Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

A change in tack

Even in comparison to bloodletting in the ongoing shadow war, the intensity of the violence which erupted last weekend in Jaffna was extraordinary. Amidst the dozens of gun and grenade attacks on Sri Lanka Army (SLA) positions in the northern peninsula, the claymores which ripped through two military vehicles killed a total of fifteen soldiers. It is the first time the mines have been used there since the February 2002 truce. The blasts reverberated across the island, sending the Colombo stock market into freefall and triggering panic that a resumption of Sri Lanka’s bloody conflict was imminent. But then, as abruptly as it began, the violence stopped.

Two weeks ago LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan delivered an unmistakable warning to newly elected President Mahinda Rajapakse that his administration must put forward ‘a reasonable political solution’ to the ethnic question within a year or risk the resumption of the LTTE’s struggle for self-determination. Since then, seasoned observers of the conflict have been uneasily awaiting Colombo’s response. In contrast, other analysts, including sections of the Colombo press, incredulously saw Mr. Pirapaharan’s Heroes Day address on November 27 as quite tempered – or at least less confrontational than might have been expected.

Which is why the Jaffna violence – and the lethal claymore blasts in particular – have come as such a shock. The immediate question for many was whether the LTTE had advanced plans it might have drawn up for a war next year. To begin with, and as is becoming clearer now, the eruption in Jaffna was not connected to any wider military strategy being rolled out by the LTTE. Even the SLA, which did not go on alert this week, did not think so.

The attacks do, however, mark a distinctive new approach to the ongoing shadow war. Since November 17, when Mr. Rajapakse won the Presidential elections, there had been an encouragingly marked decline in the violence between Army-backed paramilitaries and the LTTE. It had even prompted the international observers of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to hail the improvement.

However, the killing of two pro-LTTE activists by suspected Army-backed paramilitaries in Jaffna broke the lull. It also triggered a wave of violence against the SLA unprecedented since the ceasefire. Apart from the intensity of the retaliation, there were other differences too. It was near instant, regular Sri Lankan troops in the region came under fire, the attacks took place in several locations spread out deep within Army-controlled territories and were they closely coordinated.

The Jaffna violence therefore sends several unmistakable messages to the Sri Lankan government. Firstly, that further attacks on LTTE supporters and members by military intelligence or their paramilitaries are likely to draw a strong, even vehement, response, irrespective of the ceasefire agreement. More specifically, the response will not necessarily be constrained by a need to avoid being seen to be breaching the ceasefire. In other words, security is being visibly prioritised over propriety.

Secondly, the distinction between Sri Lankan military intelligence and the rest of the Army no longer holds. (Of course, the distinction between paramilitaries and military intelligence that many observers insisted on drawing – and which underpins talk of ‘splits within the LTTE’ or ‘groups opposed to the LTTE - was utterly irrelevant to the Tigers, who know first hand what it takes to run a guerrilla campaign from within Army controlled territory.)

Last month, whilst commenting on the shadow war in his Heroes Day address, Mr. Pirapaharan made a pointed accusation: “though these violent acts were committed under the guidance and direction of the military intelligence, we are aware that hands of some Sinhala politicians are behind these nefarious activities. This subversive war is being conducted in the government controlled territories, with the backing of the armed forces, utilising Tamil paramilitary elements as instruments.”

In other words, the state and its armed forces are waging war, not just a renegade element within it: “the Sri Lanka state has not given up the military option but rather transformed the war into a new mode of state terror under conditions of peace.” This marks a specific advancement from the LTTE’s position, stated a few months ago, that military intelligence is behind the shadow war. With the state and its armed forces implicated, last week’s attacks underline that the response will not be restricted to the ‘instruments’ alone.

But it is the third message that has profound implications, especially for southern militarists. In the past few months, as the shadow war has smouldered on, paramilitary camps and military positions have come under grenade and grenade attack deep within Jaffna, particularly in the town and its environs. But last weekend the LTTE deliberately revealed a measure of its infiltration into the Jaffna peninsula and demonstrated its ability to wage a coordinated and sustained campaign far behind the frontline. Indeed, for many of the region’s older residents, the attacks were reminiscent of Tamil militants’ guerrilla attacks of the early eighties.

This factor comes further to the fore when considered against the backdrop of rising public frustration over the lack of normalcy four years since the ceasefire for large sections of Jaffna populace - particularly the displaced, those whose livelihoods are disrupted by security directives and those struggling to raise families in a militarised environment. Whilst the Army’s peace time conduct has been devoid of the rights abuses that were the norm before the ceasefire, irrespective of what the more starry-eyed of observers and the claims of some of Jaffna’s better heeled residents, the tensions between the military and ordinary people are just beneath the surface. The periodic bouts of rioting against the security forces and the constant petitioning of the government, the truce monitors and the international community indicate a seething resentment.

In the wake of many of the attacks this week, troops assaulted civilians in the vicinity of the sites. On occasion in past weeks, troops have also conducted cordon-and-search operations to locate possible perpetrators of attacks on their positions. This has led many observers – as well as the Army, naturally - to suggest the LTTE is attempting to provoke the troops into violence against civilians. But this erroneously assumes that the military violence against civilians, whilst undoubtedly contributing to popular resentment, is the main or sole cause for it. Indeed, some argue, that after four years of waiting, protesting and petitioning, it won’t take much now to make the region ungovernable.

This week’s violence, particularly the devastating claymore attacks, have jolted President Rajapakse’s administration into action. Norway, long kept on the sidelines, has now been hurriedly requested to resume its facilitatory role. Whilst Colombo has reacted angrily, condemning the LTTE and calling for international censure, on the ground in the Northeast, the military is being wary.

Even the newly appointed Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, though a well known hardliner, was decidedly cautious in his comments. “We need to talk to the LTTE,” he said speaking about the claymore attacks, “to get their assistance to prevent such attacks.” As the then Jaffna commander, Gen. Fonseka almost stalled the Norwegian-brokered peace talks in January 2003 when he refused to withdraw his troops from the occupied civilian spaces incorporated into the SLA’s High Security Zones (HSZs).

The immediate question then is what Norway’s shuttle diplomacy can achieve, given the structural dynamics of the shadow war. If, as the LTTE believes, Sri Lanka is waging war by other means, then continuing paramilitary attacks will not only escalate the level of violence, given the gloves-off responses the LTTE seems prepared to give, it will also further poison the negotiating atmosphere.

More importantly, it very much remains to be seen if the paramilitary infrastructure will be dismantled. After at least two years of the shadow war, it is unlikely that merely standing down the covert operatives but leaving their assembled cadres in their Northeastern camps will suffice either to advance the peace process or curtail the LTTE’s engagement in the shadow war.