Wednesday, Oct 15, 2003
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By Iqbal Athas
WHAT IS easily the most critical phase in Sri Lanka's near two-decade-old separatist war will unfold in the coming weeks: that is when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) spells out its demands to end the bloody ethnic conflict. It will be the first time in the history of its "armed struggle" that the organisation will put forward "counter-proposals" a response to the Government's offer of a provisional interim administration for the North-East. Whatever character such demands may assume, there is no doubt they will have both political and security implications not only for Sri Lanka, but, equally importantly, for neighbouring India.
After five rounds of peace talks since the ceasefire agreement of February 22, 2002, the Tiger rebels pulled out in April 2003. Their demand is for an interim administration with "full powers". The Government responded with two different sets of proposals, one after the other, only to find them rejected. The offer of a provisional interim administration sans police, security, land and revenue followed. Although it does not meet "Tamil aspirations", the LTTE said it would consider the offer without rejecting it outright. Hence the "counter-proposals". The Tigers have made it unequivocally clear that the future of the ceasefire will depend on the Government's response.
From his secure hideout in the jungles of Mullaitivu, the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabakaran, seems to be as adept politically as he is militarily. He is keeping both Government and Opposition leaders in awe and suspense in the run-up to the catalogue of demands in the making. It is not that he is making them nervous only about what he will ask for. Exacerbating that tension are the puzzling secret demands and preparations he is making. Both aspects are worrying not only the local intelligence community but also to their friendly counterparts.
One such demand, a most obliging Sri Lankan Government found, could not be made without rupturing relations with India. Norwegian peace facilitators, who were in Colombo last month, wished to know whether the Government had any objections to the inclusion of Shanmugam Kumaran Tharmalingam as a member of the rebel delegation at future peace talks. The Norwegians had checked, through their own channels; the man had not come to their adverse notice.
At first glance, the name, like the names of most other rebels, seemed harmless. But 48-year-old Tharmalingam was no ordinary rebel cadre. In fact, that was just one of more than 23 names by which he was known. Perhaps that was how the Norwegians learnt he had not come to their adverse notice. The man is better known as Kumaran Pathmanathan or simply "KP".
He heads the notorious KP Department, the procurement arm of the LTTE. He is the man responsible for equipping the rebels with a modern day arsenal to fight a high intensity war. He procured state-of-the-art military hardware, paid for them through secret bank accounts, and ensured they were shipped. He is elusive. His actions are secretive. He is known to keep direct contact only with Mr. Prabakaran. Some of the world's best-known intelligence agencies, such as America's CIA and Britain's MI 5, have been on his trail. More often than not, local intelligence agencies on his trail have lost track as he hopped from one country to another. He was known to frequent Thailand.
It was a cursory check that revealed the facts. The Interpol Headquarters in Lyons, France had issued a Red Notice so called on account of the red-flagged corner containing a description, complete with photograph and other details. The red notice said "Tharmalingam is alleged to have been involved in the murder of Rajiv Gandhi on 21 May 1991 in Tamil Nadu, India."
Theories abound on why Mr. Prabakaran made the request. Quite simply, getting on the list of peace negotiators would mean KP would be off the list of the world's most wanted men. With Sri Lanka's approval, the Norwegian facilitators would have made sure of that.
If that demand has not been accepted, evidence of further preparations for a weapons build-up has surfaced. This week Sri Lanka's national intelligence agency, the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII), appealed to friendly foreign intelligence agencies for help to obtain details of a rebel arms ship, Agasthi. This followed reports that a rebel cadre bit a cyanide capsule and committed suicide on board when authorities intercepted the vessel in an Indonesian port. Reports reaching the DII spoke of rebels paying heavy bribes to secure the release of both the dead body and the vessel.
The move saw the Sri Lankan Navy in the North-Eastern port city of Trincomalee being placed on full alert. Its only India-built Advanced Off-shore Patrol Vessel (AOPV) is scouring the deep seas while a newly acquired U.S.-built Beechcraft, fully equipped with modern radar, is conducting air patrols.
The Tigers are going in for more state-of-the-art weaponry including surface-to-air, surface-to-surface-missiles and micro-light aircraft for an air wing, according to Sri Lankan intelligence sources, as part of planned efforts to strengthen their military machine. This is during the near 20-month-old ceasefire. Since the ceasefire agreement was signed, regional rebel leaders have been personally tasked to accomplish recruitment targets. This includes enlistment of "Eelappadai" (an Eelam civilian militia) where a salary of Rs 3,000 per month is paid. According to intelligence sources, the total rebel strength, which stood at 9,390 before the ceasefire, has risen to 19,750. This includes the civilian militia.
At least 30 per cent of the cadres are child soldiers, according to these sources. On October 9, the rebels held a highly publicised ceremony in Kilinochchi to announce the release of 49 boys and girls. They were to go to a rehabilitation camp jointly run by the rebels and UNICEF. The move, ahead of the release of the LTTE "counter proposals," was undoubtedly an image-building exercise. But four days later, both UNICEF and the Norwegian peace monitors accused the rebels of continuing child abductions. There were 22 cases documented from the eastern Batticaloa district.
During the ceasefire, the ruling United National Front was keen to undo what its political predecessors did by trying to lease out the sprawling World War II Oil Tanks in Trincomalee to a U. S. firm a move that angered late Indian Premier Indira Gandhi and led to the birth of Tamil militancy. The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, which saw Indian peacekeeping troops in Sri Lanka, forbade the lease of these tanks without New Delhi's imprimatur. Nearly a third of these 100 giant tanks, each with a capacity of a million gallons, were leased out to the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC).
The Sunday Times newspaper in Colombo revealed how the rebels had opened up new camps, re-occupied ones they abandoned, and were changing the security balance in the area. The virtual siege threatened not only Sri Lanka's but also India's security interests, the newspaper said. The opposition People's Alliance seized the issue and cautioned leaders in New Delhi. This week Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana, admitted that the Tigers "have gradually crept in and established a stronger foothold." He told Parliament that this "all important factor" had been taken into "consideration" and "strategies structured" to meet any eventuality.
Mounting security concerns arising from rebel preparations and actions have jolted the Government into action. Despite the ceasefire, increased allocations are being made in next month's budget for defence. Hurried procurements are being made largely from Russia, China and Israel to update equipment for Army, Navy and Air Force.
While readying the armed forces, the Government appears to have opened up another front. A draft law, formulated for the third time, to deprive President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who is Commander-in-Chief, of her powers over defence and security is to be moved in Parliament. The Government argues that these laws are based on "defence reforms". A Committee tasked to undertake the exercise has run into controversy since its only military member is a former Army Commander who retired long before the outbreak of the separatist war. There have also been complaints from the military its ranks have not been consulted. Evidently, the Government wants to ensure it has control over the country's defence establishment should security concerns increase due to difficult demands from the LTTE. But President Kumaratunga's lawyers are preparing to move the Supreme Court to challenge its constitutionality.
In a move to send a strong signal to the Government that she is still the Commander-in-Chief, President Kumaratunga this week extended the term of office of the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, until June 30, 2004. She also named the Army Chief, due to retire at the end of the year, the Chief of Defence Staff. This is the first time a senior-most serving commander has been appointed to this position.
He will, as in the United States and India, have legal powers to give orders not only to the Army but also to the Navy and Air Force. For the Government, battles loom on two fronts, one the LTTE front and the other the President Kumaratunga front. It seems likely that the first salvo will come not from the rebels but from the President. Either way, there appears to be little choice for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
(The writer, a specialist on Sri Lankan military and security matters, is Consultant Editor and Defence Correspondent, The Sunday Times, Colombo, and Correspondent for CNN, Jane's Defence Weekly, and The Sunday Times, London.)
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