Sri Lanka : Back to the Future


The LTTE has finally launched the expected new phase of operations in Sri Lanka to consolidate their hold on the North and the East with attacks to break through to Jaffna gaining momentum on 12 and 13 August 2006. As conflicting reports emanate from the front line, which is normally the case in such situations, the conflict in Sri Lanka is seen to have reached a new inflection point. For the past six months and more Cease Fire has been a euphemism for tacit conduct of targeted operations by both sides, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government forces. LTTE strategy in Sri Lanka was outlined by Prabhakar on 27 November 2005, his birthday when he gave a major speech. Those who read between the lines could see that the LTTE would be consolidating the many patches of territory it controlled in North and East Sri Lanka. The plan unfolded with increased strikes on government forces particularly the Sri Lankan Navy and civilians which was reciprocated in some measure by the Sri Lankan government particularly in terms of use of air power. The suicide attacks to eliminate the top leadership of the Armed forces in April and May were also a part of the same strategy as is evident now with hindsight. The ban placed on the LTTE by the European Union was skillfully used by the guerrillas to declare an embargo on members from the EU in the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), thereby making that body virtually non existent.

A key component of the consolidation strategy of the LTTE includes occupation of Jaffna, domination of the coastal waters astride the areas in its control, thus the series of attacks on Sri Lankan naval forces by Sea Tigers have marked the period of the past six months. Intimidation of the Sinhalese and Muslim communes to dissuade them from settling down in the North and the East is another facet, a form of ethnic cleansing or resettling of communities to Tamil advantage. The suicide attacks at Anuradhapura on a bus carrying mainly Sinhalas need to be seen in this light. Control of resources mainly water as demonstrated at Muttur seems to be another arm of the same strategy which has partially succeeded in driving home the point that it can manipulate the resources that transverse its areas. The main problem faced by the LTTE in implementing its consolidation strategy is defection by the Karuna faction which has led to lack of control over a large swathe of territory in Eastern Sri Lanka, an area where the LTTE is now considerably weakened.

The government counter strategy of deconsolidation politically includes federalism, for which it has formed an inter ethnic panel to find a meeting ground between the considerable lobby of hawks and doves within the Sri Lankan political space in which the Buddhist monks and the Army have a major say. Selected offensive air raids have now formed an important part of the government strategy which is being supplemented by ground operations where necessary as seen in Muttur, near Trincomalee. Fragmenting the LTTE is another aspect which has been attempted successfully; the Karuna faction is a result of the same. While efforts have been made to break the LTTE's strangle hold on the Tamil population, this has not succeeded primarily because of the ruthless manner in which the Tiger's eliminate moderates within the Tamil community. Kadirgamar's assignation in 2005 is an indicator of the same.

Behind the hostile forays by both sides, life in the LTTE and Government controlled areas in the North and the East carries on normally, with the major difference being that in LTTE controlled areas, the function of governance is performed by the services deployed by the guerrillas. These rake in large amount of taxes and levies to keep the funds flowing for the Tigers. Development money provided by various donor organizations also keeps the economy going smoothly. Having tasted the fruits of governance, the LTTE is not likely to give it up so easily nor is the Sri Lankan government able to wrest it away by force. Federalism will also not satisfy the LTTE as this would imply obeisance to a central authority in Colombo. External influences on the Tigers are virtually non existent at least in the public domain, thus bringing it around to the negotiating table is extremely difficult. India has lost whatever leverages it had through its deliberate policy of isolation, a sad reflection on a power aspiring for regional influence and a seat in the UN Security Council.

A federal solution is the only answer in a unitary Sri Lanka as Ealam will neither be politically or economically viable. It will only come about when sagacity dawns on the LTTE as well as Sri Lankan leadership. Sadly, till then many more lives are likely to be lost on both sides.   


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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