Sri Lanka (September 1995)
by Humanitarian Practice Network September 1995

At the time of writing, the situation in Sri Lanka is tense as expectations grow of a September offensive before the monsoon, due in mid-October.

The intense fighting in July was followed by a comparative lull throughout August, but there are fears that the time has been spent in preparation for further offensives by both Government and LTTE during what remains of the dry season.

The hijacking of the Iris Mona ferry linking Trincomalee and the islands west of the Jaffna peninsula at the beginning of September as a lure for naval ships, which were subsequently sunk with the loss of 21 lives, raised tensions.

A number of attacks and bomb blasts in the east of the country are feared to be a ‘warm up’ for greater aggression.

Conflicting reports from both LTTE and Government sides make true estimates of casualties difficult to come by, but it is believed that during the summer, many civilians died both as a result of the Government’s biggest offensive of the 11-year civil war on the Jaffna separatist stronghold on 9 July (Operation Leap Forward), and a failed LTTE suicide bombing when a truck full of explosives blew up prematurely near the Tiger headquarters in Kondavil.

In addition, over 200,000 civilians are reported to have fled their homes in the Jaffna Peninsula following the Government attack. More recently Government tactics seem to be centred upon the deployment of mobile patrols driving into contested ‘behind the lines’ territory.

For the Government to launch yet another military offensive to gain tactical advantage in the Jaffna area at this time would not win it the widespread support it needs to pass its devolution package.

Nor would it be popular with the international community. Access for international humanitarian organisations remains a particularly thorny issue. Relations between the Government and the ICRC broke down in July following the ICRC’s alleged leaking to the press of details of the Government bombing of a church in Jaffna during Operation Leap Forward. ICRC was subsequently forced to suspend shipments of food north after the Government lifted its military curfew on 20 July, and the LTTE refused to give assurances that it would not attack supply ships.

This led to a breakdown in food supplies between mid-July and early-September, when the first escorted shipment since July was made. The press coverage of this rift has since led to the south of the country questioning why the Government is providing food for the north at all.

Moreover, despite urgent communications from aid agencies and NGOs to the Government and medical deputations to Colombo to explain the seriousness of the situation, medical supplies are not getting through to the 200,000 displaced around Jaffna as a result of the fighting.

ICRC officials have urged the Government to send fuel and medicines urgently to the area, but an unofficial blockade is causing great suffering in the already stricken city and hospitals, crammed with the victims – many of them children – of continual bombings of the Tamils.

Overall, for those trying to supply the north and east of the country, moving people to assisted areas, and getting supplies to them, the situation is increasingly difficult.

In its bid to withdraw Tamil support for the Tigers, the Government’s long awaited devolution plans were leaked in late July, but strong opposition to the proposals by the Buddhist clergy do not augur well for their successful acceptance. Despite Sri Lankan President Kumaratunga’s evident optimism, the signs are that the proposals go too far for the Sinhalese and not far enough for the Tamils.

The issues highlighted as particularly divisive include the alleged allocation of 12% of land mass and nearly 70% of coastline to just 7% of the population; fears over the consequences of too much autonomy for the regions.

Predictably perhaps, the LTTE, via its paper the Inside Report also rejected the package, claiming it would be suicide for the LTTE and for the Tamil people.

The government has agreed to redraft the package of proposals to be ready in November. But rumblings of discontent within the ruling SFLP, supposedly due to the absence of the President and her kitchen cabinet at Cabinet meetings, do not give cause for much confidence.

Recent developments in the Government’s relationship with India, after more than a decade of extremely strained relations, have shown considerable improvements in recent months. India’s increasingly indifferent attitude to the success or failure of the Tamils in the north is easing suspicions of Indian imperialism amongst the Sinhalese, and paved the way for a remarkably friendly, if not particularly fruitful, visit by Mrs Kumaratunga to India’s Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao.

Discussions involved a proposal by the Sri Lankan President for a free trade area between India and Sri Lanka, or in practice a preferential trading bloc under the auspices of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).