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Finally, Lankan army delivers the body blow

It’s been a long time coming. Wracked by weakness and desertion, the Sri Lankan state has taken decades to get its military act together. Backed to the hilt by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his party, the Lankan Army, which finally shed its ceremonial image, has delivered.

world Updated: May 18, 2009 15:52 IST

It’s been a long time coming. Wracked by weakness and desertion, the Sri Lankan state has taken decades to get its military act together. Backed to the hilt by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his party, the Lankan Army, which finally shed its ceremonial image, has delivered.

In November 2005, Rajapaksa took oath as President. At that time, the Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement between the LTTE and the government was on.

Breaching the ceasefire, the LTTE sent in a woman suicide bomber, disguised as pregnant, inside the army headquarters to assassinate army chief, Sarath Fonseka, in 2006. The woman blew herself up but Fonseka survived. He spent months in a Singapore hospital, but returned with a hardened resolve to finish the LTTE.

The first target was LTTE’s eastern stronghold; Tiger commander Karuna Amman’s defection made it easier to push away the LTTE from eastern districts. The army then moved to Mannar in the west and Vavuniya in north-central Lanka.

Thousands of soldiers were pressed into the battlefield with the Sri Lankan air force giving effective air cover – for the first time – to the ground forces. Till the first quarter of 2009, SLAF had flown more than 13000 sorties.

Previous attempts to neuter the Tigers had failed. In December 1995, under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Army captured the Jaffna peninsula, only to see the Tigers and their chief, Prabhakaran, shift to the Vanni in
the mainland.

It looked as if victory might be at hand, but the LTTE proved to be more than a match for the Lankan Army. They captured the Mullativu garrison in 1996; killing more than 1,200 soldiers in one go. And, then went on to
capture the strategic Elephant Pass camp, putting enormous pressure on the Tigers.

Operating from the back of beyond didn’t prevent Prabhakaran from putting in place a formidable network. “We know how he operated. His network operated legitimate shipping lines – the odd ship laden with arms – was delivered to the Tigers in northern Sri Lanka,” a top official, who preferred anonymity, pointed out.

For India, the policy decision taken in the mid-eighties to train and arm separatist Tamil groups, including the LTTE, proved disastrous. The extensive training provided by the Indian establishment would be used against the Indian Peace-Keeping Force, or IPKF, stationed in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990.

A peace accord signed between India and Sri Lanka in 1987 led to the dispatch of the IPKF at a time when Colombo was battling an insurgency in the southern part of the country led by the hardline Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

Months after the IPKF received a heroes’ welcome in Jaffna, the LTTE began attacking Indian soldiers. The Tigers, who proved to be formidable guerillas, killed as many as 1,200 Indian soldiers.

Following relentless pressure mounted by Tamil Nadu politicians, Prime Minister V.P. Singh brought the IPKF home. A Sri Lankan commission of inquiry later found that President Ranasinghe Premadasa was providing the LTTE with weapons as it fought Indian soldiers.

Flush with victory, the LTTE and Prabhakaran made a grave strategic error.

They plotted and executed the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Before his assasination in May 1991, the devious LTTE sent an emissary, Kasi Anandan to meet Rajiv, who assured the former PM that he had nothing to fear from the Tigers.

Public opinion in Tamil Nadu and the rest of India turned against the Tigers. The LTTE was banned and Prabhakaran declared a wanted man in the Rajiv assassination case. The wheel had turned full circle.

Since then, India has largely maintained a hands-off policy towards Lanka, but is known to have covertly supported Colombo’s military efforts against the Tigers. This assistance reached its peak under the Rajapakse presidency.

Now, with the Tigers breathing their last, and all the electoral noise from Tamil Nadu dying down, India must again stress the importance of giving the Tamil people their due in a united Sri Lanka.

The demise of the Tigers doesn’t mean an end to Tamil grievances and the battle for their treatment as equal citizens in Sri Lanka. With the LTTE gone, there’s no excuse not to devolve powers to Sri Lanka’s Tamil people.