One of the world’s longest-running civil wars is about to come to an abrupt and definitive conclusion.
After spending 25 years battling for an independent homeland, and at one point holding significant swaths of Sri Lankan territory, the controversial independence group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, are standing on the verge of oblivion.
Ten years ago, the LTTE was riding high on military victories and seemed poised to negotiate for an independent homeland.
Suddenly, their fortunes waned. A series of setbacks appear to have devastated the Tigers’ ability to keep up with the increasingly powerful military forces of the Sri Lankan government.
Now, after losing a series of key cities to a devastating government offensive, the LTTE’s leaders are hiding in the jungle as the government forces close in.
It’s a rather astonishing turn of events.
The ethnographic map of Sri Lanka, above, presents some explanation of the seeds of this movement.
The government of the island nation in the Indian Ocean is based in Colombo, largely representing the majority Sinhalese ethnic group and their Buddhist heritage. Meanwhile, the northern and eastern areas of the island are populated by the Tamil ethnic group, a mostly Hindu population. Smaller Muslim and Christian groups are interspersed between the two.
As with so many contemporary civil wars, the seeds of today’s brutal conflict were sown in the colonial era, when ethnic identities and rivalries were tested and balanced by the British leadership of what was then called Ceylon.
After the British cleared out shortly before the Second World War, the Sinhalese essentially seized power and inflamed Tamil minorities by instituting the Sinhala Only Act. To the Sinhalese, this law was a step towards independence, liberating the island from linguistic colonialism. To the Tamils, it was an oppressive measure meant to destroy their cultural heritage.
Tamil animosity was further inflamed by governmental actions aimed at entrenching Sinhalese identity as tantamount to Sri Lankan identity, and repeated efforts to quash Tamil nationalism and separatism. As groups like the Tamil United Liberation Front began to advocate more forcefully for a separate Tamil state, the crackdowns on Tamil dissidents grew harsher. Thus the TULF gave way to the more violent and extreme LTTE, and the Sri Lankan Civil War ensued.
LTTE attacks on military convoys quickly led to total war between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations, with both sides accused (and likely guilty) of killing civilians.
From 1983 until the present, a series of hot wars have engulfed the island, occasionally punctuated by shaky ceasefires.
One notable element of the war is the LTTE’s reliance on suicide bombers, known as Black Tigers, to carry out its objectives. An LTTE soldier known by his nom de guerre, “Captain Miller“, is lionized for his suicide bombing of an army base in 1987.
India’s involvement in the conflict helped to intensify and prolong the fighting. Initially, the RAW (India’s CIA) helped provide seed money for the LTTE, as part of larger efforts to destabilize and undermine the Sri Lankan government. However, once the LTTE consolidated power and eliminated rival Tamil resistance groups, the insurrection grew increasingly vicious, with both sides resorting to brutal tactics.
The Indian government began to take a different approach. With hopes of gaining clout as a regional power player, not to mention concerns about its own minority Tamil population getting similar ideas, India sent peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka. The result was outright disaster: the Tamils accused Indian troops of atrocities against civilians, while the Sinhalese resented the foreign military presence in their country. Meanwhile, the Tamil minority in India grew increasingly angry at their government’s support of the Sinhalese goverment in Sri Lanka.
Thus battered on all sides, the Indian forces withdrew in 1990, at a total cost of 1100 Indian lives and 20 billion rupees…and the war continued.
Fallout from India’s intervention in the civil war included the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a female LTTE suicide bomber in 1991.
Over the next 10 years, the LTTE strengthened its position. Occupying increasingly large areas of the island, the group immediately set up governmental services in areas it controlled, becoming the de facto government in many Tamil areas. Even as the Sri Lankan government became more amenable to negotiations, with moderates winning elections and seeking peace, the LTTE was not interested in anything short of regional autonomy.
By 2001, they effectively had it. With military victories and governmental expansion, the LTTE controlled all of northern Sri Lanka and was running a judicial system and social welfare services.
Tamil areas in green; areas under total LTTE control as of 2001 are outlined in yellow.
At this point, it seemed inevitable that a bipartitite solution would ultimately be enforced by the international community.
The LTTE was too powerful to be dislodged from its base of operations, while the Sinhalese government still controlled most of the country. Total victory by either side seemed impossible, and the recriminations over violence against civilians had grown so intense that a political settlement supporting the status quo ante appeared unrealistic.
After the September 11th attacks, the LTTE recognized that the time had come to put a hold on the suicide bombings and come to the table.
Peace talks were entered into, with both sides softening their demands, and some kind of Tamil autonomy looked to be in the works. But as had taken place so many times before, the negotiations led to more hurt feelings and accusations of unfair dealing. After 20 years of war, resolution appeared no closer.
However, three events occurred that completely changed the dynamic.
Independently, these events might not have been sufficient to cripple the Tigers’ momentum, but when taken together, they appear to explain the rapid deterioration of the LTTE’s power and the imminent demise of its leadership.
#1. LTTE Schism
Colonel Karuna (center).
With the LTTE’s growing control over the northern area of Sri Lanka, Tamils in the East felt increasingly sidelined. In a startling development, Eastern Tamil leader Colonel Karuna publicly split with the LTTE in March 2004, taking his forces into a new group known as the TVMP.
Karuna denounced the LTTE for ignoring the Eastern region, while the LTTE claimed they had been on the verge of ousting him for various un-revolutionary activities. Whatever the origin of the split, it quickly became apparent that Karuna’s forces were recieving support from the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE viciously cracked down on political dissent in the wake of Karuna’s defection, and internecine battles between the two groups weakened the LTTE’s hold over the north.
Meanwhile, the Karuna Faction has been accused of every war-crimes violation in the books by human rights groups, from dissapearing civilians to child-soldier recruitment. Karuna himself has been made a Sri Lankan member of parliament, and is presently under arrest in the United Kingdom after showing up at Heathrow Airport with a Sri Lankan diplomatic passport.
It seems quite obvious that the Sri Lankan government turned Karuna against the LTTE. Whatever the ethical implications of this move, it is difficult to question its strategic soundness.
#2. Indian Ocean Tsunami
As the graphic above demonstrates, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 hit the northern and eastern (read: Tamil) areas of Sri Lanka full force.
The devastating effects of the natural disaster affected the entire island, but the impact on LTTE-controlled areas was particularly signficant.
The moderate iteration of the Sri Lankan government in power at the time of the disaster attempted to implement a disaster relief plan without regard to the civil war conflict, doling out relief funds to the LTTE to administer in their region.
This proved extremely unpopular with the voters, and ultimately had to be scrapped. Subsequently, the LTTE bemoaned the lack of disaster relief reaching its people.
It appears that the tsunami greatly weakened the LTTE, both by destroying property and infrastructure, and perhaps by strengthening the government’s position relative to the LTTE.
While both sides no doubt took damage from the tsunami, the Sri Lankan government benefited from disaster relief funds while the LTTE ultimately did not, allowing the former to rebuild and retool much faster than the latter.
3. Assassination of Lakshman Kadirgamar
Condoleeza condoles Kirgardimar.
Lakshman Kadirgamar was an ethnic Tamil who was a member of the Sri Lankan government; an Oxford-educated lawyer and scholar, he rose to prominence in the early 2000s and quickly gained international acclaim for his intellect and political skills.
Kadirgamar was highly critical of the LTTE, and felt that despite his Tamil heritage, his true allegiance was to the Sri Lankan state. He was quoted as saying, “People who live in Sri Lanka are first and foremost Sri Lankans, then we have our race and religion, which is something given to us at birth.”
He was named Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka in 2004, a position that gave him access to many influential diplomats across the world. In this role, he became something of a respected international statesman. As his profile increased, he realized that the target on his back was only coming into clearer focus, but his stance was unwavering.
On August 12, 2005, a sniper shot Kardirgamar 3 times as he was getting out of his pool. He was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
International reaction was swift and furious. Condoleeza Rice condemned what she called a “senseless act of terrorism,” and those are fighting words from the Bush Administration. Kofi Annan was intensely saddened by the loss of his diplomatic colleague.
Even soft touches like Norway were outraged!
The LTTE has protested, claiming no responsibility for the assassination, most likely because of the diplomatic firestorm that rained down on them afterwards.
While the Tigers’ involvement in the killing has only been tenuously proven, it is hard to sympathize with an rebel army that relies on political assassinations and suicide killings for 20 years, and then cries foul when it gets accused of a similar murder of one of its chief opponents.
At any rate, the reverberations of this killing have not been beneficial for the LTTE. The US Government had long employed a staunch anti-terror-group policy opposing the Tigers, but after the murder of Kardirgamar, the European Union condemned the LTTE as well.
The effect of this diplomatic marganalization went well beyond trash talk and directly to funding: by gaining international infamy as a terrorist organization, the LTTE also saw all of its European assets frozen and the possibility of freely raising funds in Europe was terminated.
Not good for the bottom line.
Ostensibly, the elimination of European diplomatic support for the LTTE has also freed the American and Indian governments to funnel unlimited support to the Sri Lankan authorities in their quest to crush the Tigers…if they weren’t doing so already.
Tamil Eelam nationalism: A lost cause?
This triple-whammy left the LTTE deprived of much of its Eastern turf, devastated by the tsunami and unable to access funds from friendly foreign sources.
The Sri Lankan government decided it was time to put the hammer down.
About one year ago, the government said, “Hey remember that ceasefire? Yup, it’s over.”
Government forces opened a huge offensive against the rebels in early 2008 that has progressively seized every LTTE stronghold, one by one. The Mannar district, in the northwest, fell to government control in August. Huge air and sea assaults crippled the Tigers’ ability to respond to the encroaching government forces. Though suicide blasts and assassinations continued, the government fought on.
Seaport strongholds on the northwestern coast were surrounded and captured by government forces throughout October. Several critical cities were also captured by Sri Lankan Army troops. These victories had the effect of tightening the noose on Kilinochchi, the LTTE’s administrative capital.
A full-scale assault on Kilinochchi was launched in November, and by January 2nd, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that the city had fallen to government troops.
After a decade in LTTE control, the rebels’ “fortress” was completely overrun. The inability of the LTTE to hold this city is an unambiguous sign of the organization’s fading power.
Prez Raja FTW.
President Rajapaksa, who came to power with a hard-line stance against the rebels, appears completely victorious.
He framed the fall of Kilinochchi in terms of “a major victory in the world’s struggle against terrorism” – a canny move to spin the devastating assault as part of an effort to fight for global harmony, rather than an attempt to end a civil war with total victory.
When Mullaittivu, the last rebel outpost, fell yesterday, the extermination of the LTTE seemed almost a foregone conclusion.
The Australian reported:
SRI Lankan government troops yesterday pushed into the last pockets of jungle still held by the Tamil Tigers after capturing the rebels’ last urban stronghold and military headquarters.
As the Sri Lankan Government claimed to be on the verge of winning one of Asia’s longest-running civil wars, the UN’s top official in Sri Lanka said many civilians had been killed in the latest round of fighting.
The fall of Mullaittivu is likely to herald the end of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s military capability, prompting analysts to warn that the rebels would be forced to resort to guerilla tactics.
There were suggestions Tamil Tigers leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had fled the island, casting doubts on whether their command structure remained intact.
On Sunday, soldiers overran Mullaittivu, a northeastern coastal town held by the Tigers for 10 years, three weeks after taking Kilinochchi, where the rebels had their own courts, police force and a bank.
The port town, which the Tigers seized in 1996, was the last remaining route for rebel arms shipments.
Army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said the LTTE now controlled only a “small strip” of land in the northeast and were cornered.
“We have cleared 95 per cent of the work (to defeat the Tigers),” General Fonseka said in a televised address.
“The end of terrorism is near and we will definitely win.”
General Fonseka said the army’s latest push had whittled the LTTE-held area down to 300sqkm, from 15,000sqkm when the war flared again in 2006, leaving the rebels confined to a wedge of jungle in the country’s northeast.
Military officials said 50,000 government troops were fighting fewer than 2000 rebels.
Helicopter gunships attacked Tiger positions outside Mullaittivu after soldiers had taken control of the town, the military said in its latest update.
Prabhakaran: Coming soon to a spider-hole near you.
So, what now for the Tigers?
Ostensibly, the movement won’t be finished while its leadership survives. But sneaking off the island may prove difficult for LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, considering his navy was wiped out by the Sri Lankan forces, the Indians hate his guts for ordering their former Prime Minister assassinated (they already have a death warrant on the guy), and the rest of the world thinks he’s a terrorist.
Interpol is on his ass, and with the exception of Carmen Sandiego, nobody ever gets away from those guys.
Our guess is, the Prabhakaran death watch starts now.
It seems very likely that in the near term, the Sri Lankan army will consolidate its hold on all Tamil areas, and with the help of cooperating Tamils like Colonel Karuna, the government may be able to win over minority populations by delivering social services and reconstruction support that in many cases has been lacking since the tsunami’s devastation.
If the Sri Lankan government can prove to all its people that Tamils will be ably represented and taken care of by the central government, the appeal of the separatist message will surely lose steam.
However, if the majority Sinhalese population resorts to punitive actions against the Tamils, or takes other actions to feed the fire of Tamil resentment, there is little doubt that the Tigers will rise again in some other shape or form.
Hell, they even have an international Tamil celebrity in M.I.A. to advocate for their cause.
So let’s hope the post-victory agenda for the Rajapaksa government is heavy on aid for displaced Tamil populations and light on revenge killings.
Peace in Sri Lanka depends on it.