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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2646

Sri Lanka's Ominous Entry to 2008!: Withdrawal from the Ceasefire Agreement and the New Phase of War

By Dr.Siri Gamage, Australia

It is reported in the media that the Sri Lankan government has decided to formally withdraw from the ceasefire agreement signed with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It is also reported that the government has decided to declare the next two weeks as military operational weeks.

These decisions come in the wake of two violent incidents in the capital Colombo -one involving the killing of a Tamil member of parliament representing the opposition this year. The other involved a roadside bomb blast killing some injured army personnel and civilians including school children. For several years the government was not happy about the ceasefire agreement signed by the opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe and LTTE supremo Prabhakaran in 2002 as it provided space for the LTTE to build up its reputation as well as the arsenal with the safeguards provided by the agreement.

Many Sri Lankans also tended to believe that the ceasefire agreement provided to the LTTE unnecessary recognition as well as space for replenishing itself in manpower training and build up of defences. Nonetheless many also enjoyed the relative calm prevailed during the agreement up until the present government came to power about two years ago. The ground realities in Sri Lanka, regionally and internationally have changed significantly during the last few years and the approach of the government to the conflict resolution also changed significantly once the new regime came into power.

The government approach became a hardline one, meaning that it was ready to tackle the LTTE head on in military terms once the dust was settled after assuming power. While the critics -including international ones - pointed out that there couldn't be a solution to the conflict in military terms only, the government's argument was that the military actions are defensive in nature and meant only to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table.

With the liberation of the Eastern province last year the government forces have taken up positions to launch a new offensive in the Northern Province where the LTTE has built its formidable defences. The withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement signals the start of a new and potentially more violent phase of the conflict with the start of the New Year. Those who can read the signals coming out from the government spokespeople and related media can easily detect the mood in government ranks including the armed forces chiefs who feel confident of relative success in forthcoming battles with the LTTE in their northern strongholds.

Thus it seems that 2008 is going to be the year of final war as far as the government is concerned. This will inevitably mean that more bloodshed will be spilled in the northern theatre of war by both sides to the conflict. There will also be clandestine operations in areas outside the north by both sides inflicting damage and loss of life to those involved in Sri Lankan politics in government or in opposition. Civilian casualties are also to be expected as a result of these operations. There is talk of a political package being finalised via the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) that has been deliberating for more than a year. APRC has lost its credibility locally and internationally as it has postponed many times the date of presenting a final political package to resolve the conflict.

Even if it comes up with a package as such this year it will not be a consensus one as the opposition has already pulled out from its deliberations along with the other player in Southern politics, the JVP. Thus the package will be one presented by the government on a take or leave basis to the LTTE while the military offensive will go ahead to inflict heavy damages on LTTE men and materials. The aerial bombardment of LTTE areas will continue in accelerated fashion. Government forces that have encircled Vanni -the northern stronghold of the LTTE- will attempt to break into the LTTE held areas on ground -even though the casualty figures can rise as a result of such actions.

A war cannot be won by aerial bombardment alone. The government forces will have to advance into the LTTE territory mile by mile on foot ad by using armoured vehicles. If they succeed doing this the forces will have to retain the captured areas for the long haul as well. In the past the LTTE has withdrawn from certain positions only to attack the government forces once they are in. This kind of counter actions by the LTTE has inflicted heavy casualties on government forces in the past. In any case, the two sides are now poised to take on each other in a more direct style of military confrontation.

Thus if the conflict enters a new phase in coming weeks and months, there will be local and international voices asking for both sides to sit down and talk peace. However, given the military build up and preparedness on both sides, it is uncertain weather any side has the ear for such requests. The military process will run its course for a while until it becomes clear whether one side has the capacity to cripple the other side militarily, economically and perhaps administratively. Previous ceasefire agreement was signed in the aftermath of the LTTE's daring attack on Colombo's international airport that crippled the Sri Lankan Airline fleet and economic crisis prevailed in the country at the time.

If the confidence shown by government spokespeople is any guide, the LTTE will face a severe onslaught from the government forces culminating in the annihilation of LTTE forces and defences. However, given the LTTE build up over the years, even with the losses its forces and material have faced in recent months, it is hard to believe that the government forces will be able to enjoy a clean sweep in the northern theatre of war. As the war escalates there will be thousands of civilians feeing the area and as in the case of the eastern province they will be housed in temporary camps elsewhere. Among them will be LTTE sympathizers and to some extent combatants also disguised in civilian clothes.

One way or another it is time that this small island nation comes to grips with its long-standing conflict. While other nations in the region are advancing in areas of economics, technology, education, communications and many other fronts in this 21st century, Sri Lanka still struggles to find a lasting solution to the decade long conflict with the LTTE. Whether the military offensive succeeds or not it needs to come up with political reforms that offers its citizens from all backgrounds the happiness in living a peaceful life while enjoying the rights normally available to those in other countries with democratic systems of governance. The negativities generated day by day and week by week due to the conflict have already produced a psychologically and physically injured population. Sri Lanka needs to get out of this cycle of negativities and start to focus on the positives that can bring wealth and happiness to the nation - as an inclusive one. This requires some brave decisions on the part of the government as well as the LTTE.

Dr. Siri Gamage, Senior Lecturer, Contextual Studies & Education School of Education, Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia 2351.

- Asian Tribune -

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