December 26, 2005Foreign Affairs

In Sri Lanka, they sense a war coming

Unless the international community acts decisively, Sri Lanka will soon return to bloodshed

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Over at the Lanka Libertarian’s blog, they have been smelling a war since early December. Recent events, like the killing of 13 naval personnel by thinly-disguised Tamil Tiger operatives confirm that reading. Similarly, the assassination of a pro-LTTE member of parliament during a church service on Christmas eve, suspected to be at the hands of the rebel Karuna faction of the LTTE but at the behest of the Sri Lankan intelligence only indicates that the country will have to be tremendously lucky to escape renewed hostilities in 2006.

Like Pakistan in the case of Kashmir, the LTTE calculates that a prolonged ceasefire is against its interests. The Tiger leadership has not abandoned its maximalistic position — an independent Tamil homeland — and sees the use of hostilities and ceasefires as means to achieve that end. While the conflict has progressed to a situation where it certainly cannot be resolved on the Sri Lankan government’s own terms, a permanent cessation of violence would create the conditions for a federal’ solution where the Northern and Eastern provinces will secure a higher degree of autonomy, but well short of independence. The LTTEs manipulation of the recent presidential elections, Prabhakaran’s subsequent ultimatum’ and this month’s surge in violence fit that pattern.

So, like what the Lanka Libertarian predicts, is a return to hostilities inevitable? That depends on two factors: first, on the LTTEs estimation of its ability to secure military successes (and avoid losses); and second, on its estimation of international support for its cause. If the LTTE judges that it will be able to secure greater bargaining power in the next round of peace negotiations then it has every incentive to go to war. It follows that the only way war can be prevented is if the LTTE can be disabused of this, perhaps correctly held, belief.

On the first count, external actors are unlikely make a difference to the status-quo. Foreign military involvement or substantial assistance to the Sri Lankan armed forces is unlikely to materialise. Bad memories, political compulsions and poor strategic leadership effectively rule out Indian military assistance. The United States and others are not sufficiently bothered. Therefore, the military factor alone is unlikely to persuade the Tamil Tigers to continue with the current ceasefire.

On the other hand though, a clear signal from the international community — led by India, the United States, Britain and Japan — that they will act decisively against the LTTE if the ceasefire collapses for any reason and that it would be unwise to pursue its goal of an independent Eelam can force Prabhakaran into a rethink. Unfortunately, there is today neither the will nor the cohesion among the key international actors for this to happen.

Given that only a concerted international initiative can prevent Sri Lanka from descending to another bout of bloody violence in the next few months (which can hardly be in India’s interests), the Indian government would do well to move swiftly and coordinate a response from the international community. It also needs to signal to Mahinda Rajapakse, the newly elected president of Sri Lanka, that while he can take a hard line militarily against the Tigers, he will not find Indian support if he moves away from a federal solution politically.

From a security perspective, India should move to deny the Tamil Tigers greater naval or air capabilities. Whatever position India may wish to take with respect to Sri Lanka’s Tamil question, it must deny the LTTE those two very important cards.

The appropriate reaction to Joseph Parajasingham’s assassination, in a church on Christmas eve, should be to concentrate minds and prevent a bloodbath in 2006. But don’t count on it — the Lanka Libertarian could well be proved right.

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