Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Tuesday, 8 January 2008

A grim future foretold for Sri Lanka

By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC News

A bus damaged by a landmine blast in Sri Lanka
Violence is a daily occurrence in Sri Lanka

It had been widely predicted that "2008 would be the year of war for Sri Lanka". The current escalation of violence since 1 January supports those fears.

Scores of Tamil rebels and soldiers have been reported killed in heavy fighting in four fronts of northern Sri Lanka in recent days.

The rebels are offering fierce resistance to the army and there are intermittent battles at sea as well.

A government minister was killed on Tuesday near the capital, Colombo. The government are sure it was the work of the Tigers.

On Sunday the Tigers' intelligence chief, Col Charles, was killed in the north, only two months after SP Thamilselvan, the Tiger's political wing leader, was killed in an air raid in the north.


The New Year gloom intensified when the government announced that it was officially withdrawing from the Norwegian-brokered 2002 ceasefire agreement.

With some 5,000 people killed in the last two years, the ceasefire was nothing more than a piece of paper. Now there are fears that a full-fledged conflict is on the cards.

"The Sri Lankan government will intensify and expedite its war preparations," says Sri Lankan analyst DBS Jeyaraj.

Sri Lanka is a country where the official statements of the military and the rebels often appear to have little bearing on reality.

A Tamil child displaced by the fighting
Thousands of people have been displaced due to the fighting

"Whenever our forces are attacked, we respond. We are not conducting any major military offensive," military spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, told the BBC.

The Sri Lankan government also insists that it has not closed the doors for talks and that it wants to militarily weaken the rebels before entering into any peace negotiations.

One worrying development for human rights is that the Nordic ceasefire monitors, whose mission was set up as part of the 2002 agreement, will no longer have a role to play.

Soon, there will be no independent officials to investigate the violence, making it even harder to verify the claims and counter-claims of the two sides.

Waning interest

The government's decision to abrogate the ceasefire agreement has disappointed major international powers, including neighbouring India.

"We strongly believe that there is no military solution to the issue," an Indian government spokesman said after the Sri Lankan government's announcement on terminating the ceasefire.

International interest in the ethnic conflict now seems to be waning.

Western nations, including the US, had strongly backed the Norwegian-backed peace process.

A Sri Lankan soldier
Heavy fighting is going on in the north

Now their options appear to be limited. Their calls for restraint seem to be having no effect.

From previous experience, the Tamil Tiger rebels can be expected to put up a tough fight, but many doubt their ability to hold on to territory in any protracted confrontations.

The numerically superior government forces might try to inch their way into rebel territory as they did in eastern Sri Lanka last year.

The government claims that their aerial bombardments are also inflicting serious damage to rebel positions elsewhere.

Even abroad the Tamil Tigers have come under pressure.

Their actions in Europe and in the US have come under intense scrutiny and many of their senior representatives have been held in custody under various charges.

Back home the political process is in limbo.

The government had announced the formation of an all-party group in 2006 to discuss a political solution to the war.

The final draft of the proposals is still under discussion and the delay is worrying the Tamil community.

Civilians ignored

As is so often the case in Sri Lanka, it's the civilians that seem to be worst hit.

There are reports of many civilian casualties in government air raids in the north. And civilians are often caught up in Tamil Tiger bomb attacks.

Thousands have been displaced from their homes and there is no sign that many of them will be able to return home.

There are already more than 5,000 civilians displaced in the recent fighting in the north.

Priyanthi Bandara, mother of a Sri Lankan student who died in a bomb explosion on 3 January 2008
Civilians are the hardest hit

Some of them are afraid that they may not be allowed to go back to their homes even if the fighting ends.

They point out that while major clashes ceased in the east some months ago, more than 20,000 civilians are still scattered in various camps for displaced people.

In addition, thousands of civilians, especially Tamils, are living under fear in Colombo and in other areas.

Hundreds of Tamils are routinely rounded up in security sweeps and many are afraid they are being unfairly punished in response to the violence in the north.


"There will be crackdown, mass arrests, expulsions etc of Tamil civilians in Colombo and other places in the south," says analyst DBS Jeyaraj.

"If the rebels carry out an operation in the south it will be used to justify repression in the name of security."

Even Tamil politicians are scared of staying in Colombo.

On this New Year's Day a Tamil lawmaker from the main opposition, T Maheswaran, was gunned down in a Hindu temple in broad daylight in front of many civilians.

Another Tamil lawmaker, Mano Ganesan, a human rights campaigner, has left the country for safety reasons.

All in all, the prospects for peace in Sri Lanka are looking more bleak than ever.

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