Endless war

Iqbal Athas says that both peacemakers and warmongers are running out of options.

War and peace in Sri Lanka have an inexplicable relationship. If there is a lull in the battle front, there is hectic activity in the peace front and vice versa. At the moment, prospects for a settlement either through peaceful means or an all-out military victory both seem elusive.

The peace initiatives of the past were sandwiched between phases of what has been called the Eelam Wars (named after the separate homeland demanded by the Tamil). The ongoing Eelam War III that ended 100 days of peace talks between the Government and the LTTE in April 1995 already has lasted four years.

Fresh hopes for peace emerged with a lull in the battlefield beginning December 1998. Making the first move for peace was LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. During the annual "Heroes' Week" address over Voice of Tigers (VoT) radio, he declared that the "LTTE is prepared for a negotiated political settlement if peace talks are mediated by a third party."

Colombo was then under heightened security. As in years past, there were fears of bomb explosions and VIP assassinations during that period. The LTTE leader's offer of an olive branch thus came as a surprise. Officially, the government maintained a stony silence, but there were others who jumped at the opportunity, particularly UN diplomats whose official duties took them regularly to rebel-controlled areas in the northern Wanni sector.

Speak peace

In a conciliatory move, the LTTE allowed two senior government officials to visit the area. The task ostensibly set for N.A. Obadage, chairman of Resettlement and Rehabilitation Authority of the North, which functioned directly under the president, and David Ratnavale, chairman of the Disaster Management Committee, was to ascertain the movement of food and other supplies to civilians in the Wanni area. But, the more significant, though unpublicised, aspect of their visit, was a string of informal meetings they held with Thamil Chelvam, leader of the ltte's political wing. As a result of these meetings, among other things, the LTTE agreed to allow a census to be conducted in the areas under its control. Interestingly, the information was to be shared by both the government and the LTTE.

Then came the visit to LTTE-held Wanni by a representative group of leading Buddhist and Christian clergymen. Upon its return to Colombo, a news conference was held and it became clear that the delegation had official sanction since it was the government's information department that sent out the invitations. During the press meet, the only lay member of the team, Tissa Vitharana, adviser to the ministry of science and technology, declared there were food shortages in the Wanni. Medical and educational facilities too were lacking. He also said that LTTE representatives with whom the delegation talked were willing to have a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict. The state media gave wide play to the event.

But at the same time, reflecting the divergent opinions within the Sinhalese community, the newly emerged National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT), an extreme nationalist group which wants to "eradicate separatist Tamil terrorism ideologically, politically and militarily" frowned upon the delegation's visit and branded the members as "peace mercenaries". It vowed to oppose any efforts towards talking peace with the Tamil rebels.

NMAT's views have not gained the national momentum that would make it a threat to any peace moves. However, there were other events which reflect the strong tussle between the hawks and the doves within the People's Alliance government itself. On 4 March, the three-month-old stalemate in the battlefield ended when security forces launched Operation Rana Gosa (Battle Cry).

Speak war

Two army divisions ploughed through arid terrain, unopposed, to re-capture 535 sq km of territory on the western flank of A-9, the Jaffna-Kandy highway that cuts through the Wanni. Not a shot was fired as the rebels backed out. Two weeks later though, a landmine explosion killed six soldiers on patrol. The message, as in the past, seemed clear: securing the areas for civil administration was going to be difficult. The security forces were stretching themselves too thin on the ground by seizing territory and the spectre of infiltration and attack was ever-present.

The LTTE also launched a devastating attack on the army's 212 Brigade Headquarters in the western seaboard town of Mannar. Taking cover from positions some kilometres away, they lobbed 120 mm and 122 mm mortars on the camp at Thallady. During four and half hours, over 80 rounds fell, causing an estimated damage of over SLR 25 million (USD 360,000) besides and killing 11 soldiers and three civilians. In this attack the LTTE also used, for the first time, multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL), clear evidence that the three months' stalemate that followed its call for peace, had been used as an opportunity to re-equip.

The attack on the Mannar base represented a new form of warfare, for this was no direct confrontation, but an artillery war—one that promised to take the confrontation to a newer level. That, along with intelligence reports that the LTTE was developing an air arm, for which it had acquired two small light aircraft and two helicopters, is likely to push the ongoing war towards greater intensity.

Colombo has taken the air threat seriously and is acquiring air defence system which include surface-to-air missiles, air-defence guns, short-range battlefield radars, mobile air-defence radars and thermal imagers. The cost for all this hardware is estimated to be over SLR 2500 million (USD 36 million)—a further burden on Sri Lankans who are paying for the war through a National Defence Levy that covers practically everything, including soaps and toothbrushes.

Meanwhile, government forces are continuing with their thrust. On 19 March, they launched the second phase of Operation Rana Gosa. With little resistance, they re-captured a further 325 sq km on the western flank encompassing the Madhu Church, considered most sacred to Catholics.

The new offensives, which signalled the resumption of hostilities in 1999, has seen a marked change in the government's strategy. Given that the LTTE has assumed a semi-conventional posture, President Kumaratunga has taken personal control of the military machine. She has set up a Joint Operations Bureau (JOB) and named former army chief General Rohan de S. Daluwatte its Chairman. The JOB has been tasked to prepare a strategic plan, present it to the National Security Council and thereafter co-ordinate its execution. President Kumaratunga also sent Gen Daluwatte to the UK, France and the USA to study how joint military mechanisms worked in those countries.

Operation Rana Gosa happens against the backdrop of the 6 April elections for five provincial councils—the first test of strength for the president's People's Alliance government. All these councils are outside the war zone and Kumaratunga is determined to put her government to test in the vote for the North-East Provincial Council as well. This is why the re-capture of territory with a civilian population becomes essential; not only for the provincial polls but also for the soon-to-come presidential and parliamentary elections.

The military operation is also seen as a precursor to the implementation of the devolution package to settle the Tamil ethnic conflict—so some PA leaders believe. The People's Alliance has only 18 months more to end its six-year term in the government. President Kumaratunga's own time in office ends in November 2000. Given the time frame, taking the best political advantage of a military situation has become imperative. Military strategy has thus given way to political strategy.

The billion-rupee question is how the LTTE is going to respond to these moves by Colombo. The Tamil rebels have offered little or no resistance to the security forces' re-capture of territory, and only launched counter-attacks thereafter. To deny the armed forces the advantages of concentrating resources, the LTTE seems to be spreading its operations over a wider area. It is doing this not just on the battlefront, but also in the populated areas where the government is compelled to maximise security to maintain its political clout.

As part of this strategy, the rebels have launched small-scale bombing of selective targets such as power transformers and telecommunication installations. These are attacks which will not lead to carnage at a level to draw international condemnation but which will nevertheless induce panic in government—a page off the IRA strategy.

To counter such a strategy, the government will be forced to implement counter measures, one that will impinge on the freedom and liberties of the public. With elections coming around, such harsh measures will not be to the liking of the people, but the government cannot afford to let its guard down

The LTTE obviously hopes that this will place the government in a Catch-22 situation, and ease off the concentrated effort of the security forces on the battlefront. Sound military strategy that may be, but for the fact that it also narrows options for both peace-makers and warmongers alike. At this rate, the war looks set to continue well into the new millennium.

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Himal Southasian