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Open War

In the past two weeks Sri Lanka has seen unparalleled levels of violence. The Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE have clashed directly in set piece battles. Localised clashes, yes, but of a ferocity not seen since 2001. Colombo has unleashed all three service arms against LTTE-controlled areas - airstrikes and artillery have levelled vast areas in LTTE-controlled Sampur and Eachchilampathu. Large numbers of people have joined the tens of thousands displaced since April. The LTTE has attacked Army camps in Muttur and the town itself and shelled Trincomalee naval base. Little wonder that last week many insisted that ‘Eelam War IV’ had begun. Yet, incredulously, both sides continue to insist they are committed to the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). Various reasons have been suggested for how this appalling state of affairs has come about. Inevitably many, including key external actors who have actively contributed to the collapse of the peace process, have fallen back on that uncomplicated of analyses and simply blamed the LTTE. Some have blamed the Sinhala nationalist government of President Mahinda Rajapakse too. But of one thing they are clear: the fault lies within Sri Lanka.

They are half right. The ascension of the Sinhala far right though this year has been steady and by no means stealthy. The JVP and JHU which helped Rajapakse comprehensively defeat his rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the Sinhala heartland last November have since cemented their grip over the levers of power. And yes, Rajapakse and his ultra-nationalist cabal have been planning a war against the Tigers despite the international community’s regular missives. No one should be surprised, save the ideologically blinded opponents of the LTTE. Sri Lanka’s weapons were ordered openly. The threats to resume hostilities against the Tigers were made openly. President Rajapakse despatched a team to Geneva to publicly render the CFA null and void. The sophisticated scenario planning by the expert observers left out the most pertinent, if banal, of facts: the JVP and its nationalist allies have got the war they have been openly calling and planning for.

Yet a fixation with the malevolence of the LTTE has resulted in several international actors simply closing their eyes to these very public events in Colombo. Even now, a question too many bewildered analysts, ask is: ‘what is the LTTE up to?’ President Rajapakse, his military and his hardline political allies have taken Sri Lanka to war stage by stage. Yet, lamenting that Wickremesinghe did not win last year, these observers have failed to notice that the powerful nationalist forces Rajapakse has mobilised for war did not appear with him - they are an integral part of Sri Lanka’s body politic. They dogged the Norwegian initiative from the start and destroyed its meagre achievements one by one. Not surreptitiously, but openly.

And the international community has been involved all along. The self-styled Co-Chairs dictated terms and conditions then broke the conditionality to suit. They threatened on behalf of peace, but did nothing as the state escalated the shadow war. They hectored the protagonists and Sri Lanka’s communities on human rights, democracy and the rest, but did nothing as these principles were breached time and again. Except where the LTTE was concerned, of course. The Tigers were lectured to, vilified, marginalized from aid flows, and ultimately proscribed. Yet the war which this newspaper and so many other Tamil voices have been warning about is breaking out.

And where are those international commitments to human rights as tens of thousands of our people flee the artillery shells? Where are those commitments to the wellbeing of ‘ordinary Sri Lankans’ - on whose behalf so many international actors are ever ready to speak? A humanitarian crisis has erupted in Trincomalee. Not over the past two weeks, but over the past five months. The aid conditionalities, the proscriptions, the declarations, are all international interventions. Yet when they fail, their architects deem themselves faultless.

A not so little measure of international hubris is to blame. There is no self-awareness. Nor any recognition that the state has simply ignored international directives on peace and proceeded with its own Sinhala hegemonic project - a project, lest the democracy advocates forget, Rajapakse has the backing of the majority of Sinhalese for. The Rajapakse regime has been left to its own devices whilst various analysts with no understanding of what is going on openly in the Sinhala and Tamil streets have risen repeatedly to certify the strength of ‘a peace constituency.’ And now that the dying has begun in earnest, the international community seems utterly impotent. So much for commitment.