From low-intensity to ‘limited’ war

For the past 10 months Sri Lanka has been in the throes of an undeclared war, with neither the government nor the LTTE prepared to take responsibility before the people and the international community for starting the fight. Since late July, however, the situation has suddenly escalated into a high-intensity conflict, albeit in limited areas. In Sampur in the east, and Muhamalai in the north, there have been pitched battles that saw territorial control shift in the government's favour. But so far both parties appear unwilling to go in for a full-fledged war.

Despite strong pressure by Sri Lanka's donor countries, peace talks between the government and LTTE at any time in the near future are unlikely. The internationals have released a series of strongly worded statements, including one in mid-September that urged peace talks during the first week of October, after which the 'donor co-chairs' would meet to discuss progress at the end of the month. But the conduct of the two parties over the past several months would indicate that their preferred option is military rather than political action. One side or the other (or both) must change its mind about the desirability of military action if there are to be peace talks – a change of heart that, at this time, looks far off. Both sides have publicly nullified the donor co-chairs' statements by imposing pre-conditions for peace talks to recommence.

The LTTE has reiterated its demand that the government should withdraw its armed forces from the Sampur area in the east, which it recently captured from the LTTE, and also to move back to its original forward-defence lines in Muhamalai in the north. The Colombo government has rejected the possibility of any such withdrawal, and reiterated its demand that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran should himself write a letter guaranteeing a cessation of all forms of violence by the LTTE prior to any return to the negotiating table.

The present indications are that the government and rebels are preparing themselves for further military campaigns. While the LTTE's relatively quick retreats from Sampur and Muhamalai were unexpected, it has been characteristic of the Tamil Tigers in the past to retreat in the face of major conventional assaults by government forces. In the present context, though the rebels appear to be considerably weaker than they have been in the past, the possibility of a counterattack remains.

The civilian military training campaign and a spate of particularly cruel child recruitments that are taking place in the northeast by both the LTTE and its breakaway pro-government Karuna group are most likely in anticipation of future battles. The spurt of assassinations and abductions of Tamils suspected to be either pro- or anti-LTTE is also continuing. The inability of the national and international human-rights machinery to deal with these breaches of humanitarian law has been disappointing.

The most hopeful prospect is the dialogue that has recently commenced between the government and the opposition United National Party (UNP). During the relatively short period in which it governed from 2001-04, the UNP showed that it was possible to rapidly transform a situation of war into one of peace. Although the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement is now much maligned, at the time it was signed it seemed as if a miracle had taken place, when the unstoppable war actually halted in its tracks. This was achieved through political dialogue and supportive international initiatives. With the third round of talks between the UNP and ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party scheduled to take place on 3 October, the possibility of the UNP joining up with the government could bring two crucial missing ingredients to the situation: political dialogue and some original international initiatives.

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Himal Southasian