Military win not enough to tame Tigers

Troops may have pulled significant victories against rebels but political solution is a must to ensure lasting peace in the trouble-torn nation.

A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard at the cemetery of war heroes of Tamil Tigers at Kilinochchi, considered to be the rebels' political capital.
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A quarter of a century after taking up arms to fight for a separate homeland, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers are now locked in a deadly struggle to hold on to a small patch of jungle, a fraction of the territory they controlled just weeks ago. As government forces close in, some are predicting an end to the bloody conflict, which has claimed 70,000 lives. That is unlikely. It is true that the Sri Lankan military has recently made unprecedented gains, but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) have proven to be a canny and resilient enemy. Even if the Tigers suffer a conventional military defeat, they are likely to resort increasingly to guerrilla tactics and terrorism rather than surrender. More importantly, a military victory would do nothing to address the legitimate grievances of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, which gave rise to the LTTE in the first place. "The Sri Lankan government may finally win the war but the ethnic conflict will not be resolved on the battlefield," said Charu Lata Hogg, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. What is needed is: "A negotiated political settlement." But the Sri Lankan government has been pursuing a military solution. It officially pulled out of a ceasefire agreement a year ago and launched a major offensive last autumn. On Wednesday night, it banned the LTTE, effectively ruling out further peace negotiations. The move came after a string of military successes, including the Jan 2 capture of the LTTE administrative capital, Kilinochchi. In a speech following that victory, Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, declared they were witnessing nothing less than "the final act" of the war. Kilinochchi was the physical embodiment of the LTTE's aspiration for self-governance, and its capture therefore carried great propaganda value. "There were some who tried to present Kilinochchi as the capital of a separate state," Mr Rajapaksa said. "We have seen in the recent past how this was believed not only by the international media but also by those engaged in diplomacy." From Kilinochchi, the LTTE ran its de facto state-within-a-state. By carving out a swath of territory that stretched across the island, the Tigers had cut off land access between the government-controlled south and the Jaffna Peninsula to the north, which was occupied by government troops. The LTTE set up its own police force, court system and a humanitarian arm, which ran programmes funded largely by donations from overseas Tamils. The trappings of statehood gave the Tamil Tigers a veneer of legitimacy, which they have now lost. "This is indeed a significant victory - both symbolic and territorial - for the Sri Lankan army, and probably marks the beginning of the end of LTTE's hold of the north," Ms Hogg said. But a loss of territory would not necessarily mean the end of the LTTE. It could focus more on terror tactics, such as suicide bombings, a technique it pioneered in the 1980s and has used to devastating effect. In 1991, Rajiv Ghandi, India's former prime minister, was killed by a suicide bombing that Indian and Sri Lankan officials blamed on the Tamil Tigers. Indian authorities want to extradite and try Velupillai Prabhakaran, the head of the LTTE, for his alleged role in the assassination - yet another reason the elusive leader is unlikely to order his fighters to surrender. The LTTE has also made victims of those it claims to represent in order to maintain its power. "It has forcibly recruited children, men and women, suppressed independent media and opinion, killed and tortured political opponents within the Tamil community and been an authoritarian entity," Ms Hogg said. All of those charges can equally be laid against the Sri Lankan government, and many young Tamils joined the LTTE out of anger. The roots of the conflict stretch back to the post-independence period when the government, which was dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists, began passing anti-Tamil legislation. A 1956 Act made Sinhala the official language, while the 1972 constitution gave Buddhism the "foremost place" in the state. Discrimination against Tamils, who are mostly Hindu with a minority of Muslims and a smaller number of Christians, prevented many from attending university or gaining government jobs. Hundreds were killed in anti-Tamil riots in the decades following independence from Britain. When Tamil militants killed 13 soldiers in 1983, Sinhalese nationalists unleashed organised mobs. Security forces failed to stop the violence and thousands of Tamils were killed, while tens of thousands lost their homes and businesses. "It is generally recognised that the Tamil minority population in Sri Lanka has genuine political and economic grievances," Ms Hogg said. "A just political solution that ensures the rights of minority communities, including Muslims, would offer a way out of the current cycle of escalating violence." Such solutions have been proposed but not put into action. During the Norwegian-led peace negotiations, the LTTE dropped its demand for a separate homeland to bargain for political autonomy within the Sri Lankan state. But negotiations quickly broke down, with the LTTE claiming it was being marginalised, and both sides violated the ceasefire. A 1987 amendment to the constitution required the central government to devolve power, which would give more representation to provinces with large Tamil populations. But successive governments have failed to pursue the devolution policy and the current one has focused instead on destroying the LTTE through military means. "We have great confidence that the determined path we have traversed so far will result in a sustainable peace to our country and people," Mr Rajapaksa said. But if that path does not include measures to empower the Tamil community it is likely to lead only to continued bloodshed. jferrie@thenational.ae