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Sri Lanka: Will a military victory really solve the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict?

by Sumana Raychaudhuri, 8 February 2009

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The Nation, February 6, 2009

Letter From Sri Lanka

The port city of Mullaitivu, the last bastion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has fallen. The army has captured the rebel chief Prabhakaran’s armored bunker and are looking to rout the LTTE. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s gamble to end the country’s decades-old civil war through a military show of strength seems to be paying off. On January 2, after a long siege, the Sri Lankan Army captured the rebel capital of Kilinochchi—where the LTTE had established courts, tax and administrative offices, and even a bank. The LTTE responded by sending a human bomb to the Air Force headquarters, killing three and injuring at least thirty-two.

Now the Tigers have withdrawn to the jungles around Mullaitivu and some 230,000 men, women and children are caught in the war zone. The government accuses the LTTE of using these people as human shields; the LTTE denies coercion. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN, however, say that both the LTTE and government troops disrespect the "safe zone," and that moving hundreds of critically ill and injured patients away from the cross-fire and to Ministry of Health hospitals had been held up for days because the LTTE denied them permission to leave. Reporters are not allowed into the war zone but, by all evidence, the Sri Lankan army has pushed the LTTE into a corner; the hostilities around Mullaitivu may well be the LTTE’s last stand.

It has been over two years since the army launched a full-scale offensive against the LTTE. In January of 2008, Rajapaksa’s government formally withdrew from the 2002 cease-fire agreement between the previous government and the LTTE. That cease-fire had been brokered by the Norwegians after the United National Party (UNP) won the 2001 elections, campaigning on a platform of peace, stability and free-market growth in a nation tired of violence. The economy recovered rapidly under pro-Western, business-friendly policies, and for a while it looked like the peace would hold, especially since the LTTE stepped back from its demand for complete independence and offered to settle for an autonomous Tamil region.

The LTTE, however, repeatedly breached the cease-fire with assassinations, prompting protests by hard-line, pro-Buddhist Sinhala nationalist parties like the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) and the National Sinhala Heritage (JHU) that Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinge was too soft on terrorism. These parties, pushing the idea of Sinhalatva, an exclusivist, bigoted concept of Sinhala national identity (mimicking the ideology of Hindutva, or exclusive Hindu-ness used by fundamentalists in India to fashion a national identity and attack other religions), brought the Sinhala-dominated Rajapaksa coalition to power in 2004. All nine JHU MPs, representing a party of militant Buddhist monks, perpetuated a concept of "war for peace" that effectively turns a set of pacifist values on its head.

The truce crumbled as the army stepped up action against the LTTE soon after the elections, but neither side officially withdrew from the agreement until President Rajapaksa’s announcement a year ago. The cease-fire had allowed some humanitarian aid to reach the shattered Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces and international human rights groups to monitor both army and LTTE abuses. Following Rajapaksa’s announcement last year, the military intensified its operations in the Tamil areas, and the Nordic humanitarian monitors pulled out. The violence accelerated, killing hundreds of civilians, soldiers and rebels.

When I visited last year, there was a kind of tense calm in the cities of Colombo and Kandy. The Bandaranaike International Airport was beautiful—undoubtedly one of the swankest I’ve been to on the subcontinent, though obviously underutilized—and the reception was friendly. To leave the airport terminal, however, one had to drive through double rows of barbed-wire fences and negotiate sandbagged army bunkers manned by submachine-gun-wielding soldiers. (Entering the airport is even more unnerving; it involves weaving through hairpin turns, with armed soldiers peering into the car at every bend.) Every few hundred yards vehicles are stopped for random searches at army checkpoints. Our friends assured us that we were lucky to have to pull over only twice during the hour-long drive from the airport to the hotel. Certain neighborhoods in Colombo are virtually barricaded—an astonishing number of politicians, journalists and activists live under deadly threat and need security. Even crossing the street can be a challenge: the military shuts down all traffic (including foot traffic) for extended periods each time a VIP with a high security rating passes by.

Sri Lanka has arguably the highest per capita standard of living in South Asia. It also enjoys the dubious distinction of being the country where modern-day suicide bombing was invented. To comprehend the intensity of Tamil discontent, one needs to understand the struggle for control over finite resources in this island nation since the colonial era. In 1949, shortly after independence, the UNP government, dominated by Sinhala Buddhists, used the Citizenship Act of 1948 to disenfranchise Tamil plantation workers of Indian descent. Many were repatriated to India; others remained stateless until their citizenship rights were fully restored in 2003. But the roots of Sri Lanka’s civil war lie not so much in religion or ethnicity as in the language divide. While the island is home to people of various ethnicities (including Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and a tiny population of indigenous) and religions, tensions between the majority Sinhalese (over 80 percent), mostly Sinhala-speaking Buddhists, and the largest minority, Tamil-speaking Hindus (almost 10 percent), have been the most pronounced since negotiations for dominion status started in the 1920s.

The Tamils—mostly brought over by the British from India as indentured labor during colonial times, though the earliest came over in the third century BCE—benefited from free missionary schools located mostly in the north and east that taught them English. Since English was the sole official language under British rule, the Tamils rose in the island civil service, even as the Sinhalese majority (who also originally emigrated from India, albeit earlier, around the fifth century BCE), whose leaders had promoted a Sinhala-only education, suffered. During negotiations for independence, many proposed that both Sinhala and Tamil replace English as the official languages. But, in 1956 Solomon Bandaranaike, an Oxford-educated Anglican barrister who converted to Buddhism in order to enter politics, became prime minister in a landslide victory after promising to promote a "Sinhala Only" policy; he then proposed and passed the populist "Sinhala Only Bill," which made Sinhala the sole official language. This forced hundreds of Tamil civil servants to resign, as they could no longer read government forms and documents. By the 1970s the civil service was mostly Sinhala. The government eventually realized the disadvantages of losing its experienced bureaucrats and modified its policies to accommodate the use of Tamil and English.

The emotional catalyst that prompted Tamil demands for a separate homeland can be traced to 1981, when a violent Sinhalese mob ransacked Tamil-run businesses in the northeastern city of Jaffna and burned the Jaffna library on the eve of hotly contested local elections. The library, then one of the largest in Asia, contained a priceless collection of Tamil literature, including irreplaceable ancient palm-leaf manuscripts. National newspapers initially blacked out the event. In the ensuing parliamentary debates, several Sinhalese MPs suggested that Tamils unhappy with their lot should return to India. Tamils rebuilt the library, but mobs and soldiers burned it down twice more, in 1983 and 1985.

To Tamils, this became a symbol of how thoroughly determined the extremist Sinhalese were to exterminate them. A 1982 Amnesty International fact-finding mission under Orville Schell found that the UNP government did not institute an independent inquiry into the incident. Since 1991, many Sri Lankan politicians have pointed fingers at several public figures who allegedly bused southern Sinhalese thugs to Tamil-dominated Jaffna and incited them to riot in an effort to influence the elections. No one has ever been indicted for these offenses. The library, however, was finally rebuilt under government auspices with international and domestic financing and opened to the public after 2001.

Tamil protests started with mostly nonviolent demonstrations, which the government ignored, giving the radical fringe ammunition to agitate for absolute independence. Since 1983, the LTTE, under the leadership of the elusive Velupillai Prabhakaran, has been waging a guerrilla war against successive Sinhala-dominated governments. The LTTE were tough fighters who ruthlessly eliminated rival Tamil groups in order to monopolize power and appropriate funds raised overseas from the Tamil diaspora, allegedly through gunrunning, extortion and kidnapping, piracy on the high seas and credit-card fraud. The Tigers employ child soldiers, target civilians and regularly use suicide bombers to carry out assassinations, most notably of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 for having sent a peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka in the 1980s.

The United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia all label the LTTE a terrorist organization and have cracked down on its funding, but it continues to raise money from the nearly one-million-strong Tamil diaspora; many in the diaspora believe that the LTTE offers the greatest hope to Tamils in Sri Lanka. Until very recently, the LTTE also enjoyed the distinction of being possibly the only terrorist organization that ran a quasi-government and had an army, a navy and an air force. The Tigers have also operated hospitals in the northern jungles for their cadres and officers, though senior officers were allegedly smuggled into India for medical treatment.

Now, after decades of fighting that has claimed over 70,000 lives, between 3,000 and 10,000 Tigers, along with their leadership, appear to be confined to a small strip of jungle near Mullaitivu in the northeast. Some 50,000 government troops are closing in on them. In recent months the Sri Lankan navy has intercepted and sunk four ships carrying supplies for the LTTE. It has also captured a submersible vessel. The military "liberated" the eastern provinces in 2007—thanks to the defection of an LTTE commander—and President Rajapaksa’s coalition won the majority of seats in the subsequent provincial elections with the help of the breakaway LTTE faction, thus strengthening his coalition further.

Rajapaksa has staked everything on a military resolution to this conflict. Human rights activists, however, argue that without legislation addressing legitimate Tamil concerns, there can be no lasting peace. Legislation aimed at appropriating Tamil land and precluding Tamils from desirable civil-service jobs makes them wary of Sinhala intentions, as do riots targeting Tamil property and cultural institutions. Knee-jerk government actions, like hauling in hundreds of mostly innocent Tamils for questioning each time the LTTE sets off a bomb, alienate even moderate Tamils.

Tit-for-tat outrages have come to characterize Sri Lankan politics: army bombings and massacres of Tamils, LTTE terror attacks and assassinations, and massive government roundups of Tamil civilians succeed one another with depressing regularity. In the territories reclaimed by the government, the civilian population complains of abuse by the military, including extortion, beatings and abductions. The presence of other shadowy militias further complicates the picture. Any help comes from UN agencies and various NGOs, but both agencies and civilians report constant looting by the army; complaints to the police yield no results. Dissenters seem to disappear overnight, but there is seldom any official query into missing-person reports.

Rajapaksa now claims that implementation of the thirteenth constitutional amendment, which establishes regional councils for local government, will now be extended to the northern and eastern provinces and that this will grant the Tamils some autonomy and be the basis of lasting peace. Critics counter that it will only add to an already bloated bureaucracy. In the meantime, all ethnic Tamils living in the capital city have been forced to register with the government as a security measure.

There are notable political scandals as well. Sri Lankan newspapers and bloggers have written extensively about the links between the president’s brothers—Gotabhaya, the defense minister, and Basil, an MP —and a newly formed company with a monopoly on arms purchases for the military. The brothers own significant shares in the company; so do some army top brass. With a projected 2008 military budget of $1.48 billion, this represents a significant opportunity for profiteering. In August 2007 the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka revealed the details of a deal to buy fighter jets, touted as a government-to-government contract, where funds were funneled to a "Bellimissa Holdings Ltd., in London—a company that has no staff or office.... Nor [were] other particulars of the company like the Board of Directors, details of shareholders or a profile available." The government’s reaction to these scandals was to restrict press coverage of the war. None of this inspires the faith of the common person.

While it is possible that the army will succeed in routing the Tamil Tigers, the government needs to do a lot more to forge a lasting peace. Sri Lanka’s conflict is chiefly that of rival groups over scant resources. A strong economy that benefits the vast majority of the populace irrespective of ethnicity would go a long way to calm xenophobic fears of particular communities monopolizing resources. It would also help if the war became less lucrative for both the LTTE and the official and military powers that be. But public scrutiny of government actions is difficult, and reporting on the war remains dangerous: the government continues to crack down on reporters and photographers; the police and public alike are paranoid about photography in public spaces.

The World Association of Newspapers has labeled Sri Lanka the world’s third-most dangerous country to be in, after Iraq and Sudan (according to Amnesty International, at least ten journalists were killed between 2006 and 2008). Vigilantes recently attacked several media outlets accused of showing sympathy for the Tamils; Lasantha Wickrematunge, a Christian journalist who had not taken a position on the righteousness of the war but repeatedly exposed military abuses, was assassinated on January 8 of this year.

In the meantime, strategic broadcasts by the state media have ensured that 93 percent of the Sinhalese majority are happy with the outcome of the war, in spite of military spending projected to reach 200 billion rupees in 2009 (out of a 1.7 trillion rupee budget with a 336.7 billion rupee deficit), annual inflation at 20 percent and increased taxes on dozens of imports, including basic foodstuffs. Not surprisingly, 87 percent of Tamils are unhappy with the war. The government has started to raise funds for economic development of the eastern provinces and promises to develop infrastructure in the north once the military objectives are reached, but past performance in such matters has not been promising.

The LTTE has in the past lost ground to the army—though never as much as at present—only to eventually win it back. Analysts familiar with LTTE tactics fear that it will step up suicide attacks. As rebel political chief Balasingham Nadesan points out, the LTTE started off as a guerrilla outfit, so losing its administrative apparatus is not going to cripple it. What does that say for the chances of forging lasting peace in Sri Lanka?