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Sri Lanka’s war in all but name

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Europeans have a rather quaint tradition of telling everyone when they intend to go to war.

That’s why so many of them are now asking the burning question: “Can the ceasefire in Sri Lanka survive the latest violence between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels?”

But to ask the question is to miss the point. The two sides in Sri Lanka are already having a war - they just haven’t told anybody yet. And they’ve decided, so far, not to have the war everyone was expecting.

The Norwegian mediators, the EU, the Japanese and even an Indian holy man have all been busy trying to persuade both sides not to return to an all-out conflict.

But apart from the hardliners, neither the government nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the rebels are known, seem to want a big war because neither side is really prepared for it yet.

The reasons are cash and Karuna.

Colonel Karuna was one of the Tamil Tigers’ heroes of the last war, which ended with the much talked-about ceasefire agreement signed four years ago.

But in March 2004 he and his fighters, based around the eastern Batticaloa districts of the country, split from the group and began fighting against their former comrades.

Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, Col Karuna’s real name, is both partly the cause of the present crisis and why there probably won’t be a full-scale war anytime soon.

He split from the Tigers because he said the eastern cadres were not being properly represented in the group’s hierarchy.

Some analysts in Colombo say it was more to do with an alleged financial investigation by the Tigers into his family’s business interests in the region.

Whatever the truth is, Col Karuna has levelled the playing field. He has opened up an eastern flank and has provoked the Tigers by attacking and destabilising them with the kind of guerrilla tactics the LTTE have used so successfully against the government over the years.

For the first time if a proper war happened both sides would now be facing a conventional force on the battlefield and a guerrilla force spreading terror in the areas populated by their civilians.

So the Tigers want him stopped.

The government committed itself to disarming any paramilitaries operating in areas under their control. But they’ve avoided taking action by saying Karuna is moving in Tiger territory beyond their influence.

The fact is, though, that whilst the more moderate wings of the government say he is an out-of-control menace who is doing more harm than good, the military leadership couldn’t be happier.

They have absolutely no intention of trying to disarm Karuna even if they could, which the UN said recently was doubtful.

They think he is far too useful. In fact more than just turning a blind eye to his actions they are encouraging his group to develop political and social wings to better integrate themselves into their communities in the way the Tigers have done so successfully in the north.

And some analysts say that, while the military isn’t arming Karuna, they are supporting him with finances, logistics and medical assistance for his injured fighters.

The worry in all of this is that the government in Colombo might overplay its hand.

The hardliners in the leadership believe a short sharp war could bulldoze the Tigers into submission and force a negotiated settlement.

It’s the kind of talk that has diplomats reaching for some very undiplomatic language. The response of one I spoke to translated as “crap”.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has so far managed to fend off the more extreme suggestions from the right-wingers within his government.

And he allowed limited air strikes to take away their puff after the latest Tiger atrocity in the capital.

But his attempts to stop a wider war are being undermined by the LTTE, something the international community is recognising. Last Thursday’s attack by the Tigers on the navy left the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission fuming, particularly as it took place whilst their people were on the government boats.

And there is increasingly a weariness creeping across the face of diplomats trying to resolve this conflict. Nobody likes being treated as a fool, and when the Tigers tell mediators they have no idea who sent a suicide bomber to blow up the army chief, finger nails start pushing into palms.

But even with all the provocation President Rajapakse knows war is not an option because the country simply cannot afford one. The economy is too shaky, damaged by years of war, the tsunami and then by the upsurge in violence.

He can’t afford to buy now everything the army would need. A full war would also see bombs going off all over the capital. As a colleague in Colombo pointed out, all it would take is a bomb in a hotel and one at the port to decimate two of the country’s biggest foreign exchange earners. Those investors lured back to Sri Lanka last time at the prospect of peace might pack their bags for good.

The Tigers would also see their foreign income strangled. Canada and the UK, where the group is banned but most of the Tamil diaspora lives, would probably make serious efforts to stop the willing and unwilling donations given to the Tiger fundraisers. That’s now much easier to do post 9/11 and the changes to the international banking regulations.

Another attack by the Tigers on someone as strategically important as the army chief might push the country beyond the point of no return.

In the meantime, the government will sort out security in the capital after places like its army headquarters turned out to have worse security than a Western shopping mall.

The Tigers will use their time to try and finish off Karuna, with the army doing its best to see that that fight drags on draining resources and energy from both groups.

Attacks like the one on the navy and claymore mine blasts against the army will rumble on. And so will the revenge killings against civilian Tiger sympathisers by the nasty bands of death squads, a few of whom appear to be linked to rogue bits of the security forces.

In short, people will carry on dying on a daily basis but in small enough numbers to maintain the façade that the ceasefire agreement is holding.

And Westerners will keep asking if war is just around the corner.

Paul Danahar is BBC South Asia bureau editor

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