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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2640

Some myths & realities of Sri Lanka’s conflict

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Sri Lanka has not had as extensive media coverage and so thick a stream of important visitors as it has in recent months and weeks.

One hopes all parties concerned noted Mr. Donald Camp's remarks. The word from Washington was twofold. Mr Camp was unambiguously condemnatory of the LTTE, making a major conceptual distinction between Colombo and Kilinochchi, and emphasising that there was no comparison between an elected democratic Govt and the Tigers, which he defined ( in his TV interview in Colombo) as “a terrorist organisation of the first order”. He was also critical of recent killings of Tamil civilians; he also said that a democratic state must be accountable, with no impunity, no immunity. The perpetrators of the killings of Tamil civilians must be prosecuted.

The Basis of the Conflict

The two major protagonists are the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. There is a newer, subsidiary armed conflict between the LTTE and group of rebels (not 'renegades') from that organisation led by a former Tiger commander and decorated war hero, Col Karuna.

The LTTE wants an independent country (as distinct from ' autonomous homeland', or simply ' homeland') for the Tamils; a separate state in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. It rejected numerous proposals for the devolution of power and autonomy, including an agreement signed in 1987 between the Government of India and Sri Lanka, which recognised the north and east as ' areas of historic habitation' of the Tamil people, i.e. as a Tamil homeland, and conferred it with provincial autonomy. In Oct ’87 the LTTE went to war against the Indian peace keeping force that sought to police that agreement, and sustained that war until 1990. In the following year it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister when India signed the accord, son of Indira Gandhi and grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Since 1987 the LTTE dismissed out of hand, three autonomy plans by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (1995, 1997, 2000), including a draft constitution which would have converted Sri Lanka into a quasi-federal state along Indian lines. It also murdered two personalities who drew up such autonomy plans for the Tamils: Rajiv Gandhi and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam.

The other major protagonist, the GOSL wants to maintain the unity and territorial integrity of the state; i.e. it wants to maintain Sri Lanka as a single undivided country. It has also shown a marked preference for maintaining a unitary form of state, rather than converting to a federal model. However, beginning with the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987, Sri Lankan governments have demonstrated readiness to reform, decentralize and devolve power substantially, while retaining a nominally unitary framework.

Having tentatively agreed in Oslo in 2002, to explore a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka, the LTTE's spokesperson Anton Balasingham published a book, resiling from that agreement and even questioning that such an understanding was reached. This prompted the Norwegian govt to issue a statement reiterating that such an agreement had actually been signed by the two sides and minuted.

The Tsunami and After

Contrary to the notion that a chauvinist Sri Lankan Supreme Court struck down an arrangement for distribution of post tsunami aid and therefore drove the Tigers back to violence, the ruling of the courts only pertained to the middle tier of the structure which was to be housed in Tiger-held Kilinochchi and gave an overwhelming numerical preponderance to the Tigers. The courts explicitly gave a green light for the functioning of the topmost tier, in which the Tigers had representation equal to that of the Sri Lankan government, as well as to the tier at the grassroots, which was most relevant to relief/rehabilitation of affected communities. Ignoring President Kumaratunga’s entreaties, the Tigers refused to appoint their representatives to the upper and lower tiers of the PTOMS (the joint mechanism on tsunami relief).

Can Full-scale War Be Prevented?

War can be prevented only by deterrence. Every single one of the wars fought on Sri Lankan soil against successive Sri Lankan administrations and an Indian one (early 1980s, 1987, 1990, and 1995), was initiated - in the literal sense of the first shot being fired - by the LTTE. On three occasions – 1987, 1990 and 1995 – the Tigers sought and achieved strategic surprise, launching aggression. Therefore deterrence would primarily entail deterring the LTTE.

This is even more so because the overwhelming bulk of the violations of the current ceasefire were committed, according to the Scandinavian monitoring mission, by the LTTE - and lethal violence initiated by it.

Deterring the Tigers would mean a clear, unambiguous signal by India and/or the USA that a full-scale war of aggression by the Tigers would be met by the substantive strengthening of the Sri Lankan armed forces, i.e. that India and the USA would not allow the Tigers to win or to retain their military gains, while the Sri Lankan side would be strengthened so as to resist or roll back a Tiger onslaught.

If such signal is insufficient, the USA and India would have to equip the Sri Lankan forces to a point that clearly precludes a military victory for the Tigers. The signing of a robust defence and security agreement between India and Sri Lanka (or the US and Sri Lanka, or all three), will achieve this objective.

Karuna in Perspective

The statistics and Tiger actions give the lie to the claim that the Karuna breakaway is the main factor making for war in Sri Lanka. The SLMM (monitoring mission) documented several hundred ceasefire violations by the Tigers (as opposed to a few by the Sri Lankan side), including dozens of killings of Tamils and Sinhalese working for the armed forces and police, BEFORE the Karuna breakaway. The LTTE walked out of negotiations in April 2003, when the ultra-dovish Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinge was its negotiating partner, PRIOR /UNRELATED to the Karuna breakaway.

The Tigers could have resolved the Karuna issue differently. The rebel commander wrote an open letter to Prabhakaran assuring him of his respect and loyalty and criticising instead, other Tiger commanders, such as intelligence chief Pottu Amman. There was a window of opportunity to resolve the conflict peacefully, especially since eastern Tamil civic and religious leaders offered to mediate. The Tigers rejected all these overtures, announcing that the affair was a purely internal matter of the LTTE, and launched a major military offensive to eliminate Karuna's forces. Far from encouraging the rebellion, the Sri Lankan Govt led by president Kumaratunga is accused by Karuna of permitting the LTTE to violate the ceasefire and moves their forces by sea, through Sri Lankan navy lines, to attack Karuna's formations in the rear.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Professor Philip Alston, in his April 2006 submissions, tends to
demur from the knee-jerk characterisation of Karuna et al as paramilitaries in collusion with the SLA. He explains that it is simplistic to call these armed alternatives, mere paramilitaries or proxies and it is attacks by the LTTE that has forced these groups to seek proximity to and protection of the SLA, giving rise to the impression of being proxies. He also argues that the new reality of territory controlled by Karuna has to be taken into account in a revised CFA. Furthermore he denounces attacks by LTTE “surrogates”.

To the extent that the GOSL didn't create the Karuna split, it could not be said to have provoked Prabhakaran. If on the other hand it did the Tigers' job for it and cracked down on the Karuna group, then it would remove the one factor that is perhaps giving Prabhakaran pause in launching an all-out war, namely the fate of the East. Prabhakarn went to war on numerous occasions against various administrations, Sri Lankan and Indian, without a Karuna to "provoke" him. If he is resorting to violence now, it is not because of Karuna; but if he has not launched a full-scale offensive, it is probably not unrelated to the presence of the Karuna factor on the other side of the scales. If that is removed, then war will be hastened, and/or its outcome is far more likely to be in the Tigers' favour.

The Karuna breakaway is very similar to that of Khmer rouge commanders Heng Samrin and Hung Sen that broke away from Pol Pot and fought a resistance war against him. Another parallel is the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which fought against the Taliban.

Nasty or Nazi?

The Government of Sri Lanka is highly unlikely to initiate a large scale war, not least because it is contrary, indeed harmful to its interests. These interests are chiefly economic: the impact of an all-out war on investment and tourism will be significant. However a full-scale attack by the Tigers, accompanied by bombs in Colombo or prefaced by them, would be perfectly in character. One such attack, the suicide bomb attempt on a high-value target, the army commander, has already taken place.

The key to comprehending Sri Lanka’s conflict and its likely course - and to formulating policy responses, nationally and internationally - is the understanding of the specific character of the Tigers. Prof Walter Laquer, editor of the Penguin/Pelican Reader's Guide to Fascism, authority of the Weimar republic, guerrilla warfare and terrorism, wrote in his The New Terrorism (1999) that in terms of its fanaticism, he could find no parallels for the Tamil Tigers outside of the European fascist movements of the 1920s and ’30s.

Therefore one can only commend, and hope for the activation – in the event - of the policy outlined by Dr Jeff Lunstead, US ambassador to Sri Lanka, at the conference on an Asia Foundation study entitled “Aid, Conflict and Peace-building in Sri Lanka 2000-2005” held in Washington DC on May 16, 2006, co-sponsored by the World Bank. The seminar was attended by, among others, the GOSL’s Ajith Nivard Cabraal, the TNA’s Gajan Ponnambalam, the UNP’s Prof GL Peiris and Norway’s special envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer.

‘Ambassador Lunstead said the LTTE has no compunction in using violence as a tool when it wishes the government to move in a particular direction. The Sri Lankan government, on the other hand, is not motivated by violence and operates within a completely different framework. He termed this “a very asymmetrical situation” where the LTTE uses violence as it pleases with scant regard to international opinion, while the government of President Rajapaksa is clearly committed to engaging in a political situation because a return to war is not an option….

“There will be positive consequences for the LTTE and the Tamil people if they choose the path of peace. There will be negative consequences if the LTTE takes the path of violence.” Ambassador Lunstead delivered a direct warning to the LTTE from the US. He said if the LTTE insisted on a path of terror and violence, the US will ensure that the Sri Lanka government and the military are stronger than the LTTE.’ (Rajika Jayatilake, Lanka page/Colombo page, May 16, 2006)

- Asian Tribune -

-Dayan Jayatilleka

Sri Lanka has not had as extensive media coverage and so thick a stream of important visitors as it has in recent months and weeks.

One hopes all parties concerned noted Mr. Donald Camp's remarks. The word from Washington was twofold. Mr Camp was unambiguously condemnatory of the LTTE, making a major conceptual distinction between Colombo and Kilinochchi, and emphasising that there was no comparison between an elected democratic Govt and the Tigers, which he defined ( in his TV interview in Colombo) as “a terrorist organisation of the first order”. He was also critical of recent killings of Tamil civilians; he also said that a democratic state must be accountable, with no impunity, no immunity. The perpetrators of the killings of Tamil civilians must be prosecuted.

The Basis of the Conflict

The two major protagonists are the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. There is a newer, subsidiary armed conflict between the LTTE and group of rebels (not 'renegades') from that organisation led by a former Tiger commander and decorated war hero, Col Karuna.

The LTTE wants an independent country (as distinct from ' autonomous homeland', or simply ' homeland') for the Tamils; a separate state in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. It rejected numerous proposals for the devolution of power and autonomy, including an agreement signed in 1987 between the Government of India and Sri Lanka, which recognised the north and east as ' areas of historic habitation' of the Tamil people, i.e. as a Tamil homeland, and conferred it with provincial autonomy. In Oct ’87 the LTTE went to war against the Indian peace keeping force that sought to police that agreement, and sustained that war until 1990. In the following year it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister when India signed the accord, son of Indira Gandhi and grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Since 1987 the LTTE dismissed out of hand, three autonomy plans by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (1995, 1997, 2000), including a draft constitution which would have converted Sri Lanka into a quasi-federal state along Indian lines. It also murdered two personalities who drew up such autonomy plans for the Tamils: Rajiv Gandhi and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam.

The other major protagonist, the GOSL wants to maintain the unity and territorial integrity of the state; i.e. it wants to maintain Sri Lanka as a single undivided country. It has also shown a marked preference for maintaining a unitary form of state, rather than converting to a federal model. However, beginning with the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987, Sri Lankan governments have demonstrated readiness to reform, decentralize and devolve power substantially, while retaining a nominally unitary framework.

Having tentatively agreed in Oslo in 2002, to explore a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka, the LTTE's spokesperson Anton Balasingham published a book, resiling from that agreement and even questioning that such an understanding was reached. This prompted the Norwegian govt to issue a statement reiterating that such an agreement had actually been signed by the two sides and minuted.

The Tsunami and After

Contrary to the notion that a chauvinist Sri Lankan Supreme Court struck down an arrangement for distribution of post tsunami aid and therefore drove the Tigers back to violence, the ruling of the courts only pertained to the middle tier of the structure which was to be housed in Tiger-held Kilinochchi and gave an overwhelming numerical preponderance to the Tigers. The courts explicitly gave a green light for the functioning of the topmost tier, in which the Tigers had representation equal to that of the Sri Lankan government, as well as to the tier at the grassroots, which was most relevant to relief/rehabilitation of affected communities. Ignoring President Kumaratunga’s entreaties, the Tigers refused to appoint their representatives to the upper and lower tiers of the PTOMS (the joint mechanism on tsunami relief).

Can Full-scale War Be Prevented?

War can be prevented only by deterrence. Every single one of the wars fought on Sri Lankan soil against successive Sri Lankan administrations and an Indian one (early 1980s, 1987, 1990, and 1995), was initiated - in the literal sense of the first shot being fired - by the LTTE. On three occasions – 1987, 1990 and 1995 – the Tigers sought and achieved strategic surprise, launching aggression. Therefore deterrence would primarily entail deterring the LTTE.

This is even more so because the overwhelming bulk of the violations of the current ceasefire were committed, according to the Scandinavian monitoring mission, by the LTTE - and lethal violence initiated by it.

Deterring the Tigers would mean a clear, unambiguous signal by India and/or the USA that a full-scale war of aggression by the Tigers would be met by the substantive strengthening of the Sri Lankan armed forces, i.e. that India and the USA would not allow the Tigers to win or to retain their military gains, while the Sri Lankan side would be strengthened so as to resist or roll back a Tiger onslaught.

If such signal is insufficient, the USA and India would have to equip the Sri Lankan forces to a point that clearly precludes a military victory for the Tigers. The signing of a robust defence and security agreement between India and Sri Lanka (or the US and Sri Lanka, or all three), will achieve this objective.

Karuna in Perspective

The statistics and Tiger actions give the lie to the claim that the Karuna breakaway is the main factor making for war in Sri Lanka. The SLMM (monitoring mission) documented several hundred ceasefire violations by the Tigers (as opposed to a few by the Sri Lankan side), including dozens of killings of Tamils and Sinhalese working for the armed forces and police, BEFORE the Karuna breakaway. The LTTE walked out of negotiations in April 2003, when the ultra-dovish Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinge was its negotiating partner, PRIOR /UNRELATED to the Karuna breakaway.

The Tigers could have resolved the Karuna issue differently. The rebel commander wrote an open letter to Prabhakaran assuring him of his respect and loyalty and criticising instead, other Tiger commanders, such as intelligence chief Pottu Amman. There was a window of opportunity to resolve the conflict peacefully, especially since eastern Tamil civic and religious leaders offered to mediate. The Tigers rejected all these overtures, announcing that the affair was a purely internal matter of the LTTE, and launched a major military offensive to eliminate Karuna's forces. Far from encouraging the rebellion, the Sri Lankan Govt led by president Kumaratunga is accused by Karuna of permitting the LTTE to violate the ceasefire and moves their forces by sea, through Sri Lankan navy lines, to attack Karuna's formations in the rear.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Professor Philip Alston, in his April 2006 submissions, tends to
demur from the knee-jerk characterisation of Karuna et al as paramilitaries in collusion with the SLA. He explains that it is simplistic to call these armed alternatives, mere paramilitaries or proxies and it is attacks by the LTTE that has forced these groups to seek proximity to and protection of the SLA, giving rise to the impression of being proxies. He also argues that the new reality of territory controlled by Karuna has to be taken into account in a revised CFA. Furthermore he denounces attacks by LTTE “surrogates”.

To the extent that the GOSL didn't create the Karuna split, it could not be said to have provoked Prabhakaran. If on the other hand it did the Tigers' job for it and cracked down on the Karuna group, then it would remove the one factor that is perhaps giving Prabhakaran pause in launching an all-out war, namely the fate of the East. Prabhakarn went to war on numerous occasions against various administrations, Sri Lankan and Indian, without a Karuna to "provoke" him. If he is resorting to violence now, it is not because of Karuna; but if he has not launched a full-scale offensive, it is probably not unrelated to the presence of the Karuna factor on the other side of the scales. If that is removed, then war will be hastened, and/or its outcome is far more likely to be in the Tigers' favour.

The Karuna breakaway is very similar to that of Khmer rouge commanders Heng Samrin and Hung Sen that broke away from Pol Pot and fought a resistance war against him. Another parallel is the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which fought against the Taliban.

Nasty or Nazi?

The Government of Sri Lanka is highly unlikely to initiate a large scale war, not least because it is contrary, indeed harmful to its interests. These interests are chiefly economic: the impact of an all-out war on investment and tourism will be significant. However a full-scale attack by the Tigers, accompanied by bombs in Colombo or prefaced by them, would be perfectly in character. One such attack, the suicide bomb attempt on a high-value target, the army commander, has already taken place.

The key to comprehending Sri Lanka’s conflict and its likely course - and to formulating policy responses, nationally and internationally - is the understanding of the specific character of the Tigers. Prof Walter Laquer, editor of the Penguin/Pelican Reader's Guide to Fascism, authority of the Weimar republic, guerrilla warfare and terrorism, wrote in his The New Terrorism (1999) that in terms of its fanaticism, he could find no parallels for the Tamil Tigers outside of the European fascist movements of the 1920s and ’30s.

Therefore one can only commend, and hope for the activation – in the event - of the policy outlined by Dr Jeff Lunstead, US ambassador to Sri Lanka, at the conference on an Asia Foundation study entitled “Aid, Conflict and Peace-building in Sri Lanka 2000-2005” held in Washington DC on May 16, 2006, co-sponsored by the World Bank. The seminar was attended by, among others, the GOSL’s Ajith Nivard Cabraal, the TNA’s Gajan Ponnambalam, the UNP’s Prof GL Peiris and Norway’s special envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer.

‘Ambassador Lunstead said the LTTE has no compunction in using violence as a tool when it wishes the government to move in a particular direction. The Sri Lankan government, on the other hand, is not motivated by violence and operates within a completely different framework. He termed this “a very asymmetrical situation” where the LTTE uses violence as it pleases with scant regard to international opinion, while the government of President Rajapaksa is clearly committed to engaging in a political situation because a return to war is not an option….

“There will be positive consequences for the LTTE and the Tamil people if they choose the path of peace. There will be negative consequences if the LTTE takes the path of violence.” Ambassador Lunstead delivered a direct warning to the LTTE from the US. He said if the LTTE insisted on a path of terror and violence, the US will ensure that the Sri Lanka government and the military are stronger than the LTTE.’ (Rajika Jayatilake, Lanka page/Colombo page, May 16, 2006)

- Asian Tribune -

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