This article examines the process, outcome and ramifications of the counter-insurgency opration in Sri Lanka,…
Article was first published in the South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR), on My 25, 2009
If such an outcome were to be secured in Iraq or Afghanistan or, now, even in Pakistan, it would be embraced by the West as an unadulterated and righteous triumph. In Sri Lanka, however, it appears to have provoked, across much of Europe and among the most prominent international agencies – including the United Nations (UN) – a seething and barely concealed outrage (Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, made a brief and disapproving visit, demanding “immediate and unimpeded” access to all displacement camps). There is a sense, not of a dreaded terrorist organisation having been defeated and destroyed, but of collaborators, comrades, fellows at arms, lost to the enemy.
Significantly, President Mahinda Rajapakse has promised that the entire process of returning and rehabilitating the IDPs to their places of origin in the North would be completed within 180 days, and that “when everybody in the north returns to their homes, they will go back to a place where there is security.”
Nevertheless, rather than moving forward from what is certainly an extraordinary victory against terrorism, and on to the tasks of reconstruction and of securing a fair deal for the Tamils in Sri Lanka, many embittered Westerners appear to feel that some vengeance is due against the architects of the campaign that so comprehensively destroyed the LTTE. Moves have been initiated for the UN Human Rights Council to ‘investigate’ human rights violations and ‘war crimes’ during the final phases of the Sri Lankan war against the LTTE in an initiative that, one commentator notes, can only “add to the world’s store of duplicity and hypocrisy”. On his part, President Rajapakse has unambiguously dismissed these attempts, declaring, “There are some who tried to stop our military campaign by threatening to haul us before war crimes tribunals. They are still trying to do that, but I am not afraid.”
That this was a hard-fought war is inescapable; that it prevailed over one of the most lethal and feared terrorist groups in the world is undeniable; that the end was bloody is, again the stark reality. It is necessary, however, to recall that LTTE terrorism and successive phases of the Eelam War have resulted in, according to the UN, between 80,000 and 100,000 killed over the past over two and a half decades. According to the Sri Lanka Government, this included 23,790 Security Force (SF) personnel, of which 6,262 were killed, and 29,551 were wounded in the offensive between August 2006 and May 17. Earlier, the LTTE had disclosed, in November 2008, that it had lost more than 22,000 cadres since the first guerrilla death in November 1982. The Military Spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara disclosed, further, that some 22,000 LTTE fighters had been killed during Eelam War IV, that is, between July 26, 2006 and May 18, 2009. Unofficial and unverified tallies suggest that some 7,000 civilian deaths have occurred in the final phase of fighting, since January 2009. Unverified data complied by the South Asia Terrorism Portal indicates that at least 3,755 SF personnel, 3,209 militants and 11,108 civilians have been killed since January 2, 2009, on which date Kilinochchi was captured by the Army (civilian and SF fatality figures relied largely on pro-LTTE sources such as Tamil Net). With this last carnage, the terror has been brought to an end and the possibility opens out that the bloodshed may now, finally, cease, and that a truly political settlement can now be negotiated among political players.
It was on May 20 that the Sri Lanka military officially ended the war with the LTTE in the Mullaitivu beach area. Earlier, at 1400 hrs of May 18, the Army had announced that the entire Puttumatalan area has been brought under Government control, finally freeing the entire country free from LTTE’s terrorism. The LTTE, which, at one time, controlled over 15,000 square kilometres or nearly one-fourth of the 65,332 square kilometres territory of the island nation, was finally decimated.
Earlier, the Government had announced that the ‘humanitarian mission’ launched to liberate civilians held hostage in a human shield by the LTTE for months, had been brought to an end in the afternoon of May 17 in Mullaitivu. The LTTE ‘international relations’ head, Selvaraja Pathmanathan, in a statement issued from outside Sri Lanka on the same day, stated that the war had reached its bitter end and that the outfit had decided to silence their guns in the interest of saving the lives of innocent Tamil citizens. Subsequently – after initial denials that LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran had been killed – Selvaraja Pathmanathan confirmed in an interview with BBC on May 24, that the Prabhakaran had been killed, and that the LTTE had now “given up violence and agreed to enter a democratic process to achieve the rights for the Tamil (self) determination of our people.”
An official announcement made in the afternoon of May 18, 2009, over Rupavahini, the main Government-controlled TV channel, had claimed that the Prabhakaran, LTTE intelligence unit chief Pottu Amman and Sea Tigers’ (sea wing of the LTTE) chief Soosai were killed in the course of an Army attack earlier that morning. Military sources said Prabhakaran was shot dead along with his two deputies as they tried to flee in an ambulance and another van. Subsequent reports, citing Military sources, have, however, suggested that the fate of Pottu Amman remains uncertain, as his body is still to be conclusively identified. According to the reports at least 350 militants, including Charles Anthony, Prabhakaran’s elder son, political unit chief P. Nadesan, the head of the LTTE peace secretariat, S. Pulidevan, and Ramesh, a senior ‘special military’ leader, were killed in the final assault taken by the military. On May 19, Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka had confirmed that Prabhakaran’s body was found near the Nanthikandal lagoon. The Army also reportedly found his identity card, issued by the LTTE, and the armlet with the number one indicating his position in the outfit. While his body has been cremated, some samples have been retained for DNA testing, ‘should the necessity arise’. In an interview with Sunday Rivira newspaper published on May 24 General Fonseka said, “We cremated the body in the same area and threw the ashes into the (Indian) ocean.” Prabhakaran’s former deputy, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan aka Karuna, who defected in March 2004 and is currently a Minister in the Rajapakse Government, and the surrendered spokesman of the outfit, Daya Master, were flown to the north-east on May 19, and positively identified their former leader.
On May 19, Tamil Net claimed that Prabhakaran was still ‘alive and safe’. The website quoted K. Pathmanathan as stating, “I wish to inform the Global Tamil community distressed witnessing the final events of the war that our beloved leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is alive and safe….He (Prabhakaran) will continue to lead the quest for dignity and freedom for the Tamil people.” Similarly, the Head of the International Secretariat of the Intelligence wing of the LTTE, Arivazhakan, categorically denied the reports that Prabhakaran had been killed and stated, on May 22, “Our beloved leader is alive.” With Selvaraja Pathmanathan’s subsequent acceptance that Prabhakaran is dead, this myth-making has been brought to an end.
There are critical lessons in the Sri Lankan experience for a world beleaguered by terrorism. The foremost is that it was the decisive political leadership provided by the Rajapakse Government, which enabled the military to carry out an uninterrupted assault on the Tigers, eventually decimating them, despite intense international pressure. Purely in terms of the military operation, this was the first time in the history of the Eelam Wars the military had been given the mandate to engage in a sustained operations with unambiguous objectives. In this, the Forces adopted a multi-pronged strategy to split the defending Tigers (the LTTE was never able to seize the offensive in Eelam War IV, after it initiated the war in Mavil Aru in July 2006) into different groups by carrying out simultaneous operations from air, sea and ground. The Tigers, depleted in terms of men and weaponry after their loss in the East, proved no match for the highly motivated military, which had procured new weaponry from friendly countries – including India, Pakistan, China and Russia. In the year 2008 alone, the Army had added 40,000 troops, to raise 47 infantry battalions, 13 brigades, four task force contingents and two divisions, and was able to attack the Tigers on multiple fronts, preventing them from thinning out the troops. The Navy, in tandem with ground troops, curtailed the free movement of Sea Tiger boats and prevented LTTE shipments from reaching the Sri Lanka coast, cutting off the external supply of military equipment and essential goods to the LTTE by sea. It was, however, the Sri Lanka Air Force which played a decisive role in weakening the Tigers and destroying whatever weaponry they had accumulated since the cease-fire signed in February 2002. The targeting of the LTTE’s global network [Link: SAIR Volume 6, No. 41, April 21, 2008], moreover, played a decisive role in the LTTE’s defeat.
Summing up the victory mantra, Army Chief Fonseka declared, on May 17, “It is the political leadership with the commitment of the military that led the battle to success…It was never there before to this extent. The military achieved these war victories after President Mahinda Rajapakse came into power. He, who believed that terrorism should and could be eliminated, gave priority to go ahead with our military strategies… The firm decision of the political hierarchy not to go for talks with the LTTE terrorists until they lay down arms had contributed significantly to all these war victories.” In an interview published on May 22, President Rajapakse disclosed that the secret of his success was that, unlike others, “I united the Forces and allowed our commanders to fight the battle. I gave them support.”
The victory in Sri Lanka has demonstrated that the war against terror can be won with clear commitment and an unremitting offensive against terrorist networks. If the global community learns from this experience, this could have a positive and decisive impact on the meandering trajectory of the US ‘war against terror’.
There is a clear realization in Colombo, however, that the struggle is far from over, that a gigantic task of rehabilitation, of reconciliation and of political settlement remains to be addressed. The most immediate challenge is to provide about 280,000 ethnic displaced Tamils in refugee camps – out of which 200,000 people are located at the refugee camp at Manik Farm in Vavuniya alone – proper relief and living conditions, immediately, and early rehabilitation in their places of origin.
The Government will also have to ensure a political solution to the ethnic problem, something that will require the confidence of the 12 per cent of Sri Lankan Tamils in the country’s population. This will have to be preceded by a measure of trust being created between Tamil and Sinhala. For this to happen, Colombo will have to look for the elusive and long sought-after ‘southern consensus’. The southern consensus which had emerged in October 2006, finally came to a disappointing end on January 29, 2007, with the main opposition group, the United National Party announcement that the political pact it signed with the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party in October 2006 was no longer valid in the aftermath of President Rajapakse’s induction of 19 defectors from the UNP into the Government. Later, on December 12, 2007, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem stated that he and three other Parliamentarians had decided to leave the Government as it had failed to guarantee the rights of the Muslim community. These developments were a major setback to the Rajapakse regime which had, in the fag end of 2006, secured the support of Southern political parties to deal with the LTTE.
Another major challenge is presented by the often aggressive Tamil Diaspora – and widespread protests and some violent demonstrations in various Western cities in the wake of the LTTE’s defeat have underlined the urgency of this problem. While Pathmanathan has now declared the LTTE’s intention to join the ‘democratic process’, it remains necessary to factor in a May 16 report, which cites Italian intelligence sources regarding a satellite phone conversation between Prabhakaran and Kumaran Pathmanathan, instructing the latter to take over leadership of the LTTE if ‘circumstances’ demanded, and urging him to ‘carry on the struggle since the conditions are good for the Eelam struggle internationally’. Voice matching software had confirmed that the voice was Prabakaran’s, according to the report. There are also clear indications that Tamils in both Britain and Canada have vowed to continue the LTTE’s struggle. In both these countries – home to some of the largest concentrations of Sri Lankan Tamils abroad – Tamils are mobilizing to play a part in what local leaders describe as a new phase in their struggle for an independent homeland. Suren Surendiran, a spokesman for the British Tamils Forum, an umbrella organization, claims that, in the longer term, the events of recent weeks have even further radicalized the younger generation of Tamils abroad: “The first phase of the fight for freedom, from 1948 to 1983, was about political negotiations. Then, the armed struggle from 1983 until last week ensured that the oppression and discrimination of Tamil people was highlighted on an international stage… Second generation Tamils who were born overseas have now become separatists in a way that they were probably not before.” The risk of Diaspora elements linking up with surviving LTTE cadres to once again threaten security and peace in the North and elsewhere in Sri Lanka cannot entirely be written off. The Government has already announced its intention of establishing new Police Stations in the North to address security concerns. In the East, moreover, where a few LTTE militants have reportedly infiltrated, the troops are carrying out intensive search and clear operations. Elsewhere in the country, the SFs have stepped up their vigil to locate and apprehend surviving LTTE cadre.
Critically, however, President Rajapakse appears to have made clear declarations in seeking an inclusive solution to the country’s ethnic crisis. While announcing the LTTE’s defeat in Parliament on May 19, he declared:
This is our country. This is our mother land. We should live in this country as children of one mother. No differences of race, caste and religion should prevail here. The war against the LTTE is not a war against Tamil people. Our aim was to liberate our Tamil people from the clutches of the LTTE.
Protecting the Tamil speaking people of this country is my responsibility. That is my duty. All the people of this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion. All should live with equal rights… Those who live abroad and supported the terrorists with funds, if they have any love for their own people, should not help terrorism again. I call on all who have left our motherland due to terrorism, especially the Tamil people, to return… We shall resettle all those who have been freed from being hostages in very welcome surroundings. Similarly, it is necessary that the political solutions they need should be brought to closer to them faster than any country or government in the world would bring… I seek the support of all political parties for that solution. Time is now raising a new challenge before us. It is the challenge of building the motherland.”
To meet the first challenge of resettlement of displaced persons the President, by virtue of powers vested in him by Article 33 (f) of the Constitution, has appointed a 19-member Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security in the Northern Province. It is mandated to prepare strategic plans, programs and projects to resettle internally displaced persons, and to rehabilitate and develop economic and social infrastructure of the Northern Province. Other activities commissioned to the Task Force include:
• To coordinate activities of the security agencies of the Government in support of resettlement, rehabilitation and development.
• To direct and oversee the implementation of the said plans, programs and projects of the relevant state organizations including the relevant provincial authorities.
• To liaise with all organizations in the public and private sectors and civil society organizations for the proper implementation of programs and projects.
• To seek, identify and apply innovative solutions to problems and constraints confronted in the execution of the mandate of the Task Force.
• To regularly review the progress of the implementation of the said programs and projects and to take immediate corrective actions where necessary.
The Presidential directive appointing the Task Force dated May 7 required it to complete its mandate and report to the President within one year. The Gazette containing this directive was published on May 13. The Government has also defined its 180-day Plan to deal with the resettlement issue.
In addition, President Rajapakse has reiterated his Government’s commitment to a political solution to address the grievances of the Tamil people in the country, declaring, “I am committed to implementing the 13th amendment dealing with devolution of powers and willing to go even a step further. That step we can discuss and negotiate with political leaders.” Earlier, on April 3, an unnamed official said that the report of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) would soon be released to all political parties. The APRC report is a document which recommends the full implementation of the 13th amendment as well as certain additional power devolution. The proposal for a constitutional court has also been discussed. The APRC was mandated by President Mahinda Rajapakse to prepare a set of proposals that would be the basis for a solution to the national question. Over the past two years, 120 APRC sessions, chaired by Science and Technology Minister Professor Tissa Vitharana, have been held. The main opposition UNP, the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Tamil National Alliance, however, refrained from participating in the APRC sessions. The President has, however, approached the TNA twice and has also recently convened a meeting of Tamil parties along with other political parties. A number of ‘non-participating parties’ are also said to be interested in studying the APRCs recommendations.
On May 21, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, C.R. Jaisinghe, stated that the Rajapakse Government was planning to hold provincial elections in the Tamil-dominated areas freed from LTTE control. “Our country is now free of terror. The President has already made it clear that the concerns of the Tamil Diaspora will be addressed. We will hold provincial council elections in the northern region.”
Meanwhile, several countries, prominently including India, Australia, Japan, Vietnam and China, have already committed substantial aid for Sri Lanka. While India has prepared an INR 5 billion rehabilitation package for the displaced people in Sri Lanka, in addition to an earlier INR 1 billion relief package by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and INR 250 million aid given by the Tamil Nadu Government. Similarly, the Australian Government will provide an estimated AUD 35.6 million in development assistance to Sri Lanka in 2009-10, including up to AUD 7 million for work at the community level to assist with rehabilitation, primarily across northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Australia has already committed over AUD 23.5 million for humanitarian activities in Sri Lanka since December 2008. In the meanwhile, the United States and Britain are trying to stall a USD 1.9 billion bailout package that Sri Lanka is seeking from the International Monetary Fund. In response, the Sri Lanka Central Bank Governor, Nivard Cabraal, told reporters that the Government was working on “Plan B, Plan C and Plan D”.
The end of the war in Sri Lanka marks the beginnings of a new struggle to secure an equitable political order and justice for the Tamil people within a non-discriminatory Constitutional framework. There are indications that the national leadership is conscious of these imperatives, though it remains to be seen how completely and honestly current commitments are implemented. On this will depend the future peace and prosperity of Sri Lanka. Despite decades of war, living standards in the country have remained well above the South Asian mean, and the country has tremendous potential for rapid development. The realization of this potential will depend, equally, on the willingness of the surviving LTTE leadership to firmly and irrevocably abandon an attempt to revive the destructive politics of terrorism.
As for Velupillai Prabhakaran, for all the adulation he inspires among sections of the Tamil community, particularly the Diaspora (and a sneaking admiration among at least some in the West), he will surely be remembered among the great monsters of human history.