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LTTE’s defeat holds lessons for separatist groups

By Shylashri Shankar

(May 27, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The defeat of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) holds an important lesson for separatist movements around the world. The lesson is: switch to political negotiations with the governments you oppose.

In an atmosphere where force by non-state actors is branded as terrorism and penalised by the international community, you will win only through peace agreements, not through force.

On May 18, 2009, the 26-year armed struggle between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE fighting for a separate homeland for Tamils officially drew to a close with the military defeat of the organisation and the death of its supreme leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

The deadly guerrilla force had pioneered the tactical use of suicide terrorism, captured vast swathes of territory in the east and north of Sri Lanka, and even set up a de facto state in the north of the country that collected taxes, dispensed justice through law courts and secured its territories with an army, navy and air force.

The LTTE’s defeat shows that today it is harder for separatist movements to fight for their cause by using force. Internationally, the global proscription of organisations that used terror tactics hit the LTTE’s capacity to fund and maintain control over the northeast of Sri Lanka.

Prior to the 9/11 in 2001 and the subsequent launch of a ‘war on terror’ by the Bush administration, the LTTE (like other separatist groups elsewhere) was seen by many governments as a separatist group fighting for the rights of a beleaguered minority.

The LTTE made full use of the freedom to channel funds from the diaspora Tamils while using peace talks and ceasefire agreements to buy time to build its arsenal.

The Sri Lankan military did the same, with the result that neither could defeat the other militarily. But in the past decade, the LTTE’s ability to arm itself suffered from the changed international scenario.

A second international factor for the defeat of the LTTE was that the US use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan and the consequent deaths of thousands of civilians had inured western governments to the notion of ‘collateral damage’.

The Sri Lankan government used its arsenal to bomb the LTTE-controlled areas in the north, and set up camps to hold Tamil civilians fleeing the war zone.

The Sri Lankan foreign ministry cultivated China’s help to keep the issue off the Security Council’s agenda despite calls from the US and the EU to avoid civilian casualties. The government’s own policy of limiting media and international NGOs and aid agencies’ access to the war zone made it impossible to verify reports of civilian deaths since January (7,000 or more according to the UN), and the numbers held in the camps (UN figure is 2,65,000).

The international factors coincided with two domestic developments. First, the split within the LTTE in 2004 and the exit of a key commander of the eastern forces, Karuna, compromised the military and intelligence prowess of the guerrilla force; Karuna assisted the battle-hardened Sri Lankan military by revealing the modus operandi of the LTTE.

Second, the election of Mahinda Rajapakse as President in 2005, who promised to rid the country of the LTTE and was supported by the Sinhala nationalist parties, coincided with the weakening of the LTTE’s military prowess. The previous presidents had interfered with battle plans because they were torn between negotiating peace with the LTTE, and winning a military victory.

The new government was deeply suspicious of Prabhakaran’s ultimate goal, and held that all peace talks with him were useless because he would never agree to a Tamil Eelam (homeland) within the territorial boundaries of Sri Lanka.

When the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement collapsed in 2006, President Rajapakse decided to launch an all-out military assault on the separatists.

This time, the political leaders allowed the military commanders a free hand, using the intelligence gathered from the breakaway LTTE faction, arms from China and Pakistan, intelligence shared by India, and their battle-hardened forces to wage guerrilla and conventional warfare with the LTTE.

Rajapakse won a six-year term as President in 2005, promising to rid the island of the LTTE. He has accomplished his promise. On May 19, 2009, he promised a political settlement for the minorities, and equal rights for all citizens. Will he accomplish it?

Several factors will undermine attempts at nation-building. First, how can the government rebuild bridges between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils and Muslims while scrutinising LTTE connections of the displaced minorities in detention camps?

Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, the military spokesman, told The Guardian last month that he expected the LTTE to resort to guerrilla tactics once the military campaign was concluded.

“It is not going to end soon,” he said. “It will take some time to completely eradicate terrorism from the country, we think about two years.”

If so, are the Tamil civilians going to remain in camps until they are cleared of links with the LTTE? What legal rights will they have to defend themselves against allegations?

Second, who will monitor the government’s performance on these promises? Under the Rajapakse presidency, independent media within the country was silenced through the use of arrests, detentions, abductions and other measures.

The reporters without borders index ranked Sri Lanka at 165th among 172 countries on press freedom.

Will these curbs be lifted and will the journalists be allowed to monitor the government’s policies towards the minorities?

Or will the government retain the curbs in the name of securing the country against terrorism from sleeper units of the LTTE?

The Sri Lankan government has already warned the international community not to interfere in its internal affairs and rejected the call for an independent inquiry into human rights violations by both sides made by the ‘appalled’ foreign ministers of the EU.

If Rajapakse’s ‘home-grown’ political settlement provides a just outcome for the Tamil and Muslim minorities, Sri Lanka would join the ranks of booming economies. Otherwise, we would see another Prabhakaran and another LTTE.

The writer is a Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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