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A war of diminishing returns

Friday 19 May 2006, by RADHAKRISHNANA*R.K.

The LTTE’s fight now stands reduced to a turf war to establish its rights over the northeast. Its continued escalation of violence means increased loss of international sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils.

ON MAY 11, 2006, on the eve of Vesak day (Buddha Purnima), the biggest festival day of the nation, Sri Lanka escaped a terrible ethnic flare up. Only the day before, a Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) troopship mv Pearl Cruise, carrying 710 military men and moving in a naval convoy off Point Pedro on the Jaffna coast, escaped destruction when boats of the Sea Tigers, the naval arm of the LTTE, surrounded it. The LTTE could have sunk the ship, destining all the Sri Lanka Armed Forces (SLAF) men to a watery grave. Luckily for them and Sri Lanka, the ship had on board a monitor from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and an Indian Coast Guard ship appeared on the horizon. Perhaps these complications and another naval engagement at sea a little distance away discouraged the Sea Tigers from going ahead with their attack. However, in the other engagement the Sea Tigers sank an SLN fast attack craft. Its crew of 17 sailors are reported missing. Another fast attack craft damaged in the operations reportedly sank later. The Sri Lanka Navy responded swiftly with guns blazing both from sea and air. They claim to have sunk five LTTE boats, sending an unknown number of LTTE cadres to their death. The Sri Lanka Air Force used this window of opportunity to carry out air strikes on targets in the Iranamadu area (Iranamadu airfield area houses LTTE’s fledgling air arm, the Air Tigers).

Of course, Sea Tiger operations are nothing new. During this year, they had three successful operations against the Navy and two unsuccessful ones. But qualitatively, their attack on mv Pearl Cruiser is different because it was pre-meditated. The LTTE had earlier warned the SLMM not to send its Scandinavian monitors in the SLN craft - and that is a dangerous trend if the peace process is to be revived. The Sri Lankan Government had been careful in not carrying out retaliatory military attacks on the LTTE till the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, narrowly survived a LTTE suicide bomber’s attempt to kill him on April 25, 2006, though it killed 11 others. But the attack on Gen. Fonseka, a watershed event, has given the Sri Lankan Government a legitimate reason to take offensive action as part of "defensive measures." Immediately after the attack on their chief, the armed forces bombarded LTTE positions in coastal areas of Muthur East in Trincomalee from the air, land, and sea. It is significant that Karuna launched his offensive against LTTE positions in the same area a few days earlier. While LTTE casualties are not known, the Tamil population bore the brunt of the attack. A few thousand Tamils living in the area fled as refugees. In the North, the SLAF imposed a curfew in Jaffna to move troops to the Nagarkovil salient on the northeast.

Thus the singular achievement of the LTTE’s attack on the SLAF Chief was giving legitimacy to the Government to use retaliatory force even as the ceasefire rested on its last legs. Added to this, the attack on the Navy troopship had two other negative fallouts for the LTTE. After the attack on mv Pearl Cruiser, the SLMM, while strongly condemning the LTTE’s act as "a gross violation of the ceasefire," gave a firm ruling on two counts: (1) the sea surrounding Sri Lanka is a Government Controlled Area in line with international law; and (2) the LTTE, as a non-state actor, cannot rule open sea waters or airspace. The LTTE has, therefore, no rights at sea. This is the first time the SLMM has come out categorically on the twin issues of the LTTE’s rights to air and sea spaces of areas under its control as well as its status as a non-state actor. As expected, the LTTE political wing head, S.P. Tamilselvan, registered his strong objection to both the rulings. He also claimed that the LTTE enjoyed `sovereignty’ over land, sea, and air in parts of the `Tamil Homeland’ it had seized by force of arms.

During the four years of the ceasefire, the LTTE had used the semantic ambiguity of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) regarding its rights on sea to claim sovereignty over the seas in the northeast. Clause 1.3 of the CFA permits the SLAF "to perform their legitimate task of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka without engaging in offensive operations against the LTTE." As this clause impinged on the primary role of the Sri Lanka Navy, the issue of LTTE rights on sea came to the fore in March and June 2003, barely a year after the signing of the CFA, when the Navy with the support of the Indian Navy sank two LTTE ships off the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Navy had targeted the two LTTE vessels believed to be bringing in military hardware. At that time, the peace talks between the Government and the LTTE were in progress and both sides were on talking terms. They asked the SLMM to work out modalities to prevent such clashes at sea. The SLMM, then headed by Norway, came out with a set of proposals to carve out separate areas for the Sea Tigers, for training and live firing. It also suggested recognition of Sea Tigers as a `de facto naval unit.’ No detection or inspection of Sea Tigers vessels was to be permitted for the Navy in the designated areas without the presence of SLMM monitors. The ruling raised a lot of eyebrows in Sri Lanka as well as India because it directly interfered with the sovereignty of a legally constituted nation. This ruling also gave licence to the LTTE to carry out its activities, as it desired.

The LTTE exploited the anomalous situation to strengthen itself and brought in huge shipments of military hardware and supplies even as the peace process was losing steam, thanks to the internal schism of Sri Lanka politics. On the other hand, the armed forces were fuming in inaction, although the LTTE systematically culled military and civil intelligence operatives with impunity. The government of that time soft-pedalled the whole issue, perhaps in the belief that it could jeopardise the peace talks. It continued to restrain the SLAF from taking retaliatory action even as the tally of the LTTE’s CFA violations mounted under the meticulous book keeping of the SLMM, which accounted for every one of them. The SLMM did nothing beyond periodically issuing statements asking both sides to observe the CFA norms. These were mostly addressed to the Government because they were less prickly about criticism. This `umpiring’ attitude forms the basis of Norwegian mediation and perhaps it is required to encourage both sides to make progress in the talks. However, translated to monitoring, the same philosophy undermined the confidence of the Government in the SLMM. Large sections of the public, government, political parties and the media were also not happy with the way Norway was handling the mediation and monitoring processes.

The issue of Norwegian mediation and monitoring was a prominent issue in the 2005 presidential election. The SLFP Presidential aspirant, Mahinda Rajapakse, vowed to change them. On his election as President, Mr. Rajapakse managed to take away the responsibility of monitoring from Norway; and now a Swedish general heads the SLMM. It is clear the LTTE had been using the international objections to the resumption of Sri Lankan operations against it to its own advantage. Ever since Karuna broke away, the Tigers have been escalating the scale and level of violence bringing enormous pressure on President Rajapakse, to ensure that Karuna is removed from the scene. Thus for the Tamil people at large, LTTE actions have downgraded the quest for Tamil rights to govern themselves to the one point agenda of removing Karuna from a position of strength in the east.

In short, the LTTE’s fight now stands reduced to a turf war to establish its rights over the northeast. Its continued escalation of violence means increased loss of international sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils, particularly from major powers, so essential if their struggle for democratic rights is to succeed. The net result is a decisive shift of global attention from sympathy for the Tamil cause to curbing the LTTE and pressuring it to come to the table to discuss peace. It is going to be more difficult for the Tigers to do whatever they propose to do in the coming months.

Now that the President has announced his resolve to take strong retaliatory action with all the forces at his command, while continuing to maintain the ceasefire, the LTTE has painted itself into a corner. We can expect more clashes in the coming weeks and the population is going to face the fallout of such violence.

LTTE actions have given a lease of life to Sinhala hardliners. It has once again put Sri Lanka’s Tamil population at risk; and those living in LTTE-controlled areas in even greater peril. Already the glare of publicity surrounding the LTTE actions has swept aside the incidents of human rights violations against Sri Lankan Tamils. Even if the patchwork ceasefire continues, the Tamils and their cause will continue to suffer.

The BBC quoted a peace monitor to the effect that the SLMM was monitoring war rather than peace. In any case, if this is called ceasefire, then what is war? The tragedy is it is a fight for LTTE turf and nothing more. It is a war of diminishing returns.

(Colonel R. Hariharan, a retired military intelligence specialist in counter-insurgency, served as head of intelligence with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka. E-Mail:

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