Big guns silent but war is on

By Ashok K Mehta

(April 29, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian)  The Sri Lankan Government’s unexpected declaration on Monday that combat operations have reached a conclusion and specifying it was not a ceasefire or cessation of hostilities completely ignored the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s unilateral declaration of ceasefire. It was killing two birds with one stone, such is the convenient interpretation of military terminology. Sri Lanka was able to meet the demand of the international community, including that of India and the UN, for restraint, by stopping the use of the Air Force and artillery while continuing ground operations for the humanitarian rescue mission in what is incongruously being called the ‘No Fire Zone’. The fine art of deception was in full play on both sides of the Palk Straits, each side making its own interpretation of what was said or not said about the military offensive. To understand the ‘Southern Great Game’, we have to go back a bit.

On April 23, ahead of an emergency meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, the media reported that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said there can be no military solution of the ethnic problem, “so we are requesting Sri Lankan authorities to have a pause or cessation of hostilities till the last civilian comes out of the conflict zone”. The next day, on April 24, newspapers reported that National Security Adviser MK Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon would go to Sri Lanka to secure immediate cessation of hostilities. On their return from Colombo, Mr Narayanan told newspersons that Sri Lanka was “receptive to our concerns. We are hopeful of a positive outcome and there will be good news soon.”

On April 25, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram was quoted as saying: “It is a humanitarian crisis, we want killings to stop” and that China was fishing in troubled waters. Mr Chidambaram, who has to win an election from Sivaganga, has become the most vocal on the war. He has been telling his constituency that New Delhi has urged Colombo to announce an immediate ceasefire and, while blaming both sides, said the Sri Lankan Government was more to blame.

On April 26, banner headlines read: “Sri Lanka mum on India’s ceasefire plea”. The Secretary to the Sri Lankan President and a key architect of the war, Mr Lalith Weeratunga, told Colombo Page on April 26 that the President received the two Indian envoys and registered their concern about the safety and security of civilians in the conflict zone but there was “no call for ceasefire or halting the military offensive”. The spokespersons of the Congress have spread confusion by alternately referring to the party’s demand for ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, but finally succumbing to the internal affair angle and limiting their expectations to “concrete assurances on the plight of civilians”. Within the Congress, there is a clear anti-LTTE stand. The LTTE-linked Puthinam Tamil Website has faulted Congress president Sonia Gandhi for the killings and sufferings of the Tamils. India will not allow the war to end as Ms Sonia Gandhi will not sleep in peace till the last nail is hammered in V Pirabhakaran’s coffin, it says.

The UPA Government has actively supported the war with moral, material and intelligence support. The BJP is less emotional and more pragmatic about the LTTE. In 2000, after the Sri Lankan debacle at Elephant Pass with the LTTE on the verge of capturing Jaffna, one of its top Government leaders said: “Heavens won’t fall if that happens”. This, after the NDA Government refused a request from Colombo to evacuate its beleaguered Jaffna garrison. The BJP is being more muscular in recommending sanctions against Sri Lanka. No wonder the LTTE is hoping the BJP will come to power and enforce a ceasefire. For that to happen, the LTTE will have to defend the ‘No Fire Zone’ till May 16.

By last Sunday the LTTE was confined to just four sq km of the ‘No Fire Zone’ along with 50,000 civilians. Cleverly, it declared a unilateral cessation of offensive military operations which the Government instantly rejected as a joke, boasting that the Tigers would be history in 48 hours. On Monday, with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi on a fast unto ceasefire in Sri Lanka (Colombo described it as “dishonestly enacting fast drama”) Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government made the vague announcement on conclusion of combat operations, rendered more confusing with the embargo on use of heavy weapons. If operations have ended where is the need for any weapons at all? Incidentally use of heavy weapons was stopped on April 21.

The defence spokesperson said security forces will confine themselves to the humanitarian rescue operation with the use of small arms. In the field, commanders were saying that ground offensive to rescue civilians will continue. Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollogama has attributed the escape last week of a 100,000 civilians from the ‘No Fire Zone’ to the rescue mission which is part of ‘Operation Final Countdown’ involving 60,000 troops. “When we had a 48-hour humanitarian pause, only 146 civilians were able to get out.”

The decision to scale down operations was made in the face of mounting pressure from the UN, Tokyo Donors Co-Chairs — the US, Japan, the EU and Norway — and India. The International Monetary Fund is about to decide on a $ 1.9 billion bailout package for Sri Lanka.

A discussion on the humanitarian situation resulting from the war in Sri Lanka, twice blocked by Russia and China at the United Nations, was held on Monday. The Foreign Ministers of the UK, France and Sweden are scheduled to arrive in Colombo on Tuesday, seeking reciprocation from Colombo to the LTTE’s unilateral declaration of ceasefire.

The priority objective of the rescue mission is the capture of Pirabhakaran which alone will signify total victory. The LTTE strategy is banking on an eventual ceasefire, amnesty and dialogue/safe passage. Otherwise, it’s the cyanide capsule. Escape appears out of the question, given the tight trap laid by the military who are under tremendous pressure to end the rescue operation quickly by plucking out Pirabhakaran from the ‘No Fire Zone’. The longer the delay in seizing Pirabhakaran, the greater the external pressure on a ceasefire and access to UN observers in the ‘No Fire Zone’.

Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa has often talked of his admiration for ‘fighting’ rescue missions like Israel’s in Entebbe and Russia’s in Beslan where 300 hostages were killed in the operation. The Rajapaksa brothers are pitted against the world’s wiliest guerrilla commander. Rescue will not be easy or clean.

Meanwhile, many in India are taking credit for the phony truce/ceasefire. After 6,500 civilians killed and 14,000 wounded between January 15 and April 15 , 2009, as claimed by UN, it is rather late to celebrate ‘conclusion’ of combat operations.
-Sri Lanka Guardian