By early 2006, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) had decided to embark on a military course to deal with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and was pushed hard in that direction by its extreme chauvinist partners. The build-up for war was nevertheless on between 2002 and 2005 when the ceasefire was effective and even as peace talks continued into 2003. The then prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, claimed credit a year ago for weakening the LTTE by engineering a split (with help from the US) in 2004, and some months ago for purchasing most of the military hardware, with which the GoSL successfully fought the war, between 2002 and 2004. The LTTE too armed itself during the time but did not anticipate the brutal force with which the GoSL would pursue the war and the line-up of international forces against it.
The LTTE was weakened on its naval front by the tsunami in 2004, which took a heavy toll in the LTTE-controlled regions and delivered a severe economic blow, which was aggravated by the government’s de facto denial of tsunami relief. Further, the shortcomings of the LTTE, especially its failure to carry out mass political work and insensitivity to contradictions among the people, cost it dearly when the government went on the offensive in the East in 2006. But the LTTE retreated from the East with minimal losses.
When the government followed its conquest of the East with an offensive in the North, the LTTE steadily lost ground and, despite its ability to deliver the occasional surprise attack, was a poor match in conventional warfare to the re-armed and reinforced Sri Lankan armed forces, with training in counter-insurgency. The government’s push to militarily defeat the LTTE had more than the tacit blessings of India and the ‘international community’, meaning the imperialist alliance led by the US. India and the US provided logistical as well as material support to the GoSL.
The LTTE, contrary to the belligerent image painted by the GoSL, India and the US, was, at least by 2007, keen on cessation of hostilities and negotiations. The armed forces of the GoSL, sniffing victory, were unwilling; and the GoSL made the laying down of arms by the LTTE a precondition for any negotiation. That was hard for the LTTE, which relied heavily on its image of invincibility and defiance for its financial and political backing from its supporters, especially among the Tamil Diaspora.
Well before the fall of the LTTE’s administrative capital Killinochi at the end of 2008, it was clear the government forces could be indiscriminate in their attacks. By ordering all NGOs and journalists out of the conflict zone in mid-2008, the GoSL signalled it was unwilling to let reports of human rights violations and civilian casualties stand in its way.
The human tragedy worsened rapidly from mid-2008; and the displaced population in the North passed 200,000 at the end of 2008. The LTTE left behind a ghost town in Kilinochchi by persuading the people to follow it as it retreated. LTTE’s critics charge that it forced the people, but it is more likely that the people feared the armed forces more than they resented the totalitarian ways of the LTTE, and probably believed that the LTTE would regain control of lost territory as it did on earlier occasions. As the LTTE territory shrank, the number of displaced passed 300,000 and their living conditions became more miserable. The proportion of the displaced who wanted to leave the LTTE-controlled territory at any time is unknown. But it is likely that, with time and the GoSL restricting the flow of essential goods including food and medicine to the LTTE-controlled areas, the number of people who would rather risk it with the armed forces than be unsheltered and face hunger, starvation and disease increased.
The US, EU, UN and India were aware that the condition was deteriorating for the displaced and that the conflict was heading towards a catastrophe for the entrapped civilians. The issues were soft-pedalled by the governments and the UN was indifferent. International NGOs, which witnessed the situation in the North-East since the escalation of fighting, expressed grave concern. European governments spoke rather late in the day, but, like the international NGOS, they were snubbed by spokespersons for the GoSL. It was clear that none of the international concerns would translate by way of action into anything more than token gestures of suspension of aid.
The government, whose popularity rested on its military success against “terrorism”, paid no heed to international concerns and played to the gallery, and in the process stirred up Sinhala chauvinism. Spokespersons for the government went out of their way to rudely reject all charges of violation of human or democratic rights.
It was towards the last quarter of 2008, after the LTTE had lost much of the territory and had a massive number of displaced persons to deal with, that the people of Tamil Nadu became aware of the gravity of the situation. As the human tragedy gathered pace, LTTE spokespersons and sympathisers among the Tamil Diaspora saw their salvation in intervention by the US, countries of the EU, and the UN. Some, including Tamil National Alliance parliamentarians, pinned their hopes on India. There pleaded desperately with India to intervene, even when it was abundantly clear that India was hand in glove with the GoSL.
Once re-elected to power with an enhanced majority, the Congress-led government had no incentive to appear to care for the Tamils or to protest the outrages committed during the final weeks of the war. When the GoSL thanked India in May 2009 for its active support, India did not contradict the claim. However, when the defeat of the LTTE was imminent, there was a proliferation of publications in Tamil and English in the print and electronic media, charging that it was China’s enhanced economic and military aid in 2008 that enabled the GoSL to carry out large-scale destruction. It was the handiwork of an India-based group actively pushing an anti-China agenda in India, with a former official of the RAW guiding operations on a number of fronts. This crude attempt to justify India’s conduct continues, and had been unquestioningly adopted by the Times (London), reflecting the West’s fears of China’s growing global influence.
Rivalry between the US and India for hegemony over Sri Lanka has been there ever since British influence faded. It came into the open in 1980, and went dormant after the collapse of the Soviet Union and increasing cooperation between India and the US. Efforts of the West to reactivate its role in the Sri Lankan national question by applying pressure on the GoSL on the question of human rights violations have failed so far owing to the defiant attitude of the GoSL, which has successfully played countries resentful of US domination against the US and its allies. India’s efforts to reinforce its hold on Sri Lanka by siding with the GoSL and even canvassing for it in international discussions did not, however, yield proportionate returns.
India is viewed with suspicion by the Sinhalese as a whole, mostly out of fear that India may again impose a solution of its design to the national question. That is something Sinhala chauvinists would like to resolve by negating the existence of all minority nationalities. India’s stock among Sri Lankan Tamils is rock bottom since the exposure of its duplicity, although a handful of beneficiaries of India’s largesse are seeking to build a political alliance to do India’s bidding among the Tamils.
The rivalry for hegemony goes on. The pressure brought upon Sri Lanka by the US, its allies and the UN needs to be seen in this light. The more affluent sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora are working hard to bring the entire Diaspora under their wing by persuading the politically desperate supporters and sympathisers of the LTTE that the hope of an LTTE revival lies with the US-led West.
It is a critical moment for Sri Lankan Tamils at home and among the Diaspora. It is important they review the history of the Tamil national struggle and realign themselves with genuine forces of democracy, freedom and social justice than let themselves be manipulated by players seeking global and regional domination. It is equally critical for the Sinhala majority to recognise the dangers of letting divisions among the nationalities to be used cynically by powers seeking to dominate and control Sri Lanka.
The future of the country depends on its ability to resist any form of foreign meddling, by uniting its nationalities through a just and lasting solution, based on the principle of self-determination, to the national question.