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Tamil Tigers - 2002-2005 - A Fragile Cease Fire

In December 2001 ceasefire was informally put in place in between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, the same month that Ranil Wickremasinghe won a majority in a Parliamentary election and became Prime Minister, largely based on a platform of seeking a negotiated peace with the (LTTE). The ceasefire was formalized in February 2002 and formal peace negotiations began. The two sides (government and LTTE) agreed to accelerate development projects in war-affected areas.

Throughout this peace process, Tiger motivations and intentions remained a mystery. Did the Tigers give up on their demand for a separate state ("Eelam") when they agreed at Oslo to continue federalism? Or were they just seeking a respite while they re-armed in preparation for a continuing struggle? From the moment the ceasefire was signed, they violated portions of it, showing themselves unwilling to tolerate even peaceful political opposition, as they ruthlessly murdered political opponents. If they never intended to shift to a political struggle, why did they agree to the ceasefire?

The conventional wisdom is that the Tigers realized after Sept 11, 2001 that the international community would no longer accept terrorism as a means to a political end. It was also widely assumed that promises of massive development assistance and a better life for Tamils in Sri Lanka would motivate the Tigers to participate sincerely in the peace process. The Tigers quickly showed that they always subordinated economic goals to preservation of their political dominance, however.

This uncertainty bedeviled the peace process from the beginning. Ranil Wickremasinghe accepted it and set a longer goal. He envisioned the international community as an "international safety net" which would both provide support to his government and put pressure on the Tigers to negotiate. Never denying that the Tigers remained a brutal authoritarian group, he anticipated that the peace process and resultant changes on the ground as development reached the North and East would essentially make the Tigers irrelevant and force them to become a political -- not a military -- group. This was a risky strategy, with long odds to face.

There were some major breakthroughs. For the first time since the armed conflict started, the LTTE put down in writing and sent a proposal. In Oslo in December 2002 the Tigers agreed to "explore a solution...based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka." The proposal from the Tigers was a five-year plan for self-government in parts of Sri Lanka where there is a majority of ethnic Tamils. It was supposed to be discussed during the next round of negotiations. President Kumaratunga criticized the proposal, which she said amounts to virtual separation of Tamil areas from the rest of Sri Lanka.

As of June 2003 the agreement appeared to be dissolving. The LTTE claimed the government has done little to address rebel concerns and deliver on the promises made during the six rounds of peace talks. The LTTE wanted to draft an independent Tamil administration, while the Sri Lankan government was willing to go only as far as granting financial autonomy. The impasse came as involved parties planned to meet in Tokyo for a Sri Lankan financial aid conference. The international community strongly supported this effort, pledging large amounts of development support, and at Tokyo in June 2003 promised some $4.5 billion over three years...but conditional on progress in the peace process.

Trouble was already brewing, however. The Tigers were unable to attend the Washington preparatory conference for Tokyo because of their terrorist status. In April 2003 they suspended participation in the peace talks, complaining that the GSL was hindering development efforts in Tamil areas. They claimed that because of this situation, they would only return to talks to discuss setting up a (Tiger-run) interim administration, and would only discuss final issues after such an administration was up and running. They boycotted the Tokyo Conference. Still, people remained hopeful. The GSL presented its ideas on an interim administration, and the Tigers promised to come up with their own proposal.

The Tigers in fact presented their proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Administration (ISGA) on October 31, 2003. The proposal went far beyond anything which could be described as a federal system, and was clearly unacceptable. But the Tigers expressed a willingness to negotiate. At this point southern domestic politics intervened.

While Ranil Wickremasinghe had taken over as Prime Minister in 2001, his arch-rival Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga remained in the powerful Executive Presidency. The president and prime minister were of different parties, and in Sri Lanka they were elected separately. Ignored and humiliated by Ranil and his colleagues, she struck back on 03 November 2003, taking over for herself three Ministries, including the crucial Defense Ministry. Now that the president was in control of the defense ministry, analysts said it was unclear if the president was in charge of the peace plan or if it remained in the hands of the prime minister. Given the president's hard-line approach to peace negotiations, her actions cast doubt on whether the nearly two-year-old ceasefire with Tamil Tiger rebels from would hold.

The Norwegians said the peace process could only continue once it was clear who is in charge. But they continued to supervise the fragile ceasefire. The rebels said the political bickering in Colombo was undermining the truce, and asked the international community to put pressure on the government to resume negotiations.

An aide to President Kumaratunga said the "excessive internationalization" of the conflict had endangered the country's sovereignty. Norway had played a leading role in the peace process between the rebels and the government. It mediated a truce between the two sides, and helped facilitate six rounds of talks between them since. The Norwegians put peace talks on hold in November 2003, after the political dispute between President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe left doubts about who in the government managed the peace process.

A long-negotiated accord between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the major constituent of the Opposition People's Alliance (PA) and the extremist, Marxist Janantha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party was finally signed on 20 January 2004. In late January 2004 Sri Lanka's Tamil rebels warned that the newly-formed political alliance, including the country's president, could lead the country back into war. The alliance said it planned to review Norway's role as peace mediator between the government and the rebels.

Tamil Rebel leader Anton Balasingham called the political alliance formed between President Chandrika Kumaratunga's Sri Lankan Freedom party and a hard-line Marxist group an "anti-peace pact." Balasingham accused the new alliance of taking "confused" positions on a serious national issue, and said this could create conditions for a resumption of the country's two-decade-long civil war. The alliance said it did not want a return to war, and supports continued negotiations with the rebels.

Kumaratunga and the Tigers began exchanges (through Norway as facilitator) on restarting talks. The Tigers insisted talks should be on "the ISGA," while the GSL was willing to talk about "an interim administration." The two sides also differed on whether and how talks on final issues should commence. There was little progress, as the Tigers showed zero flexibility.

Two external events intruded. In March 2004 LTTE Eastern leader Karuna fell out with the LTTE leadership and broke away. His formal military structure disintegrated when threatened by the Tigers, but his group continued to operate in small units in the East -- with at least the acquiescence, if not the active support, of the government. The political and military exploitation of the ground reality in the east created a situation that is problematic and volatile.

Government-controlled areas were increasingly militarized and the formation of the Karuna Group in 2004 was cited as the single most important recent development in the province. Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, alias Colonel Karuna Amman (Karuna), was formerly the LTTEs commander in the East. Vinayamoorthy Muralitharan, better known as Karuna, was born in 1966 in Kiran, Batticaloa District, Eastern Province. He left school and joined the LTTE in 1983. He served as a member of the Tiger Organization Security Intelligence Service in Chennai, India. He later became LTTE leader Prabhakaran's most trusted confidante and the LTTE's longest serving regional commander with the rank of Colonel.

The other event was the tsunami of December 2004. The tsunami hit both Government and Tiger areas, and immediately afterwards there was considerable on the ground cooperation between the two sides. They also began discussions on a "Joint Mechanism"--later changed to the "Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure"(PTOMS) -- to apportion and administer tsunami reconstruction. After long negotiations, the two sides agreed on PTOMS. This was a major breakthrough, the first time the two sides had been able to agree to work together and share responsibility. The great hope was that a successful PTOMS would build confidence and allow the resumption of peace talks.

Of course this was not to be. Sinhalese nationalist forces in the South filed a case in the Supreme Court, which suspended PTOMS. In another surprise, the court in August 2005 ruled that the Presidential election was due in November that year, not in 2006 as asserted by President Kumaratunga. And in the meantime, violence between the Karuna forces and the LTTE became an almost-everyday occurrence. The Tigers, seeing the hand of the government behind Karuna, began killing government military and some civilians, including Foreign Minister Kadirgamar in August 2005.

In the Presidential election, former PM Ranil Wickremasinghe essentially promised a return to the former peace process, while his rival Mahinda Rajapakse, allied with several Sinhalese chauvinist parties, promised a harder line. President Rajapaksa's victory at the November polls was aided by an LTTE-enforced election boycott in Tamil areas.

Rajapakse won after campaigning on an anti-Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) election manifesto emphasizing Sri Lanka's "unitary" status, but immediately began to back off from his hardline positions. In contrast to his election platform, he asked Norway to stay as facilitator, made positive noises about other international involvement, and agreed to consider maximum devolution of power within a united Sri Lanka. But the new Prime Minister Wickremenayake was widely viewed as a hard-liner on the peace process; he publicly stated that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) should lay down arms before the government will negotiate with them, a clear non-starter.

The LTTE gave new President Rajapakse no breathing space. In his annual speech shortly after the Presidential election, Prabhakaran warned of a return to conflict if Tamil demands were not quickly met. And then the attacks began -- Sri Lankan Navy sailors gunned down, claymore mines blowing up military convoys.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2012 15:16:26 ZULU