This is a time to take stock. Due to all the wrong turns that Sri Lanka has taken, and the right ones it did not, at and since our Independence six decades ago, the country has now spent a quarter century commemorating that event in conditions of a separatist civil war. This period of Sri Lanka’s history may now be about to end. The main achievement of 2008 was the shift in the balance of forces between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the maintenance of a posture of strategic offensive by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Veteran New York Times editorialist-turned-scholar Barbara Crossette, writing on 6 January 2009 in the progressive US weekly The Nation, described the LTTE as “pioneers of the suicide bomber and the cyanide capsule, and the most totalitarian and lethal guerrilla organization in contemporary Asia.”
Indeed, we are winning a ground war against a ferocious insurgent foe that fields large human formations and is armed with heavy artillery, fast boats and light aircraft. And we are doing so with minimum collateral damage, despite the use of human shields by the enemy. As of mid-January, the Lankan military has succeeded in squeezing the LTTE into a single contiguous district. Furthermore, the LTTE has been unable to make any territorial gain during the past two years, nor has it been able to regain any territory it has lost. Meanwhile, the Tigers have lost thousands of valuable fighting cadres. The corresponding losses of the Sri Lankan forces are to be considered affordable, given the discrepancy in size of the two armed forces as well as the larger discrepancy in the population base of recruitment. One should note that voluntary recruitment to the Sri Lankan armed forces kept rising throughout the past year, while forced conscription in the LTTE-controlled areas brought ill-motivated fighters into the rebel ranks.
The chief challenge of 2009 is to conclude the war victoriously, and to do so in a manner that precludes, to the extent possible, a prolonged guerrilla war. A critical aspect of this is the destruction of the LTTE’s fighting forces in the battles to liberate Mullaitivu. It is a myth of the misinformed that a powerful irregular force, especially one based on some collective identity or social constituency, can never be fully defeated, and that even if conventionally defeated they revert to or are reborn as guerrilla movements that are impossible to eradicate. Take three well-known examples: Chechnya, Angola’s UNITA and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. All three were defeated and decapitated, never to be reborn as guerrillas.
Those in the Tamil diaspora who daydream of the inevitability of a long, drawn-out guerrilla war, such as that waged by the Vietnamese or the Taliban, simply do not know either their history or their geography. The Vietnamese waged a people’s war of national liberation against a conscript army from tens of thousands of miles away, possessing no understanding of the Asian continent, let alone the local terrain. The guerrilla resistance deployed broad ‘united front’ tactics, mobilised the peasantry, was supported by a safe rear area (North Vietnam), had supplies coming in from socialist Russia and China, and was assisted by solidarity movements all over the world, including in the USA itself. If there is any Indo-Chinese parallel for the LTTE it is not Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese, but rather Pol Pot: the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist John F Burns once described Velupillai Prabhakaran as “the Pol Pot of South Asia”. The Vietnamese won; Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge eventually lost.
The Taliban operate in the massive mountainous terrain that stretches from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Mullaitivu, on the other hand, is one district out of 24, on a small island with no land borders, surrounded only by sea. The Tigers have been consciously corralled, funnelled into Mullaitivu by the multi-front strategy of the Sri Lankan armed forces, which have been waging an impressive combination of large- and small-unit ‘deep penetration’ tactics in that battle space. Thus, Prabhakaran’s durable base area, from which he staged his comebacks against the Indian Peace-Keeping Force and the Sri Lankan Army (with the overrunning of the Mullaitivu camp in mid-1996), has become a killing zone for the Tigers.
Having won the quasi-conventional war, the Sri Lankan armed forces will have to eradicate the infrastructure of a residual or resurgent terror campaign. A genuine measure of autonomy and self-government, and joint operations with elected local allies, has always been the secret of effective counter-insurgency. In Sri Lanka, this will require the legitimate, large-scale engagement of Tamil allies and auxiliaries, and such legitimacy can result only from the constitutionally ordained devolution of power to the Eastern Provincial Council and its Northern counterpart.
Two non-military yet strategic tasks thus face Sri Lanka in 2009. First, the political prevention of the sustenance or resurfacing of ethnic separatism and support for the Tigers through so-called peaceful political means. This requires stringent anti-separatist legislation along the lines of those that exist in India, Turkey and Spain. Second, a variety of elections – parliamentary, provincial and local authority – need to be held in the liberated areas. The aim here is to throw up a moderate democratic Tamil representation with which the Sri Lankan government can negotiate a final settlement of ethnic grievances, the outlines of which are already being chalked out by the All Party Representative Committee, the APRC.
The real challenge of 2009, then, is politico-military. First, the liberation of Mullaitivu needs to be accomplished in such a decisive and comprehensive manner as to pre-empt, to the maximum degree possible, the survival of the LTTE as a guerrilla/terror force. Second, simultaneously there has to be a redrawing of the Sri Lankan social contract in a manner so enlightened and reformist that the Tamil people feel included as fully fledged citizens, enjoying equal rights and genuine provincial autonomy. 2009 must be the year of the full and final liberation and reunification of Sri Lankan territory; and upon that reunified territory, the beginning of the construction of a truly Sri Lankan identity, an authentically Sri Lankan nation.
Victory is on the horizon, but there are pitfalls. There will be pressures to delay, dilute or divert the final offensive and its objectives. There will be calls for ceasefires, negotiations and non-military, political solutions. Some of these will emanate from those external forces who do not wish to see strong states in the Third World, especially those led by nationalist leaders. In most parts of the world, these external forces and their successors have, over decades and even centuries, encouraged divisions and patronised this or that particularistic group, in order to prevent the consolidation of strong nation states. This is, has been and will continue to be the strategy of global hegemony, at times operating through regional subsystems. There is almost no violent conflict today – from Palestine to Zimbabwe, from Afghanistan to Kashmir – whose origins cannot be traced to colonial policy, the divisive stratagems of de-colonisation and the successor Cold War policy of imperial hegemony, or a combination thereof.
The neocolonial forces do not wish to see the defeat of Tamil separatism in either its armed or unarmed form. They wish Tamil separatist extremism to survive even in residual form, so it can be reactivated and used as an instrument at any given time. Our fight against separatist terror is part of the larger struggle for the defence of our own path, our independence, political sovereignty and right of self-determination. The struggle against fragmentation through separatism is part of the struggle for the consolidation of what Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have conceptualised for their country as ‘sovereign democracy’. It is a struggle against the installation of an anti-national puppet administration, which would cede the sovereignty of the state to outside players and even partition the state for private profit.
Prabhakaran has been placed on the strategic defensive just as certain global political changes are taking place, which he has been eagerly awaiting. Anita Pratap, the Indian journalist closest to the rebel leader, pointed out in a speech several months ago that Prabhakaran was awaiting two international developments to take place in 2009: first, a new administration in the USA; and second, elections (hopefully, in his view, leading to a new administration) in India. It is most likely that Prabhakaran has miscalculated and grossly overestimated the impact of both of these political developments. However, it is a challenge before the Sri Lankan state to eliminate his military capacity before these political changes can begin to work in his favour.
Sri Lanka can win the war and lose the peace by one of two errors. The first would be to permit the separatist project to continue to function, for separatist political agencies to function unchecked. We could thus peacefully jeopardise that which the armed forces have won on the battlefield. This could generate a seriously destabilising nationalist-populist backlash. The equal and opposite error would be a lack of generosity, flexibility, enlightenment and wisdom, due to which we fail to expeditiously remove the discrimination, frustration and alienation felt by the Tamil minority. That would cause the reactivation, one way or another, of the Tamil separatist struggle. Either outcome would betray the gains of military victory, and would continue to torment the people of Sri Lanka.
~ Dayan Jayatilleka is Sri Lanka´s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, and senior lecturer at the Department of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Colombo. The views expressed in his piece are his own.