The war is over

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

in Colombo

FOR the first time in 30 years, the Sri Lankan government can proudly claim that its writ prevails on every inch of the island nation. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in the emerald island, stands decimated as a military force, and its top brass, including the supremo Velupillai Prabakaran, revered by some as the Sun god, have been physically eliminated. The majority community in the country, the Sinhalese, is celebrating while the Tamils and a section of the other minorities in Sri Lanka, such as the Muslims, are in an undeclared state of mourning. It is not that there is any love lost between these sections and the Tigers. Their worries stem from the ghosts of the past such as the 1983 pogrom.

The passions unleashed by the proclamation of the end of Eelam War IV and Prabakarans death are running high. Sections of Tamils, despite confirmation of Prabakarans death by LTTE elements themselves, are in a state of denial. Sections of the majority community see the military annihilation of the LTTE as ultimate proof of their conviction that the so-called invincibility of the Tigers was a mere excuse for chicken hearts in earlier governments in Colombo who kowtowed to the international community, which is hell-bent on cutting the island nation into two in pursuit of its hidden agendas.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the military he presides over in his capacity as the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, therefore, deserve full marks for the successful completion of the war. The President has demonstrated conclusively that he meant every syllable of his promise, in the run-up to the November 2005 presidential election, that he would fight the Tigers to the finish. So he is entitled to bask in the glory for a while, but only for a brief while.

It would be a fatal mistake to see the military death of the LTTE as a demise of the cause that gave birth to the Tigers. The cause, the legitimate grievances and aspirations of the Tamils and other minorities in the island nation, is not only alive but kicking. That explains the sullen and sombre mood among the Tamils and other minorities. The truth is that of the three million Tamils in Sri Lanka and a further one million in the diaspora, very few have faith in the government in Colombo.

The challenges before Rajapaksa are enormous and unenviable. First and foremost, he has to create basic minimum infrastructure to tender to the essential needs of 2.8-lakh war-displaced people, currently housed by the government in 29 temporary camps in the districts of Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna. Simultaneously, his regime has to work on an executable plan to resettle the displaced in their original places of habitation.

India, which rushed two of its senior envoys, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, for a first-hand assessment of the post-war situation, was given a commitment by none other than Rajapaksa that his government would resettle the displaced in six months time. The agenda is laudable but the deadline is ambitious, given that the government just does not have the necessary resources to bring a semblance of normalcy to war-ravaged Wanni, which is dotted with landmines and booby traps. Whatever infrastructure existed there has been reduced to rubble.

The Sri Lankan government would require all the help it can muster from every quarter possible to achieve this gigantic task. But the extreme sensitivity of senior functionaries in the Rajapaksa government to even constructive criticism could prove to be a major stumbling block in enlisting the international community as a partner in the venture. The task becomes even more complicated as Colombo is pitted against a very powerful Tamil diaspora, which is caught in a time warp. Certain sections of the Tamil diaspora are more loyal to Prabakarans Eelam pipe dream than sections of the LTTE cadre who fought and perished in Eelam War IV and Tamils in general in Sri Lanka. Hence President Rajapaksa needs to make a sincere effort to convince these die-hards to jettison their utopian Eelam project and jump onto the bandwagon of the Tamil moderates who are ready to accept an honourable political solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

The mutual distrust between the diaspora and the ruling elite in Sri Lanka is projected well in an article titled Prabhakaran: the setting of the Sun God by Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lankas Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva. Of course Jayatilleka has made it a point to mention that these are strictly his personal views, but that does not take away the reality that he is an important functionary in the Rajapaksa regime at such a crucial juncture in the history of the country.

The article reads:

The degree of denial of Prabakarans death within the expatriate Tamil consciousness is the best evidence of the pathology of Tamil ultra-nationalism. Rohana Wijeweeras followers were fanatics, but when their leader was gone, they did not go into mass denial. The hard core elements of the Tamil diaspora really have to get their heads around it: Elvis has left the building. The Sun God has set, and his son wont be rising either.

That takes us to the heart of the problem. The self image of Tamil ultra-nationalism is such that it is hostile to India when the latter does not simply forgive and forget the Rajiv [Gandhi] murder and extend unconditional patronage to the Tamil secessionist cause.

If the Tiger Diaspora wants a separate state or a confederation, it had better seek it in one of the countries in which they are concentrated, because it is certainly not going to be achieved either on the island of Sri Lanka or the soil of India.

The acrimonious debate within the Sri Lankan diaspora, divided into two distinct camps the Tamils numerically higher in one and the Sinhalese on the other in cyberspace clearly shows that the chasm is not confined to the ruling establishment and the Tamil diaspora. Given below are responses from a Tamil and a Sinhalese to an article in the latest issue of The Economist.

Sri Lanka I was born therecountless ancestors of mine have lived there. I cringe to call it my country all it brings to my mind is shame and disgust. it is a country where as a 17-year-old defenceless teenager I was raped by army personnel. A countrys army is supposed to protect its civilians. In Sri Lankathe women hide from the government forces and pray that they are not molested/rapedthe young men pray they are not taken away in unmarked vans and tortured.

Whenever I read these comments I really dont understand the view of the majority Sinhalese population is it that they dont really know all the abuse and torture that takes place in the Tamil areas .or is it that they choose not to believe it or is it that they believe they are better than the Tamil folks and it doesnt matter what happens to them? To wrap this post up All I can say is it is the height of stupidity if you believe there ever will be a peaceful Sri Lanka. You cant abuse an entire nation of people and expect there to be no consequences....

A Sinhala response reads: Many expatriate Tamils used the word discrimination to gain refugee status in the greener pastures of the West. the whole reason behind the Tamil protests is that they are scared that they will be sent back. Look at the Tamils in Sri Lanka: how happy they are to be freed from being held as a human shield by the terrorists. Tamil people in Jaffna thronged all streets waving the national flag and celebrating!

The Sinhala diaspora echoes the sentiments of the Sri Lankan government on the issue of international concerns over human rights abuses in the island. Here is another sample letter from a reader to The Economist.

In the global war against terror, accusations of U.K. & U.S. (excuses for invasion) of Iraqs alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and harbouring and supporting Al Qaeda were a hoax. And the number of Iraqi citizens killed during the Gulf War II is more than 1,000,000 while UNHCR estimated the war uprooted 4.7 million Iraqis through April 2008 (16 per cent of the population) and two million had fled to neighbouring countries.... Alas, all because Saddam Hussein murdered 148 people.

Also, they were involved in the first Gulf War which killed over half a million Iraqi children, and is also responsible for the present spate of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and in the Swat valley, where over one million people have already been displaced and 5,000 civilians killed.

But in this case, after six attempts to negotiate, Sri Lankan forces fought against a terrorist group, who killed one hundred thousand people & disabled thousands; destroyed billions-worth property and infrastructure; murdered almost all the Tamil leaders, many Sinhalese leaders & two world leaders; made an entire country and economy suffer for more than three decades; and finally held nearly 200,000 Tamil civilians as hostage or a human shield . And you say 8,000 civilians have died this year? After you Bush, Blair, Clinton, Brown and Obama!

Now the often asked question: how did the Rajapaksa government manage to finish the Tigers militarily? Rajapaksa and his core group had made a political resolve in August 2006 to launch a fight-to-finish campaign against the Tigers. The LTTE provided the much-needed excuse for the assault when its cadre closed down the Mavil Aru sluice gates in the east, denying water to more than 30,000 civilians. The presidential core team in the campaign included his younger brother and Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the army chief, Lt Gen. Sarath Fonseka, both of whom had scores to settle with the Tigers.

Fonseka survived an assassination attempt when a woman suicide bomber of the LTTE blew herself up at the army hospital inside the army headquarters complex in April 2006. In December that year, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had retired as a colonel from the Army almost two decades ago and settled down in the U.S. only to return as the Defence Secretary in his brothers government, was the target of a suspected suicide bomber attack on a trishaw in the heart of Colombo.

The Defence Secretary and the army chief proved to be a lethal combination for the LTTE, which, ironically, had aided Rajapaksas election as President by asking Tamils to boycott the 2005 presidential election.

With the President in charge of the Defence portfolio and his brother as the Defence Secretary, war budget was no constraint though the economy of Sri Lanka was in dire straits. The President and his team tapped all possible sources for defence supplies, at times causing discomfort to India. The ranks of the military, all the three wings put together, swelled to over 200,000 and the allocation for defence for 2009 was pegged at Sri Lankan Rs.177.1 billion ($1.66 billion). The allocation for defence in 2008 was Rs.166.44 billion. Sri Lankas ratio of soldiers to population (under 20 million) must be one of the highest in the world. Intriguingly, in an interview to the state-run television telecast on May 27, the army chief said he intended to add another 100,000 soldiers to the army to ensure that forces such as the LTTE did not rear their heads in the island once again.

On the political front, the Rajapaksa government adopted a shrewd strategy, borrowing some of the LTTEs own tactics, such as continuing to make politically correct statements on matters of peace, development and steps towards conflict-resolution while meticulously planning operations for an all-out war. The facade of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) brokered by the Norwegian government was kept alive until January 2008 despite the fact that hostilities between the military and the Tigers had reached a point of no return in early 2007.

Perhaps to impress upon the international community that it was keen on keeping the door open for negotiations, the Rajapaksa government did not ban the LTTE as a terrorist outfit until the first week of January 2009. Sri Lanka became the 31st country in the world to proscribe the LTTE when it formally issued the gazette notification on January 6, four days after Kilinochchi had fallen.

On the propaganda front too, the government borrowed liberally from the LTTEs tactics. It created the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) in June 2006 with the sole aim of countering the pro-LTTE portal TamilNet. The Defence Ministry revamped its own website and kept up a relentless campaign not only against the Tigers but against anyone and everyone who was critical of the war.

On the battle front, the motto, in the words of the army chief, was: Go for the kill, maximum casualties and destruction of infrastructure of the enemy with minimum possible damage to the troops.

The current phase of hostilities witnessed the maximum use of air power. The estimates of aerial attacks by the forces vary from 15,000 to 20,000 sorties. Despite such large-scale aerial missions, it is only in the last phase of the war (from December 2008) that it faced flak for alleged indiscriminate bombing. The military, in the course of its campaign in the east, wrested control of an area of 15,000 square kilometres.

Of course, the human costs have been enormous. While the military claims to have killed over 22,000 Tigers, 6,261 members of the security forces died since operations began in August 2006. Another 29,551 soldiers were injured of whom 2,556 were left disabled.

According to the military, from the day the Wanni battle took a fierce turn, over 9,100 LTTE cadre surrendered. Of them, 7,237 are now being rehabilitated at various centres. Among them are 1,601 women. There are no accurate estimates of the civilian death toll. U.N. sources estimate that at least 8,000 civilians could have died in the course of 2009.

Neglect on the part of the government to ensure the preservation of dignity of the war-displaced in the transitional camps, delays in the implementation of plans for their resettlement in the shortest possible time, and indifference towards forging a national consensus for a political solution to the ethnic conflict that is acceptable to all stake-holders could prove to be very costly. It is a sure recipe for further rupture in the already strained relations among various communities in the multi-ethnic and multilinguistic island nation, and would cause a return of militant politics.

The military has won the battle for territory and now it is up to the polity to wage a war to win the hearts and minds of the people. Jaffna peninsula, which came under the control of the military in 1995, illustrates the point. It is cynically referred to as an open prison because an estimated 40,000 troops are present here as successive governments have not been able to resolve the ethnic conflict and pave the way for a political solution.

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