Country at crossroads for Christmas
- Co-chairs hold teleconference to review crisis in Lanka
As Sri Lankans brace themselves to face a New Year in just two weeks, prospects for peace seem to have virtually disappeared amidst fears of a heightened war in the coming months.
Ahead of the festive season, Donor Co-chairs of the peace process - the United States, Japan, the European Union and Norway - reviewed the situation briefly. This was through a conference call on Friday linking the capitals of the member countries. Among those who figured were Norway's International Development Minister for Erik Solheim (Oslo), US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher (Washington) and Japan's Special Envoy for the peace process Yasushi Akashi (Tokyo). Their respective diplomatic missions in Colombo were also linked to the conference call. They reviewed the latest developments in Sri Lanka. According to diplomatic sources, the members updated each other on current issues but no decisions were taken.
|The fighting in the East between Security Forces and Tiger guerrillas has led to the Army intensifying security in threatened villages. An Army armoured vehicle passes through the village of Somapura in the Trincomalee district as a soldier stands guard. Photo Lakshman Gunathilake
Few hours later, they heard the news of the death of Anton Balasingham, chief peace negotiator of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Most of them had dealt with him during the near five-year-long ceasefire and the resultant peace process. Many may be unaware that it was the late Mr. Balasingham who persuaded LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to go for a ceasefire. The LTTE ideologue and theoretician had assured that his leader's aims and objectives could still be achieved through that means without losing armed cadres.
That was the reason behind the LTTE repeatedly declaring a unilateral ceasefire in the late 1990s. Then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga ignored the calls. She even gave the nod to the conduct of "Operation Agni Khiela (Rod of Fire) that ended in a major debacle in April 2001. In the aftermath, an informal behind-the-scene dialogue had begun between some key players in the LTTE and the United National Party (UNP). The latter won the parliamentary general elections in December 2001 and formed the United National Front (UNF) Government. A Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE followed in February 2002.
Many more may be unaware that having paved the way for the CFA and the peace process, it has been a rough ride for the LTTE ideologue with the leadership in the Wanni. If the first year after the CFA was smooth, cracks in the relationship developed thereafter. The leadership took control of "international operations."
Mr. Prabhakaran placed it in the hands of Castro. Funding for Mr. Balasingham's own overseas operations on behalf of the LTTE was cut down.
|Anton Balasingham with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran during a visit to Kilinochchi
Yet, the more moderate Mr. Balasingham maintained what his confidantes called a "love-hate" relationship. "His worst fear was that the hardliners would gain control of the LTTE," said one of them speaking on grounds of anonymity. He was bitterly critical about the faction led by LTTE's intelligence boss Pottu Amman and Sea Tiger leader Soosai. Whilst the former had wanted to pursue a hard military line, the latter had embarrassed him by allowing Sea Tigers to smuggle defence supplies only to be apprehended by Sri Lankan authorities. This was whilst he was engaged in the peace process.
Mr. Balasingham once angered his leader by agreeing during the December 2002 peace talks in the Norwegian capital of Oslo to "explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka." This became the major highlight in the Oslo statement that was issued after this round of talks.
But Mr. Prabhakaran was angrier and even embarrassed over another assertion. That was Mr. Balasingham's declaration in an interview with the Indian satellite TV channel New Delhi Television (NDTV) that the assassination of one time Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi was a "monumental blunder." If he avoided any reference to who was responsible, his remarks still came as formal confirmation that the LTTE had carried it out. During Mr. Prabhakaran's one and only news conference in Kilinochchi on April 10, 2002, it was Mr. Balasingham who took most of the questions. In response to one over who killed Mr. Gandhi, Mr. Balasingham replied it was a "sad event" and refused to elaborate. He dismissed similar questions posed by other media personnel.
After his remarks in the NDTV interview, Political Wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan was to publicly deny any LTTE involvement in Mr. Gandhi's killing. That was a belated bid, on the instructions of his leader, to disown any responsibility. But the move laid bare the estrangement.
On Thursday, Mr. Prabhakaran conferred the title "Voice of the Nation" on the late Mr. Balasingham. This is the first time such a title has come to be known. What was earlier described as the "highest honour" conferred by the LTTE was "Ma Manithar" (or Great Man). The last to be bestowed this title was Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian Nadaraja Raviraj. He was murdered in broad daylight on November 10 in Narahenpita.
Mr. Prabhakaran said the death of Mr. Balasingham was an "irreparable loss" and came at a time "when we needed him most, as our freedom struggle intensifies." Significant enough, the "freedom struggle" he refers to is the ongoing undeclared Eelam War IV which he has asserted was now intensifying. On November 27 when he made his "Maveerar (Great Heroes) Day" address, he said "we postponed our plan to advance our freedom struggle twice to give even more chances to the peace efforts, once when the tsunami disaster struck and again when President Rajapaksa was elected."
Pointing out that Sinhala leaders will never put forward a "just resolution to the Tamil national question," Mr. Prabhakaran said his group was left with "no other option but an independent state for the people of Tamil Eelam."
The funeral of Mr. Balasingham, who died of cancer, takes place on Wednesday. After doctors warned that his health condition would deteriorate, he had planned his own funeral arrangements in consultation with his wife, Adele. On December 4, Erik Solheim, who had maintained a close rapport during the peace process, visited the Balasingham household in New Malden, Surrey. The customary lunch in a neighbourhood Chinese restaurant during such meetings did not follow. It was LTTE's Shanthan who hosted him this time. Mr. Solheim is one among those listed to speak at the funeral.
Even before his death, Mr. Balasingham's fears had come true. The hardliners had, in fact, taken control. For the first time, in November this year, he was not the author of Mr. Prabhakaran's Maveerar Day address. That was only because he was bed ridden. However, his moderating influence on the Wanni leadership did not prevail in the months before he died.
The LTTE was stepping up its military offensives in the recent weeks. The Security Forces have evolved their own counter measures. A fuller discussion on this issue, which is of public interest, is not possible in the light of the newly-introduced Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities Regulations.
However, a brief overview shows that the focus of the current fighting is concentrated in the East, south of the Trincomalee and north of the Batticaloa districts.
There, the Security Forces have been engaged for over a week in a string of probing operations to identify and attack Tiger guerrilla positions. This is in the general areas of Vakarai and Kathiraveli from where, senior military officials say, guerrillas have been mounting attacks on troop positions and adjoining civilian settlements. Contrary to some reports, the Security Forces have not launched a major ground based offensive to seize territory. A high-ranking Army official said, "There is no question of regaining any territory. They (the guerrillas) do not hold large ground here. We are now dominating the area and are taking them on wherever they are concentrating to attack us."
The Sunday Times will not disclose casualty counts in the light of the new Emergency Regulations. Wounded soldiers were airlifted from the area to Colombo both on Sunday and Monday nights for immediate medical attention.
A week long exchange of artillery and mortar fire between the two sides, however, has caused a problem - the exodus of civilians. From the Government-controlled areas over 3,000 Sinhala villagers have moved to Kantale. In the areas where they dominate, the guerrillas had made a strong attempt in the past week to prevent civilians from leaving. This is for fear that they will be isolated for a major assault. An estimated 3,500 Tamil civilians had fled the area to locations north of Batticaloa. Government officials in this district were under orders yesterday to help re-locate them temporarily and to look after their immediate needs.
Some of the civilians who were forced to flee by boat were in trouble. At least seven such IDPs, including a child, were killed when they fled Vakarai and their boat capsized. The United Nations said in a statement on Tuesday it was distressed over the incident. It called upon both the Government and the LTTE to "comply with their obligations under International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, as expressed in the Security Council Resolutions on the Protection of Civilians and Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement."
It is not only in the East that the guerrillas have massed to engage the Security Forces to prevent a military defeat for them. In the north, in Muhamalai, the gateway to Government-controlled Jaffna peninsula, intelligence sources say, the LTTE had concentrated additional cadres following fears of a major Security Forces attack. According to these sources, the guerrillas have also enhanced their artillery and mortar positions too. The Muhamalai entry point is the subject of a dispute between the Government and the LTTE. The last round of peace talks in Geneva collapsed after the Government rejected the LTTE demand to re-open the Muhamalai end of the A-9 highway.
A perusal of the LTTE calendar of attacks in the past many years reveals that the guerrillas have not indulged in such activity several days before Christmas and through the New Year. However, highly placed intelligence sources warn about the likelihood of a departure as they had received reports of VIPs and other vital locations being targeted. In view of this, heightened security precautions particularly in the City and the suburbs are to continue.
A case for serious concern for the Government has been the continuing efforts by the LTTE to smuggle in more defence supplies. The recent discovery in Madurai (Tamil Nadu) of a stock of explosive and mortar rounds has raised suspicions whether the guerrillas had developed a base in South India to stockpile military hardware and later smuggle it across the Gulf of Mannar. The Government is to make a request through diplomatic channels for authorities in Colombo to visit India and further investigate the matter.
Suspicions over this issue has arisen after it came to light that the LTTE had commandeered Indian fishing vessels in the Palk Straits to smuggle military hardware to the north western shores of Sri Lanka. This is after they are unloaded at mid sea from ships hovering around in international waters. For three months from September, this year, the Sri Lanka Navy successfully interdicted three LTTE vessels carrying largely ammunition, artillery and mortar shells.
State intelligence agencies learnt some of the vessels, however, had managed to land on the shores dominated by guerrillas and unload their cargo. Navy patrols have been warned to keep check on at least three different ships moving in the high seas with military cargo. Some of the military supplies, according to intelligence sources, had originated from Indonesia.
The Government is already negotiating with Indonesia to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to exchange intelligence information. This followed talks Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake had with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono during his visit to Jakarta. He appealed for the Indonesian Government's help to curb guerrilla procurement activity in that country. During visits to Vietnam and Cambodia, Premier Wickremanayake also made similar appeals. Today he leaves on an official visit to Burma where he will explain to the Yangoon Government the ongoing efforts of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to fight terrorism.
In the backdrop of Norwegian facilitated efforts to break the deadlock over the peace process becoming unsuccessful, a fresh initiative is to be made by UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. After a working visit to the United States where he met senior officials, he has sought a meeting with President Rajapaksa either for today or tomorrow. He is to brief him on the outcome. Diplomatic sources say Mr. Wickremesinghe, who discussed his party's MoU with US officials, is to urge President Rajapaksa to formulate political proposals to end the ethnic conflict.
He is to call upon President Rajapaksa to formulate proposals to end the ethnic conflict based on the provisions of the Tokyo declaration and decisions reached at previous rounds of talks. He has also endorsed the views of US officials that salient features in the proposals by the panel of experts of the All Party Representatives Conference (Report "A") also be considered.
Mr. Wickremesinghe is learnt to have noted that only the Donor Co-chair mechanism has been left active in the peace process. Hence, he was of the view that they should play a more aggressive role in the search for peace in Sri Lanka. He had also pointed out that a more recent mechanism was the MoU between the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
A move to resort to the expert panel's report would further distance the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) from the Government. It has already quit the APRC on this issue and is insisting that the panel of experts be dissolved if they are to return. The JVP is of the view that the recommendations of this panel should not form the basis of any discussion to seek a settlement to the ethnic conflict.
For President Rajapaksa, who has already admonished four Government officials for placing their signature on the report, accepting such a move would amount to a volte face.
The focus turns again to the battlefield. The LTTE, coming under pressure from the Security Forces is now forced to play a defensive role in the East. But its major firepower is concentrated in the north and the capability of its sea going arm, the Sea Tigers remains intact. Though disturbed, its cells in the City and suburbs are being revived. These add up only to more battles and more violence, not something the majority of Sri Lankans would wish in a New Year.