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Dead End

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The low-intensity war gripping Sri Lanka’s Northeast continued unabated this week. Dozens of people have been killed in the past few weeks in hundreds of violent incidents. This week, in another escalation of the undeclared conflict underway on the island, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) stepped up its deep penetration raids into LTTE controlled areas, targeting both civilians and LTTE personnel. The attacks provided the backdrop as the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) published its much-awaited report on both sides’ conduct since talks on the ceasefire concluded in Geneva in February.

The report has been critical of both sides, but has drawn vehement protests by the Sri Lankan government (GoSL) as the SLMM levels a number of key accusations against it, not least that Colombo has ordered troops to block monitors’ movements. In particular, the military, the SLMM says, was restricting their ability to enquire into the activities of paramilitaries - ‘armed groups’ in the SLMM’s noncommittal lexicon. Many voices, including this newspaper, have long protested that the root of the violence in Sri Lanka is the military’s continued support for paramilitaries and their murderous campaign against the LTTE and its supporters. Even now, the SLMM is shy of pointing this out explicitly, but has came impressively close: “There are a number of indications,” the SLMM said, “that the GoSL is actively supporting the Karuna group.” The SLMM also pointed out that although the GoSL pledged in Geneva to end the activities of armed groups, “since then Karuna Group became even more visible in GOSL controlled areas.”

The SLMM’s report is welcome, if nothing else, for confirming what every observer of any worth has always been aware of: “SLA and Army Intelligence are supporting the armed groups.” The SLMM’s credibility was seriously damaged a few weeks ago when it put forward a strong statement accusing the Sri Lanka military of extrajudical killings and then withdrew the statement when Sri Lanka’s government threw a tantrum. It remains to be seen how the SLMM reacts to the Colombo’s howls of protest this week. Press reports say the SLMM has already submitted to Sri Lanka’s pressure by delaying the publication of the report so it wouldn’t embarrass the government before the talks in Oslo last week. Now, much of the impact the report should have had has dissipated, whilst the controversy has further reinforced Tamil suspicions of the SLMM’s neutrality. Norway has asked both GoSL and LTTE to state their views on the future functioning of the SLMM and, indeed, the ceasefire. It remains to be seen what the formal responses will be.

But there can be no doubt the violence will continue. Therefore, the broader question, in terms of promoting peace, ought to be ‘what next?’ It is clear that Sri Lanka will not willingly disarm the paramilitaries. But already the paramilitaries’ killings are only a small part of the violence; direct clashes between both sides at the borders and raids on each other’s territory have become daily occurrences. However, the most serious aspect of the violence is what the SLMM calls ‘a campaign of targeted killings of civilians’ in government-controlled areas. Amongst the most horrific attacks was on a Tamil family of four - father, mother and two children - which was massacred last week. The gratuitous violence in which the children and the father were tortured and then hung while the mother was gangraped and stabbed is indicative of the kind of conflict likely to grip Sri Lanka in the coming period, if nothing is done.

The incident has fuelled Tamil rage, not only at the Sri Lankan state, but the erstwhile champions of human rights, who appear to have lost their voices. The international community is studiously silent on this and other atrocities. The last international intervention in the ‘peace process’ was the European Union’s banning of the LTTE two weeks ago. This newspaper argued (again) then that the EU’s proscription of the LTTE will not produce greater engagement by the both sides in the peace process but instead set in place a dynamic towards war, fuelled by triumph in the Sinhala south and, as is clear now, disillusionment in the north. The level of distrust between the parties is the same as during the bitter conflict years. The question now is whether the international community will act on the SLMM’s report and bring credible pressure to bear on the Sri Lankan state to comply with the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). We doubt it. In the meantime, Sri Lanka’s military has placed orders worth $250m from Pakistan. There can be little doubt that key international actors are politically and financially supporting these moves. It is as if nothing has changed since Sri Lanka’s ‘War for Peace’ ground to a bloody halt.

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