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Danger of conflict entering new and deeper phase By Jehan Perera

The current military confrontation between government and LTTE forces in Trincomalee is gradually taking the country to a new and deeper phase of conflict. For the first time since December 2001, ground troops of the government and LTTE are engaged in sustained fighting with each other. Although over three hundred government soldiers have died in the course of this year these had been almost all in hit and run type of attacks. Government troops are now engaged in a major offensive to clear an LTTE blockade of irrigation water. The LTTE has been resisting this government offensive using its own forces on the ground.

If an important feature of war is open and sustained fighting by ground troops for territory, the present fighting would constitute war. The LTTE has written to the international monitoring mission complaining that the government has abandoned the Ceasefire Agreement and declared Eelam War 4. However, because the battle is being fought over an anicut in the Mavil Aru irrigation network, and with relatively limited deployment of troops, the war would still be categorized as a low intensity one. On the other hand, the inevitable nature of fighting is that it is bound to escalate unless decisive remedial action is soon taken.

In addition to the ground fighting, the government has used the occasion to use its air power to bombard LTTE-held areas elsewhere, including an LTTE airstrip in the neighbouring district of Mullaitivu. One of the bombing operations has hit a major LTTE base inflicting a large number of casualties, believed to be in the region of about 50, and also injuring a top level commander. The accuracy of the bombing suggests the possibility of new weaponry in the government arsenal and a greater willingness to countenance a return to full scale war.

Due to the unexpected nature of the crisis, which has been precipitated by the LTTE’s blocking of irrigation water, there is much speculation as to what caused the LTTE to enter into this adventure. LTTE spokespersons have said that the people in their areas have pressurized them into this action.

But military analysts have seen it as part of an LTTE strategy to evict Sinhalese civilians from sections of the east, so as to permit the LTTE to have easy movement in case of major military operations. They see it as an LTTE preparation for a coming war.

While the immediate cause of the fighting is a single water lock, the ultimate goal could be even bigger. There have been concerns expressed that the LTTE aims to stake a claim to the greater body of water resources in the east. The present blockade has resulted in about 1500 families and 30,000 acres of land being affected. The LTTE has a practice of starting small and making bigger demands. The fight for control of natural resources between the government and LTTE could be an issue that could escalate to include other natural resources.

Government confidence In taking the drastic military action it has against the LTTE, the government appears to have drawn confidence from two sources. One is the indefensibility of the LTTE’s action in closing off the water supply to government-controlled areas for whatever reason it may seek to give. Government spokespersons have pointed out that this action violates the Geneva Conventions which prohibit military action that is solely targeted against civilian life supporting infrastructure. There can be no justification for the LTTE to engage in this action.

The second source of governmental confidence may be coming from the observation of the Israeli retaliation in Lebanon against the Hezbollah militancy. Israel has been engaging in aerial bombardment on a massive scale that has caused massive civilian displacement, numbering around half a million. Heart rending photographs of civilian victims are girdling the globe on internet. But the powerful countries of the international community have by and large acquiesced in these Israeli actions.

The government has claimed a humanitarian justification for its military offensive against LTTE positions. If the government’s offensive would actually re-open the water supply then the government position could arguably be vindicated. The livelihoods of 1500 families and the ripening rice harvest on 30,000 acres would be saved. But the reality is proving to be different. The area around the contested water lock has been heavily mined by the LTTE making approach to it difficult. The LTTE has also been calling in reinforcements. Although the Sri Lankan military has given promises of re-opening the water channels for the past several days, this has yet to happen.

Earlier, the LTTE had offered to negotiate on the re-opening of the water lock that they have blocked. They have sought to justify their actions as being in accord with what the peace loving Tamil people living in the areas of their control want. Their position has been that the government should build a water scheme in the neighbouring LTTE-controlled area, which the previous government had promised. They have also argued that the government should not block the flow of cement, steel and other building materials into the areas that they control.

From a humanitarian perspective it would have been preferable if the government had negotiated with the LTTE regarding the re-opening of the water lock. The problem would not have arisen if the LTTE had not blocked the water in the first place.

There might have been a mutually beneficial outcome that served the best interests of the civilians living in both the government-controlled and LTTE-controlled areas if both sides had considered the humanitarian needs of the people as their first priority. But now the neither is the water flowing nor is the supply of building materials going to where they are needed. Instead there is a brutal conflict that is harming both the civilian population as well as the fighting personnel on both sides.

Humanitarian perspective It is well known that the coastal areas of the north east were the worst affected by the tsunami of December 2004. There have been delays in the reconstruction of the infrastructure of the areas under LTTE-control. The government’s recent embargo on the flow of building materials on the grounds that the LTTE could use them has delayed the reconstruction work even more. Regardless of LTTE demands, the government needs to take the people’s concerns into account in responding to this criticism if it wishes the Tamil people of the LTTE-controlled areas to believe in their citizenship of Sri Lanka.

But it seems that the government has another perspective, in addition to the humanitarian one. It sees a sovereign state being held to ransom by a militant organization. It sees a militant organization trying to masquerade as a state and blaming the government for being unable to deliver.

In their own conduct, the US and its close ally, Israel, do not like to negotiate with militant organizations. The Sri Lankan government appears to be following suit. It is using the LTTE’s unacceptable conduct to launch military operations that will weaken the LTTE’s military capacity.

The danger is that the LTTE will not take its military reversals lightly, but will seek to level the score, if not surpass it. Unlike Hezbollah and Lebanon which are outside of Fortress Israel, and which can be kept out, the LTTE is within open and plural Sri Lanka. Certainly the government will be alive to this possibility.

But it has decided to take the risk and seek to contain the LTTE as best as it can. The future is uncertain. What is certain is that the conflict has entered a new and deeper phase.

A similar situation arose in the past in neighbouring India over the waters of the river Rohini.

The Buddha counseled the kings who were leading two armies to battle over the sharing of waters, comparing the value of water with that of life, and they negotiated a settlement.

If the government and LTTE had been prepared to negotiate in a similar manner with spiritually evolved facilitation they may have been able to resolve the problem in a much better way. A solution may have been possible where the water for irrigation flowed once again, and the rebuilding of the infrastructure of the tsunami affected people also recommenced.

Ironically, while the military forces of the government and LTTE were battling it out in Trincomalee, the Vel festival took place in Colombo. Thousands of Tamil Hindu devotees walked and danced on the streets in procession pulling along colourful Vel carts.

Police ensured that even the main roads were clear of traffic for their religious

devotions to take place. As Sinhalese, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims watched from their homes and from the sides of the streets, and made their own silent communion with the divine, there was safety, coexistence and mutual acceptance. This is how the people would live, if only their leaders heed the blessed counsel of the Buddha. -Daily Mirror

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August 1, 2006 - Posted by | Media, Media Journalism, News, News and politics, Press Release, South Asia, World News

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