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Is it the end of the LTTE?

By Colonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd)
June 04, 2009 20:52 IST
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With the death of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam chief V Prabhakaran and the decimation of most of its leadership, Sri Lanka has declared victory in Jaffna. The existence of the LTTE as an organised body that was a 'virtual' government in northern Sri Lanka has come to an end. But it would be hasty to come to a conclusion that it also means end to the Tamil insurgency and the return of peace to the island nation.

The LTTE made several cardinal mistakes. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi turned public opinion against it, so much so that even when the Congress was not in power, the National Democratic Alliance government also did not dare deal with it.

It needs to be noted that in 1987 when the Indian Peace Keeping Force went to Sri Lanka, it went there to save the Tamils from the genocidal tactics of the Lankan army. On a visit to Jaffna in 1989, I was told that till the time the break did not take place, the LTTE top brass used to dine in the Indian Army mess! The LTTE misread the Indian intention which was to save Tamils, but not help create a separate Tamil Eelam. India has been steadfast on this support to Sri Lankan unity.

The LTTE forgot that Eelam was a means to an end -- that is a place of honour for Tamils and preservation of their identity and culture. By obdurately focussing on 'all or nothing' strategy, the LTTE lost everything and has brought upon untold misery on the Tamil people of Jaffna.

The LTTE also failed to see the altered world situation after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. In the aftermath of that attack, a world consensus has been built around zero tolerance for terrorism and secessionism. Sri Lankan diplomacy was skilful and successful in hiding its own obduracy and painted the LTTE in the darkest possible colours.

Finally, Prabahkaran paid the price of forgetting cardinal rules of insurgency. It is true that the LTTE had reached the last stage of its guerrilla struggle in that it was capable of open confrontation with the regular Sri Lankan army.

But as Sri Lanka built its military muscle with Chinese and Pakistani help, the LTTE ought to ceded territory and gone back to its underground days to survive to fight another day. Instead, it chose open defiance and annihilation.

In the closing stages of current Sri Lankan offensive, the LTTE found itself friendless. The Sri Lankans also cleverly timed their offensive to coincide with Indian elections when Indian decision-making went on a limbo and gave the Lankans ample time to finish off the LTTE militarily.

What next?

Insurgency is like an amoeba that changes shape, size and reproduces itself.

If reports in the Western media are to be believed, close to 20,000 Tamil civilians were been killed in the present offensive. The whole of Jaffna has been turned into a concentration camp. While the LTTE may have been neutralised, an organisation like the Palestinian 'Black September' may well have taken birth.

It was Black September, born in aftermath of the Jordanian offensive against the Palestinians, that pioneered aircraft hijacking and started a cult of terrorism in the Middle East. There is real fear that the brutal tactics of Sri Lankan army may produce this result.

In its six decade long experience of dealing with insurgencies India has never used heavy weapons like artillery or air power against the insurgents. In this the Lankans seem to be following their Pakistani brethren.

A few years ago, an European diplomat involved in the peace process in Sri Lanka mentioned to me that both sides were obdurate. While the LTTE has been rightly criticised for its demand for Eelam, the Sri Lankans have escaped censure. Sri Lanka has steadfastly refused to give a federal structure a chance.

While talking to then foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar (assassinated by the LTTE later) in 1996, I mentioned that a status like that of Kashmir in the Indian Union would certainly satisfy most Tamils.

Unfortunately the mass of Sinhala opinion in Sri Lanka equates national unity with a unitary form of government. Such is the vehemence of Sinhala opinion on this issue that all talk of federal solution is denounced as treachery.

Historical roots

In terms of sheer longevity, the Sinhala-Tamil conflict is mother of all, dating back to the 67 BC war between King Elara (after whom Eelam is named) of Jaffna and King Duttagamini of Sri Lanka.

Unlike India, Sri Lanka did not have well-developed political parties at the time of independence. The Buddhist clergy was the most well knit organisation in the country with influence down to the small community levels. This was through the control that the clergy had over the educational institutions.

While not willing to play a direct political role, the clergy nevertheless had its own ideas of how and independent Lanka should be run. Solomon Bandaranaike and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party provided that vehicle.

At independence every major group in Lanka was a victim of feeling of insecurity. The plantation workers were afraid of deportation, the Moors (Muslims) were afraid of being lumped with the Tamils as they spoke the same language, the Sinhalese were afraid that the Jaffna Tamils together with the plantation workers will dominate them and the Burghers (a mixed race of Sinhalese-Europeans) simply emigrated to Australia en masse.

The 'credit' for sharpening the Sinhala-Tamil divide goes to the Sri Lanka Freedom party.

The elements of the divide were present even before his advent in 1956. He and his party, exclusively dependent on Buddhist Sinhala support, converted Lanka from a multi-ethnic nation to a Sinhala nation with Buddhism as its state religion and Sinhala as the state language and Sinhalese as the only legitimate citizens.

The Tamil demand for separatism was the logical culmination and reaction to the doctrine of Lankan nationalism that was 'exclusively' Sinhalese.

The religious fervour generated by the 2,500th death anniversary of Buddha in 1956, was utilised by the Buddhist clergy to push their agenda of ethnic cleansing of Sri Lanka of all non Buddhist elements. It is here Banadarnaike stepped in and gave this retrograde move a political direction and colour.

The first target of Sinhala chauvinism was, however, not the Lankan Tamils, but the Christians. In a systematic move the Christian institutions of learning and teaching were discriminated against and forced to either flee the country or shut down.

Having achieved success on the Christian front the next target were the plantation workers who had come to Sri Lanka nearly 150 years ago. Under the ill-conceived Shastri-Sirimavo Accord, India took back the plantation workers who were in Sri Lanka for over a hundred years.

The imposition of Sinhala as the 'only' official language of Ceylon was interpreted not merely as a move to deny the rightful place to Tamil language but a direct attack on their 'identity ' and not just language. A comparison of the politics of the Indian and Lankan Tamil parties shows that it was the former that was more militant and also separatist.

Impact on India

If the Sri Lankans do not show pragmatism and accommodate Tamil aspirations, the island nation is in for a long spell of violence. It is only a matter of time before the refugees begin to arrive in India from Lanka, inflaming public opinion here.

The Indian approach to Lanka has been timid and indecisive. Partly out of the memory of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination but more due to the shrewdness with which the Lankans have used the bogey of China-Pakistan against India.

While in the short run the Lankans may have succeeded, but they will suffer in the long run if they get involved in the potential big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean. They may yet discover that a giant India is far more benign than the Chinese dragon.

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Colonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd)