The LTTE will negotiate only with parity of military status
Mr. Anton Balasingham says that the India Sri Lanka Defence Co-operation Agreement (DCA) will "upset the balance of forces to the disadvantage of the LTTE". The Tigers have accused Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of trying to tilt the military equilibrium by weaving an international safety net.
I formulated the concept of the balance of forces between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces as the basis for the ceasefire agreement in a paper presented at a conference in Switzerland in April 2002. (Lt. Gen. Gerry de Silva presented the Army's point of view. But Chatham House rules prevent me from discussing details of the matter here).
I argued that the LTTE leadership decided to start negotiations with the Government of Sri Lanka because they were unequivocally satisfied by December 2000 that they had achieved a strategic parity with the Sri Lankan armed forces and were in a position to sustain that parity, barring an overwhelming and sustained external military intervention.
Why does the LTTE deem strategic parity so necessary for sustaining the ceasefire? - Or indeed the whole peace process itself?
Everyone who firmly and unshakably believes that Prabhakaran is an irredeemable militarist/terrorist would find it hard to swallow my explanation that the concept of strategic parity has a fundamentally political dimension to it. (They might rather continue to indulge in the rather comforting view that the LTTE leader was so terrified by the wrath of America after September 11 that he sued unconditionally for peace)
Here one should emphasise that the Tigers consider military power first and foremost as a means to negotiate political ends. To negotiate effectively one should have a clear understanding of the 'negotiating behaviour' of one's opponent.
What has been the GOSL's negotiating behaviour in the past? It has either entered negotiations if and when it felt that it could effectively water down Tamil demands or when it was under strong military pressure.
There have been only two instances in which the GOSL actually implemented 'solutions' - one was the District Development Councils, the other was the Provincial Councils. The former is an instance of the watering down the Tamil negotiating position to fit perfectly into the unitary state structure and the latter is an instance of responding to unavoidable military pressure.
The TULF asked the Tamils in the northeast for a mandate to establish a separate sovereign state in 1977, entered into negotiations with the GOSL and three years later came back with the District Development Council idea which was a silly travesty of devolution. The threat of Indian invasion made J.R. Jayewardene sign the Indo Lanka Accord, under which the Provincial Councils were established.
Therefore the LTTE sees military pressure as being essential to critically influence the GOSL's negotiating behaviour. The converse of this is that the GOSL would seek total surrender and elimination of all legitimate Tamil aspirations if it has internally unchallengeable military prowess.
This argument tends to hold water with many Tamils. What did the President do when the LTTE declared a ceasefire unilaterally on December 24, 2000? She rejected it out of hand, imperiously and rashly. She did it every time the LTTE extended the ceasefire until April 2001.
It was obvious that she was rejecting the LTTE ceasefire because she was confident (or made to feel so) that the Agni Khiela Operation for which the military was making major preparations during the ceasefire was going to succeed.
Reminders of War (Courtesy Kataragama Devotees Trust)
LTTE commanders often state that if the Agni Khiela offensive had succeeded then President Kumaratunga would have ordered the army to move on towards Elephant Pass and hence relegated the question of starting peace talks to the backburner.
Norway, wittingly or unwittingly, provided a singular window of opportunity to the military for planning the offensive and for achieving a concentration of forces in Jaffna.
The LTTE ceasefire, declared unilaterally as a goodwill gesture on the eve of Christmas in December 2000 consequent to discussions with Norwegian facilitators helped the military gather together some of its best but war battered divisions and train for four months in Jaffna, unhampered by distracting force deployments that may have otherwise been necessitated by offensives and attacks by the Liberation Tigers in the northeast.
The army may not have been able to achieve the necessary concentration of force to launch Op. Agni Khiela if not for this window of opportunity that was opened by the LTTE's ceasefire. Norway, Britain and the US were not unaware of the preparations for the offensive by the SLA.
Sri Lankan armed forces commanders insisted at the time that the southern parts of Jaffna had to be recaptured from the Tigers to ensure Colombo's hold on the peninsula. They particularly wanted to deny the LTTE the only all weather over land supply route to the peninsula at Elephant Pass (EPS).
Undisputed control over the EPS causeway, the coast between Chundikulam and Nagar Kovil and the terrain in Pallai for concentration of forces had, in their eyes, tilted the overall strategic balance of the Eelam War, at least geographically, in the LTTE's favour.
Historically, the southern parts of Jaffna have been its Achilles Heel. In colonial and pre-colonial times, military forces from the mainland intent on capturing Jaffna entrenched themselves in the Pachchilaipalli Division, encompassing Pallai and Iyakkachchi, before launching their main thrust into the peninsula.
On 16 September 1628 when a large force from the mainland entered Pachchilaipalli and dug in there against the Portuguese rulers of Jaffna, the greater part of the Tamils in Jaffna are said to have joined the invaders who were hence able to swiftly advance on the Fort and lay siege to it for 13 days. The Portuguese were threatened similarly the next year too. They were able to hold the peninsula only because they defeated the encamped mainland forces in Pachchilaipalli itself.
"He who holds Elephant Pass owns Jaffna", said Balraj, one of LTTE's most senior military commanders, addressing a public meeting in the Vanni last year. Another key aspect of the balance of forces that the LTTE was able to achieve before it decided to declare a ceasefire unilaterally in December 2000 was its hold on southern Trincomalee.
Elephant Pass and surroundings
Much has been written about the threat posed to Trincomalee harbour by LTTE forces in Mutur. Prabhaharan's hold on Trincomalee and Mutur and the necessary concentration of forces that he has massed (or can potentially mass) in these strategic vantage points define the strategic parity that underpins his negotiating strategy.
This is a critical check on any move by the GOSL to tilt the balance of forces on the ground in its favour. The LTTE leader is negotiating with a firm grip on the jugulars of Jaffna and Trincomalee. The India Sri Lanka Defence Agreement will do naught to loosen the grip.
If they have any understanding of these matters, the President and Prime Minister should re-start negotiations as soon as possible without letting the winds of political change in the south close the valuable window of opportunity the LTTE will hold open as long as it is certain of sustaining the strategic parity it achieved at great cost.
Posted January 27, 2004