It was bitter irony that at the very moment that the Sri Lankan armed forces were achieving their greatest feat in the war against the LTTE – the opening of the long-closed highway to Jaffna – armed assassins were striking in Colombo, and effectively slamming shut the door to media freedom in the country. On 8 January 2009, at a crowded intersection, armed men on four motorcycles surrounded Lasantha Wickrematunge, the outspoken editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, and proceeded to shoot him dead, all in a high-security zone next to an Air Force camp. The timing of the assassination has since proven so counterproductive for the Colombo government that President Mahinda Rajapakse has been led to speak of a conspiracy, even an international one, aimed at discrediting his government and diverting attention from its military triumphs.
Providing a rather different perspective in the Parliament, meanwhile, the leader of the opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe, pointed the finger for the assassination (and other crimes) at a team within the military-intelligence wing, albeit one operating independently of government control. “Today it is the opposition and the media who are the targets,” he said in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Wickrematunge. “But a similar fate can befall the government and the cabinet tomorrow. I am talking on behalf of the entire House now.” He furthermore called for “this motorbike squad” to be placed under the supervision of a deputy inspector-general of police. Government spokespeople, meanwhile, have claimed the attack to be the work of anti-government elements – possibly even the LTTE, which is deemed to be capable of anything, especially if it is destructive.
President Rajapakse and his government appear to be focused on a single agenda, to a far greater extent than any previous Colombo government. Since this administration took over, in November 2005, concerns about human-rights violations, rule of law and corruption have consistently met with governmental denials. Particularly over the past two years, the government’s programme for the country has been to defeat – militarily – the LTTE, which it has regularly claimed would lay the foundation for peace in Sri Lanka. The success that the government has met with thus far in this campaign has been entirely due to its willingness to fight the LTTE on its own terms, with no price being considered too high to pay. Resources and lives alike have been poured into the war at an astonishing rate, with those suspected of being LTTE supporters or members being abducted and/or killed in all parts of the country. Since the beginning of the year, Colombo has been celebrating its victories in the north – particularly its gaining of control over the entire length of the A9 Highway to Jaffna – as decisive events that herald the dawn of peace. There can certainly be no doubt about the military and psychological blows that these gains have struck against the LTTE. For instance, it was only during his annual Heroes Day speech this year, on 27 November, that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran (or Pirapaharan) laughed off the potential capture of Kilinochchi as a pipedream. However, any illusion that the LTTE had either a plan or the strength to salvage its fortunes in Kilinochchi was quickly proven unfounded with the fall of its administrative capital at the dawn of the New Year.
Exactly a week later, the government’s 9 January recapture of the Elephant Pass military base, which stands at the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula and which was lost in 2000 during a catastrophic battle, was a significant morale booster to the Sri Lankan military. Over recent years there were several abortive efforts made to recapture the area, but these all ended in costly debacles. This time, however, the military thrust proved too strong for the LTTE. In the coming weeks there is every reason to believe that the government will make further territorial gains that will effectively end LTTE rule over the inhabited parts of the north. At that point, the only remaining strongholds – if that word can still be used – will be the dense jungles.
The question, however, is whether a government victory in conventional warfare, coupled with the retaking of northern territory, will also eliminate the LTTE’s guerrilla and terror-prone capacities. If the answer is yes, then the conditions of uncertainty, instability and the need for a military presence that accompanies life in many parts of the country will come to a halt with the end of the northern battles. On the other hand, conventional military capacity and the ability to hold territory are not the LTTE’s only attributes. Non-state military groups throughout the world specialise in unconventional warfare, and the LTTE likewise maintains a potent ability for both guerrilla warfare and terror strategies. In the aftermath of the Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass victories, this is what the government is guarding against in Jaffna, the east and in Colombo.
The fall of Kilinochchi is not the first time that the LTTE has had to cope with losses both of an administrative capital in the context of severe military reversal and of its prestige as a fighting force. In 1995, it was forced to give up an even greater prize than Kilinochchi, when it lost Jaffna city in battle with government forces. As Jaffna is both the most populous and culturally significant of all Tamil areas in Sri Lanka, the loss of Jaffna at the time seemed to be an irreversible blow to the rebels. As with the capture of Kilinochchi in early January, in 1995 there were both spontaneous and government-inspired celebrations following the capture of Jaffna.
The government and most members of the Sinhalese community tend to view celebrations of LTTE defeats as positive demonstrations of public patriotism and revulsion against the LTTE. It is noticeable, though, that few if any Tamils are part of these celebrations, and it would be understandable if they are currently feeling both alienated from and not included in such revelry. In the current context, one reality that always needs to be kept in mind is that of ethnic division. It is, after all, Sri Lankan Army units composed almost entirely of Sinhalese soldiers that are tasked with taking control over territories that are almost entirely composed of Tamil communities, even while they continue to attempt to defeat a rebel force that is likewise almost entirely Tamil.
Today, it is generally acknowledged that the victory celebrations of 1995 that accompanied the capture of Jaffna were inappropriate and ill-timed. In a replay of the days of the Sinhalese kings, those celebrations saw President Chandrika Kumaratunga being given a scroll in Parliament by General Anuruddha Ratwatte that formally declared the taking of Jaffna. Scarcely two months were to pass before the LTTE infiltrated Colombo and brought down the Central Bank building with a suicide truck-bomb attack. This was followed by other military reversals, including the overrunning of the Mullaitivu army base that led to the deaths of over 1200 Sri Lankan soldiers.
There persists a belief in some sections of Sri Lankan society that the LTTE can be crushed and either totally eliminated or turned into a mainstream party. This is in fact what happened two decades ago in quite another theatre, with the Marxist-oriented, Sinhalese-led Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The military defeat of the JVP and the elimination of its militant leadership ended the party’s armed challenge to the state, which was likewise being waged through guerrilla and terror tactics. The memory of the JVP’s defeat could currently be leading to hopes of a similar end to the LTTE’s challenge to the state. But in fact, international experience indicates that identity-based rebellions are more tenacious in their grip over societies than are class-based ones, as the JVP insurrection was.
In identity-based conflicts, the struggle polarises communities from top to bottom. In the case of the Tamil rebellion, a large and powerful Tamil diaspora that supports the LTTE cannot be neutralised by military methods, as they live overseas. Today, most reasonable people in Sri Lanka would agree that the LTTE and the war with it arose as a consequence of a long-unresolved ethnic conflict. As such, the LTTE is clearly but a symptom of a deeper problem. Unfortunately, the violence and terror tactics used by the LTTE have been so extreme that they have come to be seen as the main problems in the Sri Lanka. Eliminating the LTTE will not terminate the ethnic conflict, however.
The fact is that even if the LTTE were to be eradicated, the problem that Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike and Federal Party leader S J V Chelvanayakam tried to resolve in 1957, through the unimplemented Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, will remain. This agreement addressed the two main issues of regional autonomy that would ensure a measure of self-determination rights to the Tamil minority and language rights to Tamil speakers. Prime Minister Bandaranaike failed in his attempt to resolve the ethnic conflict because he was unable to overcome the deep divisions within Sinhalese society regarding these compromises. The challenge that now lies before President Rajapakse and his government is to overcome exactly those divisions. But so far, with the military campaign seeming to go from strength to strength, there appears to be little incentive for Colombo policymakers to come up with a credible and mutually acceptable political package.
Progress, after all, occurs when past achievements are built upon and mistakes are not repeated. Scholars have pointed out that ethnic identity is a primordial attachment that even a globalised society cannot hope to transcend. With provincial elections just around the corner (currently slated for mid-February), the government may feel impelled to celebrate its victories over the course of the coming weeks, regardless of the feelings of the Tamil community. The vote of the majority Sinhalese electorate will be required in order to take the government to yet another victory. At the same time, however, the government will need to rise above ethnic and political considerations if it is to restore lasting peace to this war-torn land.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that important aspects of social and political life in Sri Lanka are rapidly deteriorating. The assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge was a tremor that, in retrospect, was waiting to happen. The challenge facing Sri Lankan society as a whole today is to avoid the tragic fate of Tamil society. When the LTTE first began to kill Tamils who dissented from it, the larger Tamil society remained quiet – out of fear, out of a desire not to get involved, and also because there was a belief that the LTTE would ultimately succeed in winning. They were prepared to pay the price that the LTTE was exacting. Instead of opposing the LTTE’s violations of human rights, there were many who said that they admired Prabhakaran, and that he made them proud to be Tamil.
Widely quoted in the current situation are the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who first supported and later opposed Adolf Hitler’s nationalism in Germany. Those words need now to be remembered by those who want Sri Lanka to be free of LTTE extremism and all terror. “In Germany,” Niemöller wrote in the most-often translated version of his poem, “they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. And then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. And then … they came for me … and by that time there was no one left to speak up.”
When Tamils who were not in favour of the LTTE were killed there were many Tamil commentators who, in the days of the LTTE’s rise to power, expressed the view that a traitor had been done away with – and good riddance it was. Now that the Sri Lankan armed forces are winning against the LTTE, it is important that the people of Sri Lanka and their leaders learn from the terrible lessons of the recent past. A particularly important responsibility in this regard lies with the government. Any government in any part of the world will face multiple challenges at any given time. The foremost dilemma with a single-agenda government such as Colombo, however, is that its stringent focus on its agenda of war and victory can easily lead to a blind eye being turned to breakdowns elsewhere in the system. The end result, ultimately, can be akin to winning the war but losing everything else. The peace process must thus be rescued from the ‘war process’ that is on in Sri Lanka.
~ Jehan Perera is on the editorial board of Himal Southasian.