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Sri Lanka’s challenge: winning the peace

About the author
Rohan Gunaratna is the head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is an international terrorism expert and author of the acclaimed Inside Al Qaeda (Columbia University Press, May 2002).

The military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers / LTTE) on 18 May 2009 has brought the twenty-six-year-old Sri Lankan conflict to an end. The immediate legacy is a huge humanitarian problem in parts of the north involving the care and resettlement of displaced people, their reintegration into local communities, and the provision of resources for them to begin to reconstruct their lives. Rohan Gunaratna is head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, and professor of security studies, at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Among his books is Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (Columbia University Press, 2002)

Beyond that, the victory over the LTTE poses a long-term political challenge to Sri Lanka's government. If it is to "win" the hard-won peace and rebuild the country, an essential requirement will be its willingness and ability to rebuild bridges with the Tamil community.

The LTTE legacy

It will not be easy, in part because of the nature of internal Tamil politics after long domination by the LTTE. This group under its now deceased leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran aspired to be the sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people, and sought as a result to eliminate any rivals or anyone thought to pose a potential threat. This included Tamil intellectuals and politicians including Prabhakaran's childhood friend and deputy Ajith Mahendrarajah (alias Mahattaya). The pursuit of a mono-ethnic Tamil state also led the group to ethnically cleanse Sri Lanka's northeast of Sinhalese and Muslims. But the war brought disaster to the Tamil people: over a million emigrated, 300,000 were internally displaced and nearly 70,000 people died in the fighting on all sides (including 15,000 Sri Lankan troops).

The LTTE fought both the Indian and the Sri Lankan militaries in the 1980s and graduated from a terrorist to a guerrilla and a semi-conventional force in the 1990s. The group's female and male suicide-bombers killed two heads of government - Rajiv Gandhi (former prime minister of India, in 1991) and Ranasinghe Premadasa (the president of Sri Lanka, 1989-93). It also wounded Chandrika Kumaratunga (president, 1994-2005), and killed a number of the country's politicians: either by suicide-bomb (Gamini Dissanayake, a presidential candidate) and Ranjan Wijeratne (deputy defence minister, in 1991) or gun (Lalith Athulathmudali, former minister and opposition politician, in 1993) and Lakshman Kadirgamar (foreign minister, in 2005). The fact that Kadiragamar was himself a Tamil made him a special target; the LTTE also killed over 200 other Tamil political leaders. No country had lost so many high-quality leaders in such a short period of time.

The LTTE became in these decades one of the most creative and innovative terrorist groups, introducing sea-borne suicide-operations and the suicide body-suit to the world. Today, both these technologies are adopted by a range of terrorist groups worldwide, including al-Qaida.

Moreover, by harnessing the presence of Sri Lankan Tamils overseas, the LTTE built a state-of-the-art propaganda machine. It infiltrated Tamil community organisations and made them instruments of its fundraising cause; used its influence to pressure western nations to stop selling weapons to Sri Lanka; campaigned against international aid, tourism and investment in the country; and established a network of political influence in north America, Europe and Asia. Also in openDemocracy on Sri Lanka's war and politics:

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka's election choice" (17 November 2005)

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka: between peace and war" (14 May 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Sri Lanka: the politics of purity" (17 November 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka" (30 May 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Sri Lanka's stalemated conflict" (12 June 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka under siege" (30 January 2009)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka's displaced: the political vice" (8 April 2009)

Nirmala Rajasingam, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009)

Luther Uthayakumaran, "Sri Lanka: after war, justice" (21 May 2009)

At its peak the LTTE enjoyed a numerical strength of 15,000 members - comparable to the strength of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc) or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines. Yet the Sri Lankan conflict is one of the few cases where such a powerful group with semi-conventional as well as guerrilla capabilities has been defeated.

The closing stages of the war in particular suggests that the LTTE in the end overestimated its own power and underestimated the resilience of the Sri Lankan state. It also missed the declining influence of the west in global politics; in this respect the Sri Lankan government's key partnerships - with Pakistan, China, Russia and India - were assets in prosecuting the war.

The road to defeat

Three further elements of the Colombo government's military and political strategy were important in its eventual victory.

The first was the moment when Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias Karuna) - the former LTTE commander of the Eastern Province - was co-opted by the government in 2004. The LTTE as a result lost overnight 6,000 fighters, half of its fighting force. The east had been the principal recruitment- ground of the LTTE. Some northern Tamils considered the eastern Tamils second-class citizens, but the east provided the bulk of the resources - funds, paddy and other necessities - for the LTTE war-machine.

Karuna's defection was a direct result of his realisation that the LTTE had lost touch with everyday citizens. When the LTTE lost territory, it also lost its ability to replenish its fighters. Instead of seeking volunteers, the LTTE started to conscript members from each family - earning anger in return. In March 2009, Karuna was appointed Sri Lanka's minister of national integration.

The second element was that the Sri Lankan navy monitored, detected and intercepted the LTTE ships and disrupted the flow of weapons and other equipment to the LTTE's land and maritime organs. The strategy adopted by Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, a committed and creative navy chief, was to go after the LTTE fleet while replenishing his own side's material losses. Karannagoda, unlike any previous commander, took his fleet to international waters to sink the rogue fleet in 2006-07. The leadership qualities of Admiral Karannagoda and his ability to work together with international and domestic partners enabled him to develop the intelligence to destroy LTTE ships supplying the killing-machine in Sri Lanka.

The third element was that the Sri Lankan army expanded its numerical strength in 2006-07. General Sarath Fonseka (the army chief) and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (defence secretary and a former frontline officer, as well as the brother of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa) understood the need to fight on multiple fronts. The army, supported by the other branches of the military, gradually weakened the LTTE's fighting strength, in part by using trained elite teams operating behind the frontlines.

The road to rebuild

The military victory leaves Sri Lanka facing three tasks of political reconstruction.

The first is that the government must develop an ambitious development-plan to rebuild a country that has suffered almost three decades of conflict - with an especial focus on the northeast. The fighting army should transform into a peace army dedicated to development. It should together with civilians work to rebuild the devastated northeast by building roads, schools, industry, farms and agricultural projects. The nations most concerned about Sri Lanka in the recent past (including Japan, Sri Lanka's largest donor) should be asked to provide assistance to rebuild the northeast. The expatriate community could also be a precious resources for reconstruction efforts.

The second task is good governance, especially the rule of law - the key to economic development, as well as the best weapon against extremism. Here, the state should prosecute the corrupt and sack the incompetent: ministers and officials should both be honest and appear honest in their conduct. The drive to eradicate corruption should start from the top.

The third task is if anything the hardest: to encourage the peoples of Sri Lanka - Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers - to think and act "Sri Lankan". Sri Lanka belongs to all its inhabitants. If a minority of the Sinhalese wrongly claim that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese, then the Tamils will claim the north and Muslims the east. If the government can (for example) invest in programmes to teach Tamil in the south and to teach Sinhalese in the north, the next generation will be Sri Lankans. As the majority, the Sinhalese must be more generous to its minorities. Today, any majority community will be respected by the way it treats its minorities. Sri Lanka lost a great opportunity before; now it should devolve power from the centre. The appointment as prime minister of the current social-services minister (and a Tamil), Douglas Devananda, would be a start.

Misguided nationalists, both Sinhalese and Tamils, came close to destroying the country. A lesson is that religion, language and caste should never again be used to build political strength. All Sri Lankans have an obligation to rebuild the broken bridges between the different communities, and resist ethnic and religious entrepreneurs who seek to divide people on the basis of their ethnicity or faith.

If the government gives way to ultra-Sinhala nationalists, who advocate treating the Tamils as second-class citizens, there will never be a united Sri Lanka. A government that has defeated the armed Tamil fanatics must now contain ultra-Sinhala nationalism and build a truly united and equal Sri Lanka. It will be tough, and call for different tools than war-fighting; but it is the only way to heal the terrible wounds of war.


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