By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 02/05/08):
Time is running out for the great south Asian boast. By the end of this year, according to a new year prediction by Sri Lanka’s army chief, Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, his guerrilla opponents – the Tamil Tigers – would be “extinct”. They and their demands for a homeland for the Tamil minority would vanish from the field, and after 25 years of war the island and its Sinhalese majority could enjoy peace again.
An end to Sri Lanka’s bloodletting is certainly overdue. The country has become the last sick man of the region. In Nepal an almost equally long civil war stopped 18 months ago when intelligent compromises produced agreement to reform the constitution. In Pakistan, after nearly a decade of army rule, elections in the winter produced a partial return to civilian control; the country’s re-empowered politicians have just struck a peace deal with militant leaders in the fractious border provinces.
Comparisons are never exact, and Sri Lanka differs from Nepal and Pakistan in numerous ways. Since gaining independence from Britain it has had an uninterrupted history of parliamentary rule. Its system of land tenure is not feudal. By Asian standards economic inequalities are relatively minor, and the benefits of decent healthcare have spread to every district, along with universal education for girls as well as boys.
But on the pattern of many other democracies, the country’s elected politicians have not responded well to the legitimate demands of ethnic, religious, and regional minorities. Tamils turned to violence and terrorism after years of frustration. Many went to the extreme of advocating secession after becoming convinced that a fair share of power was unreachable in a unitary state.
The current government is not the first to believe it could defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the Tigers are properly known. Earlier administrations had similar ambitions but eventually realised they were futile and ruinous. The death toll has already reached 70,000, a proportion of the population that would amount to 200,000 in Britain. No wonder independent observers treated Fonseka’s victory boast with horror. No wonder, too, that India’s embassy and western diplomats were appalled a few days later when Fonseka’s political master, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, abrogated the internationally brokered ceasefire. Its Scandinavian monitors had to leave.
The government based its military hopes on a serious setback for the LTTE in eastern Sri Lanka. Colonel Karuna Amman, the guerrillas’ regional commander, defected to the government side four years ago, and his forces received logistical and financial support to attack their old colleagues. The government dumped Karuna after he fell out with other breakaway commanders, and he came to Britain on a false passport, for which he received a nine-month sentence here in January. His forces continue under new pro-government leadership, and with their help the army captured most of the LTTE’s eastern strongholds last year.
But the Tigers’ core area is in the north. Efforts to break into it since January have cost scores of soldiers’ lives and made little progress. Last weekend the army suffered large losses at Muhamalai, south of Jaffna, in the biggest battle for years. Journalists were barred from local hospitals, but the government admitted losing 47 men. Both sides inflate the other’s losses and minimise their own, but some Sri Lankan analysts estimate that casualties on both sides could exceed a thousand. The government claims to have gained 500 yards of ground. “I don’t think they really appreciated the tenacity and fighting spirit of the LTTE. The Tigers have proved they are no pushover,” General Gerry de Silva, a retired army commander, told local journalists.
Following the logic of asymmetrical warfare, the Tigers have responded to the offensives by reinforcing their old strategy of sending suicide bombers to kill civilians – more than 20 people died in an atrocity near Colombo last week. The Tigers have persistently used force to conscript children into their ranks, and evidence suggests this is on the increase again. On the government side security forces are said to be linked to the abduction and killing of suspected LTTE sympathisers. Thiagarajah Maheswaran, a Tamil MP, was gunned down in a Hindu temple on New Year’s Day a few hours after announcing he would give parliament details of death squads. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s small but vibrant group of independent human rights watchdogs reports a tightening of pressures on the media.
Western governments and other traditional aid-givers have repeatedly warned Sri Lanka that there can be no military solution. The US Congress recently cut off military aid, except for air surveillance. The EU has to decide in a few months whether to renew Sri Lanka’s trade preferences. President Rajapaksa is ignoring the barrage of criticism and has turned to a new range of allies for support, loans and weaponry. He has made two trips to China, and this week Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, was in Colombo with a promise of £1,000m in soft loans and grants. Although the money is intended to help Sri Lanka expand its only oil refinery, develop an irrigation and hydropower project and buy Iranian oil, it will allow the country to absorb the pressure from its rising trade deficit.
It is hard to see any chance of a shift in this bleak picture. Many observers believe the LTTE leadership has become so battle-hardened that it feels more comfortable with war than having to prepare for a reasonable discussion of constitutional reform. The government, for its part, shows no readiness to prepare the Sinhalese electorate for the concessions that will eventually have to be made. At 28% a year, Sri Lanka now has Asia’s highest inflation. Prices of basics such as rice and coconut have gone up particularly sharply. But economic discontent has not turned into political pressure for an end to a costly war. The Sinhalese opposition is divided, and in no mood to press Rajapaksa with a demand for a return to the aborted ceasefire agreement and peace talks with the LTTE.
Last weekend’s losses have at least forced Fonseka to dilute his boasts. On Sunday a defence ministry statement quoted him as saying the battle will “take a decisive turn before the end of this year”. That is a long way from predicting the Tigers’ extinction in 2008. The bad news is that it means the government intends to stay on the warpath into next year, and perhaps beyond.