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Fears Of Renewed Sri Lanka War As Tsunami Truce Fades

by Marwaan Macan-Markar
 Tsunami Article Index

Sri Lanka Unites Over Asia Disaster

(IPS) JAFFNA, Sri Lanka -- As the sun sets in this town that has been at the heart of Sri Lanka's two-decade-long ethnic conflict, gentle reminders of life in a time of peace emerge.

The lights come on in homes, shops and in the increasing number of guesthouses -- unlike before, during the conflict, when power was a limited resource. At times, nights were spent in total darkness.

Then there is the ceaseless flow of people on bicycles moving through the streets at dusk. Most have a relaxed, unhurried demeanor, as they pedal in groups, or alone. When the civil war raged, on the other hand, the cyclists were more edgy, due to the nightly curfews and the frequent checks they were subject to at security points manned by government troops.

But as Sri Lanka marked the third anniversary of a ceasefire agreement between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels on Feb. 22, 2002, there are increasing worries that such reminders of life during peace may not be around for long.

Among those tracking this sense of unease is M. V. Kaanamylnathan, chief editor of 'Uthayan,' a leading Tamil language daily newspaper published in this northern Sri Lankan city. 'People here are having doubts about the ceasefire lasting,' he said during an interview in his office.

The disagreement between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) about a suitable mechanism to rebuild the northern and eastern province devastated by the recent tsunami is the latest point of tension, he explained.

'I had hoped the goodwill we saw soon after the tsunami, like the Sinhalese people from the south sending aid to the Tamils in the north, would help,' he added. 'But politics has taken over and suspicions have returned.'

To ease such emerging post-tsunami tensions, the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga has expressed willingness to work with the Tigers until an agreeable mechanism to distribute the flow of foreign aid is created.

'Currently, the emphasis is on working together on post-tsunami reconstruction,' Harim Peris, spokesman for the Sri Lankan president, told IPS. '(The government has sent a) written invitation to the LTTE to participate in the (reconstruction) effort.'

Sri Lanka's death toll from the Dec. 26 tsunami, which battered over three-fourths of its coastline, was 38,000, with a further 800,000 being displaced. This Indian Ocean island was the second worst affected of the 12 countries in South and Southeast Asia hit by the tsunami, which killed over 220,000 people.

Such a staggering death toll from the few minutes of powerful waves rampaging across Sri Lanka's shores equalled to more than half of the 64,000 people who died in over two decades of the ethnic conflict.

Another cause for worry has been the absence of peace talks between Colombo and the LTTE for over 22 months, since the Tamil rebels pulled out after six rounds of discussions. 'Lack of peace talks is putting a serious strain on the ceasefire and creating dangerous uncertainty,' declared Hagrup Haukland, head of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM), on Tuesday in a press release.

Part of that strain stems from the ceasefire violations chronicled by the SLMM, a group made up of five Nordic countries, including Norway -- the peace broker in the Sri Lankan conflict.

The Tamil Tigers, who have been fighting to create a separate state of Tamil Eelam in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, are more at fault. In 2004, the LTTE had committed 2,636 ceasefire violations; as opposed to the 115 committed by the government, states an SLMM report.

It marked a significant increase from the violations the rebels had committed during the first two years after the ceasefire deal was struck. In 2003, the LTTE was accused of 784 violations, as against the 42 by the government, and in 2002, the Tigers had committed 763 violations, as against 46 by the government, adds the SLMM.

Ironically, Tamil civilians -- in particular children -- in the northern and eastern provinces were the main subjects of such violations. The LTTE had conscripted children into its ranks, abducted adults and harassed locals. Last year, for instance, the SLMM recorded 1,490 child recruitment violations perpetrated by the Tigers and 393 cases of adult abductions.

Yet at the same time, Haukland noted that the absence of major clashes between government troops and the LTTE since the ceasefire meant both military forces were willing 'to act with restraint in situations that could have escalated.'

Among the factors that have influenced such restraint on both warring parties is the 'public sentiment on the ground to maintain peace than return to hostilities,' Rauff Hakeem, a parliamentarian who heads the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, told IPS.

The LTTE have also gained politically since the ceasefire, he added. 'They have been enjoying substantial international recognition as a non-state actor.'

Military calculations have also mattered in extending the life of the ceasefire, said Ketheshwaran Loganathan, director of the peace and conflict analysis unit at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank.

'At the time the ceasefire deal was struck, there was a hurting military stalemate,' he explained during an interview. 'And during the first two years after the agreement, the military balance tilted in favour of the LTTE. But last year, the government has gained the edge, aided by the splits in the LTTE's ranks in the east.'

But if this week's tone of the Tigers is anything to go by, the worries of Kaanamylnathan, the editor, are with good reason. For one, S.P. Thamilselvan, the LTTE's political wing leader, when speaking to reporters warned: 'We cannot say for how long we would be able to preserve the ceasefire.'

This threat stems partially from the anger within the LTTE's ranks after the rebels' political chief in the east was killed in government-controlled territory this month. The Tigers view the assassination of E. Kousalyan as part of a 'secret war' the Sri Lankan government has launched.

For long-time Jaffna residents like Selliah Nesakumar, the Anglican archdeacon of this city, the mounting post-tsunami tension has a familiar ring. 'Before the tsunami, there was fear in Jaffna that we would return to war,' he told IPS.

'A ceasefire is not enough for peace,' he added. 'As long as this problem is not settled, there will never be peace of mind here.'

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Albion Monitor February 26, 2005 (

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