Friday, December 09, 2005

Muslim man shot dead, one wounded in Eravur

Unidentified gunmen shot and killed Mr. S. Samsudeen, 53, a Muslim civilian employed as watcher at a timber shop in Punnaikudah, 5 km northeast of Eravur town Thursday midnight. Another Muslim civilian, Mr. Mohammed Asanar, 55, who was sleeping inside his restaurant, located close to the timber shop, was shot and wounded by the gunmen who came in a van, Eravur Police said. Punnaikudah is a border area between Tamil and Muslim villages.

The wounded person, Mohammed Asanar, was rushed to Batticaloa Hospital.

Punnaikudah, a border area between Muslim and Tamil villages, is located 3 km east of Palacholai where suspected paramilitaries shot and killed two sisters of a renegade Karuna Group paramilitary cadre Wednesday night.


LTTE attacks not an act of war, says chief of Lankan armed forces by P.K. Balachandran

The Chief of Sri Lanka's Defence Staff, Admiral Daya Sandagiri, said on Friday that the recent landmine attacks by the LTTE in Jaffna which claimed the lives of 13 army personnel, were "not acts of war" but were "terrorist acts."

"The armed forces are not excited about these attacks," Adm Sandagiri told a news conference on Friday.

Asked if the killing of the Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was not an act of war, the Inspector General of Police, Chandra Fernando, who also addressed the press conference, said that it was "a crime and a terrorist act, not an act of war."

Adm Sandagiri said that the three services and the police were prepared to meet any challenge from the LTTE and that armed forces had supremacy over the LTTE. But they would not precipitate war, he asserted

"We have the supreme position. There is no doubt about it. But we are not thinking of war. Terrorism doesn't mean war. We are not thinking of an offensive at the moment," he said.

Asked if the LTTE was preparing for war, he said that the armed forces had "no evidence" that they were preparing for one.

Adm Sandagiri said that the Sri Lankan armed forces were committed to implementing the Rajapaksa government's policy of pursuing the peace process and maintaining the ceasefire.

"We will support the government to achieve its political objectives. If there is a choice between maintaining the Ceasefire Agreement and going to war, we will choose to maintain the ceasefire," he said.

The press conference was held at the instance of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who wanted the country and the world to know what his government's thinking was on the security situation in Sri Lanka following the LTTE's attacks in the North and East which had claimed the lives of 18 servicemen in the past few days. The killings had led to speculation both in the island and abroad that war was imminent.

The press conference was addressed by the new Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, the Air Force Commander Air Marshal Donald Perera and the Inspector General of Police Chandra Fernando also.

LTTE's naval wing intact

Asked about the challenge from the LTTE's naval wing, called the Sea Tigers, Adm Sandagiri said that like the Sri Lankan navy, the LTTE's naval wing had also suffered some damage in the tsunami of 2004, but its strength had not been depleted. There had been no change in its strength, he said.

India funds Palaly airbase modernisation

The Air Force Commander Air Marshal Donald Perera said that India was funding the resurfacing of the runway at the Palaly airbase in Jaffna, the only airport in the troubled Northern Jaffna peninsula. The damaged and potholed runway there was damaging aircraft, he said.

"An Indian team is expected shortly," he added.

Asked if India would get the right to use the airbase as part of the deal, Air Marshal Perera said that it was for the Sri Lankan and Indian governments to decide on such matters.

Asked about the LTTE's air force or "air capability" Air Marshal Perera said that the two or three small, single-engine, two-seater aircraft it seemed to have, could be loaded with bombs and used in an offensive. He said the government was trying to find out more about the LTTE's air capability.

No plan to dilute High Security Zones in Jaffna

Asked how the security forces were going to tackle the problems of peoples' agitation against the High Security Zones (HSZ) in the Jaffna peninsula, Army Commander Sarath Fonseka said that there was no proposal to roll back or dismantle these zones, as they were necessary for the security of the installations of the three services there.

"You need a large area for this," he said, justifying the large amount of land taken up by these special zones keeping the population out.

Gen Fonseka disputed the description of the agitations against the HSZ as "peoples' agitations" because only a small number of the 400,000 people of Jaffna were involved.

"And these are members of the Mahaveera families (families of LTTE cadres who had died in battle) and they agitate at the behest of the LTTE," he explained.

Fonseka went on to point out that President Rajapaksa had said that the civilian owners of lands and properties in the HSZ would be compensated.


Why is LTTE resorting to violence now? P.K. Balachandran

For those who took at face value LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran's Heroes' Day declaration that he will "wait and observe" President Mahinda Rajapaksa's moves on the peace process before re-starting the armed struggle for an independent "Tamil Eelam", the spate of killings in the North East have come as a rude shock.

What might have been expected sometime in January 2006 or even beyond, occurred within days of Prabhakaran's Heroes' Day oration on November 27.

The most disturbing event was the claymore mine attack in Kondavil, 5 kms from Jaffna on the road to the Palaly airbase on Sunday, in which six Sri Lankan soldiers traveling in a tractor trailer were killed. Not surprisingly, this incident reminded many Sinhalas in the south about the killing of a group of soldiers in Tirunelveli near Jaffna in 1983. The Tirunelveli killing led to the massacre of Tamils in Colombo, an event which directly contributed to the rise of Tamil militancy.

Sunday's killing came in the wake of over six incidents of shooting at Army checkpoints and grenade throwing at army posts in the previous 24 hours.

Reacting sharply to the incident, the Sri Lankan government said: " At a time when the new President has extended an invitation for the resumption of peace talks, such provocative acts by the LTTE demonstrate a lack of sincerity towards negotiations and a political settlement."

"The government calls on the international community to condemn such terrorist acts which place obstacles in the way of furthering the peace process."

The Defence Secretary G Rajapaksa met Hagrup Haukland, the Head of the Scandinavian staffed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and called for measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.

Muslim factor

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the country's largest Muslim party with a vast base in East Sri Lanka, complained that the LTTE was killing Muslims to create tension between the Muslim and Tamil communities there, and use this to accuse the Muslims of wrecking the peace process.

In a shocking incident in Akkaraipattu on November 16, a grenade was thrown into a mosque killing scores of worshippers. Two Muslims of Eravur were abducted and their bodies were found in Valaichenai. This was followed by the killing of a Muslim couple in Meeravodai.

Faleel, the Divisional Secretary of Kathankudy was shot, and he died the next day, December 5. On December 3, a Hajja Mohideen, a Muslim worker of the United National Party (UNP) in the Mutur-Thoppur area in Trincomalee district, was shot at. In a counter attack by Muslims, two Tamils were killed. In the escalating violence, four Muslims of Thoppur were abducted, of whom three were killed.

"These incidents have cumulatively forced a mass scale exodus of Muslims seeking protection," the SLMC said in a statement on Sunday.

"At a time when peace loving people and the international community have acknowledged this and begun to place their confidence in the Muslim community for their commitment to peace, we feel these negative and unfortunate acts are being committed to provoke the Muslims against the Tamils in the East and create instability in the region. If this happens it could also help portray the Muslims as spoilers by vested interests," the statement said.

According to the SLMC and other political observers, the LTTE is annoyed with both the Tamils and the Muslims of the East for defying its thinly veiled call for a boycott of the Presidential election. The LTTE had intended to defeat Ranil Wickremesinghe, the candidate of the UNP backed by the SLMC.

Political observers said that Wickremesinghe was being favoured by the Tamils and Muslims of the East because he stood for peace, federalism and a recognition of the Muslims' right to self-rule. But the LTTE wanted Wickremesinghe defeated because he would have brought the international community into the peace process in a bigger way than before, and forced the LTTE to accept a solution which it might not want at all.

"Viewed in the backdrop of the fact that the Muslims have overwhelmingly voted and mandated the SLMC to engage in the pursuit of peace and an equitable and acceptable solution to the on going ethnic strife within the framework of a federal structure, one cannot be oblivious to the intention of the hidden hand that is opposed to peace and amity amongst the Muslims and Tamils," the SLMC's statement said.

" This challenge is further compounded with the realisation that the Tamils, particularly in the East, who managed to exercise their franchise, too have spoken unanimously and unequivocally for the need for a federal solution where Muslims too would enjoy self rule, respect and dignity," it added.

Move to regain control of East

The LTTE's writ does not run in the East as much as it does in the Northern areas of Jaffna and the Wanni. This is so particularly after the revolt of the group's Batticaloa commander Col Karuna. Though Karuna was driven out, the LTTE is still to establish full control over the region. This is the main reason why 25 to 30 per cent of the Tamils of the East disregarded the LTTE's boycott call and voted in the Presidential election.

The LTTE views the Muslims as an obstacle in its bid to enforce its writ in the East. The Muslims, though Tamil speaking, do not consider themselves Tamils and so are looked at with suspicion by the Tamils and the LTTE as possible collaborators with the Sri Lankan state, the armed forces and the majority Sinhala community.

Ideally, the LTTE would like to do to the Muslims of the East what it did to the Muslims of Jaffna in 1990, that is, expel them en masse. But this is not easy given the numbers involved. The only other option is to create tension and force migration. The underlying economic tension between the Tamils and the Muslims of the East helps the LTTE carry on its anti-Muslim campaign with a measure of support from the local Tamils themselves.

Truce monitors worried

The truce monitors are very much concerned about the on-going killings. In a press release on Sunday they said: "The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission has observed and witnessed a dangerous trend of violence in the North and the East in the last few days resulting in a number of deaths and injuries of both civilians and security forces personnel."

"In Jaffna peninsula, Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts there have been countless attacks. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Missions warns that there is a real danger that these disturbances and hostilities can spread and result in irreparable deterioration of security and prevent any real restoration of normalcy."

However, the LTTE does not seem to be deterred. Even the presence of international human rights monitors in Sri Lanka has made no difference. Violence was being perpetrated and planned even as the Director of Amnesty International, Irene Zubaida Khan, was in Sri Lanka and meeting the LTTE's political wing leader S Tamilselvan in his headquarters in Kilinochchi. She appealed to the LTTE to stop the violence and uphold human rights, but clearly to no avail.

US expert's view

The current orgy of violence does not come as a surprise to Teresita Schaffer, former US Ambassador in Sri Lanka and currently the head of the South Asia division of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. In an article in the December 1 issue of CSIS's journal South Asia Monitor Schaffer says that violence is in the womb of the existing political situation.

There are two aspects to this situation. One is that there is a Sinhala-nationalist hard liner as President of Sri Lanka, a President who apparently has no plans to modify his stand for the sake of peace. The other is that the LTTE leader is planning to use this hard line stance to prove to the international community that the Tamils can get no justice from the governments in Colombo and that the only way to secure rights is through an armed struggle.

Writes Schaffer: " President Rajapakse's post election statements stressed the importance bringing peace to Sri Lanka. Some polices he outlined such as strengthening human rights protection in the cease fire agreement and bringing the Opposition and the Muslim community into the peace process, would be highly desirable. But other others would change key features of the peace process."

"He reiterated his determination to renegotiate the ceasefire agreement and pledged to safeguard the unitary nature of the state, rejecting the previous government's willingness to negotiate a federal framework. He rejected the concept of self determination, even in the qualified form that the previous government had accepted it."

"He welcomed facilitation by the United Nations, friendly countries, the international community, and India - conspicuously avoiding any mention of the one country that has actually been involved in facilitation - Norway."

"All these positions had been overshadowed in his election platform, and all will be seen by the LTTE as indications that Rajapakse is not serious about negotiations. And his designation of Ratnasiri Wickremanayake as prime minister, a politician known for his hard line nationalist views, will be read all over Sri Lanka as an indication that Rajapakse is faithful to the tough tone of his campaign platform."

As regards the Tiger chieftain Prabhakaran, Schaffer says that his agenda came out clearly in his Heroes' Day address of November 27. The punch line of the speech was that the LTTE would wait to see what the new government would produce. If the results fell short, he pledged to intensify the Tamils' struggle for self determination for the national liberation of their homeland.

Most of Prabhakaran's speech was a carefully crafted argument about how Sri Lanka's Sinhalese politicians had undermined every chance of peace in the past two decades and more. He declared that the LTTE's participation in the peace process was intended to show the international community that it stood for peace. He wanted to demonstrate beyond doubt that the "Sinhala racist ruling elites" would not accept the fundamental demands of the Tamils and offer them a reasonable solution.

"The warlike tone fits the Heroes' Day norm, but the unrelenting argument about how both major Sri Lankan parties had failed to keep their promises offers little optimism that a breakthrough is likely," Schaffer observes.

The US expert said that both the LTTE and the government would have to come out of their entrenched positions and seek a meeting ground. The LTTE leader should stop posturing and President Rajapaksa should lead the country rather than be led by his electoral constituency.

Addressing the LTTE she said: "Posturing for international support is no substitute for getting on with the extremely difficult job (of ensuring peace)." And addressing President Rajapaksa she said: "The inclusiveness Rajapakse has promised, could stand him in good stead, but the key quality he will need is leadership."

Painting a grim picture of the coming days, Schaffer said: "The outlook is not promising. When ceasefires break down, violence often resumes at a higher rate."

"Violence is already going up and the LTTE is at least considering whether a military option makes sense."

"The peace process that began with much hope in early 2002 cannot be revived. Sri Lanka needs to re-invent the ceasefire and the peace dialogue," she concludes grimly.

Why launch a covert war now?

All this does not explain why Prabhakaran has advanced his plan to open hostilities, albeit in a covert way. Some political observers believe that he does not want to give President Rajapaksa time to settle down and make the necessary contacts with the international community to apply pressure on him as Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga did from 2002 to November 2005.

Rajapaksa's move to jettison or sideline Norway and bring in India may be worrying the LTTE leader. The talk of India coming to the centre stage may have brought bitter memories of Indian pressure in the 1980s and his fight with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987-90.

Other observers believe that Prabhakaran is creating a war like situation and instability throughout the North East because he does not want to go for talks with the new Rajapaksa government. Over time, there could be pressure on him to go for talks, given the fact that the new government is wanting to start talks at least on revising the ceasefire agreement. But Prabhakaran is dead against any revision of that agreement.

Yet others feel that the Tiger chieftain may be fearing a consolidation of the peace lobby in the Sinhala south over time, and may be in a hurry to prevent such an eventuality. A war like situation is not conducive to the growth of peace sentiments in the Sinhala polity.

The LTTE knows that the peace lobby in Sri Lanka is not all that weak. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the "peacenik" and "federalist", got 48% of the popular vote in the Presidential election. And there is a possibility of Wickremesinghe's joining forces with the federalist and pro-peace former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, now sidelined by Rajapaksa. The two could join hands and smother Rajapaksa, the hard liner, and force his government to take a moderate line. And this might make the government acceptable to the international community.

Once the international community accepts Rajapaksa, Prabhakaran will find it very difficult to convince the world that he cannot get justice through peaceful means and peace talks.

Need to secure East

Prabhakaran would also like to secure control over the East, which defied his boycott call. This could be done only by fomenting tension between the Tamils and Muslims; and the Tamils and the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.

Against this scenario, political observers in Colombo expect an escalation of violence. The international community may prefer to watch from the sidelines for some time. It is unlikely to make any meaningful moves to help the Sri Lankan state until the Rajapaksa regime modifies its rigid stand against federalism and pledges support to the Oslo and Tokyo Declarations of 2002 and 2003 respectively, according to which there should be a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)