Ground realities rock fragile truce
September 16 marked the first anniversary of the peace talks between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - a historic milestone made possible by the Ceasefire Agreement of February 22, 2002.

There were the sceptics who claimed the cease-fire would not last beyond a few months. But it has held for 19 months. This in itself is the qualitative difference between the earlier attempts at a cease-fire and the current one.

This is the longest surviving cease-fire. If it has come about with foreign facilitators, it has served well to raise the limits of tolerance towards the settlement of the long drawn ethnic conflict.

And that has seen the peace talks survive a year, the longest period in the history of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. This underscores the threshold of tolerance, predicated on Sri Lanka remaining united and sovereign. The firm belief is clearly that no settlement should result in the vivisection of the country.

But there are also the others, the discerning, to whom the cease-fire and the year long peace talks, have posed many questions. More are being added to the list as the days pass by.

Five rounds of peace talks have already been held between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE. However, these talks have remained suspended since April this year.

The LTTE sought an Interim Administration with authority to administer work in the North-East. The Government responded by forwarding three different sets of proposals, one after another. The LTTE rejected the first two but agreed to consider the third - the Government's offer of a provisional interim administration sans the police, security, land and revenue.

The guerrillas said that although the proposals do not meet "Tamil aspirations" and contain very little powers, they would consider without rejecting it outright. This has led to the LTTE busying itself to formulate a comprehensive set of proposals - for the first time since the ethnic conflict - for Government's consideration.

Guerrilla leaders are on their way to Ireland. They want to put the finishing touches to their response. That is in the glare of further international attention, if not recognition.
The guerrillas have made it unequivocally clear that the future of the Ceasefire Agreement and its survival will depend on the Government's response.

The LTTE proposals, due later next month, will see the emergence, for the first time of core issues - matters that would have to be resolved if permanent peace is to dawn in Sri Lanka.

Last month, whilst in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, members of the facilitation team told me "the upcoming talks would be the most difficult phase of the negotiating process. We will have to face very tough challenges."

During their visit to Colombo just last week, Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgesson and Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, The Sunday Times learnt, focused considerable attention on how to "re design" their facilitator role and thus the negotiating process. During their talks with those in the main opposition People's Alliance as well as moderate Tamil political parties, they raised this issue and invited their proposals for this purpose.

It is clear from their assertions and action that they are gearing themselves for the tough times ahead. It would be logical to expect a plethora of new knotty issues. New controversies between the Tamil polity in the North and the Sinhala polity in the south will follow.

The cease-fire has lasted 19 months. The peace talks had, until they were suspended in April, this year, focused on many peripheral issues. With crucial talks on core issues now due, the coming weeks and months will see the Government and the LTTE grapple with new challenges. It will put to test the cease-fire and the truce itself.

It would be unwise to speculate on the events that portend. Whatever may happen, the 19 months of ceasefire, or a year of peace talks, have yielded very little results substantively for a permanent peace. Yet, it has helped prevent violence, seemingly spurred economic activity, given rise to increased tourist arrivals - in short a climate of normalcy has been created.

On the other hand, the Cease-fire Agreement and the resultant period of truce have also led to changing scenarios. Nowhere is its importance felt more than in the sphere of security and defence related issues.

Reflecting on 19 months of ceasefire and a year of peace talks, it is a suitable moment to focus on these security aspects. This is by taking a closer look at the fast changing ground realities since the cease-fire.

When reports relating to these changing realities came to be highlighted in these columns, there was strong criticism from sections of the UNF leadership. They viewed such criticism to be coming from "spoilers" who were all out to wreck the peace process. How valid were these accusations when one looks back at 19 months after the ceasefire.

This longest ceasefire is governed by a set of modalities which both the security forces and the rebels are required to adhere to. Needless to say the primary purpose is to ensure there are no hostilities.

But an equally important aspect has been to ensure the "balance of power" of both the security forces and the guerrillas remain at the level that existed on February 22, 2002. In other words, the agreement seeks to "freeze" the military balance until a negotiated settlement was arrived at.

There have been no large scale hostilities during the ceasefire. However, has the balance of power remained static? Let us examine some of the most salient features of the Ceasefire Agreement and how the ground realities have changed or are changing.

"MILITARY OPERATIONS 1.2 Neither Party shall engage in any offensive military operations. This requires the total cessation of all military action and includes, but is not limited to, such acts as:

a) The firing of direct and indirect weapons, armed raids, ambushes, assassinations, abductions, destruction of civilian or military property, sabotage, suicide missions and activities by deep penetration units;

b) Aerial bombardment;

c) Offensive naval operations.

1.3 The Sri Lankan armed forces shall continue to perform their legitimate task of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka without engaging in offensive operations against the LTTE."

THE GROUND REALITY: Assassinations and abductions have become a major irritant in the enforcement of the Ceasefire Agreement. Both the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and the Norwegian facilitators, have both raised issue with the LTTE over the killings.

A wholly misguided Police raid into an intelligence cell located in a city suburb led to the discovery of weapons and explosives in January, 2002. The Government was made to believe that this was a secret hide out from which ruling United National Front leaders were to be assassinated by a military group. In an unprecedented move the Army Commander, the Director of Military Intelligence and his senior officers were indicted in Courts for storing dangerous weapons and explosives.

The Sunday Times (Situation Report - January 6, 2002) revealed for the first time that the hide-out was in fact a forward operations cell of the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence from where assassinations of rebel leaders in the East were directed before the ceasefire. The case was withdrawn but the revelations caused outrage in the security establishment.

An angry President Kumaratunga appointed a Commission of Inquiry to probe the matter. It is now in the process of concluding its findings. In retaliatory attacks that have been going on in the 19 month long ceasefire, the guerrillas killed 44, attempted to murder 31 and abducted 17. This included five military intelligence operatives, nine other service personnel and 13 civilian informants. Three soldiers and a civilian escaped death but another soldier, a civilian and three other servicemen were abducted.

Rebels were also accused of killing 17 persons from rival Tamil political parties and abducting nine. At least 26 attacks on them failed or only caused minor injuries.
The task of "safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka" became a contentious issue for the Navy. The Navy is prohibited by the Ceasefire Agreement from engaging in "offensive military operations against the LTTE."

In March and June, this year, the Navy sank two LTTE vessels in the deep seas off north east Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Navy said they were bringing in military hardware and their gun boats opened fire after they were attacked. Admitting for the first time that they were cargo vessels of the LTTE heading for an Indian port, the rebels denied the charge.

A bizarre twist to the incident came when Government and rebel leaders were talking peace in the Japanese capital of Tokyo. They asked the Scandinavian peace monitors to work out modalities to prevent future clashes at sea.

After consultations with two sides, the SLMM came out with a set of proposals.
The Sunday Times (Situation Report May 4, 2003) revealed how monitors asked the Navy to confine their exercises, particularly live firing, to specified areas at sea. The SLMM wanted to carve out separate areas for Sea Tigers, the sea going arm of the rebels, for training and live firing after repeating an earlier call to recognise them as a "de facto naval unit."

No detections or inspections of Sea Tiger vessels were to be permitted for the Navy in these carved out areas without SLMM monitors. In effect, for the Navy, these areas were to be "no go" zones unless the monitors were with them.

The call to restrict exercises by a sovereign nation's Navy, tasked to protect the country's territorial integrity raised serious questions on whether the SLMM has the mandate to make such a recommendation. Such a call, in accordance with the Constitution and other laws of the land.

It could be made legally only by the President who is Commander-in-Chief, the Minister of Defence, the Commander of the Navy or those in the subordinate command authorised by them.

These proposals, shocking enough, were accompanied by a map clearly marking out areas in the western and eastern territorial waters where Sea Tigers, the SLMM said, should be allowed to conduct exercises and live firing.

The Sunday Times revelations of these sals generated a controversy in the security establishment and among opposition political parties. There were concerns in New Delhi too, for India was seeing signs of the emergence of a third navy in the Palk Straits.

These same proposals have not been pursued since then. But the LTTE is determined to seek formal recognition for its sea going arm, which has expanded both in terms of men and material.

Now to another provision in the Ceasefire Agreement.
"SEPARATION OF FORCES 1.4 Where forward defence localities have been established, the GOSL's armed forces and the LTTE's fighting formations shall hold their ground positions, maintaining a zone of separation of a minimum of six hundred (600) metres. However, each Party reserves the right of movement within one hundred (100)metres of its own defence localities, keeping an absolute minimum distance of four hundred (400) metres, no such right of movement applies and the Parties agree to ensure the maximum possible distance between the personnel.

"1.5 In areas where localities have not been clearly established, the status quo as regards the areas controlled by the GOSL and the LTTE, respectively, on 24 December 2001 shall continue to apply pending such demarcation as it provided in article 1.6".

THE GROUND REALITY: In the north, security forces positions are clearly defined by a bunker line and an obstacle belt with a fence. Accordingly, demarcation of "cleared" (security forces held) and "uncleared" areas have been established keeping the forward defence lines (FDLs) as the guideline.

The security force held areas were declared High Security Zones (HSZ). During the peace talks, the guerrillas have repeatedly demanded the security forces withdrawal from the HSZ to enable refugees to re-settle and for rehabilitation programme to re-commence. Northern Security Force commanders steadfastly refused to pull out expressing fears they would become vulnerable to attack. The concerns they expressed were revealed for the first time by The Sunday Times.

With the concurrence of the Government and the LTTE, the help of a retired Indian Army officer was sought. Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, who has experience in battles and peace keeping operations declared that if these zones are dismantled without securing "reasonably foolproof assurances," the shortcomings of deployment and equipment (of the security forces) would be evident to the rebels. He cautioned that re-capture of area lost to LTTE "would entail much loss of life" and the Army "is desperately short of state-of-the-art equipment.

In the East, the security forces maintained independent military bases in tactically important localities. They conducted operations in the jungles to flush out the guerrillas. There were no FDLs defined on the ground in these areas.

All this has changed in the east, which includes the port city of Trincomalee, which the guerrillas have repeatedly declared would be the capital of their so-called state of Tamil Eelam. Recruitment of fresh cadres, training camps, new rebel bases, police stations, court houses, administrative systems, tax collection mechanisms have all fallen in place. Revelations in these columns have irked many a UNF big wig.

The importance of Trincomalee continues after the ceasefire as both a naval, political and economic centre. As revealed in these columns, it still remains the life line for some 40,000 troops and policemen deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. It is only a few hundreds who travel in and out of the peninsula by aircraft daily.

The Sunday Times (August 3, 2003)revealed how the guerrillas have opened up new military camps, re-occupied ones they abandoned and set up a string of satellite camps around the bases that existed. The map on that page gave details of the changing environment. Newly recruited cadres have been trained and moved in. New weaponry and communications equipment have been widely distributed.

The Sunday Times noted "this rapidly developing scenario in and around Trincomalee is signalling a marked shift to the military balance. The Tiger guerrillas are continuing to become stronger militarily whilst the ground they dominate are expanding. This is in the backdrop of the Security Forces being plagued with desertions, hit by lack of resources and forced to maintain an inactive profile lest they be accused of sabotaging the peace process.

The report added "They are yet to receive even the three months requirements to replenish their dwindling stocks of ammunition and other items. The long term impact of this change may lead to a virtual siege of Trincomalee - a move that will threaten not only Sri Lanka's but now India's own interests".

The main opposition People's Alliance of President Kumaratunga raised issue. Her former Foreign Minister and now senior international affairs advisor, Lakshman Kadirgamar who was in New Delhi apprised Government and Opposition leaders.
In Colombo, the Government's chief peace negotiator and spokesman, Cabinet Minister, G.L. Peiris, denied new camps had come up surrounding Trincomalee. The only exception, he said, was one at Manirasakulam (or Kuranku Paanchan Kulam) where the LTTE has constructed a camp in a government controlled area after the ceasefire. The SLMM had ruled this violated the cease-fire.

Even if the shadow boxing between the Government and the Opposition over this issue continued, last week Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, conferred with security chiefs over threats to Trincomalee. Contingency measures to meet threats have been discussed and the need to further strengthen the Navy decided upon.

The Government placed a helicopter at the disposal of Opposition Leader, Mahinda Rajapakse, to visit Trincomalee last Saturday (September 20). He returned only to confirm that a threat exists.

There are many other provisions in the Cease Fire Agreement that sought to ensure the military balance that existed up to February 22 2002, both with the security forces and the LTTE remained. However they are too voluminous.

Besides the changing ground realities on matters arising out of the Ceasefire Agreement there are several other important aspects too. If the total strength of the guerrillas, according to local intelligence sources stood at 9,390 before the ceasefire it has now increased. Since the ceasefire and the truce the figure has risen to 19,750. This is both in respect of the north and the east and include members of the so called Eelapadai, a civilian militia.

Intelligence officials say at least 30 per cent of the strength are child soldiers. Japan's Special Envoy to the Sri Lankan Peace Process Yasushi Akashi raised issues last week with guerrilla political Wing Leader S.P. Tamilselvam. This was during a meeting in the guerrilla held northern town of Kilinochchi.

Mr. Tamilselvam's reply was that the children were joining the rebel ranks out of great enthusiasm and were not being forcibly conscripted. He had said that even the UNICEF (United Nations Children's Educational Fund) has been told of this position. In response to a query over political killings, Mr. Thamilselvam had replied that such incidents were taking place in government held areas. Hence it was a matter for state agencies.

According to Sri Lankan intelligence more than 19 new camps have been set up in the Eastern district of Trincomalee and Batticaloa since the ceasefire.
This is in marked contrast to the Sri Lankan security forces. Procurement of military hardware remained frozen until the recent months. Ammunition stocks dwindled due to use for training purposes. President Kumaratunga went public at her party's annual sessions to declare that the Army was left with only nine days of ammunition. However, when she made the declaration stocks had been adequately replenished with emergency assistance from India.

Yet, desertions during the ceasefire have been higher than it had been during times of war. In the year 2000 there were 4,972. The numbers increased in the succeeding years: 2001 (6,018), 2002 (7,326) and 2003 (4337) for the first five months.
Recruitment drives after the ceasefire, have fallen far short of targets. In 2002 the Army launched a drive to recruit 10,000 new soldiers but ended up listing only 2,503. Last month a drive to recruit 5,000 have yielded only 2,300 so far. The security forces top brass are asking the government to raise salaries and find placements for troops in UN Peace Keeping Forces.

What do these changing realities mean? Has not the LTTE become stronger than security forces in the 19 months of ceasefire? Is this strength not growing? That is even before the core issues are discussed.

How much more will these ground realities change if there is a delay in discussing the core issues? Would such delays, which will make the LTTE much more stronger and thus down grade the core issues to items of low priorities? Cannot a much stronger LTTE ask a government,that has neglected its security forces and its security preparedness to take it or leave it?

The time has arrived for the UNF to reflect on these issues instead of branding all and sundry as "spoilers" of the peace process.

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