Somebody long ago said reporting Sri Lanka’s long ethnic war is like running along a toy train. You could jump on it and hop off anywhere, the same old things would just keep coming back. On January 15, the toy train whirred to yet another end of yet another truce in the island with a bloody history going back a quarter of a century. Six years of relative peace ended with the deafening sound of a bomb ripping a civilian bus. For the umpteenth time the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had hit the Sinhala government’s belly, prompting Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse to publicly state that rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s head was on order. This was the latest in the countless threats proffered by the government, only this time it could turn into reality given the complete global alienation of the Tigers.
After years of enjoying a clean run in Europe and North America — the top sources of money that funded the LTTE’s killing machine — the noose has tightened. The United States banned the LTTE a decade ago. But it was only last week that the FBI chose to tell Americans that the Tamil Tigers were among the “most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world”. The FBI has been choking the LTTE’s fund flow and has charged several group operatives for moving money and organising arms deals. It is not incorrect to call the LTTE one of the world’s most dangerous outfits. For nearly three decades, Prabhakaran and his men and women have blown up innocent people at will while portraying themselves to be the victim of a State reprisal. It is probably now time that somebody got hold of the man who defines Sri Lanka and its politics. After vanquishing all opponents, Prabhakaran, who hides in the jungles of the Wanni in the north of the island, has single-handedly led a campaign for freedom for minority Tamils. For long he has been part of the folklore. He has run a successful global conglomerate that has raised tens of millions of dollars to feed the LTTE’s hunger for arms, ammunition and explosives. Considered to be a master tactician, Prabhakaran has ensured the defeat of the Sri Lanka military several times in the past. At a time when the army was getting a massive drubbing at the hands of the LTTE during the last round of war in the late 1990s, a general confided after a few drinks how he wished Prabhakaran was on his side.
But let us be honest in admitting that Prabhakaran and his LTTE have lived this long because they have been allowed to. So interlinked are various interests in Sri Lanka — and elsewhere — with the long war that it is difficult to imagine a country without him. What would the army do? Who would the politicians blame for the ills of the country? How much would the shape of the economy change if the war ends? How would the rich continue to make the money they are from the war economy? Whatever would happen to the Tamils? Who would be their saviour?
Some of the questions were answered earlier this decade when the two sides were relatively at peace, with a clear border drawn between the LTTE-controlled north and east and the large chunk of the government-held south. People were happy, there were no checkpoints manned by machinegun-toting troops, the economy did well, jobs were created, real estate prices shot up, tourism boomed, foreigners sun-bathed on Sri Lanka’s glorious beaches until the tsunami struck on Boxing Day in 2004. A battle over tsunami aid, which the government feared the LTTE would use to rearm itself, began the end of yet another attempt for permanent peace in Sri Lanka. As thousands rotted in makeshift camps the blame game began, eventually hurtling out of control.
The war and peace cycles in Sri Lanka are very definitive. Indian forces were forced to leave Sri Lanka after former President Ranasinghe Premadasa played dirty, only to die at the hands of a LTTE suicide bomber. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s dreams of ending the war lay shattered months after she became President and she was forced to re-launch a full-scale war. Her longtime political foe, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, smoked a peace pipe with the LTTE only to lose the presidential election after the Tigers quietly opposed his candidacy. In a world where terrorism is seen to be a global malaise, the LTTE is being watched in way like never before. The West, which once backed the LTTE’s cause on grounds of human rights, now realises that it is dealing with an organisation as deadly as al-Qaeda.
The FBI warning posted on its website makes interesting reading. It tells Americans they should be worried because “the group has placed operatives right here in our own backyard... And we’re determined to stop them, using the full range of our investigative and intelligence capabilities”. But this warning, along with a sustained air attack on LTTE positions by the Sri Lankan air force in recent months, should actually worry Prabhakaran more as he is pressed from all sides. His flow of money has slowed down after the ban on the LTTE in countries where most Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates live. The group’s ideological guru and its pacifist face, Anton Balasingham, died of illness some time back. Its political chief Tamilselvan was killed in an air force attack last year. There were also reports, later denied, that Prabhakaran too had been injured. Factionalism plagues the group once known for being a tightly-knit organisation.
What would happen to Sri Lanka once the LTTE has been got rid of? The reason that the country and its political masters have lived for these past 25 years would vanish. Eventually, it is up to Sri Lanka to decide whether it wants to continue living with Prabhakaran. His elimination would have to be taken care of by Sri Lanka — definitely not by its neighbour India. Whether Prabhakaran’s elimination would bring forth another hydra-headed monster cannot be ruled out. The bigger question is whether the man has finally become dispensable in Sri Lankan politics. On that ultimately rests whether he lives or not, and whether the toy train continues on its endless journey or stops.