The decisive defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is ferociously fighting probably its last battle in a small piece of land (about 20 sq. kms) with little chance of winning it, is partly due to the follies of V. Prabhakaran, its chief, during the last four years and partly due to the determined and ruthless manner in which the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have carried out their operations.
Among his follies, one could mention his split with Karuna, the legendary conventional fighter from the Eastern Province, his increasing reliance on terrorism after the desertion of the conventional fighters led by Karuna and his working for the defeat of Ranil Wickremasinghe, former Sri Lankan Prime Minister, in the Presidential election in November 2005, which was won by Mahinda Rajapaksa.
During its existence, the LTTE had developed a capability for conventional warfare as well as for spectacular acts of terrorism. Its best conventional fighters came from the Eastern Province and many of its suicide terrorists from the Northern Province. Unhappiness among the conventional fighters that the suicide bombers from the North were accorded greater importance and honours by Prabhakaran led to their desertion under Karuna’s leadership. Karuna then helped the Sri Lankan Army in its operations against the LTTE.
Deprived of the strong conventional capability, the LTTE increasingly relied on terrorism and intimidatory attacks by its small fleet of aircraft in its fight against the Armed Forces. Its reliance on terrorism at a time when the international community was developing a policy of zero tolerance for terrorism after 9/11 deprived it of even the little public and political support which it had enjoyed in the West. The European Union countries declared it a terrorist organization and took vigorous action to stop its gun running.
No Sri Lankan leader was more sympathetic to the aspirations of the Tamils than former Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunge and Wickremasinghe. The latter was prepared to concede in large measure the political demands of the LTTE within a federal set-up. If Prabhakaran had responded positively to the gestures from Wickremasinghe, the latter would have enabled the LTTE to retain control of the territory which it had occupied and given it a measure of autonomy in return for the LTTE giving up its demand for an independent Tamil Eelam.
Prabhakaran, who had an inflated belief in his own prowess and in the perceived invincibility of the LTTE, spurned his gestures and worked for his defeat in the Presidential elections. His calculation that Rajapaksa would be a weak and indecisive President, whose Sinhalese extremism would further polarise relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, proved terribly wrong.
Rajapaksa turned out to be one of the strongest and clear-headed Presidents Sri Lanka has had. He came to office determined to defeat the LTTE as an insurgent and terrorist organization first before addressing the aspirations of the Tamils. He gave his armed forces the wherewithal in terms of money and equipment to enable them defeat the LTTE. He also resisted international pressure to reach a political accommodation with the LTTE. He was determined that the political accommodation will be with the Tamils after the defeat of the LTTE and not with the LTTE.
The improved morale and capabilities of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have definitely contributed to their remarkable success in relentlessly rolling back the LTTE from the areas controlled by it, but this success was facilitated by the ruthless use of air strikes against the LTTE.
Did Indian assistance also contribute to the success of the SL Armed Forces? The Government of India denies having given any offensive equipment and training to the SL Armed Forces, but Sri Lankan officers and leaders have themselves been saying that the success of their Armed Forces was made possible by Indian assistance. The failure of the Government of India to counter these claims has created growing suspicions not only among the Sri Lankan Tamils, but also among sections of the people of Tamil Nadu that the Indian government has given more assistance to Sri Lanka than it has admitted.
The LTTE’s brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 created a revulsion for it in Tamil Nadu. If it has since managed to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of some sections of public opinion in Tamil Nadu, the Indian government and its senior functionaries cannot escape the responsibility for it. The failure of the government to condemn the air strikes and its seeming helplessness in the face of the humanitarian disaster affecting over 200,000 Tamils have cost it considerable public support in Tamil Nadu and made support for the Sri Lankan Tamils once again a popular cause. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by the LTTE has been pushed into the background.
People tend to compare what they perceive as Manmohan Singh’s helpless attitude in the face of the repeated rejection by the Rajapaksa Government of the requests for a humanitarian approach to Rajiv Gandhi’s action in sending the Indian Air Force to drop humanitarian supplies to the Tamils despite strong criticism of the Indian action not only by the Sri Lankan authorities, but also by the international community.
What next after the defeat of the LTTE? Rajapaksa has been repeatedly promising that he would address the aspirations of the Tamils for greater political and economic rights. Will a bloated army and the Sinhalese extremist elements allow him to keep his word even if he wants to or will he, egged on by his army, try to impose a dictated peace on the Tamils? One has to keep one’s fingers crossed.
The writer is former Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.