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Peace talks unlikely till conflict settles

Political pundits rule out peace talks between the government and LTTE before the end of the revolt, reports PK Balachanddran.
PTI | By PK Balachanddran, Colombo
PUBLISHED ON APR 09, 2004 07:02 PM IST

The newly-elected government of Sri Lanka headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that it is keen on starting peace talks with the LTTE at an early date. But political pundits rule out any talks before the LTTE Supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, sets his own house in order by quelling the revolt staged by the Eastern Commander, Col. Karuna.

The Sri Lankan peace process, which had begun with the signing of a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and a MOU on February 22, 2002, came to a standstill when the LTTE unilaterally walked out of the talks process on April 21, 2003.

The LTTE said that the six rounds of talks held till then were useless. It wound up the rehabilitation organizations jointly run with the Sri Lankan government and refused to attend the international aid conference at Tokyo. When there was a stand off between the Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the LTTE gave political instability in South Sri Lanka as another excuse for not returning to the negotiating table. And now the LTTE itself is unstable with Karuna posing a serious challenge from within. It is certain that Tiger chieftain Prabhakaran will not think of talks before this challenge is extinguished.

Importance of 'sole" representative status

Prabhakaran has been able to take a tough bargaining position in his dealings with successive governments of Sri Lanka and the world powers, because of his power over the Tamil people. His extraordinary political power has rested on the claim that he is their "sole" representative. And to enable him to make this claim, he has been systematically eliminating rival Tamil militant groups and political parties by brute force,  military operations and assassinations.

Come peace in the form of a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and a MOU with the Sri Lankan government in February 2002, Prabhakaran changed his tactics, but his goal remained the same, namely, to establish, maintain and enforce the status of being the "sole" representative of the Tamil people.

Prabhakaran used the April 2, 2004 parliamentary elections to establish and prove the status in a "democratic" way. He got his proxy the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) to sweep the elections in the Tamil dominated districts of the North and East through both fair means and foul.

Challenge from Karuna

But this by itself was not enough. A new challenger had emerged by
March.And that challenge was the most dangerous to date. The challenger was from his own ranks, his closest lieutenant, his trusted Eastern Commander, Col.Karuna. Karuna's rebellion could cost the LTTE dearly because the territory Karuna was taking away from him, the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Amparai, had been the LTTE's recruiting base for the past decade or more.

The Batticalao and Amparai districts were agriculturally rich and were a source of revenue for the rebel group. They also enabled the LTTE's hit squads and suicide squads to approach targets in South and East Sri Lanka more easily.

Karuna has not only been defying Prabhakaran's authority but touting the line that the Tamils of the East in general, and those of Batticaloa and Amparai in particular, are a distinct community, separate from the Northern Tamils, especially Jaffna Tamils.

Karuna asked Prabhakaran to devolve power to the Batticalao and Amparai
area and name him as a virtually independent satrap answerable to no one in the LTTE other than Prabhakaran. When this was spurned, he declared independence.

Karuna asked the Sri Lankan government and the Norwegian peace mediators to enter into a separate CFA and MOU with him to tackle issues relating to Batticaloa and Amparai districts.

CFA shackles Prabhakaran

Prabhakaran was itching to send his troops to Batticaloa and eliminate Prabhakaran the way he eliminated his other challengers. But the CFA stood in the way of any large scale military operation. The CFA prevented the transfer of arms and armed cadres across government-held territory. There were only two ways in which Prabhakaran could transfer men and material, one, across the Verugal river, which served as a border between Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts and the other by sea. But movement of armed cadres by sea was difficult because the Sri Lankan Navy enjoyed a sovereign right to stop any such movement.

Prabhakaran appointed the trusted Col.Sornam as the Trincomalee commander and asked him to move infrantry and commando units to the northern banks of the Verugal river. Karuna asked his brother Reggie, to move to the Verugal river and stall any crossing.

Seeing the possibility of an open war with great collateral damage to civilians, the Bishop of Batticaloa and Trincomalee, Rev. Kingsley Swampillai, led a peace delegation to talk to the two war lords. Prabhakaran promised to tackle Karuna without bloodshed.

It was then thought that he would send a hit or suicide squad to kill Karuna with minimum collateral damage. But this was not easy given Karuna's high preparedness.

This left Prabhakaran with little choice. A full scale war became unavoidable. It was in view of this necessity that he issued a statement asking Karuna's troops to desert him and warned those who chose to be with him of an "inglorious" death. The stage was thus set for a full scale invasion.

But the parliamentary elections were standing in the way.

The moment it was over and the results were in, Prabhakaran struck. Political observers say that he will not rest content till Karuna is eliminated "from the face of the earth" as he himself put it in a recent statement.This also means that there will be no attempt on his part to engage the Sri Lankan government or the international community in any peace talks till he eliminates Karuna.

It is difficult to say if Karuna is will be eliminated or not, because he is a battle-hardened leader who is operating on home ground.

But Karuna lacks some other vital ingredients of success. He lacks sustained financing, a sea arm and international links.The LTTE's finances were handled by Jaffna Tamils. Weapons procurement was also in their hands. This was because only the Jaffna Tamils had international links. They were the expatriates and refugees, the professionals and traders among the Tamils. The Eastern Tamils were basically a farming community.

The Sri Lankan government and the armed forces do not want to jump into the fray on one side of the other. As the Foreign Minister-to-be, Lakshman Kadirgamar, told Hindustan Times, Colombo had to be "circumspect" as the situation was very fluid.

As for the international community, its sympathies lie with Prabhakaran because it would like to deal with a single, powerful entity among the Tamils and not a multiplicity of them. But they too would not like to be seen to be tilting towards Prabhakaran, because of the fluidity of the situation.

Neither the Sri Lankan government nor the international community can intervene in this affair so long as the fighting goes on in rebel held territory and does not affect peace in the government-held areas in any significant way. But if armed cadres begin roaming about or killing people in government held areas, the CFA can be deemed to have been violated and intervention may be called for.

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