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LTTE sends mixed signals

By V.S. Sambandan

COLOMBO, DEC. 23. In a sign of increasing belligerence, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has started sending mixed signals of war and peace from northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The "political campaign" for the resumption of the stalled talks is matched in equal measure by the threat of a slide to hostilities, if the LTTE's demand to restart negotiations based on its proposals for an interim self-governing authority is not met.

Since the November 27 Heroes' Day speech by the LTTE leader, V. Prabakaran, in which he said there would be no option but to "advance the freedom struggle," the Tigers are beating the war drums, particularly in the northern districts. According to Tamil sources, familiar notes from the past have resurfaced in both Government-held and rebel-controlled areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, giving the impression that the situation is gradually sliding to a possible resumption of hostilities.

`Fighting is imminent'

"The talks have fizzled out like a [Deepavali] flower-pot," an LTTE pamphlet being distributed in the north says, according to sources. "One member from each family" is another familiar strain from the past, calling for recruits to join the LTTE's fighting forces. The underlying theme in the campaigns, sources say, is that "fighting is imminent." The political agitations since November 27 have now taken a new turn with "human chains" being organised in Jaffna demanding "permanent peace."

As the peace deadlock continues, the Sri Lankan conflict resolution process is entering a period of a protracted stalemate, which needs to be managed prudently, Jayadeva Uyangoda, Head of Political Science, University of Colombo, told The Hindu. "Stalemate management is the top-most priority of the peace process."

Lack of mutual trust

The mixed signals "being sent by both sides indicates the total lack of mutual trust," he said. "A unilateral return to war is not the best BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement)." The facilitators and the international community should now examine the BATNAs available to both sides and design their strategies to take forward the peace process accordingly, Dr. Uyangoda said.

By sending mixed signals, the LTTE has, to a large extent, succeeded in lulling a politically divided southern Sri Lankan into a sense of hesitant complacency as its current signals are seen as either "mere psychological operations" or "a real threat" but both aimed at resuming talks. A "limited military strike" is also not being ruled out.

"After a military strike and the LTTE making its point, it could hope on its western backers to bring pressure on the Government to resume talks," a political observer said.

Recruitment call

"It is clear that they are getting militarily prepared," a Defence source said. Senior Tamil residents in the north see a distant parallel to the current political and military recruitment drive to the late 1980s, when the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) was in Sri Lanka.

The present situation in the north, the sources say, "is not as severe as it was during the full-scale war in the 1990s, but more like the pre-IPKF hostilities." Pointing out that before the LTTE took on the IPKF, it had launched a "people's agitation," Tamil sources said: "In any militant group, the ordinary people have no say, they will finally have to follow what the group says."

The present politico-military belligerence, involving civilians and parliamentarians, combined with shrill recruitment calls, is likely to go on for some time, "until the conditions for hostilities are set."

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