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Don’t let extremists hijack Tamil issue

By Srinath Raghavan

(May 01, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The armed conflict in Sri Lanka is nearing its denouement. In the days ahead, we are likely to witness the demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a guerilla force, if not as a terrorist outfit. As the LTTE convulses in the throes of Sri Lankan military torsion, international opinion is rightly focused on the plight of the Tamils caught between the warring forces. Yet, it is important to understand the reasons for the LTTE’s precipitous decline; for herein lies a clue to India’s approach to the crisis.

For a start, the LTTE was weakened by a malaise that afflicts most radical organisations. Such groups are prone to what Sigmund Freud called "narcissism of small differences": their deepest contempt is usually reserved for those closest to them on the ideological spectrum. Since they are obsessed with ultimate ends, even minor differences of opinion tend to morph into fundamental differences of principle. This leads, inevitably, to fissures in radical movements. The split engineered by Karuna Amman in 2004 is a case in point. Karuna was the LTTE commander of the eastern region before he fell out with Velupillai Prabhakaran. The upshot was that Prabhakaran lost control of territory and cadre in the east, and became vulnerable to targeted strikes by Sri Lankan forces aided by the Karuna faction.

The LTTE was further enfeebled by the steady erosion of its logistical and financial networks. Prabhakaran had all along realised the importance of the seas for the Eelam project. From the 1980s, he had relied on fishing and smuggling networks to sustain the insurgency. The rise of "Sea Tigers" in the past decade was viewed with growing concern by New Delhi as well as Colombo. Indeed, India’s cooperation in patrolling the seas and its training of Sri Lankan Navy personnel contributed to the crippling of the "Sea Tigers". This outfit had been a significant force multiplier for the LTTE and had played an important role in the crucial battle of Elephant Pass in 2000.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the LTTE’s financing and arms procurement network came under closer international scrutiny. Its brazen violations of the last ceasefire increased its political isolation, resulting in the progressive blocking of its material and financial arteries.

The LTTE is also the victim of its own triumphs in the past. Like most successful irregular forces, it sought to adopt the structures and strategy of regular forces and the panoply of a state in waiting. This was considered essential to secure and legitimise an independent Tamil Eelam. But the LTTE’s past record in conventional territorial defence against a professional adversary should have given pause to its leadership. Think of their failed attempt at defending Jaffna town against the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987. But subsequent successes against the Sri Lankan Army led to unwarranted confidence in their capabilities as a conventional force.

However, the Sri Lankan forces now taking on the LTTE are far more competent than those of the past. With the political leadership’s approval they have adopted a ruthless strategy of attrition, one that pays little heed to humanitarian considerations. They have made particularly effective use of air power in pulverising the LTTE-controlled areas. The air campaign has been backed by an overwhelming ground offensive. Prabhakaran might well be ruing his decision to wage conventional war, especially in the absence of credible air defences.

The transformation of the Sri Lankan armed forces in recent years owes much to the political leadership. Colombo has successfully managed to diversify its defence procurement by reaching out to Pakistan, China, Britain and France among others. The programme of modernisation has also included better training for its military personnel. The decision to move beyond exclusive dependence on India has paid handsome dividends.

From New Delhi’s standpoint, this has been problematic. The ill-fated IPKF mission of the late 1980s had already resulted in what might be called the "Sri Lanka syndrome" — a pronounced aversion to political-military intervention in the affairs of the island. Following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian government had decisively turned against the LTTE. Yet, concerns about Tamil opinion in India ensured that there were limits to New Delhi’s military assistance to Colombo. In consequence, India’s ability to influence the ethnic conflict dwindled. The diversification of Sri Lanka’s arms procurement further reduced India’s leverage. It is easy to portray the Indian government as an ineffectual angel beating its wings in vain; but the fact is that our options vis-à-vis Sri Lanka have reduced considerably over the years.

Nevertheless, India’s position could have been strengthened by fostering moderate, democratic Tamil parties in Sri Lanka. The existence of viable political alternatives to the LTTE would have enabled New Delhi to further the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils more effectively. Besides, we might have avoided the competitive populism now playing out in Tamil Nadu, where political leaders are outdoing each other in pledging allegiance to the misguided idea of the Eelam. Instead, successive Indian governments looked on as the LTTE lowered prominent moderates into their graves, scared the remainder into silence and neutered them politically.

It is not too late yet. The military crisis might end soon, but the political problem is likely to persist. President Mahinda Rajapakse has been voluble in promising a just political settlement for the Tamils. His approach so far does not inspire much confidence. Consider the situation in eastern Sri Lanka where the war ended in mid-2007. The provincial elections held last May were criticised by a host of parties for being neither free nor fair. Unsurprisingly, the political front of Karuna’s militia, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), came to power. The provincial government has few powers and fewer resources. The existing set-up is scarcely geared to meet even the minimum aspirations of the Tamils and the Muslims.

It is not clear that Mr Rajapakse has different plans for the north. More important, the manner in which this round of the armed conflict has played out is likely to spark further resentment among the Tamils of Sri Lanka. India should act now to ensure that the ethnic problem is not yet again hijacked by extremists and terrorists.

Srinath Raghavan is at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, India

-Sri Lanka Guardian

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