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Cocking a Snoop

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The Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government are scheduled to meet in Geneva in two weeks for the second round of negotiations on stabilising the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). But there are serious – and rapidly growing - doubts over the efficacy of these talks. The central issue, as ever, is the continuing operations of Army-backed paramilitaries. Sri Lanka is obliged under the CFA to have disarmed them four years ago. The matter was raised by the LTTE in the first round in February, whereupon it was agreed Sri Lanka would now ensure this. The joint statement issued after the talks pointedly declared: “[the government of Sri Lanka] is committed to taking all necessary measures in accordance with the [2002] Ceasefire Agreement to ensure that no armed group or person other than Government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations.”

But instead there has been a marked increase in paramilitary activities. In fact, the gunmen have come out of the shadows and are now openly participating in cordon-and-search operations with Sri Lankan troops and moving around government controlled areas carrying their weapons in defiance of the Geneva statement. International monitors say that, apart from persistent reports from civilians, they have themselves met gunmen in government-controlled areas who readily admit they are paramilitaries. This week the Karuna Group openly threatened to murder people in government controlled areas – ostensibly to redress Muslim grievances, prompting swift denunciation from some Muslim leaders – cocking a snoop at the peace process.

But this is not mere bravado on the gunmen’s part. Rather, it is part of a deliberate public mockery by the Sri Lankan armed forces of the CFA, the LTTE for insisting on its implementation and the international community for supporting it. The paramilitaries and the armed forces are also demonstrating to the residents of the Northeast the abject impotence of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and, thereby, the international underwriters of the Norwegian peace initiative. (There is another point that, whilst usually politely left unsaid, should not be forgotten: Sri Lanka’s military has close links with the militaries of the United States and Britain , who, as part of the Co-Chairs, are involved in promoting the peace process. It can be safely assumed that the ongoing activities – and the identities of those responsible – are not a surprise to these and allied international actors.)

Thus, if the purpose of the CFA was to provide security to combatants of both sides and, particularly, the people of the war-ravaged Northeast, then its credibility is being utterly destroyed. This is exacerbated by the Sri Lankan government’s adamant refusal to acknowledge these ground realities, even when pressed by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). In fact, the SLMM has itself been subjected to a humiliating lecture by Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, for raising the subject of paramilitaries. There has been much criticism of the SLMM - sometimes with cynical instrumentality to facilitate an expansion of its mandate. But the problem here is not the SLMM per se, but Sri Lanka’s will to honour the CFA – and, more importantly, the international community’s reluctance to ensure this.

Amid all this is the overall dynamic, which we have argued before can be summed up as, Sri Lanka’s military is spoiling for a fight but wants the LTTE to incur the blame for the ceasefire’s collapse. The military has therefore been engaged in a series of ever more provocative actions. The total exclusion zone slapped on northern (Tamil) fishing boats is another recent action, alongside the activities of the paramilitaries. The violence directed against Tamil political activists and students is another. The day-to-day harassment of Tamil families in Jaffna and other government-controlled areas has also increased – having declined during the bloody weeks of December and January when Tamil militants struck back at the military.

In the wake of those bloody two months, there has been understandable, but undue focus on the mere act of talks being held as a measure of the peace process’s viability and, more importantly, of both sides commitment to talks. But there is a now glaring disconnect between the table and the ground. This, as everyone recalls, is the central factor that led to the breakdown of the 2002/3 talks. It is clear that the exigencies of day to day insecurities can but become overwhelming, irrespective of international ‘support’ for negotiations. Apart from the practical futility of engaging in meaningless discussions with the government, the act of negotiation will impart the impression of LTTE weakness, thereby inviting further escalations of violence. It is therefore incumbent on the Co-Chairs particularly to demonstrate that the Sri Lankan government can be held to the commitments it makes.

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