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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2584

Airport attack unlikely to dampen resolve

By Dushy Ranetunge

The previous attack on the Katunayake airport, during the regime of President Kumaratunge, compounded on negative economic growth due to a sustained drought and led to the empowerment of the Wickremasinghe administration and the ceasefire agreement.

The fallout of Mondays attack on Katunayake is having a similar effect on the economy and tourism in particular. Other than airlines, tour operators too have begun redirecting tour groups to other countries avoiding Sri Lanka.

Insurance premiums too are rising with Cochin becoming more attractive to Colombo.

The writer is aware of one tour group from Britain due to visit Sri Lanka in April, now being redirected to Egypt. It could be argued that Egypt or indeed the city of London, Underground and London Busses in particular carry a much higher risk of terrorist attack towards Westerners.

The reason why tour operators and airlines are taking precautions is because if a claim arises, a foreign court of law would hold against the airline or the tour operator, for not exercising an adequate duty of care in light of all the negative publicity generated as a result of the extraordinary event of a terrorist organisation carrying out an attack using an aircraft in Sri Lanka. This together with the opening of hostilities in the Vanni is interpreted as a sign of escalation of the Sri Lankan conflict.

The LTTE always delivers a spectacular show in order to demoralise and cow down the anti-terrorist initiatives of administrations in Colombo. The central bank bomb, the world trade centre bomb, the Dalada maligawa bomb, the previous two attacks on Katunayake, high profile assassination of Presidents and Prime Ministers are to name a few. These are the classic tactics of terrorism, deploying psychological warfare to terrorise and to secure for itself a higher profile.

The LTTE are masters of deception. They build airstrips for the world to see and photograph, which are published in English newspapers in Colombo raising concern and bombed repeatedly by the Sri Lankan Air Force. But, no one has published pictures of the best airstrip in the Vanni, constructed by the Sri Lankan government and called the A9. This airstrip has not been bombed so far, or publicised in the press. The possibility of the LTTE using its highly publicised airstrips as a decoy, to attract expensive Air Force bombs has not been explored.

This time around, the LTTE’s deception and tactics are unlikely to have the desired result.

The present administration and the military leadership in Colombo are of a certain politico-military resolve, not in place previously in Sri Lanka. The international dynamics, the fractures within the Tamil militancy, and domestic political compulsions will ensure that the administration stays the course, which was chartered over a year ago amidst LTTE land mines and grenade throwing.

By all accounts the administration in Colombo is swimming against the tide, but then so are all the others in the world who have resolved to taking on terrorism.

In Sri Lanka there have been accusations of disappearances in white vans.

In the West too people have disappeared not in white vans, but in aircraft's and flown in secret to third countries via US airbases and this process is known in the West as “rendition”. It is in effect, torture by proxy. Human rights have been compromised in many cases, attracting criticism and the outrage of human rights organisations and nations.

Today, the group that is classified as the “Sri Lankan Tamils” may no longer be the second largest ethnic group in the country. The Muslims may have taken this spot as the Sri Lankan Tamils as a group may have fallen below the 5% mark.

The LTTE is having serious difficulty in recruiting, as the population under its control diminishes by the day with more and more Tamils moving to government controlled areas. This fact is evident in their new emerging strategy of trying to conserve their numbers and avoiding the past follies of “unceasing waves”.

Under the circumstances, the LTTE’s claim to be the sole representatives sounds increasingly hollow. The next round of peace talks may require other Tamil representatives also to sit in at the table as the legitimate political leaders representing the Eastern Tamils.

Even the Katunayake attack was not a suicide attack as widely expected and they missed their intended target. It was more a show of bravado, to say we are still here and not out. They did the same in targeting Batticaloa recently with mortars, during a visit by western diplomats. These help keep up the battered LTTE moral and help fund raising efforts in the West.

The LTTE has been missing many of their targets recently and the Sri Lankan Air Force rubbed it in, by conducting air raids on Monday and Tuesday using the very MIG’s that the LTTE were targeting in the Katunayake attack.

In contrast to the LTTE’s lack of manpower, for the first time in many years, large numbers are joining the states military machine. In fact for the first time in many years, students who attended leading schools in Colombo have started joining the armed forces.

Tamil groups not affiliated to the LTTE are increasingly alarmed and lobbying the International community to pressure Colombo into granting political concessions now, rather than later, concerned that once the leverage of the LTTE is lost, the need for “peace packages” may be buried in the stampede of economic growth that would follow.

This government has the ability to place a peace package in Parliament and obtain 2/3rd majority support with UNP support. But initiating such a process at this stage will weaken the military resolve, as the political turmoil created by such a process in the South would threaten to destabilise and distract.

A tabling of a peace process in Parliament would unite the SLFP and the UNP in its support, with the JVP for the first time emerging as the effective political opposition, more severe than the period during the Rajiv Gandhi initiative. Considering the mood in the Sinhalese south, such a process will see a rapid political shift towards the JVP, with the possibility of even MP’s crossing over amidst serious destabilisation. The predominant factor here is the present confidence of the armed forces will take a beating and get distracted.

Senior Western diplomats dismiss these arguments as a tendency in Sri Lanka to ponder on the unknown. But, politics, democracy and human rights are not universal barometers which would have similar expectations and responses in different countries. This is beginning to be recognised and a study is underway at present by a Western university to determine the hypothesis, that human rights is a western concept and standard, and may not have the same understanding and expectations in other cultures and countries.

Those arguing for an immediate tabling of a peace package state that although the LTTE may not be convinced to sue for peace based on any peace package offered, the state would be offering a much needed political alternative to the Tamils, which is not there at present.

Recently Mr Anandasangaree, also inquired from me as to why there is a delay in presenting a peace package. There is a similar anxiety among the influential Tamil groups in London, which are opposed to the LTTE. For this Tamil constituency which is witnessing the decimation of the Tamil population and culture, the priority is to secure an honourable peace deal now, before the leverages and constraints in place at present disappear. They see it as a last chance. For the Sri Lankan state, the dilemma is whether it satisfies the expectations of this constituency and the international community now, at the cost of blurring the focus of the Sinhalese constituency that is both funding (wives and daughters remitting funds in excess of the defence budget from the middle east) and fighting (sons and fathers enlisting and fighting in the forces) the war.

English newspapers of Colombo do not influence opinions in the country side. It is doubtful even if Sinhalese newspapers form opinion in the countryside to the degree perceived. Here, opinions are formed by soldiers on leave, visiting their villages and commenting on a new resolve, a new confidence of the armed forces, discussed in the evenings at the tea “kade” or the evening chat seated on the road, under a tree or a culvert. There are no newspapers to be seen or read, but the radio can be heard blaring and interrupting the tranquillity of the countryside from time to time. Chatting to this constituency and then to the Colombo folk and Western Diplomats expose the huge disparity in expectations.

In Colombo, I am asked if they are not concerned about the dead bodies coming home and the increase in prices.

Unlike in India, in Sri Lanka a majority of the poor are small land owners. Village small plots with home grown fruit, vegetables and home reared poultry cushion the villagers against the rise in the cost of living. Economic effects of Inflation, GDP and broadband are alien concepts. The donning of a Military uniform makes one the highest income earner in the village, distorting the labour market. Here and elsewhere I have been told that Rajapakse is better than Chandrika.

There are posters all over the countryside praising and glorifying the great warriors of the armed forces. My familiarity with the LTTE concept of martyr raises my curiosity. Men and women inform me of the favourable and friendly lifestyle they have in the army and how their wedding expenses are paid for and how they are looked after by the army. Colombo and London seems far away, another world in fact. What the international community regards as sanity would be viewed here as being insanity.

The general consensus that emerges is, like in dealing with the JVP insurrection, the LTTE has to be militarily defeated, for any solutions to work, and like the JVP, for the LTTE to enter the political mainstream.

- Asian Tribune -

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