Sri Lanka’s civil war: an end in sight?

TCS Reporter 15 January 2009

More than 25 years after hostilities began, Sri Lanka’s war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) looks as if it might be drawing to an end.

While a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire in 2002 brought peace for a while, a series of incidents following the election in November 2005 of nationalist president, Mahinda Rajapakse, led to fresh conflict.

Since 2007, a greatly increased defence budget and a deal with an LTTE splinter group have enabled the Sri Lankan army to make significant advances. During the last fortnight, the army captured Kilinochchi town, the rebel’s political and administrative centre, and took control of Elephant Pass, linking the Jaffna peninsula to the mainland.

Yesterday, military spokesman Uday Nanayakkara announced: “A senior LTTE Sea Tiger leader identified only as ‘Thiru’ was killed during the battle to takeover the Chundikulam village, the last rebel-controlled land in the region. With this, the last land on Jaffna has been liberated from the LTTE”.

The only significant target remaining is Mullaitivu, the LTTE’s military headquarters and logistical base. Although the campaign could still be long and costly, most analysts now expect this last stronghold to fall, effectively ending the war.

Already, the collapse of the civilian courts, police forces, banks and schools created by the LTTE, and the outflow of refugees, indicate that its attempt to build a quasi-state is crumbling.

However, a military victory alone is unlikely to bring lasting peace and the Tigers, pioneers of suicide attacks and political assassination, may be able to continue a damaging guerrilla campaign.

Demands for a separate Tamil state, or at least substantial autonomy, are unlikely to die down among the wider Tamil community, accounting for almost 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population. Further, the Tamil diaspora – above all in India – will continue to provide moral and financial support.

The approach of the Indian election, and the need to placate the electorate in the large mainland state of Tamil Nadu where separatism is also on the rise, means Delhi may press for a political settlement.

However, its demand for the extradition of the Tigers’ infamous leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, to stand trial for the murder of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, could further complicate matters.

In the past, the LTTE has said it would accept a federal solution falling just short of independence, but Mr Rajapakse has offered no clear roadmap and, for the moment, appears intent on preserving a unitary state.

Some critics claim his focus is on his own political position, hoping to reap the benefits of a ‘victory’ over the Tigers in approaching local and national elections, overshadowing concerns about corruption and economic mismanagement.

Meanwhile, a serious humanitarian crisis is feared in north-eastern Sri Lanka, with reports of heavy casualties in a war that has already cost 70,000 lives and latterly displaced more than 200,000 people. Many Tamil civilians who have escaped the LTTE-controlled zone have reportedly been pushed into camps.

The situation could quickly become serious, but the West remain wary of getting involved.

Zof Stanley

TCS Reporter