Vol. 5 Num 1135 Wed. August 08, 2007  

Sri Lanka: Back to the future?

With the capture of the last stronghold of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in the eastern province, the three-decade old ethnic war in Sri Lanka has entered into one of the most crucial phases for both sides.

The rebels from the minority Tamil community have been pushed away from the dense jungle around the lagoon town of Batticaloa they formerly controlled for over a decade. The government-sponsored public celebration of this military victory appears to be a justified and spontaneous reaction.

This is perhaps the biggest military success for the Sri Lankan security forces in this chronic conflict that has so far engulfed about 70,000 lives since 1983 when the LTTE started its bloody struggle for an independent state in the northern and eastern parts of the island.

The government forces have practically taken charge of the whole of eastern Sri Lankan and have confined the Tamil rebels to the northern part only -- certainly a big feat when seen against the protracted ethnic conflict where the Sri Lankan forces had few moments to exult.

Indubitably, this is a big achievement for President Mahinda Rajapaksa's minority government, which had been desperately looking for such a military success to bolster its chances for a longer stint.

Early this year, when the government aggressively pushed for an unusual jump in the defence budget from an estimated Rs.96.21 billion in 2006 to Rs.139.55 billion in 2007, there was severe criticism from various quarters about this military extravaganza.

At that time, the Rajapakse government justified this hike on the plea that the government needed a full throttle assault on the Tamil positions to stage a military success before compelling the LTTE to revert to the negotiation table to resume the stalled peace talks.

And now, eventually, the government forces have successfully completed the first phase of the plan, that is the capture of eastern province, which had been languishing under the LTTE control for more than a decade.

Not surprisingly, the government supporters are flying high on this unusual -- and relatively unexpected -- success, with expectations that the LTTE leadership would now be compelled to return to the negotiation table.

There is no doubt that the loss of the eastern province has put the LTTE leadership under a psychological disadvantage versus the government, but still it is not expected to melt down at this point of time to the extent of seeking the resumption of peace talks.

In fact, the coming days are likely to bring more headaches for the Rajapaksa government, as the LTTE has started hit-and-run attacks on the government forces after losing the battle in the eastern province.

This guerilla war will have a devastating effect on the Sri Lankan forces, which are still far too few in number to maintain effective control over the region where the Tamil rebels can easily disguise themselves as civilian Tamils to launch ambush attacks on the security forces.

The potential for trouble is very high. Holding the newly captured areas will obviously require more human resources, compelling the government to send more troops to establish stability in the region in the face of the LTTE's guerilla tactics.

This extra responsibility of ensuring the stability and consolidation in the just-captured areas will not only put an enormous logistic burden on the Sri Lankan military but also delay any planned offensives against the mini-state of the LTTE in the north. This is perhaps the major problem that will hamper the government strategy of goading the LTTE to seek a negotiated settlement of the issue.

The recent announcements by the LTTE leadership about adopting every possible mode, tactics, and tool to engage the Sri Lankan forces have obviously raised fears of the Tamil separatists resorting to their notorious suicide bombings, targeting civilians and state organisations.

This is a dreadful scenario that offers little hope for peace in the near future. This is also the biggest dilemma for the Rajapaksa government; how to pre-empt the resumption of terrorist activities of the LTTE? President Rajapaksa also knows that the celebrations of the military victory in the east are likely to soon fade away against the specter of the trade-mark guerilla strategy of the LTTE. But he is also clueless.

Dr. Imran Khalid is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.
LTTE member in action. Photo: