Sri Lanka: The Karuna Wildcard in Peace Talks

5 MINS READApr 27, 2006 | 21:33 GMT
Violence in Sri Lanka continued April 27, despite assurances by Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that both are committed to peace talks. Though the two sides likely will meet again, a peace agreement is unlikely as long as the splinter Karuna faction remains an active paramilitary force.
The Sri Lankan military has launched a steady barrage of missiles against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam targets since the April 25 suicide bombing that seriously injured army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. The Tigers have denied responsibility for the suicide attack, though the government believes the group that did claim responsibility, the High Security Zone Residents' Liberation Front, is a Tiger front group. The back-and-forth attacks over the past two days have raised concerns that the peace process is all but done, especially in light of increasing communal tensions between the ethnic Sinhalese and the Tamils. Although both sides say they are committed to the process, the wildcard in the process is the status of the renegade Tiger faction led by Col. Karuna. These latest volleys between Colombo and the Tigers are not the only reason the peace process is stumbling, as both sides already had been dragging their feet. The government of recently elected hard-line President Mahinda Rajapakse, for example, has denied Tiger commanders transport from their eastern enclaves — an area surrounded by no-man's land and government-controlled sections — to their headquarters in the northern part of the island for pre-peace-talk meetings. The refusal, despite the government's history of facilitating transport in these cases, led the Tigers to vow to avoid peace talks until the issue was resolved. The Tigers also have delayed talks for several months by continuing to stage minor attacks against government forces. By attacking security forces, the Tigers had hoped to trigger a violent government crackdown — and civilian deaths — giving the Tigers the moral high ground leading into the talks. Furthermore, with this latest attack against the army commander, the Tigers have shown effective martial skills, giving them one more chip at the bargaining table. Despite this recent display of force, however, the Tigers want the peace process to move forward. They are vying with Karuna's faction for the hearts and minds of the Tamil community. Moreover, the Tigers charge Colombo with aiding and supplying the Karuna faction, which has carried out attacks against mainstream Tiger forces since Karuna's split in 2004. There likely is some merit to this argument. The island is a small, heavily militarized environment, making it difficult for an armed faction to operate independently of both the mainstream Tigers and the government. Since Karuna is targeting the Tigers, it would seem that his faction would at least need Colombo to look the other way in order to operate. The Tigers may be far off in claiming that Sri Lankan troops are working hand-in-hand with Karuna, though the troops at least are turning a blind eye to the situation. After all, Karuna's political wing managed to open an office in government-controlled Batticaloa on April 10. It is this fear of the Karuna faction, and the government's support of it, that prompted the Tigers to assassinate Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on Aug. 12, 2005. Colombo, for its part in the peace talks, had agreed in principal to disarm all paramilitary groups and pledged to refrain from military attacks against the Tigers. So far, however, Colombo has denied any involvement with Karuna — who is perhaps the Tigers' biggest fear. Karuna, who commanded the Tiger's eastern enclaves and was an instrumental part of the 2002 cease-fire, apparently split with the Tiger leadership over the desire by some to reject the peace accord. Known as a capable, no-nonsense field commander, Karuna had the best handle on the facts on the ground while he controlled the eastern cadres. In other words, if anyone knows how to defeat the Tigers, it is Karuna. He already has established a political party in Batticaloa, which intends to challenge the Tigers for the leadership of the Tamil cause. The Karuna faction claims the Tigers do not really want a permanent, nonviolent settlement. Karuna charges Tiger leader Prabakaran with killing more Tamils than the Sri Lankan security forces ever have. This adds to the Tigers' dilemma: If peace is achieved, it must seem as if their attacks — not Karuna's political negotiations — are responsible. Meanwhile, the international pressure on Colombo to settle this conflict continues. Sri Lankan donors the United States, Britain, Japan and Norway will meet in Oslo, Norway, on April 28 to discuss possible steps. India, meanwhile, likely will continue to work behind the scenes, putting pressure on Colombo through intermediaries and leaks rather than through official action. India has had its hands full in dealing with the crisis in Nepal and does not need its southern frontier to explode — and more refugees to pour in, especially with elections coming up in Tamil Nadu. India's Congress party cannot afford to be seen as anti-Tamil if it hopes to make gains there. The Tigers, however, cannot abide by any agreement that does not require Karuna to satisfactorily disarm. If Colombo is willing to sacrifice this powerful trump card over the Tigers for the sake of peace, then Sri Lanka could see an end to the years of violence. The more likely outcome, though, is a continuation of the status quo for the foreseeable future.

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