Learning from the ltte

When British foreign secretary David Miliband arrived in Colombo on April 29 to press for a humanitarian halt in Sri Lanka's military offensive to run over the last corral of LTTE leadership, the response was interesting. Miliband gave a long explanation, distinguishing his government's concern for civilian population and the right of Sri Lankan troops to rout Tigers. But Colombo was in no mood to listen to even a remote suggestion for a halt. Within hours, huge derogatory posters with Miliband's picture, "Wanted for aiding and abetting terrorism" were put up across Colombo. The Sri Lankan defence minister Nandasena Gotabhaya Rajapakse — the president's younger brother — even asked the US and UK to "mind their own business". The United Nations was also accused of double standards and pro-terrorist leanings. Outside the British embassy, a group of pro-government monks sat on a protest, asking Britain whether they would pressure the US to send humanitarian aid to Osama Bin Laden.

Colombo had successfully appropriated the "war on terror" discourse and used it effectively to go for a massive military offensive against the LTTE that was literally ruling 15,000 square kilometers in the north and east of the island. Though the Tigers had nothing similar with Al Qaeda or other Islamic groups, Colombo deliberately fit its decades-long ethnic problem in the larger discourse of the war on terror.

Ignoring every call for a ceasefire, the Rajapakse regime provided its armed forces with unflinching political support to take the war to its logical conclusion. And when the elite regiment of the Sri Lankan army's 53 division finally made the final push, they not only eliminated the entire top brass of the LTTE, but also claimed to have produced the bullet-ridden body of its chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. This final battle has put the curtains on the LTTE, who effectively occupied the centrestage of the ethnic dispute between Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese population and its Tamil minority.

But the violent rout of one of the world's most powerful terror group, which had militarily defeated Sri Lanka's army in three earlier wars, forcing Colombo to join a peace process brokered by Norway came with a bigger lesson for insurgencies fighting for a political cause. AK-47s cannot defeat a state and when people and communities with genuine political grievances take up arms, it only provides the state with an easy way out to enforce a military solution. 9/11 has completely blurred the line dividing terrorism and armed struggle for political rights and now any violent movement — no matter how genuine and righteous its cause may be — will not get any sympathy from the international community.

The rise and fall of theTigers, in fact, is a lesson for insurgent groups across the world. From a gang of 40 boys in 1975, the group rose to achieve a military prowess unknown for any insurgent group in the world.  The discipline and determination of its cadre to lay down their lives for the Eelam cause was unprecedented. After 25 years of single-minded devotion and readiness to kill and die for theTamil homeland, Tiger leader Prabhakaran seemed invincible. But the Tigers failed to understand that war alone is never enough. And at the height of their military success when they forced Colombo to enter into a peace process, Prabhakaran and his group didn't understand the necessity of the transition from terror tactics to pure politics. History had given the Tigers a rare chance even in a post-9/11 world to sit at a negotiating table and ensure that the Tamil minority gets genuine political and constitutional rights in Sri Lanka. But like several other insurgencies, the Tigers too were blinded by their military success and a false sense of invincibility. Today, the Tamil minority, in whose name the Tigers killed and died, are at the mercy of a ruling alliance in Colombo which is dominated by a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist discourse. In the process of the Tigers' humiliating defeat, they took away any semblance of credibility from the moderate political forces from the Sinhalese majority too. The military success of Rajapakasha regime has effectively eclipsed Ranil Wickramasinghe and other political parties who had supported a historic truce with Tigers in 2002.

Like the Tigers, the Kashmir insurgency also had several opportunities to understand the world's changing political realities, halt violence and take a moral high ground on a negotiating table. But each time, the opportunity provided by a military success was lost with a complete underestimation of the power of the state.

Then there is another worrying aspect of the Tigers' rout. This group had consistently silenced every voice of dissent among its own community with the aim of becoming the sole representatives of Tamil aspirations. And after their rout, there is hardly any other voice to represent the besieged and battered Tamils in Sri Lanka. In fact, Colombo's propaganda machinery has become so effective that even non-violent representatives of Tamil grievances are dubbed Tiger proxies and thus terrorists.

A look at the fate of the Tigers has a script that fits almost every insurgency that has been recently crushed. The struggle of Chechen people in the caucus is a perfect example. They were able to militarily oust Russia from Chechnya in August 1996 but failed to end the war. Soon they provided Moscow with a perfect alibi for military invasion when they incited a rebellion in neighbouring Dagestan. Then, 9/11 changed the discourse for good. The traditional strategy of armed struggles to seek support on the issue of human rights violations by the state and the fear of a humanitarian crisis no longer generates support in the West, especially the US, which was blamed for similar high-handedness in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The final lesson is about the support from neighbouring countries to armed struggles. The Sri Lankan Tamils understood in the most brutal manner that no nation in the world supports a separatist struggle unless it has strategic vested interests. It is no secret that Tigers were propped up by New Delhi to achieve a long term strategic goal inside the island nation. Soon, however, the ambitions of the group and its leader Prabhakaran clashed with New Delhi's interests, turning the Tigers against the very hands that fed it. The disastrous consequences of this support are still resonating in Sri Lanka and India where its flames consumed a former prime minister. The story is, in fact, repeating itself in Pakistan today where the army is battling Taliban along its western border.

States battling an insurgency within its borders also need to understand that military success alone cannot help bring peace. Colombo has a golden opportunity today to reach out to its Tamil minority, devolve and provide constitutional guarantees to address their genuine grievances. If that does not happen, it is only a matter of time before another Prabhakaran is born in the besieged north.

 

muzamil.jaleel.expressindia.com

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