|Image: Vikram Nandwani|
The vicious cycle of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict continues to spiral. In 2001, the LTTE launched a suicide ground attack on the Sri Lankan Air Force base cum international airport in Katunayake, on the outskirts of Colombo. The attack destroyed more than half of the national airline’s fleet, as well as several Air Force planes. With insurance rates at that time soaring and tourism falling sharply, the Sri Lankan economy took a nose dive. Six years later, in the early morning hours of 1 April, the LTTE returned to those same airfields, this time by air. Many say that the ramifications of this attack will be even more dire.
The assault involved two light aircraft, and President Mahinda Rajapakse characterised it as the first time a guerrilla group had attained air power. Even though the strategic value to the LTTE of the 1 April attack seemed limited, it provided a major psychological boost to the rebels, who have suffered a string of recent military defeats in the east of the country. During the weeks following the air assault, the LTTE has stepped up attacks on Sinhalese civilians in the east. By doing so, the Tigers have once again demonstrated their enduring ability to be destructive even as they are being militarily marginalised. But it is not only the brutality of the civilian killings that evokes memories of earlier phases of the conflict; the response of the government forces towards the civilian population is also reminiscent of past practices.
So-called cordon-and-search operations are now routine, in which large numbers of people are taken into custody, questioned, and those deemed to have the remotest connection with the Tamil Tigers are detained. This process can take days or weeks, and generates anger and bitterness, particularly among Tamils. While the evidence on the ground shows that the confrontation between the government and the LTTE is getting uglier in terms of human-rights abuses, government claims of having taken control of LTTE-held territory have not translated into greater security for the people.
The next phase of any military ‘solution’ would necessarily be to take the war to the north. But such a battle would likely be significantly more costly than the one in the east. First off, the rebels have consolidated positions in the north, where they have not fractured as in the east. Second, the LTTE could be expected to target the civilian population outside the north and east, both in an attempt to divert the government’s attention and to take vengeance. If the civilian toll were to be heavy, and if there were to be a large-scale influx of refugees into India, the international consensus on giving Colombo a free hand in the war could cease. This could bring about an even more dangerous and uncertain phase.
The Colombo government appears to be undeterred by these prospects. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse (the president’s brother) recently told the international press that there is no longer any meaning in the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, and has speculated that it has not been officially abrogated merely to keep the international community happy. He has also said that the government proposes to push towards the rebels’ northern strongholds, which would mean a certain escalation in violence. Such statements run contrary to the public stance of nearly the entire international community – namely, that the solution to the Sri Lankan conflict should be negotiated within the context of a peace process.
The willingness of Mahinda Rajapakse’s administration to stand up to the LTTE has won it the support of the majority of the Sinhalese population. What needs to be questioned, however, is the government’s primary reliance on military confrontation, rather than on political reform that addresses the roots of Tamil grievance. By summoning an All Party Conference several months ago to come up with a political solution, President Rajapakse did lay the foundation for a positive political resolution. Now that commitment needs to be followed through.
Both the international community and the main opposition United National Party (UNP) agree that the best way for the country to avoid being taken to the edge of disaster would be for the current administration to escalate its political efforts to generate an acceptable political framework that would meet Tamil aspirations. Simultaneously, it must seek ways to de-escalate its military campaign against the LTTE, and stop the northward gravitation.
President Rajapakse needs to capitalise on his current popularity with the Sinhalese masses, to devise a political solution that provides justice for Tamils and other ethnic minorities. Those who seek a peaceful resolution to the current conflict will be hoping that the proposals for a political framework that his ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has promised to come up with in the coming days will be able to win the support of the Tamil people, and eliminate the rationale of continued LTTE violence to achieve that objective.
The LTTE’s positive response to any move towards political negotiations that go beyond military matters will also be crucial. There is no denying the technical acumen that permitted the Air Tiger attack on Katunayake, and the safe return to base. Skills such as these should be used for Sri Lanka’s national development, including in the north and east, rather than for perpetuating an impossible struggle. But the goodwill and trust that is required for Sri Lankan society to function continues to be missing from the rhetoric and behaviour of the principal protagonists.