Srilankan Conflict

Conventional aspects of the Srilankan civil war is coming rapidly to an end. Srilankan armed forces have captured all the major towns which were previously under the control of LTTE. Only town remaining is Putthukudiiruppu(PTK) which is serving as military and administrative capital . LTTE is putting up a major resistance to protect PTK. Srilanka's army divisions have been attacked by LTTE using artillery, mortar and Trucks loaded with explosives. U.S& U.K and other western powers have urged both sides to ceasefire . These ceasefire calls have been rejected by Srilankan government. However unless Srilankan military makes a catastrophic blunder ,conventional war would come to an end soon. It is likely that LTTE will survive for a period of time in the jungle areas of Mullaitivu, Trincomalee , Batticaloa and Amparai districts. LTTE will be able wage a low intensity guerrilla warfare from their jungle bases. LTTE command structures in these areas are decentralised and will be able prosecute low intensity guerrilla given the environment.

Srilanka became an independent country in 1948. At the time of independence Srilanka had two major ethnic communities, majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. Muslims and Burghers (Dutch descendants) constituted other communities in Srilanka . Relationship between the two major communities was cordial. Unlike other British colonies such as India and Pakistan which under went massive convulsions during the independence Srilanka' transition was calm and peaceful. Majority Sinhalese community resided primarily in west, central and southern provinces and Tamils resided in North and East. Tamils also had two distinct groups i.e Srilanka Tamils and Indian Tamils. Srilankan Tamils were original inhabitants of Srilanka like Sinhalese. However Indian Tamils were brought by British to work in the tea plantations in the central province in the 19th century. British suppressed the last resistance to their rule in Srilanka by Sinhalese in the central province and established tea plantations on those areas. As Sinhalese refused to cooperate with British, British brought labor from South India to work in the plantations thus sowing seed to future conflict in Srilanka. At the time of independence Indian Tamils in plantations were classified as stateless. Subsequent agreements between India and Srilanka gave citizenship to sizable section of the Indian Tamils.

When Srilanka became independent in 1948 it had a powerful labor movement. Many of the leaders fought for the independence and were very popular. It is important to note that labor movement had very strong roots in both communities . One incident of note was the killing of Kandasamy an ethnic Tamil labor leader by British forces when British suppressed labor demonstration in Colombo. Labor movement commemorated his death every year and in the very spot where he was killed a pillar was erected in his memory. However after 1958 communal riots a statue of Buddha (majority of Sinhalese are Buddhists) was erected instead of the pillar in the same spot.

At the time of independence Srilankan economy was primarily dependent on tea exports.In 1948 Srilanka was a welfare state . Education was free from grade1 to the university. Health services were free. Transport services were subsidized. In addition every family was given free food rations. Srilanka was known as the Switzerland of Asia. However with the end of Korean war the price of tea started falling and government could not sustain the welfare state. Government cut the subsidies in 1952 and there was a major uprising by the labor movement. Prime minister fled the country and martial law was imposed to suppress the uprising.

When British left the country in 1948 they also left behind a serious landless problem in central province . Sinhalese who lost their lands to British tea plantations were landless in central province. Governments in Srilanka instead of nationalising the plantations owned by the elite started colonisation of Sinhalese landless peasants in Eastern province inhabited by Tamil and Muslim communities.This led to permanent animosity between three communities in eastern province.

After the labor uprising in 1952 Srilankan elite started injecting communal politics in Srilanka to weaken the labor movement. SInhala was introduced as a sole official language in 1956 thus depriving Tamils of job opportunities in the state sector. In reaction tamil politicians started a demand for federal state. This escalation of political conflict led to riots and destruction. From 1956 to 1970 the conflict was political in nature and occasionally violent in the form of riots. However in 1970 conflict took a different nature when Tamil militant movements were formed in response to the racially discriminatory university admission policy introduced by the government. Government justified the discriminatory policy stating that Tamil schools were well provided for during the British rule compared to Sinhalese schools. During the colonial days missionaries established schools in all the major cities in Srilanka irrespective of their racial composition. These schools educated both sinhalese and tamils. However there were also areas in both Tamil and Sinhalese parts of the country where there were no schools or schools with poor facilities. Both tamil and sinhalese students travelled long distances to attend shools with good facilities.As such it was blatant discrimination to state that tamils had better schools than sinhalese. Effect of the racial discrimination in the university admission was to drive capable tamil students who were deprived of university admission to form militant movements. LTTE was one of the militant movement and grow in strength with state oppression.

It is important to note that while Sinhalese and Tamil elites were battling out for turf they were very united in suppressing any threat to the capitalist system in Srilankan. In 1971 uprising by JVP which was a left movement was suppressed brutally in which more than twenty thousand Sinhalese youth were massacred. Their leaders were held in the North as the government thought it was safe. On the first day of the uprising Prime minister was taken to Trincomalee (tamil town) and guarded by Indian troops Northern and Eastern provinces were considered as havens of safety for the government. Tamil officers in the police force took leading part in the massacres along with Sinhalese officers.

LTTE started as a small band of youth led by Prabaharan. They assassinated pro government Tamil leaders, attacked police stations. Most of the leadership had also bases in Tamil Nadu in India where Indian government services provided covert support. LTTE activities grew after 1983 riots which were triggered when 13 srilankan soldiers were killed in a landmine explosion. President of Srilanka (JR Jayawardna) at the that time openly encouraged sinhalese mobs to attack tamils who were living outside North of the country. LTTE and other organisations were now provided open support by Indian government services. This has to be viewed in light of India's efforts to become a super power in Indian Ocean. India supported LTTE and other militant organisations primarily to become a player in Srilankan politics and project Indian economic interests . In 1987 India threatened direct military intervention and subsequently a peace pact was signed between Srilankan President JR Jayawardna and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi , granting Tamils autonomy in North and East under literally Indian protection. Indian troops were sent to Srilanka to keep "peace" in North east. Major concessions were made to India in Srilankan economy. This peace deal was totally unacceptable to majority Sinhalese who saw this as a loss of sovereignty.

However LTTE with the support of Tamil Diaspora also opposed the deal insisting on separate state. LTTE carried on with guerrilla war against Indian peacekeeping forces and after suffering massive casualties India withdrew it's forces from Srilanka. It is important to note that new Srilankan government which succeeded JR Jayawardna which came to power with the commitment to renege on the deal covertly supported LTTE with arms supplies.

LTTE and Srilankan military resumed their fighting after Indian forces left. Fighting continued in semi conventional form until Srilankan armed forces suffered major defeats in 2000 and a new ceasefire was signed in 2002 with the intervention of western countries. Ceasefire was between two conventional forces in SriLanka.

Some of the major reasons for defeats suffered by Srilankan forces are low morale and poor leadership. In addition they were viewed in Tamil areas as an occupying power. In east they were seen as protectors of Sinhala colonists against the tamil population. On the other side LTTE was seen by the Tamil population as their saviors and heroes. LTTE was highly disciplined and motivated . It also had strong leadership which led the cadres from front. LTTE has always lost it's senior commanders in battlefield. In addition many of their commanders were considered selfless , honest and noble , prepared to sacrifice for their cause.

However the ceasefire changed the equation. During the ceasefire period LTTE established a mini state with Kilinochi as it's capital. Foreign dignitaries trooped in to seek audience with it's leaders. Tamil Diaspora viewed the mini state as the core of a separate state called EELAM. LTTE established very close relationship western countries specifically Norway. LTTE leadership was carried away by the trappings of a separate state. In addition taxes were levied from travelers to north.As LTTE leadership started living a lifestyle away from cadres ,they became an elite on it's own. In addition internal divisions came into open between the northern cadres and eastern cadres. In addition there were powers struggles which took regional lines. Most important was the power struggle between LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman and senior most military commander Karuna. This led to the split of eastern cadres under the command of Karuna who became an ally of the Government. Loss of eastern cadres was significant as they formed the vanguard of LTTE's forces specifically Jayanthan regiment. Karuna knew all the infiltration routes used by LTTE in North and East. In addition ceasefire also led to the drying up of pool of recruits from major Tamil population centers such as Jaffna and Batticaloa.

At a political level LTTE failed to capitalise on the ceasefire to build a strong political organisation. It's negotiations with Srilankan government was a total disaster. Instead of talking directly to Srilankan government ILTTE insisted on talking via Norway. As such negotiations got nowhere.In addition LTTE placed total trust on Norway and other western countries to address to support LTTE. LTTE leadership also became overconfident of it's military strength.

In the meantime Srilankan armed forces viewed the whole ceasefire as a humiliation. Srilankan officers were told willy nilly by both LTTE and western envoys to arrange for helicopter trips to Kilinochi and back. With determination Srilankan armed forces were rebuilt. U.S after 9/11 started providing assistance to Srilankan military. China and Pakistan have been traditional allies of Srilanka and rearmed the government. In addition Srilankan forces underwent hearts & minds change improving their relationship with the local tamil population.

In the meantime international situation also changed in Government's favour. India could not tolerate a separate state at it's door step which could be precursor for separatist movements in India. Although India wanted to utilise the Tamil struggle for it's objectives in Srilanka it was totally against a separate state. India also wanted to punish LTTE for it's humiliating defeat in Srilanka and for the assassination of it's former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Western countries were more focused in the fight against terrorism.

When LTTE restarted the war in 2006 it was confident that it will capture entire north & east rapidly. However Srilankan forces were well prepared. India assisted Srilankan forces by destroying LTTE supply ships in mid sea. Srilankan forces were constantly supplied by Pakistan , China and other countries. With logistics destroyed and leadership becoming in effective it is not surprising that LTTE's suffered series of military defeats and has lost the conventional war.

What happens next?

Although the conventional war has come to an end Srilankan forces which number more than 200000 will be committed to a guerrilla war for some time. This will be a major drain on country's resources. LTTE leadership is no expected survive for longtime as they are not in a physical condition to fight a guerrilla.war. There is a possibility that they may leave the country and establish bases outside Srilanka. Second tier leaders may not be able to hold LTTE together. However as long as political conditions last LTTE will survive in one form or the other especially in east where colonisation and subsequent contest for the water resources will always provide conditions for Tamil militant movements. While LTTE has been losing the conventional war in the north it's guerrilla operations have increased in the Eastern province.

In the political arena India will reenter the picture as the protector of Tamil people. In a sense situation it will be a throw back to 1980s before the Indian intervention. A guerrilla movement fighting basically as a cannon folder for Indian interests. India will prefer an LTTE without Prabaharan and under it's control. Indian objectives will also have a broad support within Tamil Nadu and Tamil diaspora.In addition Western countries via UN or any other form will utilise the political conditions to continue to meddle in Srilanka.

Srilankan government can turn it's military victory into a political victory by offering autonomy to Northern and Eastern province and consolidate the state. This can be done without any outside pressure. Government must allow new political forces which are independent of it to grow in North and East. Putting stooges will further alienate the Tamil population. But given the historical political bankruptcy of the Srilankan elite, government will blunder on to lose all the advantages gained by the military victory. It will either succumb to or alienate India and western interests.

Succumbing to Indian and western pressures is the worst thing which can happen to Srilanka. This will permanently alienate Tamils and Sinhalese population as solution will be seen as something imposed from outside by Sinhalese at the behest of Tamils especially in Tamil Nadu and diaspora. If Srilanka does not succumb to outside pressure it will treated like Burma or Sudan.

Only solution for Srilankan conflict is negotiations between genuine representatives of Tamil people and popular Srilankan government leading to a form of regional autonomy for Tamils within the Srilankan context. Unfortunately for the Tamils they have only two leadership options currently. LTTE which is obscurantist in it's political approach and stooges who are working for Srilankan government. There is a need for a new tamil leadership which can be free of foreign influence and is genuinely popular among the tamils. This leadership should be able to work within the unitary state framework while fight for the maximum rights for the tamil people. It is important to realise that majority sinhalese will never accept an independent tamil state in Srilanka. It will only mean that sinhalese will continue to fight even if a tamil state is established. One can see what is happening in middle east to see the folly of two state solution. Solution to Srilankan crisis is not possible under the current economic and political framework where Srilankan elite (consist of both Sinhalese and Tamil) uses communal politics to sustain itself while millions of Sinhalese and Tamils undergo economic hardship and misery aggravated by the civil war.

To those who quote marxism to justify right of selfdetermination for the tamil people in Srilanka , I can quote Marx with respect to right of selfdetermination of Czeckslovaks who were under the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Marx opposed the self determination stating that it will only lead to amalgamation in to far more reactionary Tsarist Russia. He clearly stated that right of selfdetermination is not absolute. It will very much depend on whether progressive forces will benefit or not. In Srilanka only reactionary forces will benefit if a seperate tamil state was formed. By perpetuating a national question reactionary forces within both tamil and sinhalese communities will only crush progressive forces within both communities. Srilanka is not Israel which is a state of settlers with live high quality of life and oppresses millions of palestinians who are poor. There are millions of sinhalese living below poverty line and are oppressed as much as the tamil people by the state. Srilankans work in Middleeast under most dire conditions. Currently these millions are taken for a ride by the ruling elite by making the national question the primary contradiction in the country. Once the conventional war is over real primary contradiction will come to fore. i.e the oppression of the masses by the ruling elite. That is why it is important Srilankan people should be left alone to address their own issues rather than being intervened by neighbours and foreign powers under various pretexts.

What is to be done?

It is important at this point to understand what majority of the Sinhalese and Tamils in Srilanka want. This war has taken a heavy toll and all the Srilankan community wants is peace. This is also applicable to majority of the Tamil population in Srilanka.

Tamil Diaspora should listen to the people in Jaffna and Batticaloa rather than be carried over by all the emotional statements emanating from various sectors. It is very important to avoid the same situation as before 1987 when LTTE conventional resistance collapsed and conditions were created for Indian intervention. All the activities based on emotional reaction will only be used to India to intervene. India is waiting for LTTE to collapse militarity and to intervene as protectors of Srilankan tamils. In this situation Major western powers will support India. An Indian intervention ostensibily to protect tamils will only lead to permanent damage in the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils.

I would like to relate a single story to show the relationship between ordinary Tamils and Sinhalese. In 1977 after the general elections communal riots broke out in Mutur area in Trincomalee district. Trincomalee district composed of all the population groups. Many Tamils and Sinhalese were killed in the riots by racist mobs on both sides. Amongst the carnage one family lived in Kiliveddy a Tamil village in Mutur district. This is a family where the son of the village chief (Chairman) Thavakumar (a Tamil) who was married to a Sinhalese lady from neighbouring sinhalese village.. This family also had a child . Family lived together in Kiliveddy throughout the riots. Thavakumar's wife used to cook food for the Tamil refugees from the neighbouring tamil villages. Her own brother was killed by a Tamil mob. In spite of that she continued to feed the Tamil refugees. How this family survived in spite of all the suspicion and hatred around them is an example of how Sinhalese and Tamils can live together in Srilanka harmoniously.

Jan 2009