The news and the images coming out of Sri Lanka as I write this are horrendous: 100,000 Tamil civilians trapped on a tiny beach, where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are fighting, trapped and ignoring an ultimatum to surrender. The LTTE are using the civilians as shields (according to the Sri Lankan government). Government troops have shelled hospitals and killed thousands of non-combatants this year (according to The Economistquoting human-rights groups).
The photographs of long-suffering Tamil refugees fleeing the war with nothing more than the clothes on their backs remind us of the curse of the Indian subcontinent: religion- and ethnicity-based conflict. We saw this in 1947 and 1971. Hindus were ethnically cleansed from Pakistan and Bangladesh then; now they are being driven out of Jaffna and the Eastern Provinces at the fag-end of a brutal civil war.
The LTTE certainly did not expect to fade into oblivion, their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran a fugitive. A couple years ago, the Tigers were rampant, scoring victories on land and sea, and terrorizing Colombo with their makeshift air force. What turned things around? Probably much covert aid from governments, including India’s, wary of the Tigers’ propensity for redrawing boundaries by force (and China’s, fishing in troubled waters).
That, and internal dissension. The turning point was the defection in 2004 of “Colonel” Karuna Amman, formerly LTTE commander in the Eastern Provinces. The LTTE ran a tight ship, and defectors generally were liquidated, but Karuna—as reported by the Wall Street Journal last year—thrived, and helped run a relatively free election in the East.
After sama (negotiations) and dana (give-aways) failed, bheda (creating dissent) worked, and now the Sri Lankans are applying the last of the four tactics of classical Indian stagecraft—danda (punishment). This is an object lesson for India’s pusillanimous politicians, who advocate sweet-talk and appeasement of terrorists, as well as for Obamistas, advocating land-for-peace (India’s land, that is, to be given to Pakistan, so that the ISI would leave the Americans in peace).
Pandering does not work; the iron fist does. Crush the terrorists first, then talk to real people.
With the demise of the LTTE (allegedly church-supported, according to observers including the Sri Lankan Guardian), the Sri Lankan government can negotiate from a position of strength. Tamil militancy and terrorism has achieved nothing other than catastrophe for Tamils. The Sinhalese, if they are wise, will deal magnanimously with their Tamil fellow-countrymen and reconcile with them, recognizing that the LTTE brutalized Tamils all over the world, and that the LTTE are not synonymous with Tamils. Then Sri Lanka can become the success story of the subcontinent with its superior health and education record. I’d bet on them.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Hyderabad, India.
No, Tamil resentment will inevitably resurface
As the Sri Lankan army gears up to wipe out the LTTE forever in an operation dubbed “Endgame” and the LTTE makes its last stand on the beaches of Northeastern Sri Lanka, the images flooding out of the country are enough to impassion even a pacifist. Makeshift hovels in deplorable conditions—now home to thousands of Tamil refugees—are fertile breeding grounds for resentment, and the seeds of future unrest have already been sown.
The LTTE might not be capable of making another comeback, but the anger and legitimate grievances of an already marginalized Tamil population will resurface, and an ethnic reconcilement and lasting peace might be a distant dream.
Although the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has repeatedly promised to be generous to the Tamil minority, the fine points of how the government and the Sinhala-dominated military will deal with the issues are yet to emerge. “Confidence-building measures will take years to be effective and require resources and a strong political will,” says Nadeeka Withana, an analyst with a Singapore based school of international studies.
What with being cruelly used as human shields by Prabhakaran’s LTTE, and being shelled by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, the civilian Tamil’s plight is agonizing. The end of the LTTE, however near, will not sound the death knell of Tamil aspirations for greater rights, both from political and humanitarian points of view. Their not-unreasonable demands for dignity in their homeland and greater autonomy to help meet local needs should be addressed by the government if there is any hope of bringing the Tamil minority community back into the Sri Lankan mainstream.
A highly sentimental and proud race, with a strong sense of belonging and cultural bonding, Tamils consider geographic boundaries immaterial because language binds them as one people. Throw into this high-strung psyche a dose of fervent zeal, fuelled by senile, volatile politicos who use the same beautiful language to fan passion and whip up frenzy, and you have a cauldron brimming with fanatic resentment.
Therefore passions are running high in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, too, although many ceased to sympathize with the Tamil cause after Rajiv Gandhi’s brutal assassination in 1991. However, the Sri Lankan Tamils are India’s natural allies, and it would do India well to help them attain their legitimate aspirations.
The Sri Lankan army might succeed in quelling the quarter century-old separatist insurgency by force, but unless the Sri Lankan government focuses on easing long-running ethnic antagonisms and grievances that lie at the heart of the conflict, what will follow can only be an uneasy peace. The Sri Lankan government might well be staring at a Pyrrhic victory in the face.
Remitha Satheesh is originally from Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu.