On the eve of Tiger guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's 53rd birthday last year, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, told Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency, "if all goes to plan it will be his last."
Evidently, things did not go to plan. The guerrilla leader has survived that threat. His cadres are busy in the Mullaitivu district preparing for the 54th birthday on November 26. Notwithstanding the war, in practically every village there, civilian committees have been set up to devise plans for celebrations on a large scale. The next evening, he will deliver the customary 'Maveerar', or 'great heroes' day address.
Yet, the 19-year-old ritual where he recounts achievements in the past year and plans for the coming one is different this time. More than anytime before, his fighters have come under intense military pressure on three main fronts in the Wanni - outside Kilinochchi, Pooneryn and south of Mullaitivu. Troops are accelerating their thrust to accomplish their goals before the guerrilla leader delivers his address, an annual event awaited by Colombo's diplomatic community and the political leadership alike.
|President Mahinda Rajapaksa talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi.
One of the vagaries of the two and half decades of separatist war in Sri Lanka is the gulf between rhetoric and reality. Over the years, it has widened. So much so, months ahead of the troops reaching terrain far ahead of Kilinochchi, the one time political capital of the guerrillas, pronouncements declared that the town complex was only a few kilometres away. A countdown then began lowering the distance to a few hundred kilometres. This is what the public were told. If there was silence thereafter, the focus shifted to the Pooneryn sector. Troops were a few hundred metres away from a junction to this key town. Our Defence Correspondent deals with these aspects on the opposite page.
Like the intense battles in the Wanni, there has also been hectic political activity in the past several days over developments in Sri Lanka. Significant enough, they came in the backdrop of visits to New Delhi by both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his political rival, Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The visits were increasing signs that the Congress Government in New Delhi has not given up on developments in northern Sri Lanka. This is after setting out their official position following a visit there two weeks ago by senior presidential advisor, Basil Rajapaksa.
There seemed many reasons. According to diplomatic sources in Colombo, there were concerns in New Delhi over air raids in the north. They opined that they added to the woes of civilians who were facing greater hardships caused by monsoonal rains. Food was not the only commodity in short supply. Some said clothing was a dire need. However, the Government insisted sufficient stocks to last three months were available in the Wanni.
Against this backdrop, on Saturday November 8, a seemingly innocuous report appeared on the Tamilnet web site. It said: Liberation Tigers Political Head B. Nadesan, when contacted by Tamilnet on Saturday, following reports of Tamil Nadu leaders seeking clarification on LTTE's stand on ceasefire, said, "there is no hesitation on our side to re-iterate our position that we have always wanted a ceasefire. It is the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) that unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire." He said the Tigers were only fighting a defensive war since Colombo had thrust upon Tamils an aggressive war.
"The LTTE Political Head also said they have always re-iterated that they have been committed to the ceasefire……"
There was nothing new in what Nadesan said. In fact the account articulated the guerrilla position when it declared that "they have always re-iterated that they have been committed to the ceasefire…"
Factually, that was the correct position. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), still remains a party to the Norwegian-brokered Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) of February 2002. The Government of Sri Lanka unilaterally abrogated the CFA. Yet, the LTTE continued to maintain that it was still a party to the CFA and continued to accept Norway's role as facilitator. Hence, there was nothing new in what Nadesan said except that he was merely re-iterating the LTTE's position. However, this time there was a clever, cunning ploy by the guerrillas.
Firstly, those in the echelons of power in Sri Lanka, were unable to discern the nuances behind the move. As is customary now, different leaders of the ruling party gave different responses on the assumption that the guerrillas were seeking a new ceasefire. There was no single official statement to set the record right with a cohesive official position. Some said the guerrilla call for a ceasefire was now a last wish before certain death. Others said they would have to lay down arms if their offer is to be accepted. Both assertions appear based on wrong assumptions.
Firstly, it was in the belief that there was a new call for a ceasefire. Secondly, that it was an 'SOS' (or save our souls) message since the guerrillas were on the brink of annihilation. That the latter would be to under-estimate a brutal enemy that has, like a cat with nine lives, sprung back fiercely when it was pronounced dead or on the verge of death. That is not in any way to dispute the reality that the guerrillas have come under tremendous military pressure. In fact, they are cornered and will lose some of their strongholds. Though unlikely, the guerrillas could well use for propaganda mileage the assertions by government leaders who rejected their ceasefire call. That is again in the unlikely event of a retaliatory strike where they could claim government leaders dismissed the re-iteration of a ceasefire call.
The guerrilla ploy was timed for President Rajapaksa's visit to New Delhi. He was attending the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit. This is an international organisation involving a group of countries in South and South East Asia. The member countries of this group are Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. Weeks earlier, it was known that Rajapaksa would use the opportunity of this visit for talks with Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.
Rajapaksa was in New Delhi on Wednesday. It was Il Poya and he chose to visit the Buddhist section of the national museum there. The Sri Lanka High Commission had arranged for members of the Buddhist clergy to meet him.
At the same time, in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai, the State Assembly adopted 'unanimously', a resolution demanding "an immediate halt of military operations, reverting the Sri Lankan military to old positions and a commencement of political negotiations to find a solution to the Tamil problem. The State Assembly resolution urged the central government in New Delhi to bring pressure on the Government of Sri Lanka for talks with the LTTE. Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi had moved the resolution.
Here again, the pro-LTTE Tamilnet website report confirmed why the call for a ceasefire had been re-iterated. In a report headlined "Announce ceasefire, call back military and commence peace talks," the website said, "Pointing out that the LTTE had offered to effect a ceasefire, the resolution pressed upon the Indian Government to ask Colombo to agree to an immediate truce in order to alleviate the sufferings of the Eelam Tamils."
The report added: "At the end of the Assembly debate, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi said that the Indian Prime Minister and Congress President Sonia Gandhi should consider that this is not only a demand of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, but also the will of 70 million Tamils of Tamil Nadu and the Tamils who live all over the world."
Thus, the re-iterated call for a ceasefire that emanated from the Wanni jungles ended up in the State Assembly of Tamil Nadu. With the latter adopting a resolution, the matter figured prominently during talks between Rajapaksa and Premier Singh on Thursday evening. Hoping that these talks would take place earlier, the Presidential entourage had hoped to return to Colombo on Thursday night. However, plans had to be changed.
A statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in Colombo contained details of the rejoinder Rajapaksa gave to the demand by the Tamil Nadu State Assembly. He declared that the "Government will engage in discussions only if the LTTE lays down arms first, thereby preventing the resumption of another round of terrorism, as has always happened in the past.
The statement said: "Having taken note of the Resolution adopted by the Tamil Nadu State Assembly on 12th November 2008 calling for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, emphasised that he and his administration have always been for a political solution. However, it is the LTTE that repeatedly violated its obligations and embarked on a path of conflict and terror. Moreover, it is necessary to be mindful of the LTTE's past track record of using a ceasefire in order to re-group and re-arm, with no intention of a political solution…."
The Indian Premier appreciated those remarks, a high-ranking government source said. He has thus endorsed the government's military campaign against Tiger guerrillas until they are militarily weakened, the source added.
Quite clearly, the LTTE's ploy to pressure the central Government in New Delhi through Tamil Nadu to effect a ceasefire came a cropper. However, activists in Chennai are not giving up. A special train carried 2,000 students from Chennai to New Delhi to stage protests to call for a cessation of hostilities in northern Sri Lanka.
That apart, food aid from the Government of India to civilians in the north, it is now quite clear, will not be distributed by the Government. The Foreign Ministry statement noted that Dr. Singh "….valued the facilitatory arrangements expeditiously put in place by the Government of Sri Lanka, for the distribution of relief to the civilian population in the affected Districts of the Northern Province."
Last Monday night, President Rajapaksa and an entourage of 19 arrived in Male on a special charter from Sri Lankan Airlines flight. The next day they attended the inauguration of Ahamed Nasheed, better known as "Anni," as the President of Maldives. Included in his entourage were Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, Co-ordinator Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, media personnel and a security contingent.
Nasheed thanked successive Sri lankan Governments for affording the then Maldivian Opposition a safe haven during their many campaigns to democratically oust the former Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
On Tuesday afternoon, Rajapaksa and his entourage boarded another special charter of Sri Lankan Airlines for their journey to New Delhi. On his return to Colombo, a close aide of his asked him how the much-anticipated meeting with the Indian prime Minister went. Rajapaksa was quite pleased with the outcome calling it a very useful discussion on issues relating to the northern insurgency in Sri Lanka.
The aide then remarked; "Sir, may paara adu wiyadamakin loku wedak karanna puluwan wunaane.
Mokada, Sir-ekka giye Lalith-thui, Sajin-nui, security aya witharaney" (This time you were able to do a huge task with little cost - you only took your secretary, an aide and security). Rajapaksa's responded saying; " Mama kohamahari than uduwen magane karagannawa. Habai apey amathi ekka hath ata denek awaney, kisi therumak nathuwa" (I will someonehow manage now, but the Minister brought seven-eight people for no reason).
The aide proceeded; " Sir, ekkenek dennek aran gihin weda karagana enawa… Basil lokka thaniyama indiyaawata gihin weday karagana aawa. Habai amithalaata thamai ewa bari" (Sir took one or two and got the job done. Basil Boss went alone and got the job done. Only the Minister can't do that).
At which point Rajapaksa concluded the interlude with; "Owa ohama thamai. Thawa kochchara kalda ohoma karanna wenne" (that's the way it is, but for how long more).
So, it seems that Indo-Lanka relations are now firmly in the Rajapaksa First family domain, and doing pretty alright by the looks of it.
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe is due to take wing to New Delhi tonight (Sunday) where he will meet Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, leaders of the Opposition Bharat Janata Party (BJP), and those of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), along with officials from the South Block, the Indian External Affairs Ministry. New Delhi no doubt, is keeping its eyes and ears wide open to all sections of political opinion in Sri Lanka. One will recall the time the Indian prime Minister was in Colombo for the SAARC summit in June this year, and all political party leaders of Sri Lanka, trooped one after the other to pay calls on the visiting premier.
As for the developing political events of Tamil Nadu, it has been left to the film artistes of Sri Lanka to reply the film artistes of Tamil Nadu about what is best for each country, and a stinging statement by the Leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), V. Anandasagaree asking India - and Tamil Nadu's State Assembly -- not to be deceived by the pressure tactics of pro-LTTE forces and to be careful of creating a little Jaffna in the southern Indian state that would cause bigger headaches for India.
What Anandasangaree, who was once MP for Kilinochchi before the LTTE evicted him from the political scene, and now with the Security Forces preparing to evict the LTTE from his former constituency, has rightly asked Tamil Nadu politicians to visit Sri Lanka officially and see for themselves how peacefully the Tamils and Sinhalese live together in this island-nation.