A Pause to the Pause?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

(April 20, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) One more ‘pause’ has come and gone in Sri Lanka’s ethnic war, but unlike the first time round, there was no escape for the trapped civilians, whatever be their numbers. This has put the burden back on the international community, for which the end of the precipitous stalemate will have lessons in fighting the ‘global war’ on terrorism, just as ‘hostage-taking’ by the LTTE has had.

There can be no two opinions also about the plight of the trapped civilians, whose numbers run into tens of thousands, yet. No man in his senses would question the need for ensuring the safety and security of those hapless people – and for them to live the life of ordinary human beings in ordinary circumstances.

All of this means that these people would have to come out of the ‘LTTE net’. There definitely is a need for the Sri Lankan forces to halt the war, or at least give long ‘pauses’ thereof for the civilians to walk into freedom. For this to happen, these hapless victims of a helpless situation would have to defy the LTTE guns, which were supposed to be defending them, protecting them.

It is sad that the LTTE did not respond positively to the ‘pause’ by letting at least a few thousand civilians to leave to relative safety – even if it is to the transit camps for the IDPs put up by the Government, which some Tamil groups would like to describe as ‘concentration camps’. The international community can hold the Sri Lankan State accountable for such safety, not where they are trapped at present.

It is not as if the LTTE’s predicament in not wanting to let go off the civilians is not understandable – just as it is not acceptable. Taking all humanitarian aspects out of it, there is no denying the fact that the safety and the security of the LTTE leaders and cadres alike rests not any more on the limited weapons under their command in the increasingly shrinking ground under their control. They lie only in continuing to hold the tens of thousands of civilians, hostage.

Obviously, the LTTE does not want to lose the numbers, which is the only cover that they have. It is more so after they have been forced out of the jungles, onto the sea-front that is open to the skies. Obviously, the LTTE leadership had not bargained for it when it was beginning to happen.

Certainly, the strategic community did not provide for the tactics and capabilities of the Sri Lankan armed forces to push the LTTE out of the jungles. But then, they also did not seem to have worked out the possibilities in the LTTE taking the civilians with them. There is no knowing if the security forces had foreseen the current stalemate, but the temptation is to conclude that they did not.

With the limited number of cadres and weaponry at their command, it would be foolhardy to expect the LTTE war-machine to let go of the civilians, whether at one go or otherwise. Even instalment-releases during successive pauses would have limited appeal for the LTTE as their game would be up one day, sooner or later. Such a situation could also force a civilian rebellion inside the LTTE-controlled area, which euphemistically continues to be called the ‘No-Fire Zone’.

Though the second ‘pause’ in three months has not revived hopes or retained any from the earlier one, there is increasing pressure on the Government to extend the same, if not make it permanent. However, even a full-fledged ceasefire would not have any effect unless it is on the LTTE’s terms. The outfit’s announcement in this regard talks about talks to find a political solution but does not say anything about laying down arms – a pre-condition laid down by the Government.

Having promised an ‘international safety-net’ while Colombo signed the Norway-facilitated Cease-fire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE in 2002, and having treated the Sri Lankan Government’s repeated pointers on the ‘human shield’ issue over the past years with indifference that it did not deserve, the international community could only wring its hands in despair and sheer helplessness, now. They have lessons to learn from the current situation, just as they have lessons to teach.

The coming days are cruel for all those in the LTTE-controlled area. That includes the LTTE cadres and leaders alike. With summer rains already lashing these parts, and Sri Lanka’s famous monsoon season ahead for months together, an outbreak of epidemic could prove more fatal than aerial bombing and artillery attacks, if that is what is feared the worst at present.

It is not as if that Sri Lanka as a tropical country has not had its annual share of epidemic outbreaks, particularly with the rain reason. ‘General Epidemic’, if ordered out, would not respect bunkers, nor would it fear reputations. Apart from a fight to the finish, or one with hopes of a reversal in the current fortunes, it is one more option that the entrapped leadership would have to consider.

There is one other, in the form of walking out of the trap, and seeking political asylum. That would require the blessings of the Sri Lankan Government, and the commitment and cooperation of the armed forces. For now, the Government has flatly denied reports of such a possibility. But the continuing stalemate could influence a re-think.

The alternative would be for the armed forces to bulldoze their way into the LTTE-controlled area, inflicting heavy human casualty, yet not knowing how and when the war would end. It is anybody’s guess if the Government would still want to have Tamil civilian blood in its hand, which would not be an accident of history but the result of a cold-blooded military tactic. It is the latter that would be the birth-place of future generations of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka.

At the end of the day, the Sri Lankan State may not find what they want – neither a body, nor the person. Another ‘Osama myth’ alone would have been created. Sri Lanka, like the mightier US before it, would not know whether to hunt for those whom they would know not continued to exist. The current glory of an imminent/inevitable war victory could well be replaced by an unsure outcome and unpredictable conclusion.

-Sri Lanka Guardian