The war the world is missing
The Economist, UK
The Tamil Tigers’ struggle in Sri Lanka is one of the longest-running
wars. But as the island prepares to go to the polls, both sides are losing
interest in suing for peace.
Not so in Trincomalee on the east coast. There, checkpoints are thicker on the ground than traffic lights. Although the army controls the town, there are “uncleared” areas barely 32km (20 miles) away in the hands of the dreaded separatist army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. From these areas the Tigers can strike inside “cleared” Trincomalee. On October 2nd a suicide bomber, presumably one of theirs, killed 21 people, including a candidate aligned to the ruling party, at a rally near the town for next week’s election. Such operations have the virtue, from the Tigers’ point of view, of stirring a cocktail of overreaction and discrimination by the authorities that, in turn, feeds separatism among the local Tamils.
A visiting journalist hears a torrent of grievance. There are complaints about cordon-and-search operations by the security forces; there are tales of beatings, murder and reprisal. A woman says that the security forces murdered her brother, then refused to release his body unless she signed a statement saying he had belonged to the Tigers. She refused. The fishermen of Pattanatheru, a village nearby, lament security restrictions on where they can fish and their debts to Sinhalese mudalalis (proprietors), whom they repay by turning over their catch at cut-rate prices. Banks will lend money to fishermen from the Sinhalese majority, but not to them, they say.
Sri Lanka’s government claims that there is scant support among ordinary Tamils for the Tigers, who are a vicious terrorist group as well as an astoundingly successful army. But although the Sri Lankan army has become somewhat less brutal, it has not improved enough and the police are less reformed. For that reason, the Tamils of Trincomalee seem to regard the Tigers as their defenders. “It is because of them that we are surviving,” says one young Tamil.
The prospects for narrowing the divide look dim. Sri Lanka is scheduled to hold a parliamentary election on October 10th. It is likely either to prolong the current set-up, a government obedient to the president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was re-elected to a six-year term in December 1999, or to produce gridlock: a parliament without an overall majority or one dominated by the opposition United National Party (UNP). Although the two main parties offer contrasting proposals for settling the conflict, there is little expectation that either will bring peace.
Why peace eludes Sri Lanka is something of a puzzle. Compared with the Arab-Israeli dispute or the struggle over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the obstacles seem small. Hardliners do not have much parliamentary clout in Sri Lanka. The two biggest political parties, though they disagree over detail, both say they will talk about any compromise, short of granting the Tamils an independent state. In contrast with the insurgents in Kashmir, who are backed by Pakistan, the Tigers have no outside state behind them. Unlike India, Sri Lanka has accepted international involvement in its dispute: a Norwegian envoy is conveying messages between the antagonists. Nor is there ethnic rancour of the sort that has frustrated peace in the Balkans. Sinhalese and Tamils seem able, by and large, to forgive each other for the excesses of their leaders.
So why is nobody dusting off the Nobel peace prize? The answer lies in two finely-poised struggles: for political mastery in Colombo and, more important, for military mastery in the north-east, the Tamils’ prospective homeland. The first has frustrated a consensus between the UNP and the ruling People’s Alliance on what sort of offer the government should make to the Tamils, who are about 13% of the population. Mrs Kumaratunga presented her ideas to parliament as a draft constitution that would have devolved some powers of the highly centralised state to the regions, including the north-east. She withdrew it in August, when it emerged that Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP’s leader, would not support it. The mutual loathing between president and opposition leader has little to do with principle.
Whether the flailing about in Colombo will achieve anything depends on another protagonist, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers’ leader. Mr Prabhakaran’s ambition is to set up Eelam, a sovereign Tamil homeland. With an armed force of 7,000-8,000 he has captured, the Tigers claim, 70% of Eelam (though a far smaller share of its population), from an army ten times the size.
In Colombo it is said that he tells new recruits that they have the right to kill him if he settles for anything short of Eelam. His followers are thought to have murdered many Tamils less fanatical than he is, along with leaders who have dared to negotiate with him, including an Indian prime minister and a Sri Lankan president. Mrs Kumaratunga has little reason to love a man who was presumably behind a bomb that nearly killed her during the last presidential campaign. They and the opposition leader form a Bermuda Triangle of hatred and suspicion in which peace efforts have so far disappeared.
It is a Sri Lankan cliché to observe that the Sinhalese majority has many of the complexes of a minority. One reason is that, although they outnumber Tamils in Sri Lanka, they are outnumbered by Tamils just across the Palk Strait in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. There is thus a sense that the Sinhalese language and Buddhism, the religion of most people who speak it, is under threat from a Tamil juggernaut with a beachhead in Sri Lanka. A second reason is that the British, who ruled Sri Lanka until 1948, treated Tamils, especially those of the Jaffna peninsula, as an elite. They were Sri Lanka’s best-educated people and got more than their fair share of plum government jobs.
Soon after independence, the Sinhalese began to claim what they regarded as the majority’s rightful place in Ceylon, as it then was. The then prime minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Mrs Kumaratunga’s father, championed a policy of making Sinhalese the country’s sole official language and Buddhism the state religion. Tamils found themselves on the wrong end of racial-preference policies in favour of Sinhalese and Muslim applicants to universities. These disabilities, coupled with unemployment among the young, provoked violence in the Tamil-majority Jaffna peninsula, and horrific counter-violence in the Sinhalese south in 1983. Separatism and war have raged since.
This has cost Sri Lanka dear. It was, and in many ways remains, a model developing economy, with rates of literacy, fertility and life-expectancy closer to those of Europe than to those of other South Asian countries. It was the first economy in the region to liberalise, in 1977. Despite the shocks of war, the economy grew at a respectable average rate of 4.7% between 1980 and 1999. This year GDP is expected to grow by 5-5 1/2%.
Yet it could have been so much better. Saman Kelegama, head of the Institute of Policy Studies in Colombo, guesses that forgone investment, lost tourism, military spending, the loss of workers to death and emigration and other costs of the war amount to 200% of 1999’s GDP. In a Sri Lanka at peace, the economy could grow at an average annual rate of 8%, thus absorbing the 615,000 people who enter the workforce each year. Unemployment—among both Sinhalese and Tamil young people—has been a primary cause of Sri Lanka’s bloodshed. Young men (and women) from country villages join one army or the other for lack of anything else to do. An estimated 700,000 people have left for southern Sri Lanka or abroad, where they have become a mainstay of the Tigers’ finances. A similar number are displaced from their homes in and near the north-east by shifting lines of battle.
The ferocity of war masks progress both in policy and in Sinhalese thinking about the conflict. No longer does a crude majoritarianism prevail. Sinhalese has lost its privileged status in the constitution, if not always in day-to-day life. Sri Lanka recognises Tamil as an official language. The Tamils’ handicap in getting university places is largely gone. What remains is their resentment and insecurity, which can be mollified only by giving them political autonomy.
What price devolution?
At the moment, there is no autonomy for the north-east except where the Tigers rule. But the main political parties now express few inhibitions about devolving powers to the regions. The foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, says the government wants a solution “on federal lines”, using a word that was, and in Sinhalese nationalist circles still is, taboo. The government’s strategy is to placate moderate Tamils and pummel the Tigers into accepting a deal.
Unfortunately, Mrs Kumaratunga’s ideas for constitutional reform
meshed with no one else’s. They offered too little devolution to
satisfy even non-Tiger Tamils, but enough to antagonise Sinhalese nationalists
and many of the Buddhist clergy, who want no weakening of the unitary
state. One function of the election will be to test how much support nationalists
can muster at the ballot box.
Nor is devolution in itself a magic answer. A permanent merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, for example, is something most Tamils would insist on. The president’s constitutional draft wriggles out of this by subjecting a merger of the provinces to a referendum in the eastern portion after ten years. This ridiculous-sounding fudge is a response to a serious problem. Although the north is almost entirely Tamil, the east has big populations of Sinhalese and Muslims, most of whom speak Tamil but see themselves as a separate ethnic group and have often allied with the Sinhalese. They might vote to secede from the northern province. Trincomalee is almost evenly divided among the three groups. Although professing love for their neighbours, the native Tamils point out that, in the 1881 census, the district’s population was just 4% Sinhalese. Colonisation by chauvinist governments brought their share of the population to 34% a century later. Their fate would be uncertain in a Tamil-run, and especially a Tiger-run, north-east.
Mrs Kumaratunga means to reintroduce her constitutional draft, or a modified version, to the new parliament. It will make little difference. The People’s Alliance is unlikely to win the two-thirds majority required to pass it. The president has threatened to turn parliament into a constituent assembly, which could pass the new constitution by majority vote. Sri Lanka’s constitution authorises her to do no such thing. Mahinda Samarasinghe, an influential opposition MP, warns of “3.6m people taking to the roads” if she tries. Nor would it impress the Tigers, who say the devolution package “fails to address the key demands or the national aspirations of the Tamil people.”
Some people think the UNP’s more accommodating line—an offer of an “interim council” to run the north-east with a leading role for the Tigers while a final solution is worked out—has a better chance of ending hostilities. That presumes that the Tigers will be less bloody-minded, and simply less bloody, than they have ever been before. Even if he becomes prime minister after the election, Mr Wickremesinghe will have a hard time persuading the president of that.
In the Tigers’ lair
Would any solution acceptable to most Sinhalese and Muslims also satisfy Mr Prabhakaran? In theory, possibly. The Tigers are committed to the “Thimpu principles”, among them the Tamils’ right to self-determination and to a homeland with territorial sovereignty. Most Sri Lankans, the government included, regard these as tantamount to secession; but some, such as Rohan Edirisinha, a leading constitutional lawyer, think they may be compatible with belonging to a Sri Lankan federation. The Tigers have hinted that they think so, too. In rejecting Mrs Kumaratunga’s proposals, Anton Balasingham, the Tigers’ “theoretician”, seemed to back “radical structural reforms” to the Sri Lankan constitution, implying that there could be room for Eelam within it.
What prevents compromise, apart from Mr Prabhakaran’s fanaticism, is what might be called a dynamic stalemate between the two armies. That is the result of the Tigers’ astounding potency and the Sri Lankan army’s refusal to lose decisively.
Since 1987, when India unwisely intervened to keep a “peace”, the Tigers have evolved from a band of 1,000-2,000 cadres into a force of 7,000 capable of operating “at all five spectra of conflict”, according to a military analyst. They have a field army equivalent to three brigades, armed with artillery, armour, radios with encryption devices and other paraphernalia, which now fights on the Jaffna peninsula. They have a 1,000-cadre guerrilla force in the Eastern Province, which specialises in ambushes and mortar attacks. They have a terrorist outfit, which sends suicide bombers to Colombo and blows up electricity transformers. They have a global propaganda network of websites, broadcasters and newspapers, and a diplomatic wing. All this is paid for with contributions, mostly from expatriate Tamils, and profits from businesses, such as restaurants and shipping. The government guesses that the Tigers take in $80m a year.
In 1995 the Tigers lost the city of Jaffna, the main town of the peninsula, to the Sri Lankan army after talks with Mrs Kumaratunga broke down. Since then they have had a string of successes, gaining swathes of territory in the north, in April overrunning Elephant Pass, the disused but heavily defended land link between the peninsula and the rest of the island, and then very nearly recapturing Jaffna, which might have prompted a declaration of independence.
What the Tigers “liberate”, they rule. The apparatus of the Sri Lankan state remains, but it takes orders from and is supplemented by the Tigers. People familiar with the uncleared areas (and well disposed to the Tigers) talk of them almost as Tamil havens. The Tigers, they say, make sure that teachers show up to teach at state schools, and pay them to give extra lessons. Mr Prabhakaran himself is said to set demanding standards for the number of students who must pass state exams. The government sends in food and supplies (too little, complain the Tamils); the Tigers supervise their distribution. Villages have boxes into which Tamils can post petitions and suggestions, which they say go directly to Mr Prabhakaran. To them he is Talaivar, the leader.
Yet there are credible reports that the Tigers can be as brutal to their own people as they are to their enemies. Amnesty International, a human-rights group, said last year that the Tigers have “recruited children as combatants on a large scale”, sometimes forcibly. Neutral observers say the Tigers have also shelled Tamil civilians during their offensives, as has the Sri Lankan army. The lack of provisions in the uncleared areas is partly the Tigers’ fault, claims the government: they commandeer the lorries for weeks at a time, disrupting supplies. The Tigers know that grumbling about provisions is likely to be directed at Colombo.
The army fights back
After nearly losing Jaffna, and with an election looming, Mrs Kumaratunga pulled the armed forces together. She spent about $350m on new weaponry, including devastating multi-barrel rocket launchers and MiG-27 fighter-bombers, and established a joint-operations headquarters, which brings all armed forces, including the police, under a single command. In September the army began to make some progress, notably with the recapture of the peninsula’s second-biggest town, Chavakachcheri, a deserted pile of rubble by the time the soldiers moved in.
Sri Lanka’s demoralised army (a fifth of its troops have deserted) is feeling stirrings of hope, and the government is optimistic that a series of reversals will squeeze the Tigers’ morale and money. Mr Kadirgamar, the foreign minister, says that the flow of money to the Tigers ebbs when they suffer defeats. In April and May they “went around Europe saying Eelam is around the corner.” The army’s recent victories have quietened that boast. Sri Lanka and India stepped up their co-operation, says Mr Kadirgamar, tightening a “naval cordon” that is reducing the flow of arms to the Tigers.
The government thinks that only a series of defeats will persuade Mr Prabhakaran to negotiate for something less than full independence. It has yet to break his spirit. The Tigers this week launched the fourth phase of their “Unceasing Waves” offensive, which may be intended to fulfil their pledge to recapture Jaffna this year. The battle for the peninsula may be coming to a head.
Meanwhile, says Mr Kadirgamar, “not much is happening” with Norway’s efforts at mediation. The Tigers have made it clear that they have “no interest in talking about peace.” For the moment, that goes for both sides: both the government and the Tigers believe they have more to gain from war.
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