**Sri Lanka beating the Tigers through military
force, not negotiation
**For all those who argue that there’s no military
solution for terrorism, we have two words: Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
This week, the Sri Lankan army said it had captured the last piece of
the northern Jaffna Peninsula, one of the few remaining strongholds of
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist organization that has
waged a 26-year civil war that’s claimed tens of thousands of lives,
including those of a Sri Lankan President and an Indian Prime Minister.
That’s a huge turnaround from only three years ago, when the Tigers
effectively controlled the bulk of the Northern and Eastern Provinces
and were perpetrating suicide bombings in the country’s capital,
Colombo. Credit goes to the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa,
who has made eliminating the Tigers a priority and invested resources to
make it happen. Military spending has surged to $1.7 billion for fiscal
2009, roughly 5% of GDP and nearly 20% of the government’s budget. The
expanded Sri Lankan army is now equipped to employ sophisticated
counterinsurgency strategies - such as a multifront attack and quick
raids behind Tiger lines. In 2007, the army won its first significant
victory by pacifying the Tamil-Muslim-majority Eastern Province,
historically a Tiger stronghold. Local and provincial elections were
held there last year. The military offensive will now turn to
Mullaittivu, the last district controlled by the Tigers in the Northern
This string of victories is a shock to those who thought this
conflict, which has political origins, could have only a political
solution. The violence started in 1983, ostensibly over Tamil grievances
with a Sinhalese-majority government that made Sinhala the country’s
official language and doled out economic favours to the Sinhalese, who
are Buddhist, including preferences for government jobs and schooling.
Devolution of power to the provinces has long been floated as the best
But the Tigers always had other ideas. To wit: They wanted the Tamil
homeland to be an independent state with the Tigers at its head. Like
other terrorist outfits, the Tigers never accepted the legitimacy of any
other group to speak on behalf of their supposed constituents. They were
unwilling to accept any negotiated settlement that wouldn’t entrench
their own power.
That’s why earlier efforts to negotiate away Sri Lanka’s terror
problem failed. In 1987, then-President Junius Jayewardene offered the
Tamils a homeland in the north and east that would have given them wide
powers, although not a separate state. In the 1990s, another President,
Chandrika Kumaratunga, offered another devolution plan. The Tigers
refused both offers and the terrorism continued.
In 2002, Norway orchestrated a peace process that resulted in a
cease-fire. This time, the Tigers themselves concocted a proposal for a
form of regional autonomy in Tamil areas, and the government agreed in
principle. Then the Tigers nixed their own deal, betting they could do
better with violence after all. They spent the next four years violating
Repeated negotiations made a settlement harder to achieve. The Tigers
gladly murdered moderate Tamil leaders open to genuine negotiations with
Colombo. The European Union dithered on declaring the Tigers a terrorist
group for the sake of encouraging the peace process, hindering efforts
to cut off funding and allowing the killing to continue.
Meanwhile, occasional efforts to subdue the Tigers by force failed
through lack of political will or because of outside interference. In
1987, Mr. Jayewardene gained ground in the north, only to be undermined
by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who airlifted food to the
militants to curry favour with his country’s own Tamil population. Then
the Indians changed tack, and an Indian peacekeeping force managed to
quell the Tiger insurgency for a time between 1987 and 1989. But that
operation was derided as a “quagmire” by some Indian politicians. The
force was withdrawn prematurely in 1990. Another Sri Lankan military
effort, begun in 1995, collapsed in 2000 due to insufficient troop
numbers and political meddling in military decision-making.
Mr. Rajapaksa appears to have learned from all this, which is why he
has insisted on military victory before implementing a political
solution. It helps that India has stayed out this time around and other
countries - including the EU - are now tracking and thwarting Tiger
Peace still will not be easy or, despite recent good news, immediate.
The Tigers may still be able to carry out some terror attacks, though
they no longer pose a wide-scale threat. And Colombo faces questions
about its commitment to a permanent political settlement. It has taken
some steps, such as a 1987 constitutional amendment again making Tamil
an official language, and in 2006 it convened an all-party conference to
recommend further pro-devolution constitutional changes. It is dragging
its feet on implementing other constitutional measures that would pave
the way for devolution. But a political settlement is something to
discuss after the Tigers have been subdued.
We recount this history at length to make a simple point: Colombo’s
military strategy against Tamil terrorists has worked. Negotiations
haven’t. That’s an important reminder as Israel faces its own terrorism
problem and as the U.S. works to foster stability and political progress
Take note, Barack Obama.