Sri Lanka edging closer to civil war


New Delhi -- One could be forgiven for thinking Sri Lanka is at war.

Yesterday, a landmine attack killed 11 soldiers on the northern Jaffna peninsula, while a policeman was killed patrolling the eastern town of Kalmunai; both attacks were blamed on the ethnic separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Early on Sunday, a pro-rebel parliamentarian was assassinated during Christmas Mass at a Roman Catholic service in Batticaloa, on the east coast; Tamil Tigers blamed it on pro-government militias. On Friday, in the biggest strike since the signing of a cease-fire accord in Feb., 2002, 13 Sri Lankan sailors were killed in an ambush in the island's northwest, and two days before that, Tamil Tigers and the navy clashed at sea, also in the northwest, killing three sailors.

All told, in December alone, 45 Sri Lankan soldiers, sailors and police officers have died, ratcheting up fears of a full-scale retaliation by the Sri Lankan military, which has so far demonstrated restraint, and a resumption of a two-decade-long civil war. Grenade and landmine attacks against military targets have become routine fare in the ethnic Tamil-majority areas under government control, as have targeted assassinations.

On paper, the 2002 cease-fire agreement, monitored by Norway, still holds.

"It's going from bad to worse," said Erik Solheim, Norway's minister of international development, in a telephone interview yesterday. "It's very worrying. It's a kind of shadow war."

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's newly elected president, Mahinda Rajapakse, prepared to meet today with the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, here in the Indian capital. Rajapakse has suggested that he wants New Delhi to play a greater role in the peace talks, which India is unlikely to readily embrace. Indian peacekeepers in the late 1980s suffered defeats in clashes with the Tamil Tigers in the north before pulling out in 1990; the rebels were also blamed in the 1991 suicide attack that killed former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Neither the government nor the Tamil Tigers have repudiated the cease-fire agreement. The question now is whether full-scale war, along the lines of what the country witnessed in the late 1980s and 1990s, will break out once again, or whether an Iraq-style insurgency will simply escalate.

Either way, it does not bode well for the government of Rajapakse, elected last month, nor for the foreign donors who have pumped in millions of dollars rebuilding the country after last December's tsunami.

"The reality on the ground totally decries the cease-fire agreement," Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, a research group, said yesterday. "The atmosphere is of a slide to war."

So far, neither side appears ready to declare war. The Tamil Tigers have said that they will not instigate a war. As for the spate of recent attacks against the military, Tamil Tiger officials have blamed it on the frustrations of Tamil civilians, and repeatedly hinted at their own impatience at the stalled peace process. Indeed, the Tiger chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in a speech last month, threatened to return to war if his group's demands for greater autonomy are not met.

"People are getting restless," the head of the group's political wing, S.P. Thamilchelvan, said in an interview earlier this month in his headquarter town of Kilinochchi.

Rajapakse's government can hardly afford a return to conflict. Already, the escalation of violence has put Rajapakse in a difficult position. Should his administration continue to turn the other cheek in response to military provocations by the rebels, its troops will be increasingly contained within their barracks.

Students of the conflict in Sri Lanka see in the rebel strategy a move to isolate the military in its barracks, on the one hand, and push the government to the bargaining table on the other. Whether the Tamil Tigers will settle for an accord that gives them some limited self-rule, or whether they will continue to push for a homeland of their own remains a subject of debate among Sri Lankans and outsiders who follow its conflict.

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