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Taming of Tamil Tigers threatens to breed fiercer creatures

[guardian.co.uk, Sunday, 17 May 2009 17:05 No Comment]

Thousands of Sri Lankans are celebrating their government’s military victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa expected to tell the country on national television on Tuesday that the war is over. On the ground, the rebels have admitted that their 25-year struggle for a Tamil homeland has reached "its bitter end".

However, the victory has come at a high price in terms of civilan life and damage to Colombo’s international reputation. According to UN figures, an estimated 7,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed between 20 January, when a military offensive pushed back the rebels into a tiny enclave in the north-east, and 7 May.

Although the military largely blocked the world’s media from covering the carnage in the so-called no-fire zone, some TV images have conveyed part of the horror, showing civilians making a desperate break across a lagoon to escape the last strip of land controlled by the rebels.

Doctors have recounted the cries of the wounded at a makeshift hospital thart they had to abandon because of continual artillery shelling – bombardments denied by the Sri Lankan military. UN officials and human rights groups have been horrified at the disregard for civilians on both sides, particularly in the final stages of the conflict.

Despite pleas from the US president, Barack Obama, and the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, Colombo has zealously pursued its objective of wiping out the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) once and for all.

For Rajapaksa, military victory is the climax of his election campaign in November 2005, when he ruled out autonomy for Tamils – a harbinger of the military option.

Rajapaksa has been able to dress up the offensive as part of the global fight against terrorism. There is little sympathy for the Tigers. A ruthless group, listed as a terrorist organisation by both the US and the EU, the Tigers pioneered suicide attacks, carried out assassinations and stand accused of using civilians in the war zone as human shields and shooting those who tried to flee.

However, such tactics provide no excuse for the Sri Lankan government’s blatant disreguard for the plight of civilians. While many Tamils are appalled by the Tigers’ tactics, they also harbour deep grievances about their treatment by the Sinhalese majority. Analysts claim the government’s conduct has hardened an already humiliated Tamil diaspora, storing trouble for the future.

"If the Tigers’ leadership is removed or killed in a government assault, it’s easy to imagine one of the newly energised generation stepping in to fill the void," said Robert Templer, of the International Crisis Group thinktank.

"The dream of an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka resonates powerfully across the diaspora and will certainly live on even after the defeat of the LTTE as a conventional military force. The deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians – while their family members watch from afar – is a recipe for another, possibly more explosive, generation of terrorism."

For now, the Sri Lankan government has prevailed, militarily. It has a huge humanitarian problem on its hands, with tens of thousands of displaced civilians to care for, and it will need international aid. For western leaders who have urged restraint, this is the time to call on Rajapaksa to address Tamil demands for devolution of power and language rights now that the military conflict is over.

[Full Coverage]

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