Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

So close and yet so far: From Pooneryn to peace in Sri Lanka

The military have now taken the strategic western town of Pooneryn, thus opening up the A-32 highway that links Mantota and the former along the western flank of the Northern Province. This would enable the linking up (via the causeway that traverses the Jaffna lagoon) of the peninsula with the mainland for the first time since Eelam War II. Supplies, both economic and military could thus be transported to government-controlled Jaffna, providing relief to its people. Days after Pooneryn, the military claimed the town of Mankulam, also of high strategic value for being the crucial junction of the A-9 and A-34 highways, the latter that links Mullattivu to the former. This would be essential in a future push to capture Mullattivu, which has been home to one of two major bases of the LTTE (the other being Elephant Pass) and the headquarters for the Sea Tigers. But for the moment, the emphasis will be on gaining further ground along the A-9 in a push towards Kilinochchi. Efforts to take Kilonochchi have not been easy with the much discussed earthen bund, trenches and the heavy monsoonal rains slowing down progress. With indications of a retained hardcore of LTTE cadres currently defending its frontlines in the Vanni, the going would be tougher than Colombo would readily admit. That said, in considering recent gains, the taking of Kilinochchi seems imminent, if behind schedule. But military strategists would focus their sights beyond Kilinochchi, the capture of which would be little more than a morale booster for Sri Lankan troops – although according to at least one analyst, reaching Kilinochchi would bring guerilla targets in the Mullattivu district within artillery range. (Athas, Sunday Times, 16.11.2008). The real aim of the current northern push for the time being anyway would be Paranthan, the strategic junction that links the A-9 highway to Jaffna, the A-35 to Mullattivu and the road westwards to Pooneryn. The latter town now being under the Army’s control would mean that Paranthan, if captured, would pave the way to retake the sprawling military complex at Elephant Pass that was lost to the LTTE in 2000. The Army’s forward defence lines at Kilali, Muhamalai and Nagarkovil, all north of Elephant Pass, would facilitate an upward push from Paranthan south of the base. This would box the LTTE in and force them to defend the base. Retreating across the Jaffna lagoon is now a limited option due to a troop presence that could by then be expected along the Pooneryn-Paranthan axis. Thus, limited escape options would in all probability, entail retreat by sea towards Mullattivu. Hence, the reason for the Army’s Task Force III to effect a simultaneous assault on Mullattivu both along the A-34 from Mankulum and from south of the town, upward and outward to capture the littoral from the front lines at Kumalamunai, northwest of the Nayaru lagoon, where the Army’s 59 division is presently encamped. This would force the LTTE to fight a conventional battle on two fronts. Assuming Paranthan is taken, LTTE supplies to Mullattivu would be cut off, which would in turn facilitate a multi-directional push by the Army to reclaim the town (lost in 1996). From a military standpoint, this is important. It would in effect also be the last major base of the Sea Tigers to fall into the hands of government troops. By all indications, an impending battle at Mullattivu could be the last major conventional battle of Eelam War IV.

The LTTE’s conventional military defeat is imminent. But indications of a return to guerilla tactics for which they are renowned, is also certain. The Tigers can be expected to defend Paranthan, Elephant Pass and Mullattivu but expecting them to perish when the towns are taken would be unrealistic. Fighting to the last would be antithetical to the LTTE’s project and they could thus be expected to withdraw to the Vanni jungles retaining a much smaller hardcore. The modus operandi could then be expected to shift back to ‘classical guerilla’ mode ambush, hit and run tactics. The aim would be a low-intensity war of attrition, targeted to destabilize the political structures of a government-controlled northern province and to cannibalize at the social fabric of northern Tamil society through infiltration, threats and intimidation, in a bid to weaken any prospective Tamil support to a provincial government in the north.

While the government’s military project has effectively weakened the military strength of the LTTE, it has admittedly grossly neglected nurturing and developing parallel political structures. Indeed, despite the much vaunted provincial administration in the East, that project has been bereft with its own setbacks. At the outset itself, power brokers in Colombo ensured friction between the Tamils and the Muslims – Pillayan and Hizbullah were made to battle it out for the position of Chief Minister, with both claiming the post on the basis of a presidential intimation, at the least. This in turn, stoked inherent suspicions and simmering tensions. Violence in the majority Muslim towns of Kattankudy and Eravur in Tamil populous Batticoloa district were natural outcomes. The unrest cast a dark shadow over prospects of improved security in the aftermath of the May 10 polls. Karuna’s return from London stoked old tensions within the TMVP itself and has of late, spilled into bloodbaths on the streets of the East (and if Pillayan is to be believed, also onto those in Colombo’s suburbia). A weakened Tamil nationalist front in the East has made ideal proxies for Colombo’s incumbents, the former certainly being in no position to assert itself over the latter. Thus, serving the purpose of power-sharing stands defeated in round one itself.

Further factional feuding has also surfaced. The EPDP (a member of the government) was involved in clashes with the TMVP and internecine killings of those from both groups have been blamed on the other. The LTTE, who are known to operate pockets of cadres in the East have thus been provided with an ideal cover under which to continue their political assassinations in the province. All communities in the east remain deeply suspicious and afraid; indeed, even the Sinhala community has been affected, as the recent murder of a Sinhala student at the Eastern University has demonstrated. Tensions over land have also figured prominently in the east, and the dispute, with allegations of pork-barreling, over tsunami housing in Digavapiya (Ampara district) is just one example. Muslims in the east are reportedly too afraid to return to cultivate their lands for fear of violent reprisals at the hands of interested parties. The result has simply been limited political stability and a lack of legitimacy for the provincial government. Human security has suffered the most. For a people who have long suffered at the hands of the LTTE, the new masters in the ‘liberated’ province are far from saviors. A case of choosing the better devil may thus bring them little solace. So the success of the political structures in the East is clearly suspect.

This casts heavy doubt over the President’s intentions with regard to the APRC. Despite the many promises, including to New Delhi, involving the TMVP in deliberations as a Tamil partner in democratic politics is farcical at this stage, given the weakened, fractured nature of the party-cum-paramilitary group, which now has questionable legitimacy among the very Tamils it claims to represent. Its own survival has been closely linked with a patron-client like alliance with the central government, not least to ensure for itself the crucial aspects of personal protection and funding. This would in turn only forebode a similar fate for a future northern provincial government under the most likely Chief Ministerial candidate-in-waiting, the EPDP member for Jaffna and cabinet minister Douglas Devananda. Both the TMVP and the EPDP run the risk, like many Tamils before them, of being seen as turncoats or sellouts on the Tamil cause, thus loosing legitimacy among Tamils in the north and east. So the hype around the promises of devolution and a political – as opposed to a military – solution is regrettably misplaced; the rhetoric is clearly unfounded. What is required as a political alternative to the LTTE is not merely elevating Tamils to public office but also empowering them through decision-making autonomy and ensuring their accountability to the electors.

With regard to a political proposal, the distancing from and outright rejection of the ‘majority report’ of the panel of experts that recommended extensive devolution and constitutional reform that would include a second chamber of parliament, indicates with little doubt that any devolution offered would be minimalist. This was further reinforced with the APRC’s much watered down proposals to the President in January that recommended that the ‘relevant provisions’ of the 13th Amendment be introduced. If this offers the slightest indication, any political ‘solution’ offered by the government would in effect, be ‘13th Amendment minus,’ or otherwise stated, pre-1987!

Thus, hopes of fresh ideas and new, workable solutions to ensure a lasting peace remain, at this stage at least, alas, a distant dream.