Feature Article

The cease-fire’s weakest link: Tamil paramilitaries

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 30 June 2004, 17:50 GMT]
When Norwegian Special Envoy Erik Solheim flew into Sri Lanka this week, he was well aware that the problems that have bedeviled his government’s peace process thus far have now been eclipsed by new and far more severe one: a weak link in the formal ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers has finally snapped.

For the past several weeks Norway's initiative has been deadlocked amid disagreements on the agenda for talks. But the central issue Norway now has to contend with now is the Tigers' fury over Colombo's extensive support for the renegade LTTE commander, Karuna, and the campaign of violence against them in the island’s volatile east.

And it is this facet of Sri Lanka's military campaign - the use of Tamil paramilitaries - that has long been the Achilles heel of the February 2002 cease-fire agreement.

While both the LTTE's forces and the Sri Lankan armed forces came under explicit and acknowledged chains of command, the disparate gunmen operating in the shadows, but under the military’s direction, remained outside both the cease-fire agreement and, as international human rights groups have often protested, the rule of law.

Which is why clause 1.8 of the cease-fire agreement, coming under the section titled ‘Separation of Forces,’ was considered a critical part of the cessation of hostilities.

Aiming to either disband the Tamil paramilitaries or to bring them under the military’s chain of command – and hence to make Colombo responsible for their actions - the clause states:

''Tamil paramilitary groups shall be disarmed by the GOSL by D-day + 30 days at the latest. The GOSL shall offer to integrate individuals in these units under the command and disciplinary structure of the GOSL armed forces for service away from the Northern and Eastern Province.''

D-day was, of course, the much celebrated February 23, 2002. In other words, within a month of the truce coming into effect that day, the disparate gunmen operating against the LTTE under the aegis of the Sri Lanka Army’s (SLA) intelligence wing would either become civilians or regular soldiers serving outside the Northeast.

Unfortunately, neither happened. The gunmen drawn from several anti-LTTE militant groups – now long registered as political parties - continued to operate as informants, intelligence officers and assassins for the SLA. The military's refusal to disband these invaluable units, furthermore, was an open secret.

The LTTE did raise its reservations about this and other aspects of the cease-fire agreement, such as the military's continuing occupation of hundreds of Tamil villages and ongoing restrictions on fishing.

But amid a groundswell of domestic and international support for the peace process the continued functioning of the SLA’s paramilitary forces wasn't allowed to become an impediment to the commencing of negotiations.

In any case, the then government of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe – who signed the truce with the LTTE despite the vehement objections of his archrival, President Chandrika Kumaratunga – argued that its hands were tied when it came to the implementation of the agreement.

President Kumaratunga is the commander-in-chief of Sri Lanka's armed forces. And, simply put, she wasn't cooperating in implementing the truce, the United National Front (UNF) government argued.

But amid mutual confidence building measures, such as the release of prisoners, the opening of the A9 highway and the gradual lifting of the economic embargo, the issue of the Tamil paramilitaries receded to the background.

International pressure for talks, applied not least through Norwegian facilitators, resulted in the first face-to-face talks for seven years between Colombo and the LTTE taking place in September 2002 in Thailand.

But even as monthly talks continued, a series of killings and counter killings which occurred in the background outlined the paramilitaries' continuing operations. The LTTE was accused by the Sri Lankan government, and some human rights groups, of killing 'political opponents'. The LTTE denied any involvement in the deaths.

Inevitably, the issue came up at the talks, and the LTTE's negotiators reiterated the continuing paramilitary operations posed a threat to the viability of the cease-fire. The issue was sidelined amid more serious breaches of the truce – the sinking of two LTTE merchant vessels by the Sri Lanka navy, for example.

But in April 2003, when the LTTE suspended its participation in the Norwegian-brokered negotiations, accusing the Sri Lankan government of not only failing to implement agreements reached at the six rounds of talks held so far, but marginalising the Tigers from the international aid program, the cease-fire came under closer scrutiny.

The March 2004 rebellion against the LTTE by Karuna, the movement’s top commander in the eastern province, accentuated the problems eroding the peace process.

Firstly, whilst formally rejecting Karuna's public call for a separate cease-fire agreement with his forces, the SLA moved swiftly to bolster his position against the LTTE.

Increased Sri Lankan sea patrols were intended to prevent a build up in the east by LTTE forces based in the north. The Tigers allege the SLA also provided Karuna with other logistical support, assistance which increased after President Kumaratunga’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) came to power in the April 2 polls.

Whilst the Tigers have not concealed their distrust of President Kumaratunga, the SLA’s role in the Karuna affair deepened their suspicions that Sri Lanka was exploring military options anew and ''pushing the envelope'' in the east.

Secondly, after the LTTE crushed Karuna's rebellion in a lighting offensive over the Easter weekend, the SLA moved swiftly to salvage any advantage that might accrue from a split within the LTTE.

Karuna, and a handful of close associates, who fled the Batticaloa district were quickly relocated to Colombo. The renegade commander was quickly deployed in a campaign of violence against his former organization in the east. A number of LTTE cadres, including several from the political wing working in SLA-controlled areas, were murdered, along with a several prominent civilians.

Whilst the LTTE was aware that Karuna’s cadres and other Tamil paramilitaries were responsible for the violence, the movement has been repeatedly stressing the point that the Sri Lanka military was running the strategy. The SLA denied involvement, blaming the violence on internecine violence between LTTE fighters.

Notwithstanding that this is how Tamil paramilitaries have long been deployed in the SLA's counter-insurgency operations in the east, the violence of the past two months has come at a particularly sensitive time in the Norwegian peace process: the assumption to power of Sinhala ultra-nationalist parties and the rapid emergence of a seemingly intractable deadlock in efforts to restart talks.

And it is amid this plunging confidence in Sri Lanka's sincerity that four former confidantes of Karuna returned to Batticaloa two weeks ago from their SLA-provided safehouse in Colombo. Their startling accounts of the SLA's role in Karuna's escape and present activity has considerably widened the gap between the two protoganists, as the Norwegian diplomats learnt this week.

The LTTE argues that Sri Lanka is waging 'war by proxy'. The scale of the violence unleashed by Sri Lankan military intelligence using Karuna's loyalists has prompted the LTTE to mobilise heavily. To all intents and purposes, the LTTE is arguing, it is at war in the east.

The Norwegian brokered peace process has thus come full circle. A seemingly minor issue amid the hectic rush for peace in 2002, the demobilisation of the Tamil paramilitaries has now taken centre stage as the weakest link in a cease-fire which, as both protagonists and skeptical observers admit, has held a lot longer than the most hopeless optimists had expected.


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26.06.04   SLA role in renegade affair said scuttling peace effort
23.06.04   Ali Zahir Moulana resigns MP post over Karuna affair
21.06.04   Karuna stayed with SLA in Colombo - Nilavini
21.06.04   Details of Karuna's whereabouts emerge

 

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