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 is 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Now the Tigers have withdrawn to the jungles around Mullaitivu and some 230,000 men, women and children are caught in the war zone.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.