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Sri Lanka: Between Hope and Despair

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 21, 2006

    At present Sri Lanka is witnessing the worst fighting since the signing of the ceasefire agreement (CFA) on February 22, 2002. The fighting was sparked by the LTTE's blockade of the Maavilaru reservoir on July 22, 2006 and the Sri Lankan government's attempts to reopen it by force. Since then the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government have indulged in heavy fighting in the north and east over issues like Sampur and the A9 highway. This has again put a question mark on the prospects for peace and is causing internal and international despair. On the other hand, the constitution of an All Party Committee on the ethnic issue, the "historic" agreement between the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the opposition United National Party (UNP), and the appointment of a Commission of Enquiry to probe human rights violations, all provide 'hope'.

    The current standoff started with the crisis over the Maavilaru waterway in Trincomalee district, when the LTTE closed the sluice gate in protest against the reported insensitivity of the Sri Lankan government in addressing the drinking water problem of Tamils at Eachchilampattu. Colombo had earlier given the green signal for the Asian Development Bank (ADB) project on drinking water supply in the areas under its control in spite of protest from people living in the "uncleared" areas. As a result, without providing any room for negotiations, the local Tamils along with the LTTE closed the sluice gates of the water canal, thus blocking water to some 30,000 acres of ripe paddy fields and 60,000 people in nearby Sinhala settlements. The issue got aggravated when the Sri Lankan government began using military force to settle the issue.

    After regaining control over the Maavilaru reservoir through military force, Colombo subsequently went ahead and gained control over the LTTE base at Sampur, which was perceived as a threat to the Navy's base and harbour at Trincomalee. This raises the question of why in both these instances the LTTE 'withdrew' and avoided an escalation in conflict? Why were the government forces going ahead with attacks on other targets in the north and east even at the time of peace talks with the LTTE?

    The LTTE withdrew from the frontline in both instances after initial defensive attacks due to the reported lack of force to match the government's K-fir jets and ground forces. Besides, the Tigers were careful to keep casualties to the minimum possible at this stage when 'recruitment' and financial mobilisation are being constrained by the international community's strong pressure. The LTTE's efforts have been at both the military and diplomatic levels. Militarily, it is offering stiff resistance to the advancing Sri Lankan Army, the immediate aim being to gain respite from the present military operations and regroup rather than fighting a full-fledged war. Diplomatically, the LTTE is urging the international community to stop the Sri Lankan government's military offensive in the north and east, by warning that it would otherwise completely withdraw from the talks.

    Conversely, the Sri Lankan government is determined to continue the military offensive, including aerial bombardment, and is aiming to push its Forward Defence Line (FDL) beyond the strategic Elephant Pass, which it lost to the LTTE in April 2000. With the present military advantage on the ground, the government hopes to gain leverage over the Tigers in any negotiation apart from maintaining the morale of its troops at a high level. In addition, it seems to believe that military success will help check the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna's anti-peace campaign.

    Interestingly, however, both sides are claiming that the present hostilities are "defensive moves" while at the same time blaming the other for "aggression." Similarly, both are hailing the peace process and hoping that the international community will support their respective claims and efforts to boost the flow of money into their coffers. Nevertheless, international pressure has not prevented the LTTE from carrying out attacks and retaliation. Similarly, the government too is not in the mood to discontinue its military operation. For its part, Norway along with other co-chairs of the peace process is engaged in stopping the ongoing operations and bringing both parties back to the negotiation table. With the break down of peace talks on October 28-29, 2006 at Geneva over the issue of re-opening of the strategic A9 highway linking south Sri Lanka with Jaffna peninsula, fears of another war have deepened.

    Despite intense fighting and failure of the Geneva II talks, the prospects for resolution of the conflict look bright at present, given the agreement between the ruling SLFP and the opposition UNP. In addition, the setting up of an All Party Committee and a Commission of Enquiry on Human Rights Violations are also significant in this regard. Particularly, the October 23, 2006 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two major political parties on the ethnic question is a significant development in the five decades- long conflict and brings hope to the fatigued people. According to G. L. Peiris, former Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs and former Chief Negotiator of Peace, the agreement between the two main Sri Lankan parties "provides room for cautious optimism in the efforts to find a viable solution to the island's ethnic conflict." The MoU has provisions to ensure that the provinces have enough fiscal resources to make devolution of power meaningful. Besides, it also contains clauses to ensure that no particular ethnic or political group enjoys over-riding power or influence.

    What is however required at this juncture is the sustaining of this 'hope' as a good confidence building measure with the Tamils on the basis of consensus between the SLFP and the UNP so as to trim down distrust between the two communities. Talks should be initiated on the basis of a 'southern consensus' for finding an amicable solution, and not misused for prolonging the conflict. The prospects for the upcoming talks depend entirely on the priority placed by the parties in using the opportunity to address the long-standing issues of the Tamils.