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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2614

Hostilities in Sri lanka

By Malladi - Syndicate Features

The Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Mr Mangala Samaraweera’s four-day visit to New Delhi was timely. It provided an opportunity to the Indian leadership to know first hand the status of the peace process, which has become a victim of ‘new mudslinging’ between the Tamil Tigers and the Rajapakse government. Who drew the first blood and for what purpose is not germane to the discussion though neither side is lilywhite.

The suicide attack within the Sri Lanka Army Headquarters perimeter in central Colombo in which Chief of Army Staff Lt-Gen Sarath Fonseca was seriously injured and several other military personnel were killed is undoubtedly a severe provocation. An attack on the Chief of Army Staff cannot be acceptable under any circumstances; he is a prize national asset. But the air attacks on LTTE positions at Sampoor and Muttur near the east-coast town of Trincomalee are a knee-jerk reaction apparently to salve the tempers of Sinhala parties - the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVGP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU); their support is crucial for President Mahinda Rajapakse. These developments heralded an escalation of hostilities which threatens to spin out of control destroying the basis of the ceasefire that has held, despite hiccups, since 2002.

The Samaraweera talks with Indian leadership shows that Colombo is willing to resolutely pursue the goal of ethnic harmony. For reasons, which are not difficult to fathom, Rajapakse government is not happy with the LTTE. As Mr Samaraweera puts it, his government believes that the Tigers are using ‘evasive’ tactics and their ‘seriousness’ towards peace process is suspect. Frankly, this is not a new assessment. From time to time, Colombo has been voicing such a view. Some Lanka experts in India also share such perception. Then, what is the alternative to talks. Gun brings no one closer to a solution as the LTTE’s tryst with “Tamil Eelam’ clearly shows.

Rajapakse government deserves to be commended for appreciating this truism and conveying to New Delhi through foreign minister Samaraweera Colombo's continued commitment to ceasefire and the dialogue process despite the odds it is encountering. Sri Lanka will be more than happy to initial a defence cooperation agreement with India ‘soon’. The pact is under works for a long while, and if it is inked at this stage, it will send its own political signal. Well, that doesn’t appear to be the case as yet as clearly brought out by the talks Mr Samaraweera had with the defence minister Mr Pranab Mukherjee.

Any how, for Colombo, right at the moment what is more important than arms supply is ways and means to choke arms and money supply to the Tamil rebels. Mr Samaraweera conceded this point when he told a questioner at his press conference (before his departure for home) that the only way the LTTE could be ‘really hurt’ was by curbing their international fund raising activities mostly in the European Union countries and Canada. Already, the Sri Lanka government is working overtime in this direction. It will be happy if India contributes to the success of its efforts. On its part, India has banned the Tigers. The United States has designated them as terrorists.

LTTE is no longer a monolith it used to be once. The Karuna faction has become assertive. To attribute Karuna’s strength to the official patronage may be unfair because it has carved out its own sphere of influence and is able to mount hit and run attacks on the Tigers. Has it really become a thorn in the LTTE flesh? One doesn’t know. At the last round of Geneva talks the LTTE has made an implicit request to disarm Karuna. It had handed over a list of 19 camps for dismantling. 16 of these camps belonging to the Karuna faction are in the ‘uncleared areas’, and are, therefore, off bounds for the Sri Lankan army under the terms of ceasefire, according to foreign minister Samaraweera. In so many words the LTTE wants the government to make it get rid of Karuna headache. There is no reason for President Rajapakse to oblige the Tigers. Will this spat stall the talks further? Frankly, there’s no ready answer.

One message that comes from the Samaraweera’s India sojourn is that the Lanka government will keenly pursue the political options. Obviously, political option would give better dividends over time than the air attacks which have resulted in extensive collateral damage in the form of an exodus of several thousand ethnic Tamils from the Trincomalee area. This is the reason why the Lanka foreign minister’s repeated plea to India to use its clout to get a global ban on LTTE. A clampdown on funds and banking facilities in Canada and the US with similar action by the European Union would severely affect the LTTE’s ability to purchase weapons with money given by the large ethnic Tamil population in these areas which have empathy with the LTTE cause.

Immediately after the attack on Sri Lanka Army chief, the US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said the US would apply pressure world-wide to force the LTTE to abandon the use of suicide bombings. The US had about a decade ago imposed a ban on the LTTE for being a terrorist organization. But it did not, as in the case of the Al Qaeda clamp down on funds and banking facilities particularly the “hawala” route of informal money transfers which all terrorist organisations use to buy weaponry and pay for the upkeep of their cadres in difficult conditions. Apparently the use of sanctions has been withheld so as to give the LTTE some incentive to maintain the ceasefire as well as to maintain a dialogue with the Sri Lanka government.

Canada has indicated that that it could clamp down on fund raising by pro-LTTE front organizations on its soil. It could be a can-opener for similar action around the globe particularly now that the US has indicated a sterner approach to the LTTE. A snowballing of sanctions could also see ASEAN doing likewise and this would hurt more than most others because it is the first landfall where the LTTE can purchase weapons and transport it in ships to Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka government is also on a strong wicket over its complaints to the international community that the LTTE uses children ranging from the age of eight to eighteen and that 40 per cent of casualties were suffered by this segment of the LTTE. The use of child soldiers is an emotive issue with world community and can be milked for all it is worth. LTTE’s fighting strength is estimated to be around 18,000 now, up from about 6000 at the beginning of the ceasefire in 2002. Even if half of them are children, it is a formidable fighting force given the Tigers tendency to use suicide bombing to effective use. Empirical studies in counter-insurgency show, upto 50 troops will be needed to eliminate one insurgent in heavy jungle warfare. In other words, even if the hardcore of the LTTE consists of only 6000 guerrillas, the Sri Lanka armed forces need at least 3, 00,000 men to make an impact on the insurgency.

Given this kind of an equation, the better course of action for the President Rajapakse to pursue is the option of bringing international pressure on the LTTE to shed violence. Otherwise the bloodletting that appears imminent on the horizon will be horrendous. The LTTE has no qualms over the numbers of dead.

Needless to say, New Delhi has to proceed with caution in the days ahead in its approach to Lanka imbroglio. LTTE enjoys a reservoir of goodwill among some political parties in Tamil Nadu. Colombo knows this. It may be to its advantage to engage important Tamil Nadu political leaders in an informal dialogue away from the media glare just as it remains in informal consultations with the Tamil leadership of the island nation. Any doubts?

- Syndicate Features -

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