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War By Other Means

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The violence which exploded across the Northeast –particularly in Jaffna – in the past week has understandably sent shockwaves throughout Sri Lanka and alarmed international actors with a stake in securing peace in the island. The frustration of the international ceasefire monitors is palpable, particularly given that just a week ago it appeared the smouldering yet relentless violence of the shadow war seemed to have eased, if not ceased. The lull ushered in by the Presidential election of November 17 was shattered last Thursday when gunmen murdered two pro-LTTE Tamil activists and wounded a third in Army controlled Jaffna. Subsequently, there has been an eruption of violence against the security forces in the northern peninsula – amid clashes between Army-backed paramilitaries and the Tigers in Batticaloa and simmering communal tensions in Trincomalee. But it is the situation in Jaffna that is being nervously watched most closely.

In the past week a rash of attacks on Sri Lankan troops across the government-controlled parts of the peninsula, including two lethal claymore attacks, have left at least fifteen soldiers dead. The question that has understandably risen amongst many is whether this presages a wider resumption of Sri Lanka’s conflict. The government says the LTTE is attempting to goad the armed forces into resuming the war. But this charge is untenable – recent events are too naked to be a provocation. The dynamic is quite different – and depressingly familiar: the violence in Jaffna, like that which has gripped the eastern province for over a year is unmistakably part of the shadow war between the military intelligence and the LTTE. But the clashes, as many, including this newspaper, have repeatedly warned, are escalating in scope and reach. Individual incidents are now serious enough in themselves to question the viability of the truce.

But ceasefire breaches that result in high loss of life are not new. Earlier on this year, Army-backed paramilitaries brazenly massacred an LTTE political delegation traveling through government held territory, killing the head of the movement’s political wing in Batticaloa, several of his aides and a Tamil parliamentarian traveling with him. In 2003, the Sri Lankan government twice attacked and sank LTTE ships in international waters, killing a dozen cadres each time. Nevertheless Norwegian-brokered talks went ahead a week after the first sinking and dialogue (though not direct talks) has taken place on numerous issues and occasions after the second.

What is concerning about the ongoing violence is that nothing is being done to reduce it. Despite repeated urgings by the international community – and at least two formal reprimands by the Co-Chairs of the peace process – Sri Lanka steadfastly refuses to disarm the Tamil paramilitaries. Instead, military intelligence is aggressively – even forcibly – recruiting more gunmen and expanding the scope of its war. The induction of newly constituted paramilitary units to the Jaffna peninsula in the past few weeks is the latest step in this war. Hopes that newly elected President Mahinda Rajapaske would be more prepared than his predecessor to rein in Sri Lanka’s military intelligence and halt its campaign against the LTTE and its supporters have now been dashed. Efforts by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to arrange a meeting between military officials and the LTTE failed when the government – without explanation - withdrew permission for its officers to attend – even though the Army’s new commander has also called for dialogue.

A plethora of names are being bounced around – shadow war, stealth war, subversive war, and so on. But no concrete action is being taken to arrest it. As this newspaper has argued before, any peace process can only make progress amidst a stable security environment for both protagonists. Since the February 2002 ceasefire was signed Sri Lanka’s south has enjoyed security and stability – save a few high profile and isolated incidents and those, moreover, in recent times. But the security situation in the Northeast has been getting steadily worse for at least two years. Colombo’s schoolyard politics of sneak attacks and claims of innocence have been tolerated by the international community for too long. The Co-chairs must exert their influence with the new Sri Lankan administration to demonstrably implement Clause 1.8 of the Ceasefire Agreement immediately. A period of mutual de-escalation and confidence building is a sine quo non if a meaningful peace process is to resume. It must begin with an end to the Army’s covert onslaught.

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