Interview with Sri Lanka Expert

By Alaphia Zoyab
Web Editor
March 17, 2009

The tiny island of Sri Lanka has been ravaged by an on-again, off-again civil war since 1983. The militant, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been battling the Sri Lankan government, for a separate Tamil homeland, Eelam, in the north and east of the island but without much success. In the process, nearly 70,000 civilians have died. The present government under President Mahinda Rajapakse has re-launched a military offensive to finish off the LTTE militarily. To make sense of the latest conflict, IAR Web Editor, Alaphia Zoyab, interviewed Associate Editor of Indian newspaper, Deccan Herald, Sundararajan Murari.

Murari has toured Sri Lanka extensively and has covered the conflict for the last 25 years and has met several LTTE leaders, including Prabhakaran twice. Murari responded to questions over email from his hometown in Chennai, India.

IAR: How has the latest offensive by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils been prosecuted? Is there any evidence to show that the government has tried to minimize civilian casualties?

Correction. It’s not an offensive against Tamils unless you accept the Tigers are their sole representatives. The Government offensive is against the Tigers, designated as a terrorist outfit in 31 countries, including India. Sri Lanka was the last to re-impose the ban which was lifted as a condition precedent for the talks that began after the February 2002 ceasefire. The latest offensive is being prosecuted by two hawks, Sarath Fonseka, Commander of the Sri Lankan Army and Gothabaya Rajapakse, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, both of whom narrowly escaped LTTE's assassination attempt. They have taken it as a personal mission to decimate the Tigers much like the dreaded cop Udugambola who took on the JVP in the late 1980s.

The Lankan armed forces today are better trained, better equipped and better motivated. Pakistan and China have supplied them with weapons, including planes, say latest reports. I also hear that the Israeli-built Kfir jets are deadly for firing precision-guided missiles. Unlike in earlier battles, the forces got real-time intelligence from rebel controlled areas in the initial phase of the offensive, intelligence reportedly provided by the Karuna faction. How else can you explain the killing of Tamilselvan in an early morning air raid in his hideout in Mullaitivu.

As for the strategy, initially the forces adopted the tactic of "kill,kill,kill and then retreat", the idea being to capture territory after flushing out the Tigers. The ground forces were ably aided by air cover and the Tigers to this day are handicapped by lack of anti-aircraft guns.

The Tigers may have scored spectacular successes in conventional wars between 1995, when they lost Jaffna, and 2000 when they came close to recapturing it. But the fact remains that they are essentially a guerilla force. Now, they have been weakened by the split in the east which provided Prabhakaran with fighters. During my last visit to Colombo in August 2008, I heard that Prabhakaran had prepared 8,000 crack fighters for the final battle, the idea being to inflict maximum casualty on the advancing forces and then retreat to the jungles to fight another day. That is exactly what has happened. So the loss of Killinochi has not come as a surprise to me.

As for strategy, I hear three divisions and a few special task force units were involved. They started with Mannar because that was the supply route for the Tigers. The first aim was to cut off supplies by capturing key naval bases of the Tigers. Now the last ditch battle is on in Mullaitivu around Visvamadu and other areas and latest reports say the Tigers in their counter-offensive have killed over 1,000 soldiers and maimed around 4,000. It has been reportedly confirmed by army spokesman. As for civilian casualties, the Government claims, especially after Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s talks with Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, that they will be kept to the minimum. In any case, collateral damage (a much-maligned term coined during the first Iraq war by the US) is inevitable when civilians are caught in the cross-fire.

IAR:Sri Lanka has rejected any calls for a ceasefire and the government appears hell-bent on capturing the last of the Tiger controlled territory. Regardless of what it does next, has the government defeated the LTTE as a significant fighting force forever?

Chandrika Kumaratunga, after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt and winning a second term, said in an address to the nation that "the Tamil problem will remain even if we eliminate the Tigers". She was the only enlightened leader to acknowledge that the LTTE is only the symptom and the disease lies elsewhere.

The current President, Rajapakse feels that once the Tigers are finished as a fighting force, he can work out a political package. Latest reports say the Tigers are boxed in, in a 190 sq. km. area in the jungles. Only the naive will believe that once the Tigers retreat to these dry, shrub jungles, they can be ferreted out the way Bush boasted he would smoke out the Taliban and Osama bin Laden from the caves. True, the Tigers are licking their wounds. But in the long run, they can be defeated only politically. For that to happen, the Government will have to find a solution which will be truly federal but something short of independent Eelam. I don’t see it happening.

Militarily, the Tigers may take time to recoup as the entire world has turned against them and smuggling in supplies will be difficult, though there will be no shortage of funds so long as there is support from the diaspora, or what Tamil human rights activist, Rajan Hoole called the fascist arm of the LTTE which has sustained the war so long.

The ICRC estimates that nearly 250,000 civilians are trapped in the combat zone. What reports are you getting of the extent of civilian trauma and casualties?

I have no way of independently verifying figures. The ICRC probably has added the existing population in Mullativu to those displaced from Killinochi and Mannar who have moved along with the retreating Tigers. Still, I feel its too high a figure as the habitable area in the district is very small. As for civilian casualties, reports from Tamil diaspora say 14,000 people have died since Rajapakse took over as President in November 2005. In the latest offensive, the figure is put at around 1,000.

IAR: Do you think that the government's military offensive, if followed by economic aid and recovery will work towards deflating a violent expression of Tamil nationalist sentiment? Most experts seem to believe that guerilla style attacks will continue.

I get a sense of deja vu when I see the events unfolding. The Sri Lankan army has taken 18 years to achieve what took the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) three months, namely complete control of the north and east. Remember, the IPKF even kept the Colombo-Jaffna Yaal Devi Express running for the entire duration of two and a half years it was there. India also pumped in money on three Rs, relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation. But once the IPKF left, it was back to square one. After the battle for Jaffna ended in 1995, over five lakh well-to-do Tamils displaced from the peninsula who roughed it out in the jungles for a couple of months, returned home, much to the chagrin of the Tigers.

Likewise, I see no reason why people from Killinochi and other displaced areas will not return home once the armed forces consolidate their position and houses are rebuilt and essential services restored. Moving into army controlled areas does not mean that the people are moving away from the Tigers. Ultimately, the Tigers too need civilians in army controlled areas as it will help them infiltrate and continue the guerilla war which is essentially a war of attrition.

IAR: The ICG said last year that the Eastern province urgently needs political and administrative reforms. The 13th Amendment allows the devolution of power with the establishment of provincial councils. But how is that working in the East? How would you rate the Sri Lankan government's performance in the East after it was recaptured in 2007?

Provincial council elections were held in the east as a follow-up of the interim report of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) headed by liberal Tissa Vitarane. But critics say the recommendation was virtually dictated to Tissa by President Mahinda Rajapakse. Tissa traced the root of the persisting problem to the failure of the administration to devolve powers already granted under the 13th amendment of the Constitution which flowed from the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka agreement to the northern and eastern provincial councils.

The point to remember is merger of the mixed population east with the Tamil north, though temporary and subject to referendum in the east, which was never held, was the only major concession the 1987 agreement gave to the Tamils' demand for a homeland. The Tamils consider north and east as their traditional homeland and allege that the demographic pattern in the east has been altered through State-sponsored colonisation of Sinhalese since independence. The accord recognised the north and east as "areas of historic habitation" of Tamils. The merger has been undone on technical grounds by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court on a petition filed by ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The Rajapakse administration could have rectified the technical fault. But it took the opportunity and the convenient report of the APRC to make the demerger a fait accompli. In other words, the homeland concept has been given a quiet burial.
Therefore, Mahinda's claim that democracy has been restored in the east with the successful conduct of elections and the appointment of a Tamil as Chief Minister, is illusory. The Government strategy is to hold a separate election to the northern council after ejecting the Tigers. At the moment it has appointed a task force under the leadership of Eelam people’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader and government minister Douglas Devananda to look into the day-to-day problems of northern Tamils.

The point is during the IPKF period, the north and east had a single elected provincial council. But it collapsed once the Indian army withdrew. It was not because successive Sri Lankan Governments refused to devolve powers to the merged province. It was because the Tamil people saw the 1987 accord as only a stop-gap solution. In any case, the LTTE set the agenda then. Whether it will be able to do so in the coming years remains to be seen. But LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, at his last press conference in April 2002, said he personally believes an independent Eelam is the only viable and lasting solution. He will pursue it so long as he is alive, regardless of international pressure.

IAR: Has the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), the LTTE’s breakaway faction in the East, been demilitarized? How is the government reining in the group? It has been suggested that the government wants to keep this as a paramilitary group under its control.

The TMVP is the cat's paw of the Government. The convenient excuse given for allowing them to retain arms is that they face a threat from the Tigers. But they are not the only ones allowed to carry arms. The EPDP and to an extent People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) also are given this licence. But TMVP is credited with several extra-judicial killings, including that of redoubtable Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) MP Joseph Pararajasingham in a church during Christmas midnight mass in Batticaloa. Far from reining in the group, the Government is allowing them to work along with the army. It turns a blind eye to white vans used to abduct businessmen for extortion or to kill political adversaries.

IAR: Turning to the way the Sri Lankan conflict is playing out in Tamil Nadu in India, to what extent does the state’s ruling party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's (DMK) pan-Tamil cause, reflect what ordinary people feel about the conflict? Is it just a few politically conscious groups with access to the media voicing their protest or do you see anecdotal evidence of concern from the man on the street for the atrocities in Sri Lanka against Tamils?

After the Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, so many elections have been held in Tamil Nadu. In none of them did any party dare to make Sri Lanka an issue. Why, even when the Tigers lost the prestigious Jaffna to the army in 1995, there was no such hue and cry, probably because it happened just four years after the assassination. Now 18 years have gone by and pro-LTTE outfits believe public memory is short. But the orchestrated campaign has led to a couple of suicides which again are played up not only by voices of Tigers but also by the Tigers themselves as resurgence of support for their cause. You have subconsciously used the word "atrocities against Tamils". It is embedded in Tamil psyche here as well thanks to constant and loose use of the word "genocide" by politicians from DMK leader Karunanidhi down to street level rabble rouser. Still, a distinction is now sought to be made between Tamils and the LTTE by the enlightened public. Opposition leader, Jayalalitha articulated it very well by saying that no one should bail out the Tigers in the name of safeguarding beleaguered Tamils. Pranab Mukherjee has also said India has no sympathy for the LTTE, and every year, it is renewing its request to Sri Lanka to extradite Prabhakaran who is a proclaimed offender in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.

Karunanidhi for a while tried to hunt with the hound and run with the hare. By that I mean he knew that the war was prosecuted by Colombo since 2006 with the tacit blessings of New Delhi. In fact, pro-LTTE websites like Puthinam now openly say it is late Rajiv Gandhi’s widow Sonia's way of wreaking vengence on Prabhakaran. But my reading is that India advised Colombo to follow the old IPKF strategy of militarily containing the Tigers so that they will be forced to return to talks or be too weak to sabotage implementation of any political package on the ground.

IAR: What is the refugee situation in Tamil Nadu right now? What security threats does India face?

There is no alarming increase in refugee inflow. During the operations in the east, there was a steady trickle of refugees mostly from Trincomalee. It has stopped at 20,000. I see no possibility of an exodus of the kind witnessed in 1983 as the LTTE does not want to give India any leverage.

IAR: India has been averse to taking too active a role in Sri Lankan affairs after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE in 1991. What kind of tight-rope walk is India doing now in the face of severe opposition against the war by mainstream political parties like the DMK and its own predisposition to ending the LTTE menace in the region?

As I mentioned earlier, the present UPA Government has been actively advising the Sri Lankan armed forces in their offensive since 2006 when the LTTE informally broke the truce. I do not subscribe to the view that India has been following a hands-off approach after Rajiv's assassination. Being a frequent visitor to Sri Lanka, I know the Indian mission there continues to interact with all the groups, including the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance. Even during the recent ceasefire period and the talks that eventually led to nowhere, India was constantly kept in the loop. New Delhi was the first place any new leader visited after assuming office from Chandrika to Ranil to Rajapakse. Likewise, Norway has also kept Delhi informed.

As for "ending the LTTE menace in Sri Lanka", India's public and private positions are quite different. Way back in 1987, after Prabhakaran's Sudumalai speech, a senior diplomat told me, "the LTTE is a canker in the society, but if we finish it off, there will be no stopping Sinhalese chauvinism". Even the US and other western powers, while proscribing the LTTE, did not include it in the global war against terrorism. In fact, they encouraged Colombo and the LTTE in 2002 to sit across the table to end the war.

Commentators now say the whole world has turned against terrorism and there will be no more distinction between a good and a bad terrorist. I doubt it. Each country is guided by its own geo-political interest. Saddam never had any links with Al Qaeda. Yet the US toppled his regime on spurious grounds and eventually executed him. As for the spillover effects of the war, India has taken measures including strengthening coastal security in Tamil Nadu, especially after the LTTE acquired an air arm, however nascent it may be. There is also a wider angle to it. India does not want Sri Lanka to come under China's sphere of influence. So, it has to deftly handle the situation and see that Colombo gives the Tamils equal rights while containing the Tigers.

IAR: Asia Times Online reports that at least 14 journalists and Sri Lankans working for the media have been killed since 2006 and another 20 have fled the island. Media freedom has been under severe attack on the one hand and journalists have been denied access to the war zone. But on the other the government has been whining about an international campaign to tarnish its image. Why is the government so prickly about too much scrutiny of this latest military offensive when it has been boasting at home about liberating the Tamil people?

Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga's last editorial, written a few days before he was gunned down and published the following Sunday, was chillingly prophetic. He said he had been branded a traitor because he said "you can't use your air force against your own citizens" and army "occupation" of Tamil land would only alienate them further. He had also clearly said Mahinda is helpless and all operations are done by Fonseka and Gothabaya. Remember Gothabaya's warning not only to the media but also pro-LTTE western powers that they will be "chased out"?

Truth is the first casualty in any war. Naturally, during wars press freedom is curbed. The west is no exception. It coined the new word, embedded journalism, a euphemism for army-conducted tours. In Sri Lanka, independent journalists have been targetted by the killer squads from the Government, the pro-government armed militia like TMVP and EPDP and finally the LTTE. Not only Sinhalese liberals like Lasantha, even Tamil journalists have been killed. The LTTE set the trend by ruthlessly eliminating voices of dissent.

The Government is not prickly about its image abroad. If Gothabaya's remark is any indication, it is acting the way Israel did in Gaza Strip. What did the west do to stop the killing of over 1,000 civilians in a matter of days by Israeli blitzkreig? In fact, the Sri Lankan Government has peremptorarily rejected the Tokyo co-chairs call for an end to the offensive, though they combined it with an appeal to the LTTE to lay down arms and surrender. Neither side will listen to such platitudes which are far removed from ground reality.

IAR: Will the government's military "successes" be exploited by hard-line Sinhalese political outfits to further deny the Tamils an equal space in the political, social and economic life of Sri Lanka?

First of all, is Mahinda a liberal? He went to polls in the company of JVP, which is against any federal solution. Then, he jettisoned the JVP. The APRC was boycotted by the JVP and the TNA representing two ends of the spectrum. Its interim report, calling for a return to the 1987 accord and implementation of 13th amendment, is a regressive step as much has happened since then. Touted at one time were the Chandrika proposal which spoke of Sri Lanka as a union of regions, envisaged trifurcation of the eastern province to create an enlarged north, and a truly federal solution, and the Tigers' own Interim Self-Governing Authority proposal which envisioned a loose confederation like the Quebec model. Now the Tamil diaspora has said either there should be independence like East Timor or a confederation like between French speaking Quebec and the rest of Canada which is English speaking.

The army victory over the LTTE will certainly strengthen the hands of the hawks as they will see no reason why they should be accommodative towards the Tamils any more. The statement of Fonseka that Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhalese and the minorities should learn to live with them is a reflection of this hawkish sentiment.
Incurable optimists say the army victory will boost Mahinda's stock and that he will be in a position to solve the problem provided he displays political will. He has already promised India that he will go beyond the 13th amendment in working out a final solution. The talk is that if he is not able to work out a consensus, he may go for Parliament elections, which are in any case due by July, hoping to get two-thirds majority so that he will be freed of dependence on other parties like the fence-sitting United National Party (UNP).

The irony is, he owes his victory to the LTTE. Initially, the LTTE said it would stay neutral. When it realised that such a stand would make the Tamils vote for Ranil Wickremasinghe’s UNP, who wanted talks to continue whatever his other faults may be. The LTTE called for a boycott, thereby enabling Mahinda to scrape through essentially with southern votes. In other words, Prabhakaran wanted a hawk like Mahinda as President so that he would have every excuse to go back to war. Now he has realised he has bitten off more than he could chew.

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