SINGAPORE — Sri Lanka’s government says its armed forces are in the final stage of a campaign to annihilate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the rebel group that has been fighting for 25 years to carve out a homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east of the island-state.
Some hardliners in the Sinhalese-dominated government and military claim that the LTTE rebels will be wiped out by yearend.
In the history of modern counterinsurgency, this would be a rare armed victory over a potent uprising — one that would stand in stark contrast to the failure of U.S., NATO, Australian and New Zealand forces in Afghanistan, with offshore support from Japan, to crush a resurgent Taliban.
China has provided arms and other assistance to the Sri Lankan government in its fight against LTTE separatism. But some of Sri Lanka’s friends worry that advances by government troops into LTTE strongholds in the north of the country in recent months are sowing seeds of disaster. They caution that the military thrust needs to be accompanied by a more effective relief effort for several hundred thousand Tamil civilians affected by the fighting. Some also want to see a ceasefire and the relaunch of political negotiations, citing the Indonesian government’s settlement of the long-running conflict with Aceh separatist rebels by working out an autonomy deal that maintained national unity.
Under pressure from Tamil politicians in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, which has ethnic and cultural ties with Tamils in Sri Lanka, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse in a phone call Oct. 18 that he was deeply concerned about the “deteriorating humanitarian situation” in the fighting zone, and urged Sri Lankan authorities to protect Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire.
He also warned that there could be no lasting military solution to the struggle and urged a resumption of political negotiations. Earlier in the month, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith made a similar appeal in a meeting in Canberra with his visiting counterpart from Sri Lanka.
The government in Colombo withdrew in January from a Norwegian-brokered peace process involving direct talks with the LTTE, charging that rebels had been using a ceasefire declared in 2002 to re-arm. Its position now is that only military power can defeat the LTTE and their use of terrorist tactics, notably frequent suicide bombings and political assassinations. Once the rebel organization has been dismembered, a political solution involving elections and local autonomy for the northern and eastern provinces where Tamils are concentrated can be applied.
The government’s view is reinforced by a former LTTE commander in the eastern province. Now an ally of the government, Colonel Karuna Amman says the rebel leadership will never settle for autonomy and only use ceasefires and negotiations as a tactic to buy time and strengthen its position. Concerned with the threat of more suicide bombings as the LTTE comes under strong attack in its northern heartland, the government has launched a registration drive for Tamils in Colombo.
So far, the government’s tough approach has yielded significant gains, although at a heavy cost in lives and to the country’s finances. Military pressure has helped to split rebel ranks. The eastern province has been back under Colombo’s control since mid-2006, and now the rebel zone in the north is shrinking as LTTE fighters retreat in the face of the government’s numerical superiority, stronger firepower and better military strategy.
As the noose around the LTTE in the current fighting in Sri Lanka tightens, the government needs to be careful that in going for the kill against armed rebels and their leaders it does not alienate Tamil civilians whose support Colombo must win if it is to solidify hard-won gains on the battlefront and achieve a lasting settlement of the conflict.
Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a security specialist at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.