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Monday, June 19, 2006

Sri Lanka politics: Civil war in all but name


Although neither the Sri Lankan government nor the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has yet renounced a 2002 ceasefire, a sharp rise in violence recently might suggest that civil war has already returned to the island. Over 100 people—mostly civilians—have been killed in the past week in clashes between the two. The LTTE has denied responsibility for any attacks, but suspicions are growing about its commitment to the peace process, and that it is seeking a means to provoke the government into abandoning the ceasefire. There are still compelling reasons on both sides to avoid a descent into full-scale conflict, but in the current environment a return to peace looks unlikely.

The recent surge in violence was sparked by a mine attack on June 15th on a bus carrying civilians, which killed 64 people—the deadliest incident since the ceasefire was signed over four years ago. In response, the government authorised two days of air strikes and artillery attacks on rebel strongholds in the north and east of the island. A sea battle near Mannar in north-eastern Sri Lanka erupted on June 17th, in which (according to the Sri Lankan navy) 30 rebels and six navy personnel died. A church in Mannar was also attacked, allegedly by the military, resulting in one death, and LTTE cadres killed three policemen in an attack on a water tanker in Vavuniya.


The LTTE has denied responsibility for the bus attack, blaming it on paramilitary units supported by the government. Yet the upsurge in violence since the election of Mahinda Rajapakse as president last November bears the hallmarks of a co-ordinated LTTE campaign. This has included a suicide bombing at the Sri Lankan army headquarters in Colombo on April 25th, which injured the chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, and a seaborne assault on a military troop ferry in early May. (The attack on the navy came after the government launched the first air strikes against LTTE bases since the ceasefire had been signed, in retaliation for the army HQ attack—for which the Tigers also denied responsibility.) In total, according to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, the Nordic group overseeing the ceasefire, nearly 700 people have been killed so far this year.

Pessimism over the LTTE's commitment to peace had already been exacerbated by a number of reports in recent months that the group has stepped up fundraising, recruitment and military training of civilians in the areas under its control. This has reinforced the belief that the latest incidents are part of the LTTE's plan to provoke the government into abandoning the ceasefire. It is possible that this plan included the Tigers' boycott of the presidential election last November. The rebels in effect engineered Mr Rajapakse's victory by preventing Tamils in the north and east from voting; it had been widely assumed that a large majority of Tamils would vote for his more moderate rival, the opposition leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe, who would have been more likely to pursue a conciliatory line with the rebels.

Mr Rajapakse's reliance during the election on the support of hard-line Sinhalese and Buddhist parties that detest the LTTE gave the Tigers the excuse to claim that the president was not committed to the peace process. And although Mr Rajapakse has pursued peace talks since his election, moderating his hawkish campaign position, the LTTE had been able—during the first six months of his tenure—to raise numerous procedural complaints that stalled matters. Divisions in parliament have also provided ample opportunities for the LTTE to prevaricate over talks and to express doubts over the government's willingness and ability to implement its commitments.

However, the president has been able to consolidate his political position recently. In local elections in March his ruling alliance won 225 of the 266 seats contested, giving him a popular mandate for his pragmatic stance on negotiations with the rebels—while also sidelining the hardline parties. This has reduced the LTTE's leverage considerably. It also raises the possibility that Mr Rajapakse will seek to reinforce his support by holding a parliamentary election soon. If his ruling alliance is strengthened the LTTE would be less likely to win concessions if they returned to talks. Consequently, the threat of violence is one of the few negotiating tactics that the LTTE has left.

The Karuna factor

Nonetheless, it remains unlikely that the rebels are willing to return to full-scale conflict. Concerns about preparedness and funding are one reason, especially since the EU on May 29th declared the LTTE a terrorist organisation, making its fundraising in EU states illegal. A larger problem is the "shadow war" that has been going on in the east of the island since March 2004, when a former LTTE commander in charge of 6,000 troops, Colonel Karuna Amman, split from the group and began to launch attacks on the Tigers.

The LTTE claims that the government has been arming and protecting Colonel Karuna's forces, charges both the Sri Lankan military and Colonel Karuna himself deny. Even if the government is not actively helping the splinter faction (although reports from ceasefire monitors suggest that it is), it would presumably be reluctant to target these paramilitary units, in the knowledge that their presence undermines the LTTE's cohesiveness and military abilities. Should the LTTE return to full conflict now it would have to fight on two fronts; Colonel Karuna's forces could be a major advantage for the government if the ceasefire were to be abandoned.

While the LTTE is compromised by its fight with this splinter faction, it will hesitate to break the ceasefire agreement officially. At the same time, it will be unwilling to rejoin negotiations from a position of weakness (it pulled out of talks in Norway in early June). Instead, it seems intent on provoking the government, through violations of the ceasefire, into the kind of retaliation that will render the ceasefire redundant. Even after the bus attack the president, for his part, said that the government will "never let the peace process be disrupted", aware of the high economic and human cost of a return to all-out war. Nevertheless, he might be pressured into a full-scale military response if the situation deteriorates further. Either way, it seems academic whether or not the ceasefire is still technically in place, as its terms are no longer governing the actions of either party.
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