Observers of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict have watched the ongoing shadow war in the island’s east between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan military with growing concern. Although the killings undoubtedly cast doubts on the bona fides of both sides, more disconcerting for peace advocates is the pace at which the truce seems to be unraveling.
But focus on the violence alone obscures the actual risks to the ceasefire agreement.
To begin with, the counter-intelligence arms of the two protagonists have been engaged in a low intensity conflict virtually since the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002. The LTTE has long accused the Sri Lanka’s military intelligence of nurturing Tamil paramilitary groups with the objective of undermining the LTTE via a campaign of assassination and intimidation. Consequently, amongst the long-standing demands of the Tigers is that Colombo disarms these groups in accordance with the CFA.
Both sides tacitly accepted the intelligence war as a necessary evil and did not let it dissuade them from a peace process which was, at least initially, providing benefits.
The Sri Lankan military for its part, denies any connection to the paramilitary groups and most recently the commando police unit, the Special Task Force (STF), threatened unspecified retaliation should suspected LTTE attacks in their areas continue. As part of its efforts to defuse the situation and ascertain the ground situation, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) recently visited the camps of one of the main paramilitary groups, the Karuna group. The SLMM insisted that it was as part of a fact-finding mission to confirmed the group is operating out of government controlled areas.
But paramilitary groups have been part of Sri Lanka’s conflict for several years and their limited military capabilities are dwarfed by those of the two main protagonists in the conflict, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military. The LTTE has always contended that these groups are armed, trained and in some cases housed by the Sri Lankan military and that they are incapable of independent existence. In the past, the role of the paramilitaries was largely limited to the covert war, where their knowledge of the local areas allowed them to assist the Sri Lankan Special Forces in carrying out black operations behind LTTE lines.
The most prominent of these units was the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), whose operations were inadvertently disclosed after the Sri Lankan police launched an investigation on a suspected military plot to assassinate a Sinhala leader. Despite the unit’s unceremonious public exposure and subsequent demise, it had had its successes. Most famously the LRRP was credited with the assassination of Colonel Shankar, who was reportedly in charge of building the LTTE’s air wing at the time.
In the wake of the LRRP’s exposure, the LTTE was, according to the Sinhala press, able to eliminate first the unit’s Tamil informants and paramilitaries and then some of the officers running the operations - most prominent ambushing Lt. Col. Nizam Muthaliff in Colombo earlier this year.
In the meantime, LTTE intelligence cadres and officers have also being targeted by the military. On several occasions, LTTE troops have swept areas of jungle near Mullaitivu for infiltrating SLA commandos and their Tamil pathfinders. Apart from deep penetration raids into LTTE-held areas, LTTE operatives, usually not acknowledged as members, have been captured by Sri Lankan security forces.
The ground reality is that the military balance in the east has not substantially changed due to the actions of paramilitary groups.
Thus, for much of the period following the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement, the majority of killings and counter-killings between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan security forces were intended to debilitate each other’s intelligence networks. Grumbles aside, both sides tacitly accepted this as a necessary evil and did not let the violence dissuade them from a peace process which was, at least initially, providing benefits to all (the Tigers even stomached the sinking of two LTTE ships and the killing of two dozen cadres in 2003).
However, over the past year, particularly since the formation of the Karuna group, the direction behind the violence has shifted subtly, but noticeably. The Sri Lankan military has propagated the claim that the Karuna group is a military counterweight to the LTTE in the east and that it is operating unilaterally and without security forces’ support. The advantages of plausible deniability have meant that the military’s expansion of violence beyond the intelligence war’s tacit rules of engagement, most obviously by attacks on the LTTE’s unarmed political cadres, could be blamed on this ‘new’ paramilitary force that was allegedly beyond Colombo’s control.
The LTTE most recently responded to this escalation by withdrawing its unarmed cadres from government-held areas, judging that their continued presence there was untenable. But this in turned fuelled the military’s propaganda (as well as encouraging another escalation of the violence, to that of raids into LTTE controlled areas): the LTTE’s withdrawal has been projected by sections of the Colombo press as manifest evidence the LTTE was no longer in control of its areas in the east. But following that logic, the spate of retaliatory attacks on security forces in recent weeks is the LTTE demonstrating the same in reverse: that the Sri Lankan military is not in full control of its areas either.
The ground reality is that the military balance in the east has not substantially changed due to the actions of paramilitary groups. The east has been an area of fluid control for both sides for much of the past decade, at least. Peripheral areas of control have regularly changed hands and there have rarely been clear lines of control between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military.
'The bilateral agreement confers substantial benefits, not least the avoidance of the massive damage and casualties each side is capable of inflicting on the other.
However, there is a new factor at play. The signing of the Ceasefire Agreement and the accompanying cessation of hostilities made a political – as opposed to purely military - process possible as it permitted the induction of LTTE political cadres into government-held areas. The resumption of hostilities - for that is what the recent violence in the east is (by proxy or otherwise) - has rendered that aspect of the CFA null and void. In fact over the year, the Sri Lankan military has all but debilitated the LTTE’s political operations in government held areas. Apart from the attacks, there have been regular military harassment of LTTE cadres, including blocks on their movement (to and from the Vanni as well as into and out of government-controlled areas) and frequent aggressive searches off LTTE political offices.
Setting aside the question of whether the Karuna Group is an matter internal to the LTTE or not, these measures can be seen as part of a larger strategy to undermine those aspects of the Ceasefire Agreement that elements of the Sri Lankan establishment found unpalatable. (The recent repositioning of over two thousand SLA troops in Trincomalee recently under the guise of restoring the peace after communal protests is another example - it is an evasion of restrictions in the CFA on troop movements. The induction of security forces into the east by expanding the paramilitary police unit, the STF, is another).
The low intensity conflict between the paramilitary groups and the LTTE is thus not in itself the most significant threat to the integrity of the ceasefire. It has, after all, been a background factor to the peace process from the outset as both sides have sought to ‘blind’ the other’s military machine by destroying its ‘humint’ (human intelligence) resources. Indeed, the robustness of the CFA should not be underestimated. The bilateral agreement confers substantial benefits to both parties, not least the avoidance of the massive damage and casualties each is capable of inflicting on the other.
But it should not be forgotten that paramilitary groups are not independent actors destabilizing the peace on their own, but pawns in a much larger martial theatre being orchestrated from Colombo. With LTTE political activity at a standstill and LTTE-run civil administration being hampered by ad hoc military interference (such as by abrupt blockades and embargoes), aspects of the CFA which ensure all parties have an interest in maintaining its cohesion are being methodically stripped away.
The actual risk to the ceasefire is thus not the violence per se, but the continuing non implementation (or rolling back) of crucial aspects of the Agreement resulting in declining benefits from it. The CFA was envisaged as a comprehensive package of de-escalation that would freeze the military balance prevailing at the time (the inevitable rearming by both sides notwithstanding). But partial implementation of crucial clauses is resulting not in normalization and mutually increased security, but in a security imbalance. It is this imbalance that, once exacerbated beyond a certain point, will turn the truce from a guarantee of safety to dangerous constraint for one side or the other. That is the real threat.