19 September 2006
While Sri Lanka's government and Tamil Tigers trade daily accusations of truce-breaking and threaten each other with all-out war, observers and reporters keen to understand what is really happening are forced to try and read between the lines.
There was talk of a “stealth war” in December, and now Sri Lanka has reportedly gone to the “brink of full-scale war.”
In those less than 10 months some 1,500 people have been killed despite assurances from both sides that they are continuing to “uphold” a ceasefire arranged by peace broker Norway in February 2002.
Reporters have struggled with synonyms and cliches. “Tenuous”, “crumbling”, “collapsing,” “faltering,” “shaky” and “fragile” have been liberally used to describe the ceasefire.
For bureaucrats on both sides a return to “war” means going back to the pre-truce era when bombing economic targets and civilians was fair game. However, the actual number of killings was far less then than it is now.
“We are not at war,” says government defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella. “A low-intensity conflict maybe, but not war.”
Former Swedish brigadier general Ulf Henricsson, who ended his term as a top peace monitor last month, said he could not decide if the country was at war or not. However, he was certain that the truce was holding only on paper.
“It is a problem of a definition,” he said when asked if Sri Lanka was at war. “A Stockholm peace institute had said that if more than 500 people are killed in a conflict during a year, then it is war.”
In May last year, the then truce monitoring chief Hagrup Haukland said the use of a clandestine airfield by the Tamil Tigers was a violation of the ceasefire and the military bombing of it would be “war.”
“If bombs fall, we pull out,” Haukland told the Foreign Correspondents' Association in Colombo.
Instead of pulling out, the monitors have increased their numbers in recent months and government planes have continued to pound secret Tiger airfields and other LTTE targets.
Reporters trying to see things for themselves on the ground face great difficulty getting close to the action, but even so, seven media personnel have been killed this year.
Last month, a Tamil newspaper editor was shot dead by unidentified gunmen.
“Six other journalists and media assistants have been killed in Sri Lanka since the start of the year,” the Paris-based media watch dog, Reporters without Borders (RSF), said.
“The attacks on the press have increased since the resumption of fighting between the government and rebels.”
There is no official censorship, but reporting the nuances is a challenge and some local journalists are adopting self-censorship amid the rising physical and verbal attacks against the media.
“I regret my inability to express myself freely in the light of these constraints and the resultant restraints imposed,” defence columnist Iqbal Athas wrote in the Sunday Times two weeks ago.