The fourth Eelam war

With the West's efforts at peacemaking having suddenly been stymied by the return to war, the focus shifts to New Delhi. How will it respond, even as Tamil Nadu turns restive?

After spending more than a quarter-century in the profession, 15 June 2006 taught this writer one of the cardinal principles of journalism: a reporter should never postpone a story hoping to give good news. After having repeatedly extending the deadline for this article in the hope that the international facilitators would somehow persuade the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to abandon their intransigence and seriously take up the path of negotiation, there is now no ceasefire, no peace process, and the worst fear of many has become a reality.

The fourth Eelam war began early on the morning of 15 June. A powerful land mine ripped through a bus packed with commuters and schoolchildren in the northern Sri Lankan village of Kebettigollawa, killing 68 people and wounding as many more. The explosion was the worst single act of violence since the government and LTTE rebels signed a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in 2002. For days afterwards, Sri Lanka's military responded by bombing rebel-held areas in the northeast, including a Catholic church in which 200 people were taking refuge.

Other than the extraordinary loss of innocent life, the tragedies that 15 June signified are many. One, the peace constituency in Sri Lanka clearly had failed to explain the gains of four years of ceasefire, or the peace dividends it had brought to the country in general and to the south in particular. Two, while much was written to explain the difference between no war and enduring peace, there was a systematic effort by both the Tamil Tigers and the government to scuttle the peace process by strengthening antagonistic views of each other. Three, both futilely tried to play the India card. Four, the limitations of any third-party mediation in an entrenched conflict situation have become clear. Despite the vigorous efforts by the facilitator Norway — as well as the other co-chairs of the peace process, Japan, the US and the EU — the process was unable to move forward due to a simple lack of consensus between the two major political groupings in the south. Five, though both the LTTE and the Colombo government are well aware of the futility of war and the military stalemate it would produce, there was a suicidal desire to shore-up military might and be seen as tough players both at the cost of the people.

Return to isolation

Recent fighting had already emptied many villages in the northeast. In April, a series of bombs exploded in a market in the port town of Trincomalee (See Himal May/June 2006, Again, in Trincomaleel. That same month, a bomb ripped through the military headquarters in Colombo, in what was believed to be an attempt to assassinate the chief of the Sri Lankan Army, an act that was followed by airstrikes on rebel posts. Since April, more than 500 people have been killed in the conflict, mostly civilians.

Although official peace talks had been essentially shelved since the second round was postponed indefinitely in late March, a meeting in Oslo between the waning parties also collapsed in the first week of June. Though the agenda for those negotiations had simply been the future role of European-led truce monitors, Tamil Tiger representatives pulled out before the talks even began, ostensibly objecting to the composition of the government delegation.

In truth, peace monitors themselves have come under increased fire from the rebels in recent weeks. After the European Union put the Tigers on its list of banned terrorist groups in May — following the lead of the US, Britain and India — the LTTE responded by ordering all monitors from EU countries off the island. While the Tamil diaspora in Europe is a major fundraising source for the Tigers, the EU's move was obviously very painful as a stinging diplomatic rebuke representing a further loss of international support. The wheel has now turned full-circle for the LTTE. After obtaining a degree of global legitimacy in the aftermath of the CFA, the rebels are once again facing international isolation.

Amidst signs that the EU may wash its hands of the peace process if the situation deteriorates further, even Norwegian facilitators are showing signs of frustration. Unhappy with both Colombo and the rebels, Oslo has asked the two sides to give in writing whether or not they intend to continue to stand by the 2002 ceasefire pact. If Norway gives up, it is likely that no other international player will want to touch the problem.

International observers have been predicting this turn for the worse since the election of President Mahinda Rajapakse last November, facilitated by the support of two extreme Sinhala nationalist parties, the Janatha Virnukthi Peramuna and the Jathika Hela Urumaya. Unlike his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was open to a settlement on broader devolution of powers under a federal structure, President Rajapakse appears determined not to alter the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state—an option that is rejected by all Tamil groups. The old slogan 'Peace with dignity' has now been replaced by the hawkish War for peace?'

Lankan legacy

These developments are a cause of major concern for India, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been engaged in strategy exercises. A full-scale war between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE is bound to cause immediate political, economic, diplomatic and strategic problems for India — and incrementally more so if the conflict is allowed to drag on indefinitely. Although it has not been openly made an issue, there is anger in New Delhi over Colombo's persistent failure to come out with a genuine devolution package, one that would counter the LTTE's goal of separation. Thus far, the most that has been achieved was a 2 June agreement between all of Sri Lanka's main political parties to work towards a framework within which a new power-sharing offer could be made to the Tigers.

Noted one Indian security official, "If war breaks out, Norway's image will take a beating. For us, it will be much more than that." At this point, the only certainty about New Delhi's position is that it will not intervene militarily. The last time that Indian troops were deployed on Sri Lankan soil was the disastrous experience of 1987-90, when 1200 Indian soldiers died fighting the LTTE, and the remaining troops were callously ordered off the island by Colombo. With Sonia Gandhi remaining the Centre's fulcrum in New Delhi, it Will also be impossible for the Indian establishment to forget Rajiv Gandhi's 1991 assassination 7 allegedly by Tamil militants from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, determined to keep. Gandhi from being re-elected and potentially redeploying Indian troops against the LTTE.

At the same time, it is not expected that there will be contacts between New Delhi and the LTTE, as the group is Outlawed in India, although subdued suggestions have been made for "indirect contacts". The dominant view in Indian strategic circles is that nothing will come of such an approach, because while New Delhi cannot influence the LITE's mindset, the rebels could end up benefiting from the connection.

DMK nightmare

Already, the cycle of killings and counter-killings in Sri Lanka's northeast has sparked an exodus of refugees to Tamil Nadu. Official estimates suggest that around 3500 refugees are in India already, with another 5000 set to make the journey if the situation does not improve in upcoming weeks. This is a potentially explosive issue in Tamil Nadu. With some of the most vocal pro-Tamil parties, such as Vaiko's MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and R Thirumavalavan's Dalit Panthers of India aligned with the principle opposition party AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), a passion-laden propaganda war is sure to be in the offing.

Such a turn of events is exactly what the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) of Chief Minister M Karunanidhi does not want to see. Having just returned to power in May after five years, the DMK has paid a significant price in the past over the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, and is now extremely worried about the current crises' potential spillover. In January 1991, the DMK's government was dismissed on the basis of the presence of LTTE rebels in Tamil Nadu, and the party was wiped out in the general elections after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination the following May. In 1997, it was the Sri Lanka issue that brought down the government of Prime Minister I K Gujral, due to the DMK's presence in his cabinet. Today the DMK is again a part of the Union government in New Delhi, with seven ministers in Manmohan Singh's cabinet.

More than most other issues, the DMK fears the eventuality of India becoming directly involved in Sri Lanka's internal affairs. On this matter, officials in Madras see a convergence of opinion between the LITE and Colombo. When President Rajapakse asked India to become a co-chair for the peace process in December, it was largely the DMK's gentle prodding to the Union government that kept New Delhi away. The fresh influx of refugees into Tamil Nadu is now being seen by worried DKM leaders as an LTTE ploy to re-involve the state. Within two days of the Kebettigollawa attack, Tamil Nadu security officials had issued a red alert along the state's southeastern coast, based on reports of intense fighting between rebels and the Sri Lanka Navy near the international maritime borderline.

India's dilemma is that it can neither openly assist Colombo, nor can it afford to see Sri Lanka break up. Although military experts are nearly unanimous that the LTTE would not have the capability to bring the whole of the island's northeast under its control, in the post-15 June context the Tigers may indeed try to seize Jaffna. Such a return to the situation of 1990-95, when they controlled the northern peninsula, would again place LTTE territory less than 50 km from the Indian coast. It is unlikely that India — or any country — would ever recognise the resulting Tamil Tiger government, but such a development could lead to entrenchment in the long run, bringing about a near-permanent divide in Sri Lanka.

A crucial shift in New Delhi's policy towards Sri Lanka has been to encourage an internationally backed peace process, rather than asserting its role as the regional superpower. Its backing of Norway reflects this policy shift. With the seeming inability of international mediators to reach a lasting solution, however, the focus is bound to inevitably return to the region's powerbroker. The plans to put the maddening past behind and to move towards a peaceful future have been drastically muddled by the events leading up to and following the 15 June blast, and India may be just as confused as the rest of the world. Noted one senior policy adviser in New Delhi: "We know that we have to say 'enough, stop it'. But given the complicated past, we do not know how and when to say it."

First Eelam War: 1983 — July 1985.

Began with the start of the civil war, ended with an attempt at peace talks.

Second Eelam War: August 1985 —1994.

Began with the failure of attempted peace talks, ended when President Chandrika Kumaratunga initiated peace talks.

Third Eelam War: 1995 — February 2006.

Began with the collapse of peace talks, ended with the government and LTTE declaring "respect" for the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement.

Fourth Eelam War: 15 June 2006 — ?

Began when 68 people were killed when a bus hit a mine in Kebettigollawa.

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