Sri Lanka bleeds – with no peace in sight

By P. Karunakharan, IANS,

Sri Lanka’s dragging ethnic conflict is at a decisive phase, with the military determined to crush the Tamil Tigers and the guerrillas adamantly refusing to give up.

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The Indian Ocean island nation is spending millions of dollars to give an annihilating blow to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as troops try to seize the last of two rebel bastions: Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

Having captured the eastern province from the LTTE in 2007 after nearly two decades, Sri Lanka is inching towards taking control of Kilinochchi, a small northern town that has been the rebel political hub.

The army has captured a vast track of LTTE territories from Omanthai to Mankulam in the north and from Mannar to Pooneryn on the northwestern coastal belt — for the first time after a decade.

The LTTE is using all its might to stop the advancing military.

The year 2008 dawned on a violent note when opposition MP T. Maheshwaran was gunned down by gunmen during New Year prayers in a Hindu temple in the Sri Lankan capital.

On the eve of the Sinhala-Tamil New Year in April, cabinet minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was killed in a suicide bomb attack outside Colombo, for which the Tigers were blamed.

There have been claymore mine attacks targeting buses carrying both military personnel and civilians elsewhere in the island. The military has been blamed for similar attacks in LTTE areas.

Another minister, D.M. Dassanayake, and a Tamil MP sympathetic to the LTTE, S. Sivanesan, were killed in tit-for-tat killings.

Confident of a military victory, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa formally spiked on Jan 16 the Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement signed with the LTTE in 2002.

This not only saw the ceasefire monitoring mission pack their bags but marked a virtual end to peace moves by Norway.

This happened a few days after Sri Lanka faced a diplomatic blow when it lost its voting rights at the UN human rights body.

The holding of the maiden provincial council elections in the eastern province after seizing it from the LTTE was seen as a major political event. This was won by the group that broke away from the LTTE in 2004 – and a former child soldier became chief minister of the province.

The LTTE announced a unilateral ceasefire ahead of the SAARC summit in Colombo in early August, but the government rejected the offer, saying it will fight on.

President Rajapaksa made several foreign trips this year. He went to China and addressed the UN General Assembly besides going to Turkey, India and the Maldives.

The year saw a few foreign heads of state, including Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives — who has since lost power — journeying to Sri Lanka.

An Indian delegation led by National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and comprising the defence secretary and the foreign secretary made a previously unannounced visit to Colombo in June.

Following a chat with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Rajapaksa sent his brother Basil Rajapaksa as a special envoy to New Delhi in October to brief Indian leaders about the steps his government has taken to protect the civilians trapped in the war zone.

An Indian ship carrying 1,700 tonnes of food and other items for Tamil civilians in the north reached Colombo Nov 16. The goods were handed over to the Red Cross to be distributed among the needy in the war zone.

In early September, the LTTE staged a major pre-dawn ground and air assault on an army-air force base in Vavuniya, 250 km north of Colombo. It wounded two Indian radar technicians — embarrassing New Delhi.

Addressing an all-party meeting, Rajapaksa urged the LTTE to surrender its weapons and enter the democratic process to avoid a military defeat.

LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran responded Nov 27, vowing to carry on the separatist campaign despite facing “an intense war as never before”. Extending an olive branch, he called India a “superpower” and urged it to lift the ban on his group.

Prabhakaran showed he can fight — on and on.

The Tigers are offering fierce resistance to the military around Kilinochchi. But if the town does fall, it would be a major loss to the LTTE and a huge politico-military victory to the government.

However, even if that happens, analysts warn that Sri Lanka’s ethnic war will be far from over.

That the government is bracing for more fighting next year was evident when it allocated 177 billion rupees (1.6 billion dollars) for defence in 2009, up from 166 billion rupees in 2008.

Despite their shrinking terrain, LTTE cadres are offering stiff resistance.

With the military saying that the LTTE is throwing its hardcore fighters into the battles, the horrific fighting that has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes is sure to drag on.

(24.12.2008-P. Karunakharan is the Colombo correspondent of IANS. He can be contacted at [email protected])