Will Sri Lanka Drive the Tigers to Extinction?
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?