Will talks in Geneva dispel war clouds?
By: J. S. Tissainayagam
Articles appearing in the popular media during the past couple of
months have made reference to the LTTE being preoccupied in
seeking for itself international legitimacy as a group that had
transcended the narrow confines of being a military outfit and become
an organisation having the requisite sophistication and wherewithal to
run a state (or at least a semi-state).
These articles cite the importance placed by the Tigers on meeting
multilateral and foreign government delegations, the work done by
international NGOs in partnership with the Tiger administration in the
LTTE-controlled areas, the activity of the Tamil diaspora in lobbying
the international community etc., as evidence of this.
Based on this premise they have also concluded that the most
effective restraint on the LTTE has been the international safety net
that threatens to impose severe penalties on the Tigers if they violate
the ceasefire and resume outright hostilities.
The school that propagates this opinion believes that the LTTE’s
agreement to go to Geneva rather than stick rigidly by its first choice,
Oslo, vindicates this point of view. It has to be said however that this
view is not correct. It might be correct to say that finding legitimacy in
the eyes of the international community is indeed a political goal,
perhaps an important political goal, but certainly not the most
The Tigers realised that relying entirely on international support for
their cause would be suicidal, ever since India began undermining the
Tamil struggle by cooperating with the Sri Lankan state, which
culminated with the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The
LTTE might use the realities of international politics to push its own
interests but does not depend entirely either on the international
community, or on forces in the South Asian region, to pull the
chestnuts out of the fire for it. Hence the LTTE is sceptical about
placing the quest for international legitimacy above that of acquiring
political and military capability to withstand its primary enemy – the Sri
The most recent example of this was the travel ban imposed on the
Tigers by the EU with the threat there would be total proscription if the
rebels continued to use violence. This came soon after the killing of
Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar (in which the LTTE denies
complicity). Despite the EU threat however, there were a number of
violent incidents where scores of service personnel died, which were
attributed to the Tigers (though they did not acknowledge them
either). These killings stopped only after the government agreed to
rein in the pro-state forces that were attacking the LTTE, thereby
achieving the military objective the Tigers wanted.
As obstacles are cleared before talks in Geneva, it is important that
the government and southern opinion-makers are not carried away by
the idea that the Tigers’ quest for international legitimacy will relegate
to second place all other issues and factors that are of vital concern
to the LTTE and the Tamil people. It will be naïve to think so.
The LTTE is expected to press two interrelated demands at the
Geneva meeting: 1) that the Karuna faction be disarmed and 2) the
military cadre now actively deployed in the northeast be at least
partially withdrawn so that it facilitates the return to normalcy – an
important section of the CFA. The question however is whether the
government can accomplish these.
In the case of Karuna, though disarming him is unthinkable to the Sri
Lankan state since his defection is, arguably, the biggest military prize
it has won in the past 20-year war, there could at least be the
appearance of placing restraints on him by deactivating his cadre.
There is fear however that the government does not have sufficient
control, exercised through the military, to contain Karuna. As this
article is being written, five NGO personnel working for the Tamil
Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) are reported abducted, near
Welikanda. Though nobody is certain who the perpetrators are, the
Karuna faction is active in the area.
Karuna’s statement meanwhile, issued on 30 January is designed to
make more than one ‘statement.’ Not only does it define him as a
leader independent of the Sri Lankan government and military and
who has the autonomy to make war and peace as he wishes, but his
assertion to act in self-defence if attacked implies he will defy
attempts to being disarmed even if the Tigers insist he should be.
The second factor is however much more complicated. This is the
stipulation under the CFA that the security forces must withdraw from
various physical spaces in accordance to different timeframes for the
restoration of normalcy.
There are different categories of places that have to be vacated for
this to be accomplished. The most important perhaps are the 100s of
private buildings occupied by the military in various parts of the
northeast. Though the security forces pay rent for some of them, a
large number are held gratis. Whatever it might be, the owners of
such dwellings would much prefer to have them back. Public
institutions too such as the Webber Stadium in Batticaloa, Hartley
College, Jaffna etc. continue to be occupied by the military
inconveniencing the people. There are also places of worship,
sacrosanct to believers, where the security forces are present.
Finally, there is the question of the high security zone. Its presence in
various parts of the northeast, but most famously in Vadamaradtchi,
has transformed not only the physical landscape, but displaced
people by the 1000s. What the Tigers will demand on resettlement in
the HSZs is unclear at present, but if human security is to be ensured
in the northeast such zones cannot be allowed to go on as they are
It has to be noted that the LTTE and the Tamils are not demanding
these measures be taken because the CFA says so. Everybody
knows the horrendous privations the Tamil public had to undergo in
the hands of the security forces in the past few months. Indeed it
could be said hostilities follow a familiar pattern: the Tigers attack the
military and the military retaliates by targeting the civilians. Therefore,
it is important that the security forces not only vacate the various
places they are now occupying, but are withdrawn from where they
come into contact with the civilian population.
The question is whether the political forces now in government will
allow even a degree of restraint to be imposed on the military. The
JVP and JHU would oppose this tooth and nail and construe such
restraints as a symbol of compromising Sri Lankan sovereignty. It will
be remembered that withdrawing the armed forces to barracks was a
sticking point even when the LTTE was holding talks with the UNP
government of President R. Premadasa in 1989-1990.
When the withdrawal of the army from the Jaffna HSZ was being
actively considered in the latter part of 2002, Lieutenant General
Sarath Fonseka, the present army commander and the then Jaffna
security forces commander, drove a hard bargain. He was reported
by TamilNet saying, “We are only worried about the security of the
soldiers in the Jaffna peninsula. We are not in a position to think
about the resettlement of IDPs in the HSZ at this juncture.”
Fonseka in a report submitted to the Tigers through the SLMM said
the army would consider a phased vacation of the HSZ only if LTTE
cadres in the area were disarmed and the rebels agreed to
decommission their long range weapons. An Indian expert Major
General Satish Nambiar, hired by the Sri Lanka government, also
wanted the LTTE’s long-range weapons decommissioned before the
military began withdrawing from the HSZ
Interestingly, the reciprocal concessions desired by Fonseka and
Nambiar from the two sides have parallels with what the Sinn Fein and
the British government tried to negotiate and failed. In this instance
the IRA, expected to decommission weapons under the Good Friday
Accords said they would do so only if the British Government agreed
to demilitarisation – removing troops and bases from Northern Ireland.
The British government rejected the proposal. However,
decommissioning of weapons in the conflict between the IRA and the
British government was no more than symbolic – it is much more
fundamental in the conflict in Sri Lanka.
It is fairly obvious the LTTE does not place much confidence in the
talks on the CFA rendering any positive fallout to stabilise the
ceasefire. The politico-military gains the Tigers achieved such as
forcing the closure of the University of Jaffna have not been reversed,
nor have the people who were encouraged to immigrate to the Wanni
to escape military brutality in Jaffna asked to retrace their steps back
to the peninsula.
What has to be also bourn in mind is that the defence and military
hierarchy in Colombo are said to have informed the president they
need a couple of months of preparation to be in a position to take on
the LTTE militarily, either to begin an offensive or to defend
themselves if attacked. In which case the LTTE would also be
cognisant of the fact the proposed talks are a time buying exercise.
If it is so one cannot expect the LTTE to put by military considerations
for political ones and be a sitting duck to any military manoeuvres
planned by the government. The only guarantee against such a move
by the government is the international community. And the LTTE is
well aware the ‘guarantees’ that were given by the Norwegian
facilitators in the past who had already engaged in the peace process
in Sri Lanka (they did so in November 2000 when the Tigers declared
a unilateral ceasefire) but turned a blind eye when the government
launched Operation Agni Kheela in 2001.
All these point to very bleak prospects ahead unless the government
is sincere. To believe that international legitimacy is all the Tigers are
after and would sacrifice everything for that is a complete
misunderstanding of the LTTE’s mindset and intentions. Such logic
could only be pursued to one’s detriment. [Courtesy: NorthEastern]