Sri Lanka takes off the gloves
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Sri Lanka's long-dead ceasefire has been formally buried. The
Lankan government announced its withdrawal from the 2002 ceasefire agreement on
Wednesday, paving the way for a no-holds-barred fight between government forces
and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The announcement came hours after a powerful bomb targeting an army bus
exploded in the heart of Colombo, killing four people including a soldier and
injuring 24 others. A day earlier a Tamil Member of Parliament representing the
opposition United National Party (UNP) was gunned down at a Hindu temple in
Colombo. The past two years have seen dozens of attacks and counter-attacks by
the LTTE and the government.
Justifying its decision to call off the ceasefire, the government said that it
did not want to be party to "a non-functioning ceasefire
agreement". It described the ceasefire agreement as "a mere scrap of paper"
that had "failed to bring peace to the country".
Last week, Sri Lanka's Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of
President Mahinda Rajapakse, said that the government-LTTE ceasefire was
"moribund" and a "joke".
The Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement, which came into effect in February
2002 was a flawed document to begin with. Critics pointed out that it was
hastily concluded and conceded too much to the Tigers.
As flawed the agreement might have been, it still brought a measure of peace in
the island's strife-torn north and east - at least initially. Guns were silent
for some time after the truce came into effect, providing space for several
rounds of peace talks. Progress was made in the initial rounds of the talks; in
fact it did seem that things were moving too fast. And then the process began
unraveling with both sides accusing the other of violating the ceasefire.
By 2006 the truce was in tatters. The LTTE was accused of carrying out several
attacks, including high profile assassinations and suicide bombings, and of
forcibly recruiting children as fighters. The government's violations, though
fewer in number were perhaps were no less serious. The government resorted to
aerial bombing of Tamil areas and captured LTTE-held territory in the east but
defended its actions as "defensive operations".
It claimed it was reacting to LTTE's truce violations. Both accused the other
of violating the agreement and said the truce was dead. Yet neither was willing
to formally pull out, fearing international condemnation. Both having
contributed to the truce's demise, neither wanted to be bear responsibility for
its formal and final ending.
Over 5,000 people have died in the past two years of "ceasefire", taking the
death toll since the war erupted in 1983 to around 70,000. On the ground, the
ceasefire had ceased to exist since end-2005. But it continued to hold on
That has now changed. The six-year-old ceasefire agreement has now been
consigned to the dustbin. The government's unilateral withdrawal from the
ceasefire has driven the last nail in the coffin of the peace process.
Interestingly, President Rajapaksa had promised to call off the ceasefire even
before it had begun falling apart. As a candidate in the 2005 presidential
election, Rajapaksa had pledged to scrap the ceasefire agreement and replace
Norway as the official facilitator. On assuming power, he refrained from
calling off the ceasefire for two years but his government brazenly violated it
on the ground.
Sources in the Lankan government told Asia Times Online that the government's
decision to call off the ceasefire at this juncture was prompted by the series
of victories that the Lankan military has scored against the LTTE in recent
months. "Emboldened by these military successes, the government has decided to
push for a fight to the finish," a Defense Ministry official said. "Military
defeat of the LTTE seems within reach and the government would like to go for
it," he said.
Indeed, the LTTE has suffered serious reverses in the battlefield over the past
year. It began losing control over territory in September 2006 and by July last
year it was driven out of the Eastern Province. In early November, the head of
its political wing, S P Thamilchelvan was killed in an air strike. More
recently, media reports said that the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had
been injured in an aerial attack by the Lankan air force. The Lankan government
claimed that the Tiger supremo might have even been killed in the attack, which
was promptly denied by the LTTE.
The armed forces are in an upbeat mood. Army chief Sarath Fonseka claimed
recently that the military had "weakened the LTTE by 50% or more" and that the
LTTE is left with only 3,000 cadres. The army is confident of eliminating the
LTTE in 2008, he said.
Noted analyst D B S Jeyaraj told Asia Times Online that the government withdrew
from the ceasefire under pressure from the military. "The military is planning
massive onslaughts against the LTTE in Wanni, which will involve indiscriminate
bombing, shelling and so on. And it does not want the Sri Lanka Monitoring
Mission [SLMM] to maintain even its weak presence there," Jeyaraj said. The
SLMM was set up under the ceasefire agreement to monitor and record violations.
With the government calling off the ceasefire, the SLMM will cease to exist.
"The government's decision to pull out of the ceasefire has been prompted by
political survival," argues Jayadeva Uyangoda, noted political analyst and
professor of political science at the University of Colombo. The government it
appears called off the ceasefire under pressure from the Janata Vimukti
Peramuna (JVP), a virulently anti-LTTE and anti-Tamil party that is opposed to
any concessions to the Tamils.
The JVP has been pushing the government to call off the ceasefire. It abstained
on the budget vote in December enabling the government to get it passed with a
large majority. Earlier it had voted against the budget in its second reading.
In exchange for its abstention in the budget vote, the government bowed to the
JVP's wishes and called off the ceasefire, Uyangoda told Asia Times Online.
The government's pullout from the ceasefire will win it support from
Under the agreement, the ceasefire takes effect two weeks after either side
gives written notice to the Norwegians. That was done by the government late
Wednesday evening. This means the ceasefire will formally cease to exist on
January 16. There has been a sharp escalation in fighting over the last couple
of days. On January 16, the gloves will come off.
Jeyaraj said that the armed forces will replicate in the Northern Province the
strategy they used to capture the east. "They will concentrate bombing and
shelling on particular places, drive out civilians, move in, consolidate and
then go on to next stage," he said.
The government will wage a "no-holds barred offensive on Wanni". According to
Jeyaraj, the government has created three new army divisions for the Wanni
offensive and inducted a civilian force of Sinhalese into the 39,000-strong
auxiliary to control the east, allowing it to deploy the army in Wanni.
"Once the ceasefire ends formally, NGOs operating in the Wanni will be moved
out and then the onslaught will begin," predicts Jeyaraj adding that a food,
fuel, medicine embargo too will be imposed. Capture of coastal areas and
strategic points like the Elephant Pass and Madhu in the North will be a
priority for the government, he said.
As for the LTTE "it will fight desperately to hold on to territory that
provides it access to the sea", Jeyaraj said. "The LTTE is expected to conduct
some spectacular attacks outside the north and east, in Colombo and
Anuradhapura for instance. Even if the LTTE cannot hold on to territory it will
continue to engage in guerrilla warfare and terrorism. It will continue to
fight for a long time, unless the government is lucky to get Prabhakaran,"
Both sides have been building their military muscle. The government has been
more successful than the Tigers in this endeavor. While India and the US are
said to be providing the military with "defensive equipment" like radars, China
and Pakistan are supplying fighters and other offensive hardware. Russia,
Ukraine and the Czech Republic too are supplying weaponry. According to recent
reports, the government is seeking an urgent loan at low interest from Iran to
enable it to buy trainers and electronic surveillance aircraft as well as
unmanned aerial vehicles.
According to Jeyaraj the LTTE is facing problems. It does not have enough
manpower to engage in positional warfare. Its supplies have been affected.
The reported tilt in the military balance in favor of the armed forces has
added to the government's optimism. The military appears to believe - at least
in public - that the war against the LTTE is winnable in the coming year. Not
everyone thinks so.
"The military seems to believe its own propaganda," said a Tamil political
analyst who did not want to be named. "The LTTE will slip into guerrilla
warfare and bleed the government, as it has done in the past."
"No rational person would write the LTTE off," Uyangoda said.
Uyangoda predicts "a huge bloodbath ahead, a catastrophe in the making". Both
sides "are not beginners in the game of civil war; both are equally experienced
in civil war, for a period of two and a half decades, and are deadly serious
about state power", he wrote recently in the Indian magazine Frontline.
If the past is any indication, the war will grind on for years.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in