Sri Lanka - Civil war without end
The Economist, UK
COLOMBO - THE past week has been Heroes’ Week for some Sri Lankans.
Most have ignored it. “Villains’ week, you mean,” says
the otherwise composed Sri Lankan trimming the hair of The Economist’s
correspondent in a Colombo hotel. He is Sinhalese, like three-quarters
of all Sri Lankans. The “heroes” are dead guerrillas from
the Tamil minority, the other side of an interminable civil war. It might
be thought that there would be respect for all the dead, but sentiment
has long been a casualty of the war. When the national army overran rebel
territory last year, it bulldozed the gravestones in guerrilla cemeteries,
claiming that they were used for propaganda. In a way they were. Cremation
is usual in Sri Lanka, except for Christians and some other minorities,
but the guerrillas try to bury all their dead so that “hero families”
can visit the graves and tell stories of their children’s exploits.
Opinions differ over when the conflict started. Those with long memories say August 1972, when Mr Prabhakaran threw some bombs at a carnival in Jaffna, the main city of northern Sri Lanka, where the Tamils live—Tamil Eelam, as they call it. A bit later Tamil groups started to call for a separate state in the north and east of the country. The strongest group was, and is, the Tamil Tigers.
So it is about a quarter of a century, give or take a year, since the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese started to clash. It could be 25 more before they stop. Indeed this conflict shares some features with the debilitating struggle between the English and the French in the 14th and 15th centuries that became known as the hundred years’ war. “Wooden-headedness was conspicuous,” wrote Barbara Tuchman of that war. As in that war too, there have been times when the two sides in Sri Lanka have fought each other to a standstill. Then there comes talk of peace, as the Tigers are talking now, and a truce is arranged—which, as in Europe 600 years ago, merely stretches the war out. The starving and needy civilians in the war zone start to get used to not being bombed or shot at. But the truce is quickly abandoned once the armies have regained their breath and rebuilt their arsenals.
In its 25 years, feelings about the war have changed a little, as new generations have come to adulthood. A banker in Colombo says he is worried that his son would be ready to give to Tamils their separate state, so that the island could at least return to peace. And there are Tamils who would accept a settlement short of an independent state. Sri Lanka, though, has two strong leaders who seem determined to fight to the finish, whenever that may be. Mr Prabhakaran’s fearsome reputation is such that whatever dissent may exist among his followers is kept to themselves. President Chandrika Kumaratunga is equally tough in her own way. To her followers, she is the “iron lady”. The hundred years’ war ended when Joan of Arc finally rallied the French against the English. Without pushing the reference to absurdity, it may be said that Mrs Kumaratunga came to prominence in Sri Lanka at the moment when a popular leader with clear ideas was desperately needed.
She was elected president in 1994 promising to bring peace to the island. Superficially at least, there seemed to be the basis of an understanding between her and the Tigers’ leader. She came from a socialist family. Her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, ran Sri Lanka as a socialist state in the 1960s and 1970s. Mr Prabhakaran also professes to be a socialist, of the Leninist sort. There were meetings, but no meeting of minds. Mrs Kumaratunga decided that the Tigers were not interested in negotiation and turned to her generals.
For some time the army had been pursuing a policy of containment towards the Tigers. The Jaffna peninsula, in the very north of the island, was being run like a Tamil state in miniature. Could the army mount a full offensive, take Jaffna and return it to the control of the government in Colombo, putting down the Tigers’ insurgency once and for all? The army said, with enthusiasm, that it could. And so—half-way—it did. In November 1995 the army steamrollered its way to Jaffna town, the rebels’ headquarters, in a few weeks. These were heady times for the generals. The operation, Victory Assured, seemed aptly named. But the Tigers survived. Before the army arrived, they had abandoned the town, taking much of the population with them, and disappeared into the northern jungle, from which they still continually harass the government forces.
While the army holds Jaffna town and parts of the Jaffna peninsula, it has been unable to secure a safe road to the south, and has to supply its forces by air and sea. In September it gained Mankulam from the Tigers, but lost the more important town of Kilinochchi. Both need to be in the government’s hands if it is to control the road through the Elephant Pass to Jaffna. Even Jaffna town is scarcely safe. Two mayors elected since the army took over have been murdered by the Tigers. The job is now vacant.
A dispassionate military observer might well judge that both sides were losing. The army had 630 men killed defending Kilinochchi, and 400 wounded; a fearful slaughter in one battle for a population of only 18m. Most of the infantry are from the rural areas, where jobs are scarce. The realities of the war are too much for many village lads, and the army acknowledges 5,000 desertions in the past six months. The Tigers too suffered big losses in the battles over these two towns. The government claims the Tigers are now recruiting children, but has no convincing evidence. Military intelligence appears to be weak and there are no reliable estimates of the strength of the Tigers’ forces.
On the beaches
It is possible to visit Sri Lanka without becoming aware of its civil war. Many people do, especially now in the main tourist season. “Soak up the sun on a golden sandy beach,” says a tourist advertisement. The sun is neutral. It shines down with equal intensity on the tourist at a south-western resort and on the soldier dying at the other end of the island.
Sri Lanka manages to live two lives. It has the life of what might be called a normal developing country. It has its tourism, it produces some of the world’s best tea, its women earn a dollar a day in factories making clothes for rich countries. Sri Lankan housemaids working abroad live frugally so as to send home most of their pay. The authorities do their best to keep the IMF, if not happy, then at least content. Mrs Kumaratunga, whatever her socialism, has been a keen privatiser. Sri Lanka has escaped the recent economic pain of some other Asian countries; the man who sleeps on a mat has nowhere to fall, says old Sri Lankan wisdom. The country remains a democracy, and its newspapers are outspoken to the point of rudeness. Unlike Pakistan, it has never succumbed to army rule; the last and only time in recent history that the island had martial law was in 1915, when it was ruled by the British.
But the barrier it seeks to put between its war and its peace is not impregnable. Every so often there is some catastrophe that engulfs the whole country. In 1996 a lorry full of explosives driven by a Tiger smashed into the heart of Colombo’s financial district, killing 87 people and injuring more than 1,000, besides wrecking banks and other buildings. Last January another suicide bomber destroyed part of a temple in Kandy that contains a tooth of Buddha, the holiest relic of the Sinhalese.
By the time Mrs Kumaratunga came to power, much thought had been given over the years to solving what officials call “the ethnic problem”. In the early days, improved security was thought to be the answer. Sri Lanka sought advice from a number of countries, including Israel (which upset some in the Muslim minority who support the Palestinians). India, the local superpower, offered a friendly hand, and in 1987 appeared to have brokered a deal with Tamil groups, whereby they would hand over their weapons in return for more autonomy in Tamil areas. The Tigers pulled out of the deal, and an Indian “peacekeeping” force went after them, with some success. It withdrew after Sri Lanka’s government decided it no longer wanted a foreign army in the country. Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister at the time, was later murdered, it is assumed by the Tigers.
It was specifically the Tigers’ leader, Mr Prabhakaran, some people in the government decided, who was the problem; he should be killed. What happened then is disputed. Reportedly, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had become president in 1989, arranged for the army to supply arms to the Tigers. For what? For dissident rebels to use against Mr Prabhakaran, says the former president’s son Sajith. For the Tigers to use against the president’s enemies, say some others. Whatever the truth, it was not Mr Prabhakaran who suffered: Mr Premadasa was killed by the Tigers in 1993.
Mr Prabhakaran is only 44 and seemingly as vigorous as when he bombed the carnival at the age of 18. Killing him now would not be likely to end the fighting: you can’t kill the Tamils’ idea of a homeland. Mrs Kumaratunga has proposed changes in Sri Lanka’s constitution aimed at handing powers to regional councils, one of which would be administered by Tamils. This is far short of what the Tigers demand, yet it is more than many Sinhalese would concede. The very extent of what the Tigers claim—a good third of the island—angers the Sinhalese. The latter were encouraged this week by a report by a United Nations agency that chided the Tigers for not modifying their demands. They point out that the majority of Tamils live outside the notional “homeland”, and live in peace with the Sinhalese and other minorities. Solomon himself would have paused before taking on such a negotiation.
After its recent setbacks the government’s policy is attrition. The Tigers are terrorists, it argues, and have to be killed or captured. About a third of the national budget is devoted to giving the military all the means it needs to do the job. A long job it is likely to be—and perhaps it will never be completed.
The Tigers are rich. The Tamil diaspora of perhaps half a million people is spread throughout the world, contributing money to Tamil charities, much of which pays for the Tigers’ war effort. London is an important Tamil centre. The British government is trying to clamp down on organisations that take advantage of Britain’s traditional policy of providing sanctuary for dissident groups. As a result, the Tigers’ friends are now thinking of moving elsewhere. Canada is a possibility. Like Britain, it is the home for many organisations representing ethnic conflicts abroad. South Africa is also favoured. Many Tamils live there. The Tigers have long had links with the African National Congress, once the opposition and now the government. Sri Lanka has pleaded with South Africa not to allow the Tigers to set up shop there, but its response has been ambiguous.
As a fighting force the Tigers are an elite, if that is not an abuse of the word. They are well armed, have a small navy that regularly attacks and sinks government ships, and may have aircraft. They are thought to have bases in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, even though India has formally outlawed them since the murder of Rajiv Gandhi. Mr Prabhakaran is a clever general. The attack on Kilinochchi involved building up a large Tiger force close to the town, apparently without the army being aware of it. Who will get tired of the endless battle first, the Tigers or the army? It is an open question.
© 2003 SARID, 675 Mass Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA