The international community, the Nordic truce monitors and other observers of Sri Lanka’s conflict have been visibly alarmed by the spiralling violence in the island’s Northeast. Amongst a series of lethal attacks on the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers, the riots against Tamils and Muslims in Trincomalee has ushered in another facet of violence.
The military-backed violence in the strategic port town was finally halted, reportedly after the intervention of India, ordering the Sri Lankan government curb the violence, but not before the panicking Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), describing the situation there as ‘out of control,’ expressed fears of an island-wide conflagration.
There are now incontrovertible signs that the hawkish new administration in Colombo is considering options other than continuing with a peace process which, in their view, would almost certainly result in a internationally–supported federal solution. President Mahinda Rajapakse and his right-wing allies last year pledged to the electorate that his presidency would staunchly defend a unitary state. The Sinhala electorate responded enthusiastically.
'The Sri Lankan military’s confidence that it is capable of defeating the LTTE has undoubtedly been fuelled by the emphatic statements of the United States and others.'
The President’s Sinhala nationalist coalition partners, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Janatha Hela Urumaya (JHU), have been engaging in belligerence over the ethnic question ever since his successful bid for power in November last year. The JVP, JHU, and now the Patriotic National Movement (PNM), a coalition of right wing organisations, have repeatedly called for the implementation of Rajapakse’s election manifesto.
In particular, they demand the scrapping or redrafting of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), the ejection of Norway from its role as facilitator of the peace process and, more pointedly now, the de-merger of the North and East (a new movement, including anti-LTTE Tamil groups and some Muslim groups has been forged to this end).
President Rajapakse has meanwhile rotated hard liners to key posts within the defence establishment. His brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, is now Defence Secretary and Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, an avowed opponent of the peace process and the CFA, is Army Commander. Both, notably, are now lead voices in setting policy on the peace process. The Defence Secretary most recently berated outgoing SLMM Head Hargrup Haukland for the latter’s insistence that Colombo follow through with its pledges at the Geneva talks in February and disarm Army-backed paramilitaries. Lt. Gen. Fonseka has been all but calling for a new war, accusing previous governments of cowardice in the face of the LTTE.
Since the Geneva talks, the Sri Lankan military has also stepped up its violence against the LTTE, with a string of paramilitary attacks on LTTE positions and personnel. Until recently, there was no counter-violence. The harassment and killings of alleged supporters of the LTTE has, amid the renewed violence, again resulted in thousands of families fleeing government-controlled areas to LTTE-held ones. Despite the pledges made in Geneva to disarm the paramilitaries, the military is now openly conducting joint operations with the Tamil gunmen.
The rioting which erupted in Trincomalee last week is another sign the military is stepping up its policy of retaliating against Tamil civilians. Eyewitness reports said that members of the security forces aided Sinhala mobs in attacking Tamils and Muslim and destroying their businesses and homes.
The rioting must be viewed in the context of threats by Sri Lankan foreign minister Mangala Samaweera, whilst in the US, that his government may not be able to ‘control the masses’ in the face of violence against the armed forces. His views were echoed thereafter by a JHU ideologue, who warned of a slaughter of Tamils in Colombo in response to the military suffering heavy losses in the north.
The Sri Lankan Military’s decision to form an exclusively Muslim regiment is also an indication of its renewed focus on the island’s east. The last time Sri Lanka created armed Muslim fighting forces was in the early 1990s when the government of President Premadasa chose to focus on securing the east - even at the cost of conceding the north to the Tigers. Muslim political leaders have rejected the government’s plans for a Muslim regiment, fearful of the consequences of being drawn into the Tamil-Sinhala violence potentially brewing in the east (though the appeal of a lucrative job in the army may prove too compelling for Muslim youth from the tsunami-devastated and struggling Amparai area).
The undisguised rationale of the Rajapakse administration is that the previous Sri Lankan government was incompetent and weak and that it (the new leadership) would be more than capable of eliminating the LTTE, where it not shackled by the international community and the CFA. The Defence Secretary openly declared to the SLMM that the Sri Lankan military, with the assistance of the Karuna Group, was more than capable of defeating the LTTE. The statement also underlined the rationale behind the army’s total reluctance to disarm the paramilitaries.
Notably, the Sri Lanka Army is also confident that it is responsible for the LTTE’s decision to go to Geneva. Lt. Gen. Fonseka claimed credit for his aggressive military ‘retaliation’ as “the reason why the LTTE returned to peace talks in such a short period.” He pointedly added that no one consulted the Army before signing the CFA and if their opinion had been sought they would not have accepted the conditions in the agreement.
Clearly, the military would like to be free of the restraints of the CFA and is gradually testing both international resolve to maintain it and the Tigers reactions. More generally, with the new administration believing its ambitions are being undermined by the unwitting policies of the previous government, Colombo is contemplating a strategy to free itself of these restraints.
'Some international actors feel that a dominant Sri Lankan military (and a defeated LTTE) could lead to a swifter conclusion to the conflict'
International perceptions being important, however, neither protagonist would wish to be seen as the party responsible for the CFA’s collapse. But the Sri Lankan military and state are convinced that should this occur then it would be most favoured to take advantage of a new war. It is in this light that the orchestrated mob violence in Trincomalee should be viewed. Had the violence not been curbed by Indian intervention, the number of Tamil civilian lives lost could have numbered in the hundreds. The LTTE would have been forced to intervene, ending the CFA, and the Sri Lankan military would have its opportunity.
But many observers continue to insist a new war is unwinable for both protagonists. The ‘hurting stalemate’ logic has underpinned the peace process from the outset. But while Sri Lanka may accept it is not capable of destroying the LTTE completely, it clearly believes its strategic objectives could be met by a short, sharp war that allows it to retake the island’s east.
Total military control of the east would not only destroy the notion of a Tamil homeland – facts on the ground could also be changed through a resumption of state-sponsored Sinhala colonisation of Tamil areas – it would undermine the LTTE’s ability to claim sole representative status for the Northeast Tamils too.
With the associated tearing up of the present CFA, a new ceasefire would be needed when the dust finally settles. Even the monitoring mission would need to be reconstituted, perhaps could be scrapped. In immediate, post- new ceasefire terms, taking control of the East would also be a major setback to the LTTE’s hopes of creating an interim Northeast administration. More generally, it would further allow the Sri Lankan government to negotiate from a position of strength at future negotiations.
It is with this in mind that the Sri Lankan military has been building its conventional and paramilitary forces in the east for some time. During the controversial Buddhist statue issue last year when the army inducted 2,000 men into Trincomalee under the guise of keeping the peace, despite provisions in the CFA preventing such repositioning of forces. The continued building of paramilitary units under the ‘Karuna Group’ banner and the recruitment to a new Muslim regiment are also indications of the military’s new strategic focus on the east.
The government is understandably attempting to portray the recent violence as solely the responsibility of the LTTE. However, covert violence by both the paramilitaries and the military, noted domestically and internationally, is an integral part of the strategy of escalation.
Though it backs a negotiated solution and an avoidance of a return to war, the international community is visibly in a bind. The Sri Lankan military’s confidence that it is capable of defeating the LTTE has undoubtedly been fuelled by the emphatic statements of the United States and others.
It should not be forgotten, however, that some international actors feel that a dominant Sri Lankan military (and a defeated LTTE) could lead to a swifter conclusion to the conflict, such as in post-tsunami Aceh. Indeed, in the past the international community has not been averse to backing the Sri Lankan state’s decision to pursue the military option (the ‘War for Peace’ for example), when there seemed a good chance of it succeeding.
Indeed, it is the perceived impracticality of such a victory today – despite the Sri Lankan military’s confidence – that is underpinning international support for negotiations and federal solution. However, it would be extremely difficult for the international community to prevent the Sri Lankan state from precipitating a fresh conflict should it wish to – a move that is now imminent, as Colombo’s unconcealed belligerence, reveals.
As such, it is more likely the international community will, whilst disapproving of the resumption of war, seek to wait and decide its policies once the haze of battle has cleared. Should the state be victorious, then the LTTE can expect to come under renewed pressure to engage in talks albeit from an inferior position and the Tamils can expect to be pushed to settle for a weaker political solution than federalism. However, should the Sri Lankan state prove unsuccessful in defeating the Tigers and suffer serious reversals, this could lead to a reformulation of the international community’s policy with regards to the Sri Lankan question more broadly.