The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Uncertain prospects
- India should help Sri Lanka to negotiate with the LTTE from a position of strength

The senior advisor on foreign and security affairs to the president of Sri Lanka and former foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, was in New Delhi in the middle of July to deliver the Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture. His subject was the international and regional situation, post-Iraq war. General reports were that he was concerned with the difficult military and political situation affecting the tenuous peace process brokered by the Norwegians in Sri Lanka. Kadirgamar had an exchange of views with the national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, the foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, the foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, and the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani. He also met K. Natwar Singh, chairman of the foreign affairs department of the All India Congress Committee.

Bilateral talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been stalemated over the last three or four months because of various procedural and political reasons. The political reasons are: first, the delay by the Sri Lankan authorities in sending proposals for the interim governance of the northern and eastern provinces, details of the subjects which would be delegated to the Tamil authority in the northeastern provinces. Then, when the proposals were sent, the LTTE did not find them satisfactory. The LTTE are in the process of submitting alternative proposals to the Sri Lankan government for the first time since 1987.

The second political reason is the differences of opinion between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE about the location of each other’s troops and camps and the redeployment of military forces. The Sri Lankan government is concerned that the LTTE is violating the ceasefire agreement by setting up new camps particularly in the Trincomallee region. Jaffna in any case is militarily and geo-strategically dominated by the LTTE cadre with the exception of the Fort and the Palaley air base. The LTTE has not only strengthened its existing military bases in Trincomallee, but it has also set up 13 to 14 new bases despite the memorandum of understanding on the ceasefire stipulating that no new military bases will be set up by either side.

These 13 or 14 bases are in addition to the LTTE strengthening another 14 bases in the same region. The location of these new LTTE bases is such that these flank the Sri Lankan army’s military positions and can become launching pads endangering the Trincomallee port itself. The third political problem is the profound division of opinion in Sri Lankan political parties and Sri Lankan public opinion about the proposals for a compromise with the LTTE.

There have been changes in the power structure within the LTTE also. Anton Balasingham, according to most recent reports, stands marginalized from the main process of negotiations. Velupillai Prabhakaran has nominated his political advisor, Tamilchelvam, to be the leading figure in internal discussions within the LTTE as well as with Sinhalese delegations. Tamilchelvam is being assisted by Karuna, the head of the LTTE’s military cadre in the eastern province. Balasingham apparently was not in favour of the very tough anti-government stand taken by Prabhakaran by pulling back from bilateral discussions three months ago. Tamil- chelvam and Karuna replacing him manifest the hardening of the negotiating position of the LTTE.

The LTTE held an internal meeting in Paris in mid-August to prepare counter-proposals to the suggestions made by the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. In any case, Wickremesinghe’s proposals were off the mark in terms of acceptability by the LTTE or even other Tamil groups because his proposals did not say anything about delegating authority to the northeastern provincial interim government on management of land, law and order and some of the more sensitive financial subjects.

The LTTE’s counter-proposals are likely to demand delegation of authority not only on these but also on additional subjects including part of the defence arrangements of the Tamil areas. There is likely to be a qualitative gap between the LTTE’s demands and the offers made by the Sri Lankan government. The Buddhist clergy, the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and her party are deeply concerned about excessive compromise with the LTTE because they apprehend the division of Sri Lanka and creation of the Eelam through this covert process of political osmosis.

Meanwhile, the ground situation in terms of military capacities is in a flux and decidedly to the advantage of the LTTE. While the Sri Lankan armed forces remain engaged in their routine security duties, and in maintaining basic security requirements in the tactical areas of responsibility, the LTTE has decidedly utilized the ceasefire to strengthen itself in terms of personnel as well as supplies. The LTTE now has a sufficient number of longer-range weapons, including mortar and 120 millimetre artillery guns. The LTTE has converted their temporary transit bases and routes in Jaffna in the east into permanent military bases. The LTTE’s maritime activities around the coast of northern and eastern Sri Lanka have been on the increase under the protection of their navy known as Sea Tigers.

These maritime activities include the transporting of cadre and materials disguised as fishermen and civilians. According to Sri Lankan government sources, LTTE infiltrators and reconnaissance teams are utilizing their freedom of movement to improve and expand their intelligence operations against the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE is also now in possession of what are known as suicide boats. The LTTE’s total strength, leaving aside the strength of 2,000-3,000 in Jaffna, in Trincomallee is now about 1550 cadres. The Sea Tigers have three attack gunboats and six suicide craft ready for operation in the eastern sector. The LTTE also has micro-light aircraft which can be utilized for suicide attacks on Sri Lankan military bases.

On all counts, the LTTE has utilized the Norwegian brokered ceasefire to enhance its cadre and regroup themselves, to acquire more military supplies and to deploy its cadre in new positions with better equipment, which puts the Sri Lankan armed forces more or less on the defensive.

The Sri Lankan armed forces cannot take any counter-action or pre-emptive operations against the LTTE activities because of the ceasefire. The officers cadre of the Sri Lankan army are incrementally worried about the more recent military developments. The political and military wing of the LTTE is confident. It is dealing with the Sri Lankan armed forces on a more or less equal footing. Prabhakaran is on record saying, at the end of July, that if talks fail, the LTTE has the ability to revert to the military option.

Despite the existence of other Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka, and some of them, like the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, being represented in parliament, the LTTE has been recognized by the Sri Lankan government as the main representative of Sri Lankan Tamils, a status which, by implication, has been internationally recognized because of the Norwegian exercise of accepting the LTTE as the main negotiators from the Tamils’ side. This was political realism, but it has legitimized the LTTE’s claims of representation regarding Sri Lankan Tamils.

The question arises as to why the LTTE participated in the Norwegian peace initiative and why it is continuing its participation in the negotiations despite its known stren- gths and uncompromising negotiating position on certain Tamil issues. The main reason is the LTTE having been on the list of terrorist organizations designated by the United States of America. After September 11, 2001, the LTTE’s position became incrementally vulnerable because of this categorization. External support to the organization from the Tamil diaspora in west Europe, North America and the Asia Pacific region was also affected by stringent punitive stipulations against organizations and entities supporting terrorist organizations, particularly those designated as such by the US government. So it is logical for the LTTE to take every step to eliminate its description as terrorist organization and to gain legitimacy as a political entity. But this objective will not make the LTTE compromise on some of its basic demands sustained for nearly three decades.

The macro-level objective of the LTTE remains the creation of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka over a period of time. Whether this would be decisive to the security of Sri Lanka or the ethno-cultural unity of India is a legitimate question. The answer obviously has to be negative because the centrifugal forces generated by such an event can have cascading ramifications on subcontinental south Asia. The Sri Lankan government has the support of a majority of countries in the world to sustain its unity and territorial integrity. The only rider being that the Sri Lankan government offers a compromise to Sri Lankan Tamils which should be responsive to their political, cultural and economic aspirations.

An additional relevant factor is that the world is not likely to endorse the LTTE’s political and constitutional demands, which may border on the creation of a separate Tamil state. India should remain supportive of the peace process subject to these realities. India should also strengthen the Sri Lankan government in political and logistical terms so that the Sri Lankan government also negotiates from a position of strength with the LTTE in the coming weeks.

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