The Kilinochchi disaster in September 1998 was the exclamation mark at the end of the Sri Lankan government’s failed strategy to capture the Jaffna-Vavuniya highway, help Tamil moderates establish a political beacbhead in the Jaffna peninsula, and force the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) to negotiate on its (the government’s) terms. The battle resulted in thousands of casualties, mostly on the army’s side, and was perhaps the costliest since US troops cornered Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. The defeat was soon followed by the government’s decision to call off its “Operation Victory Assured” and, sensing its advantage, the LTTE’s new offers to enter into unconditional talks which the government promptly rebuffed.
Further deepening the gloom, recent reports in the Sri Lankan press that South African President Nelson Mandela would facilitate negotiations turned out to be, in the words of the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, “idle speculation” What no one bothered to ask was why Mandela would risk his unmatched cache and credibility in attempting to reconcile two warring sides that seem so uninterested in compromise. As the new year began, the government turned its attention to the provincial council elections, while the army appeared to have changed its strategy, from forging mass formations of troops and artillery to opting for smaller fighting patrols.
Sri Lanka’s citizens are quick to blame their leaders for the seemingly endless political and military stalemate but the “civil societies” on both sides of the ethnic divide are equally to blame. This is a war in which the sons and daughters of Sinhalese cultivators and fishermen fight on against the sons and daughters of Tamil cultivators and fishermen, cheered from the sidelines by the middle classes of both communities who dominate the war’s discourse but whose contributions to the war effort are mostly measured in airy words and good intentions.
The contradiction between the Sinhalese desire to vanquish the LTTE and their unwillingness to enlist, especially when the tide of battle shifts and victory appears remote, is perhaps the Sri Lankan army’s greatest obstacle to achieving its objectives. The Tigers face the same frustration. Their dream of Elam would be closer to reality if more Tamils left the comforts of asylum abroad and joined up.
But it appears that the majority of the people from both sides, at home and elsewhere, comprise this very shirking middle. Too clever to enlist and too proud or insecure to advocate concessions, these people, often insulated from the full effects of the war, argue that the government’s devolution proposals go too far or don’t go far enough. They either stall or overreach. Stall, because dialogue and debate without closure amounts to filibuster and overreach, because neither side can expect to achieve through negotiations what it has failed to through war.
The more victory-minded among the Sinhalese and Tamil communities contribute money directly to the war effort through the National Defence Fund or LTTE front organisations, while others give to charities that support widows and children of dead soldiers, purchase artificial limbs, and so on. While these soft donations are graciously accepted, they are not what the army or the LTTE require to finish their business. Both sides need fighters, desperately, and all the money and high-tech weaponry in the world are not going to help either side win unless more armchair firebrands, who believe compromise is impossible, have the courage to act on their convictions and enlist.
The role of the shirking middle will have to be more decisive because there are more of them. They can continue to stall or overreach, while letting people with fewer social options do the fighting for them, or they can put their political weight behind the not-so-proud leaders and activists of both communities who would rather compromise than win, and who, demonstrating a courage of their own, are working for a negotiated settlement, however imperfect.