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Sri Lanka: Not Seeing the Writing

With the refusal of both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to relent on the question of allowing humanitarian aid to Jaffna, the civil war has reached a new and protracted stage. Despite the unabated civilian suffering, the intransigence on both sides is a political and military strategy, one that appears to leave no room for a negotiated peaceful solution to emerge.

Letter from South Asia


Not Seeing the Writing

With the refusal of both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTEto relent on the question of allowing humanitarian aid to Jaffna,the civil war has reached a new and protracted stage. Despite theunabated civilian suffering, the intransigence on both sides is apolitical and military strategy, one that appears to leave no roomfor a negotiated peaceful solution to emerge.


he other day I received an email from a Sri Lankan Tamil friend living in the US. He had returned to the US west coast where he has some residential status. My friend had spent nearly a year doing voluntary work among the tsunami-affected communities in the northern province. His mail, copied to some others in Sri Lanka, was an impassioned plea to us to do whatever we could to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis developing in the Tamil areas in the northern and eastern provinces. He specifically asked the recipients of his mail to prevail upon the government of Sri Lanka not to create a humanitarian disaster in the Tamil north. “If this tragedy goes on like this”, he further wrote, “there will be nothing else to negotiate but the borders separating the Sinhalese Sri Lanka and the Tamil Eelam”.

I wrote back immediately telling my friend that there was very little that we living in Sri Lanka could do to prevent the humanitarian tragedy. “You have to prevail upon the US government to prevent it, because the Bush administration seems to be backing the Sri Lankan government’s military campaign.”

Jaffna Blockade

The humanitarian crisis in the Jaffna peninsula and some parts of the eastern province is a direct outcome of the ongoing war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. For several weeks, food, medicine and other essential items have not reached Jaffna where several thousand Tamil citizens live in areas under government control. There are two ways to transport goods to Jaffna, by sea and by road. The LTTE does not allow ship movements to Jaffna while the government has blocked the only land route to Jaffna, the A-9 highway. When the government and the LTTE delegates met in Geneva on October 8, they failed to address this issue. The government has been insisting that food transportation should be by sea or through an alternative land route. The LTTE, in turn, has stuck to its rigid position that it should be only on the A-9 highway.

In this arbitrary action of imposing a blockade on Jaffna, both sides have jointly created something like an open prison for Jaffna Tamils. In the latest development, the government has decided to open the highway just once to transport a large convoy of food lorries. The LTTE has opposed the move. In fact, on this issue, the two sides have given utmost priority to military considerations as well as to the symbolic value of being inflexible to make strategic gains. Meanwhile, in the past few months, the LTTE as well as the government have demonstrated with equal zeal that their commitment to protect the civilians is secondary to military objectives. The doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P) civilians has not yet reached Sri Lanka.

The military objectives, of course, have larger political objectives too. The government appears to think that the humanitarian crisis will sooner or later create a sharp wedge between the LTTE and the Tamil people and that eventually the Tamils will desert the LTTE en masse once the latter is militarily defeated. A starving Tamil populace coming on their knees pleading with the government to “liberate” them from the “fascist” Tigers seems to be an outcome, which the new Sri Lankan government’s political-strategic thinkers appear to anticipate. The LTTE, on the other hand, is waiting for further intensification of the humanitarian tragedy of the Tamils in Jaffna to prove a key point to the world: international intervention to save a starving populace would be necessary and inevitable. The Tigers seem to think that such international intervention might create conditions for an eventual drawing of borders between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Eelam.

For an outside observer of Sri Lanka’s conflict, these competing political calculations being made by the government and the Tigers may seem crazy, outrageous and totally unacceptable. But, sadly, that is how the two sides have been conducting their new phase of war. Sri Lanka has moved out of the phase of peace and compromise. It is in the first phase of another cycle of civil war protraction.

The growing humanitarian crisis in Jaffna is an integral feature of this new phase of war which has so far demonstrated to have four significant characteristics. First, neither the government nor the LTTE has formally withdrawn from the ceasefire agreement. No side has formally declared war either. Second, the war is being conducted at low and middleintensity levels with occasional outbursts of high intensity escalation. Third, the war so far has taken a high toll of civilian victims, yet both sides seem to accept civilian casualties as a necessary component in this particular phase of the war. And, finally, in the counter-state and counter-insurgency war, which runs parallel to the visible war, civilians are being deliberately targeted. Everyday, there are reports of Tamil civilians being kidnapped, extra-judicially executed or just assassinated. These reports emanate from Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya and, of course, Colombo.

The new cycle of war in Sri Lanka seems to be a fairly protracted one. Or at least, both the government and the LTTE appear to be preparing themselves for a long drawn out war. It is also noteworthy that both sides are trying to insulate themselves from international pressure. The LTTE began doing so soon after the EU ban. Pushing the EU members out of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was the first step in that direction. Actually, the tigers began to talk about “excessive internationalisation” of the peace process as far back as early 2003. A measure of an acceptable degree of internationalisation

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

is obviously the space it opens up for unilateral strategic gains.

The government is engaged in a similar exercise now by taking a hostile attitude to the UN agencies. Ambassador Allan Rock’s report on the alleged government complicity with the Karuna group in child abductions and recruitment has incensed both the military and political leaders in Colombo. International concerns about the government’s inaction in the investigations of extra-judicial killings have also created much anger in Colombo. There can be some more adverse reports on the government’s handling of the humanitarian aspects of the conflict in the months to come. If the government is preparing for a long war with the Tigers, insulation from international scrutiny is a necessity. Already, some government propagandists have begun to talk about how the Sri Lankan people are proud of their national sovereignty despite being a poor third world nation. In January-February, the UN security council is likely to discuss the Allan Rock report. We may see then more of the anti-western patriotism in Colombo.

What will then ultimately happen to this sad, little island and its people in the months and years to come? It is very difficult to see peace and reconciliation returning. Sri Lanka is no Nepal. Nepal’s essentially social and political conflict has proved itself to be amenable to negotiated compromise. Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict has so far defied such constructive change. It has polarised the polity to such an extent that the belief in ethnic zero-sum outcomes has a remarkable vitality and resilience to stay on.

Naive Expectations

But, the trajectories of the conflict in the coming months and years would not be as simplistic as sympathisers of the two sides, the government and the LTTE, appear to imagine at present. Drawing up borders for a Tamil Eelam by an international peace keeping force in the aftermath of a massive humanitarian crisis can be as naive a possibility as a starving Tamil populace, in the wake of a military decimation of the LTTE, accepting a victor’s solution from the Sinhalese political leadership.

Anura Bandaranaike, a somewhat vocal minister in Sri Lanka’s present cabinet, said in parliament recently that if the war continued, Sri Lanka might end up a failed state. Bandaranaike is the minister of tourism and he has been doing the difficult job of investment promotion as well. When international airline flights from Europe arrive in Colombo half empty at the height of the current tourist season, and only with south Asian passengers many of whom are in transit to Chennai or Kochi, one does not have to be the minister of tourism to see the writing on the wall. But, the problem with ethno-patriotism is that it prevents people from seeing the writing on the wall. The illusion of victory has triumphed over reasoned scepticism.

What can people who do see the writing do in a situation like this? Sadly, very little. In Colombo where death squads roam around selecting their targets with clinical precision, it is not easy to say in public that the war will bring disaster to all. A pervasive sense of patriotic militarism has replaced the sentiments for compromise, negotiation and peace. A great disaster is in the making and it has many well-wishers. The English print media in Colombo tells it all.




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