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Tamil Tigers' Defeat Holds Lessons for Pakistan

Pakistan Link, Commentary, Syed Arif Hussaini Posted: Jun 08, 2009

The 26-year-old war the Tamil separatists had been fighting for a sovereign homeland within Sri Lanka ended on May 17/09 with their defeat and surrender. Calling themselves the Liberation Tamil Tigers Elam (LTTE), they had often resorted to terrorism to project and promote their cause. They are even credited with being the innovators of suicide bombings. Their surrender even after such a lengthy war, interspersed with two peace deals like the Swat ceasefire, portends the shape of things to come for the Taliban of Pakistan and the bloodbaths the civilian population of that country will have to go through till the purveyors of terror are eliminated.

The Tamil Tigers surrender also disproves the commonly held myth that a traditional army cannot win a war against guerrilla bands. The myth probably spread after the Vietnam War. The deciding factor is perhaps the force of logic and of truth in the stand of the winning side.

The LTTE was once seen as the worlds most efficient guerrilla outfit, controlling a third of Sri Lankas territory, an overseas fund-rising network, and a lucrative shipping business.

When I arrived in Sri Lanka towards the end of 1972 to take up my assignment with the Colombo Plan, I was impressed as much with the natural beauty of the island as with the peace and harmony among the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Burgher communities inhabiting the country. There was no ethnic, communal or religious strife. In several places, I noticed a Buddhist temple, a church, a mosque, and a Hindu temple in the vicinity of each other. A vast majority spoke English; even beggars asked for alms in that language. Generally the islanders dressed alike, enjoyed the same dishes and spoke to each other in a highly polite manner. Yet, I couldnt avoid noticing that the Tamil-speaking community imported into the island by the British to work on their tea, coffee, coconut, and rubber estates as indentured labor had remained at the bottom rung of the social ladder for so long that they had reconciled to their station in life. My driver used to address me as Master. Educated Tamils were hardworking and excelled in various professions, while the well-to-do Buddhists owned vast lands producing cash crops. Disgruntlement, if any, must have been simmering below the surface.

While the Hindu Tamils gradually developed a feeling of discrimination, the majority Singalese Buddhists had been resenting what they saw as favoritism in government jobs for the Tamils by the British.

Only a year after Sri Lanka gained full independence in 1948, Indian Tamil plantation workers were disenfranchised and many were even deprived of citizenship. In 1956 Singalese was made the sole official language, in place of English, placing the Tamils at a great disadvantage. In 1972, the countrys official name was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka and Buddhism was declared the primary religion, antagonizing further the Tamil minority. They formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (independent state) in 1976 and won all seats in the Tamil areas of North and East. Anti-Tamil riots ensued a year later claiming 100 lives.

Communal tension became pronounced in 1983 when the Tamil Tigers ambushed and killed 13 Singalese soldiers. Anti-Tamil riots then broke out taking several hundred lives. The Tamils called this the First Elam (independence) War. Peace talks continued and accords were signed conceding some kind of self-rule to Tamil areas and Indian troops were accepted for peace-keeping in 1987. Three years later these forces returned to India as a large sector of the Singalese community saw it as an infringement of their independence.

Soon after the Indian troops left the country, violence escalated between Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan army. The Tamils expelled thousands of Muslims from their territories as they stood with the Singalese for one united country.

Then in 1991 came the world jarring assassination of Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, by a LTTE suicide bomber. Violence became the chief weapon of the Tamil Tigers. They assassinated President Premadasa in a bomb attack, wounded his successor, Kumratunga, bombed the holiest Buddhist site, and destroyed in a suicide attack half of the Sri Lankan Airline fleet.

Government and Tamil Tigers subsequently signed a Norwegian-mediated ceasefire. Marred by mutual suspicions, this was but a tenuous deal. Sporadic violence continued. Colombo was the scene of suicide bomb blasts. The Foreign Minister of the country was killed by a suspected Tiger assassin in August 2005. In the elections, held three months later, Mahinda Rajapaksi, won the Presidential elections.

The Tamil Tigers decided to boycott the elections in the areas controlled by them. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister at the time, won the Presidential election on his partisan mandate. He started negotiations with the Tamils from a position of strength. Peace talks held in Geneva in October, 2006 failed. Police started expulsion of Tamils from Colombo citing security concerns. A court order put an end to the expulsions. The rift kept expanding and culminated into a shooting war between the army and the Tamil Tigers. The latter lost their naval base as well as their administrative center in the north of the island.

In desperation, the Tamil guerrillas resorted to indiscriminate suicide bombings inviting further wrath of the civilian population. In international councils, concerns were expressed for the thousands of civilians trapped in the battle zone.

The government operation against the Tamil fighters was well planned and meticulously executed with the result that the Tigers, who had emerged as the worlds most efficient and invincible guerrilla outfit, were forced to retreat to an area of not more than two square miles. They had no choice but to surrender which they did. Thus ended one of the worlds bloodiest conflicts.

A string of miscalculations, strategic follies and miscues led to the downfall of the Tamil Tigers. It started with the biggest blunder. In 1991, a Tamil suicide bomber, an elderly woman, approached Rajiv Gandhi, the popular Indian Prime Minister on a visit to South India, and blew herself up killing the Prime Minister too. The Tamil Tigers thus forfeited all hope of Indian support to their cause.

In November 2005 their leader, Parbhakaran, ordered an election boycott by the Tamil community. Mahinda Rajapksa who was committed to the use of force for eliminating the Tamil Tigers, easily won over the moderate, Rana Wickermasingha, who advocated a negotiated settlement of the conflict.

The groups frequent indulgence in suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism, their rigid stand against a negotiated settlement and their disdain for several ceasefires mediated by outside powers, cost them whatever sympathy they might have had in the international community. Their isolation kept growing with each passing day. Their defeat became inevitable.

Yet, their claim of dignity and equal opportunity for the Tamil community is not without logic. The majority Singalese community will have to concede this and build a political system in which all five communities have their rights protected and resume living once more a dignified life on the island endowed with enormous natural beauty and resources. Sri Lanka has all the ingredients that make for a progressive and prosperous state.

Pakistan s security services, confronting currently an insurgency in Swat and adjoining areas, might study closely the tactics used by their Sri Lankan counterparts in uprooting the Tamil guerrillas. There are many similarities in the two situations. Fortunately, the Taliban have not tied their movement to narrow nationalism. It is, nevertheless, a battle for the minds of the people of the area. You cannot rely totally on the barrel of the gun for victory. The leadership of ANP and of federal political parties will have to part with their current fecklessness and highlight incessantly the bed rock of secular ideology on which the country stands.

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