THREE WEEKS ago, as the world focused on the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, another massive campaign was moving ahead in northeastern Sri Lanka, pitting government forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Designated a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union, and India, the LTTE has sought to carve out an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east since it began its violent insurgency in 1983. Sri Lanka, a small teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India, has a population of approximately 21 million, with the majority Sinhalese comprising 70 percent of the population, Tamils 18 percent, and Muslims 9 percent.
The twenty-six-year civil war in Sri Lanka has become one of the world’s forgotten conflicts, despite leaving 70,000 people dead, as estimated by numerous media sources. After several failed attempts at a viable peace agreement—including a six-year Norway-brokered ceasefire that ended in January 2008—Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has put all his weight behind a massive military onslaught to defeat the LTTE. Military spending has swelled to about 20 percent of the national budget and, unlike past governments, the Rajapaksa administration has given the military its full support to defeat the LTTE.
But a military operation alone, however successful it may be, will not bring a lasting peace to Sri Lanka. In 2007, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) claimed its first major victory since it launched its current military offensive in mid-2006 by wresting control of the Eastern Province from the LTTE. Now after a series of crucial military victories by the SLA, the government says that it is on the verge of defeating the LTTE and ending a conflict that has left the country’s economy in shambles.
Since November, the SLA has made unprecedented military gains against the LTTE, capturing wide swathes of rebel-controlled territory in the four northern districts known collectively as the Wanni. On January 2, the Sri Lankan government announced one of its most significant military victories, the capture of the LTTE’s de facto capital Kilinochchi. While the town has limited strategic value, it was a significant symbolic victory for the government.
On January 9, the SLA captured Elephant Pass, the strategic isthmus connecting mainland Sri Lanka to the Jaffna Peninsula. With that victory, government forces now control the all-important A-9 Highway, the main land route from Kandy to Jaffna. With the entire route of the A-9 in government control for the first time in twenty three years, goods and supplies can now be transported overland to Jaffna, avoiding costlier sea and land deliveries.
With the SLA’s recent capture of the port of Mullaittivu, the last major LTTE town, and the rebels flight into an ever shrinking patchwork of jungle territory, government officials have said victory is imminent. President Rajapaksa’s message has equated a military victory over the LTTE with the end of terrorism in the country and the conclusion of the conflict. The problem is that while as a conventional fighting force, the LTTE may be nearing an end, it is far from certain that the conflict—and the human rights infractions on both sides—is nearing a conclusion.
THE LTTE formed in 1976 in response to discriminatory policies by the Sinhalese governments against the Tamil minority population. The group has struggled for an independent homeland for the Tamil in the north and east of the country, but in its campaign to liberate the Tamil population, it has also engaged in significant violence against Tamils critical of the group. The LTTE silenced moderate Tamil politicians who were trying to forge a political settlement to the conflict and systematically eliminated other Sri Lankan militant Tamil groups it deemed a threat.
During the 2002 ceasefire, the Sri Lankan government offered broad autonomy to the north and east but not the full independence the LTTE demanded, and the LTTE rejected the offer. Hostilities simmered until full-scale war broke out again in July 2006. At that point, with the exception of the northern city of Jaffna, the LTTE controlled the bulk of northern and eastern Sri Lanka. It ran a de facto government with its own police force, banks, and judicial system and provided a relative degree of stability for civilians in the area.
Today the LTTE has lost nearly 95 percent of the territory it once held. Pushed into a corner, the LTTE will most likely revert to guerilla tactics, including the use of suicide attacks. The group began carrying out suicide attacks long before groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda embraced the tactic. The LTTE has been blamed for more than 200 suicide attacks since 1983, including the assassinations of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the Indian town of Sriperumbudur in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.
With the northeastern towns presumably cleared of the LTTE fighters, the government will now have to prepare for a protracted guerilla war, with the threat of bombings and suicide attacks occurring in the east and the south. Rebel resistance has been unexpectedly low in the last month in the conflict, indicating that the group’s most battle-hardened fighters may have gone underground in preparation for a guerilla counteroffensive. Indeed, within hours of the government’s announcement of the fall of Kilinochchi, a bomb exploded outside the Sri Lankan Air Force headquarters in Colombo.
The government’s military offensive has had a great human cost, with more than 250,000 civilians currently trapped in the war zone, according to Médecins Sans Frontières. Before its assault on Mullaittivu, the government dropped leaflets in the area urging civilians to move to what it called a “no fire zone.” The LTTE, in turn, accused the government of purposely shelling civilians in this area, while the government and the UN have accused the LTTE of forcibly preventing civilians from leaving the war zone. Hundreds if not thousands have been killed in the crossfire in what the International Committee for the Red Cross has described as a humanitarian crisis. There is no doubt that as the SLA pushes on with its offensive, civilian casualties will mount.
AS THE military campaign nears an end, the government now faces an even greater challenge—finding a lasting political settlement. Rajapaksa has repeatedly stated that his government would seek a political solution to address the grievances of the Tamil population once the LTTE is defeated. Since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948, successive Sinhalese-led governments have enacted discriminatory polices on education, employment, language, land settlement, and development against Tamils. A political settlement that ensures power-sharing among the minority populations in the east and north, including Tamils and Muslims, is the only viable solution.
Devolution of power to provincial councils, as outlined in the Thirteenth Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, is seen as a way towards a viable solution to power-sharing and fostering national reconciliation. But the All Party Representative Committee, established in 2006 by President Rajapaksa, has yet to deliver a solution acceptable to all groups. The May 2008 Provincial Council Elections in the Eastern Province were marred by allegations of fraud, sporadic violence and voter intimidation. Rajapaksa is now eying provincial elections in the north with the military operation nearing an end.
There are, however, serious concerns that with the military victory the government may not have any incentive to seek a political solution to address the grievances of the Tamil population. Without the looming LTTE threat and riding a wave of nationalist fervor, the Rajapaksa regime, which came to power largely through its appeal to Sinhalese nationalists, may move towards a more hardline Sinhalese agenda, thereby further alienating the Tamil population. Sinhalese nationalists parties have advocated a military solution to the conflict and opposed a political settlement based on the devolution of power in Tamil regions. Indeed, the seeds of this scenario are already taking shape as the government acts with impunity and moves to silence dissent. Vicious attacks on independent media voices critical of the government,* a failure to properly investigate disappearances and extrajudicial killings, and the forced relocation of Tamils in Colombo are indications that the government may not be serious about a political solution to address Tamil grievances and foster reconciliation.
The defeat of the LTTE, which has repeatedly silenced Tamil politicians opposed to its goals, gives the government an excellent opportunity to foster reconciliation with the Tamil community. It is an opportunity the government should not miss for if they do not make genuine overtures to the Tamil community, a new generation of Tamil militants will emerge.
Sumedha Senanayake is the Middle East/North Africa analyst at iJET International, a risk consultancy. He is Sinhalese. Photo: The Pettah neighborhood in Colombo (Sumedha Senanayake).
*While it is unclear who is behind the attacks on journalists and media institutions, there is widespread speculation that the Sri Lankan government, through either complicity or inaction, has created an atmosphere where these attacks are tolerated.