala and the Tamil communities. The Sri Lankan Tamil community's grouse was that they were denied basic rights for years by the Sinhala dominated central government and were at the receiving end of countless massacres led by the federal government. The Sri Lankan government on the other hand had deplored the insurgent tactics used by the LTTE, and claimed that the adoption of political assassinations, suicide bombings and Machiavellian tactics by the LTTE to retain military power was what that led to the impasse between both the parties.

The ceasefire agreement raised the possibility of a federal solution to the conflict and had also provided the first instance of the LTTE's acceptance of such a solution to the vexed ethnic nationality problem. It also gave official recognition to the LTTE's claim of representing the Tamilians. The LTTE was just one of a myriad set of groups fighting for various goals for the Tamil minority, from autonomy to complete independence. Groups such as the Tamil Union Liberation Front (TULF) which had existed for a longer time had advanced moderate methods of achieving goals such as federal autonomy and was endorsed by older and intellectual sections among the Tamils, while the LTTE and other paramilitary groups advocating the creation of a separate Tamil state, Eelam, found favour among younger sections. The LTTE over a period of time had been involved in internecine conflict among the various Tamil groups itself and after a period of attrition had emerged as the undisputed, strong and armed militant organisation. It had simultaneously cultivated an international backing through ties with the vast Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and had also been supported by several sections of the Tamil polity in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Indian intervention in the Sri Lankan crisis in the late 1980s had created disenchantment among both the Tamils and the Sinhala sections and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had to leave the Sri Lankan soil without tangible gains in bringing about an end to the conflict. The outcome of the IPKF saga led to the LTTE assassinating Rajiv Gandhi through a suicide bomber, as Gandhi was identified for having been responsible for the intervention in Sri Lanka. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination however had the effect of alienating the LTTE from support in India, as the organisation was banned and its leader V. Prabhakaran was made the prime accused for the Indian leader's brutal murder.

After long periods of civil strife in the 1990s, the Sri Lankan government under then prime minister Chandrika Kumaratunga came forward with a devolution package which was rejected by the insurgents even as killings continued as the Sinhala government wrested back control over strategically important regions such as the Jaffna peninsula in north Sri Lanka. The LTTE had then decided to go in for a detente not just to recoup from its military losses but also to gain legitimacy by setting up governing institutions, thus graduating from a guerilla outfit into a governing authority in some areas in the North and East Sri Lankan regions, after the ceasefire agreement. The LTTE set up policing and revenue collecting organs, as well as judicial courts, even as the tenuous peace held with the reduction in hostilities between the two parties.

The peace however was not to last, as political assassinations and violations of the CFA started with impunity. A big blow to the LTTE was the breaking away of a major commander of the outfit, Vinayagamurthy Muralidharan a.k.a “Col”. Karuna who started his own outfit consisted of disgruntled Tamil extremist elements from the east Sri Lankan region. This group was later to be tacitly supported by the Sri Lankan government forces. The defection of Karuna weakened the LTTE in the eastern parts of Sri Lanka.

The decisive blow to the CFA was the assassination of Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Kadirgamar, who was an ethnic Tamil was an articulate minister who had ideas for not just the solving of the ethnic problem but also for increased economic and diplomatic co-operation between different countries in South Asia. Kadirgamar was however a marked man for the LTTE for having tried to convince the case against the insurgents in the international community and his brutal killing by a bullet of an assassin suspected to be from the LTTE, put paid to any hopes of the CFA holding up for longer. The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) which was set up to monitor incidents that violated the CFA, was now flush with innumerable complaints and violations. Nearly 90% of the violations were from the LTTE side themselves.

The coming to power of a hawkish coalition led by president Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) (supported by left nationalist Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist religious conservative Jathila Hela Urumaya) put paid to any hopes of reviving the CFA to workable levels. The Rajapaksa administration paid lip service to the question of granting federal autonomy to the Tamil minorities while going in for a full scale military offensive which included targeted air bombings. There were great hopes for a consensus on federal autonomy and an emulation of the Indian model of federalism in Sri Lanka through an agreement between the chief political actors in the Sinhala polity (the SLFP and the opposition United National Party), but it was prevented by petty politicking. An All Party Representative Conference called upon to evaluate a solution through the involvement of the mainstream parties was to become a cropper because of insistence of hardline positions by the JVP.

In the meantime, the military conflict achieved some victories for the Sri Lankan government as top LTTE leaders, political commisar S.P.Tamilchelvan and intelligence deputy “Col.” Charles were killed. But the conflict has escalated the humanitarian crisis in the region, affecting the already traumatised Tamil population greatly. More and more people have been forced to stay in decampments after severe aerial bombing and even the Tamils in cities such as Colombo have been harassed by security agencies ostensibly as a security measure. The LTTE has promised to retaliate in kind, meaning more bombings, suicide killings, and terror attacks in the Sri Lankan capital and other cities are in the offing.

After the tearing up of the CFA, the government has declared its intentions for a full scale assault on LTTE lines in the Wanni region in north Sri Lanka, saying no federal solution is possible without demolishing the LTTE. The LTTE is expected to revert to its time tested guerilla strategy of “hit and runs” and tactical retreats into jungles and many analysts say that the assault would be a long drawn one as the LTTE has withdrawn its cadre from the eastern belt to protect the northern strongholds. The humanitarian crisis is only bound to worsen as this conflict continues to escalate. All hopes raised in 2002 during the ceasefire are shattered and an interminable military confrontation looms large but very near. Future sections of this series will explore the historical basis for the conflict and would try to work out a viable solution, if at all possible.

Article written for The Post, Lahore

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