Agni Kheela – What Next?
By: D. B. S. Jeyaraj


The Peoples’ Alliance Government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga has proved once again that it epitomises misgovernance at its worst.

Any other regime would have acted speedily and positively to the overtures for peace made by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Two devices were available. One was to have cooperated fully with Norway’s facilitatory efforts and got the Oslo drafted Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) finalised as a preliminary to de-escalate the conflict. The second was to have reciprocated favourably to the LTTE’ s unilateral declaration of a cessation of hostilities. The government has squandered both opportunities and now there is full-scale war on in the north again.

Any government that claims to be democratically elected has a fundamental duty towards the people it claims to represent. It must ensure as far as possible the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. At the very least the people must be protected from harm to life, limb and property.

These are very hard to protect at times of war external or internal. Therefore, any responsible government would do its best to prevent the eruption or outbreak of war in any form. Even in cases where war becomes inevitable a responsible and humane government would seek ways and means to achieve peace as quickly as possible. War must not be institutionalised. This is quite imperative in the case of a developing country like Sri Lanka.

‘War for peace’
Chandrika Kumaratunga tapped into this universal yearning for peace in Sri Lanka in 1994, and obtained an overwhelming mandate for peace. Yet she unleashed a massive war a year later named as a ‘war for peace.’ It was called a war for peace because it was aimed at weakening the LTTE sufficiently to ‘bring them to the negotiating table.’

For several years anybody who was somebody in the peace lobby was asking the LTTE to come to the negotiating table. It was taken for granted that our lady of peace was ever ready to negotiate, and that only the Tigers were being obstructionist. Kumaratunga is ready for peace’, was accepted as an indisputable given.

Last year the LTTE decided to call Kumaratunga’s bluff.

Using the facilitatory efforts of Norway the Tigers made an overture for peace that is well known now. It even went to the extent of declaring a cease-fire unilaterally and sustaining it under great provocation for 121 days.

The LTTE’s peace offensive was not expected to reach its logical conclusion. What the Tigers wanted to prove at the negotiating table was that the Kumaratunga regime was unwilling and unable to accommodate Tamil aspirations and redress their grievances, within a united but not necessarily a unitary Sri Lanka.

They never got that chance.

‘The angel of peace’ displayed no sense of urgency in responding. Instead the nation was witness to a shameful spectacle of filibustering. Everything possible was done to provoke the Tigers into war. Absolutely nothing concrete was done to make the peace process progress.

Finally, the LTTE after four months of maintaining an unrequited cease-fire decided to cease upholding it. Even then it declared its intention to support the peace process. The LTTE press release of April 23 said clearly:

“We remain seriously committed to peace and to peacefully resolving the protracted ethnic conflict though we are compelled to withdraw our self-proclaimed cessation of hostilities, which turned out to be a futile exercise as Sri Lanka has failed to recognise its constructive meaning and purpose. Our liberation organisation will continue to support and cooperate in every possible way with the Norwegian government in its untiring and noble effort to bring about peace and negotiated political settlement to the Tamil national conflict.”

Agni Kheela to the fore
If this government was genuinely desirous of a negotiated peace then it could have tried to salvage the situation even then. The good offices of Norway could have been utilised to get the peace process on track again. Instead, it resorted to full scale warfare again. The government left the LTTE no choice other than to fight back when it launched Operation Agni Kheela, meaning Fire Flame in English or Akkini Chuvaalai in Tamil.

Fighting has escalated and by all accounts the rate of casualties is mounting. It is indeed appalling and deplorable that a government could display such callous disregard for the lives of its people and expose them so easily to carnage and bloodshed. What is it that has made this regime spurn the opportunity for peace and opt for war resulting in death, destruction, displacement and despair?

Various reasons could be trotted out.
But ultimately two good ones stand out as possible causes.

Firstly, the government knows that it can never agree to even the basic demands of the Tamil people when sitting across the negotiating table with the LTTE. It is one thing to present a progressive devolution package, reap international kudos and then systematically whittle it down to practically nothing while claiming to be a friend of the Tamils, but an entirely different thing to engage in negotiations with a dedicated no nonsense type of organisation like the LTTE. The internal and external compulsions of the government would not allow it to even concede on paper anything tangible.

The second reason is the misplaced confidence it has in its armed forces now fortified with newly acquired firepower and air power. It is hoped that the LTTE could be militarily wiped out. So the war is on.

Retaking the peninsula
After 60 hours of fighting [a battle initiated by the Sri Lankan army on 25 April 2001] it is becoming increasingly clear that contrary to boasts by the government that the LTTE was militarily weak, the Tigers possess tremendous resilience and ferocious fighting ability. 

The avowed objective of Agni Kheela is to retake Elephant Pass, but that goal may prove elusive and costly in terms of human losses.

The advantage that the LTTE has is that it is in control of all the entry points to the peninsula. There is a land link from the mainland to the peninsula. So the LTTE has great logistical advantage in ensuring continuous supplies. LTTE supremo Prabakharan along with senior commanders Balraj, Soosai, Bhanu and Theepan are overseeing fighting.

Tigers might avoid civilian targets
The greater danger facing the government is that the LTTE may not confine itself to resisting the army in the peninsula alone. It is militarily advantageous for the LTTE to open up new fronts on a widespread scale and overextend the resources of the armed forces.

It may not be a case of launching a massive operation like operation Unceasing Waves but conducting many small-scale operations on a widespread basis. There are intelligence reports that senior leaders from Batticaloa like Karuna and Karikaalan are back in the east. The Jeyanthan infantry brigade that was raised from eastern recruits is also redeployed in Batticaloa. An eastern front could open up soon.

The ‘Sinhala’ south including Colombo and the Up Country could also become a theatre of war for limited operations. The past six months has seen the LTTE fuming at the government stabilising and prospering in the south because of its cease-fire and commitment to refrain from attacks in the south. Now it would like to destabilise the south. The Tigers may avoid civilian targets and focus on military and economic targets. It could also seek out high profile political and military leaders.

The government would be under great pressure if the LTTE adopts a political assassination campaign. The past months has seen top government figures being relieved of this pressure.

When Norway was trying to formulate the MOU this government insisted on and obtained a moratorium on southern violence as the obligation on the LTTE side. This shows that the top most priority of this regime is to save its own skin collectively and individually.

Will the MOU materialise?
Under these circumstances the very same government that delayed the MOU may now try to get Norway to expedite the MOU, so that the Tigers would be compelled to observe a moratorium on violence. 

Erik Solheim may be asked to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Even the Norwegian government may be approached directly.

It is however improbable that the Tigers will fall into the government trap even if Oslo plays ball with Colombo.

After being treated shabbily for six months by the government the LTTE is in no mood to relent. With the fighting in the north swinging in the LTTE’s favour the overall politico-military conditions too are changing. So the LTTE may be in no mood to sign the MOU as a means to restrict the conflict.

What it may demand however as a price for its consent is that the government should unilaterally do three things namely remove the economic embargo in full, declare an unconditional cease-fire and deproscribe the LTTE. If the government agrees then the LTTE would sign the MOU.

But will the government comply?


Courtesy: Sunday Leader; 29 April 2001