Blades roaring, the armed Mi-17 helicopter was flying just over the trees. We were on the way to Kilinochchi on January 4, two days after it fell to the Sri Lankan government forces.
Kilinochchi, the ‘LTTE capital’ with rebel-run courts and schools, was the venue for peace talks with the government and for the only press conference that LTTE chief, V Prabhakaran, held in 2002. It is about 350 km north of Colombo.
For the Sri Lankan army, the distance to the LTTE capital can be measured in time — not only in kilometers. The rebels had wrested it 10 years ago. After months of hard fighting, heavily-armed troops captured what remained of the town — a cluster of empty rebel offices, vacant homes on deserted streets and a newly laid graveyard for LTTE cadres. In all, the army recovered five bodies from around town; the living had disappeared.
Kilinochchi’s ‘fall’ has, of course, injected life into the armed forces. For them, it has been a re-assertion of military might at the heart of rebel territory. “This is a national-level achievement. It is important because it is the LTTE headquarters,” said Jagat Dias, commanding officer, 57 Division, over lunch in a former rebel office. “It is a military and a symbolic victory. It will boost the army’s morale.”
Basil Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and advisor, has read the end of the Tamil Tigers in this victory. Rajapaksa told HT that the LTTE was running out of steam and space. “Militant organisations normally have a life span,” Rajapaksa said. “Grab power or fade away. It has been 30 years for the LTTE and they have not been able to grab power. They have reached their peak. From this point onwards, it can only be a coming down”. The Tamil people, too, he added, were giving up on the LTTE, and were “getting old and frustrated”.
The military upper hand
This is the beginning of the end for the LTTE — that’s the general drift across the political spectrum. Dharmalingam Siddharthan, People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) leader and former LTTE, agreed. At his heavily-guarded house, Siddharthan said the defeat did not mean that the LTTE would not carry out big strikes but they would not reverse the military situation. “They would now be confined in the jungles of Mullaitivu within 1,200 to 1,600 sq km”.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government is determined to wipe out the LTTE, the PLOTE leader said. According to Siddharthan, “Gotabhaya (defence secretary and also the President’s brother) has the freedom to act without having to consult the President. He also has the experience of fighting the LTTE on the ground in Jaffna in 1987. Army commander (Sarath) Fonseka, too, has fought in all the theatres of war in Sri Lanka. And this time, there will be no one to bail out the LTTE like the Indians did in 1987 and President Premadasa did in the early 90s.”
The rebels, of course, have a history of hitting back and recapturing lost territory. They have lost and won Kilinochchi before. (The rebels won it 1990, lost it in 1996 and won it back in 1998.) It has always been a player. The pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance, for instance, won 22 seats in the 2004 general election with rebel backing. MP K Pathmanathan said the rebels’ ‘loss’ was a military tactic. “They (the government) may claim to have captured Kilinochchi, but they faced heavy resistance. Was there anybody in town when they entered? There was no LTTE casualty. All they captured was land.
Second, now that they are confined in a small area with all resources at their disposal, they can hit back harder,” the MP added.
Experts agreed that the army may have an upper hand militarily, but the Tamil-Sinhala conflict was an ethnic and political issue that cannot be resolved with guns. In an email response to HT’s queries, Rajan Hoole of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), a respected and low-profile rights group, said, “Even if the LTTE goes down after fighting, it would live on as a powerful legend. As the civilians are confined to a smaller area, there is no gainsaying that civilian casualties would rise to several hundreds as they have no space to move.”
Social scientist Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, in agreement with UTHR (J), recalled the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 which talked about regional devolution of powers and merging the north and east of Sri Lanka where the Tamils were in majority. “Some degree of regional autonomy, self-rule and recognition as a community with political self-worth is required,” he said.
The LTTE, of course, had distanced itself from the accord. In a recent article on the pro-LTTE website, TamilNet, a columnist protested the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which dealt with devolution. “A fundamental, conceptual conspiracy in the 13th amendment was that it provided devolution for eight provincial councils when the question was between two ethnicities. Thus the amendment was designed to nullify the importance of regional identity by equating those who wanted it and those who never asked for it,” the article said. As MP Pathmanathan put it: “Tamil rule for the Tamil people.”
But the recent military reverses beg the question: what next for the LTTE? Diplomatic sources said the current military situation would possibly force the LTTE to bide time to fight another day. They may also — even temporarily — withdraw from Lanka.
The pattern of warfare in the last 18 months, show the LTTE was not in the fight to challenge the army or to regain lost territory. Theirs was a battle of delay and denial. They seem to have organised the civilian withdrawal from September when the government ordered the UN and other international NGOs to leave the conflict zones. Rebel cadres began leaving their posts in Kilinochchi from December 20. By the 27th, the town was empty. The army took three days to enter it.
So where do the rebels go from Mullaitivu? What are their choices? The Tamil Nadu and Kerala coasts could be perfect getaways. So could the 1,000-odd uninhabited islands in the Maldives. Recently, eight LTTE boats were detected off the Tamil Nadu coast, which has around 400 legal landing points. As UTHR (J) said: “One of the short-term effects of Kilinochchi is the likelihood of the strengthening of Sinhalese fascism. This would also provide a fresh impetus to discredited Tamil fascism and both these would be jostling on India’s doorstep”. So what we are nearer to is not a political settlement but anarchy, with unpredictable consequences on both sides of the Palk Strait.
Militarily, the LTTE maybe at its weakest in decades. But Tamil nationalism may yet revive it.