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Courting War

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Almost a month after the Sri Lankan government, concluding its first direct talks with the Liberation Tigers in three years, agreed to disarm its paramilitary units, absolutely nothing has been done. Admittedly, there are fewer killings than in the months preceding the Geneva talks. However, the anti-LTTE paramilitary groups are, if anything, expanding their operations with the undisguised assistance of Sri Lanka’s military. New camps are being established in Sri Lanka Army (SLA) controlled parts of Jaffna and Batticaloa. The bodies of murdered youth are still turning up along the roads and coastlines of the Tamil provinces. Most importantly, despite the undertaking given in Geneva by its delegation, the Sri Lankan government is again flatly denying its security forces’ role in mobilising and training the paramilitary groups and assisting them in the ‘shadow war’ against the LTTE. There is now an undeniable doubt over Sri Lanka’s bona fides.

The stark disparity between Colombo’s words and deeds is apparent even to Sri Lanka’s international allies. The annual Human Rights Report published by the US State Department this month, for example, gives extensive details of the paramilitaries’ activities, including the killing and disappearances of dozens of LTTE cadres and supporters. Moreover, it names three organisations – the Karuna Group, the PLOTE and the EPDP – amongst the anti-LTTE forces. The LTTE is also criticised for numerous killings – but the State Department report also notes that amongst those said to have been killed by the Tigers last year are a hundred paramilitary operatives, military informants and intelligence officers. Last week Donald Camp, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, acknowledged that the Sri Lanka’s support for the paramilitaries is “a serious Tamil grievance.”

Sri Lanka’s duplicity over the paramilitaries is not the only cause for concern. The vitriolic language increasingly being used by the Rajapakse administration against the LTTE is another. Foreign Minister Mangala Smaraweera is this month following in the footsteps of his late predecessor, Lakshman Kadirgamar, travelling from one foreign capital to another, demanding a crackdown on the LTTE. Just as his predecessor did, Mr. Samaraweera is instigating a concerted smear campaign against the LTTE to pave his way. The themes are not new, nor are the modalities: unsubstantiated accusations (levelled, of course, by anonymous informants) of criminality and illegality, as well as the cooption of nominally independent foreign voices to legitimise a strategy of demonisation. This month it was the New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) which, with a sensational and alarmist report, provided the foil against which Mr. Samaraweera could urge the international community not to pressure Colombo for peace but instead help his government take on the LTTE. HRW of course denies Sri Lanka instigated their report, but Mr. Samaraweera was quoting it in - London in his lecture on ‘LTTE terrorism’ - even before HRW had released it in New York.

The point is this; protagonists who wish to strike peace deals seek to deescalate tensions, build mutual trust and demonstrate goodwill so as to make securing an agreement more likely. But the Rajapakse administration is doing the exact reverse of that. Whilst even its negotiators denounce the LTTE and make provocative statements, the government as a whole is engaged in a myriad of actions to stoke tensions. Restrictions on fishing – including restrictions on putting to sea, prohibitions on processing catches on the shore and even the regular seizure of catches by the military – are being increased, for example. Even actions such as the planned induction of Sinhala convicts into military occupied farms in Jaffna are meant to grate on Tamil sentiments.

In the meantime, Sinhala nationalist ideologues – including those of the JVP and JHU - are engaged in tub thumping or making crude threats against the Tamils in the south. It is also no accident that President Rajapakse’s ultra-nationalist allies are resuming their campaign against Norwegian peace facilitation at this junction. The Sinhala polity as a whole is engaged in patriotic outbidding (as ever, the supposedly liberal United National Party (UNP) is conspicuously silent on the questions of the day- peace, paramilitaries, even Norway). Some have rationalised this as electoral rhetoric aimed at wooing the Sinhala masses ahead of the March 30 local government elections. But what does that say about the prospects of a lasting solution in Sri Lanka?

The LTTE has formally raised doubts about the value of meeting again when the agreements of the last round of talks are patently being ignored by Colombo. This is not merely a question of tactical pressure on the government, as some have suggested. It is about the futility of seeking peace with the Sinhala state, indeed about the viability of a negotiated solution itself.

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