The Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in May 2009 only marked the end of the conventional phase of Asia’s longest running armed conflict. The biggest postwar challenge has been to provide a negotiated settlement for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. But before the island nation can move toward a future of reconciliation, it must face the truth of its dark past.
By Anuj Chopra
Late last month, in an elaborate ceremony at his high-security Temple Trees residence in Colombo, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse addressed hundreds of surrendered Tamil Tiger rebels who had just completed a two-year rehabilitation program.
Amid applause, Rajapakse urged the former rebels – which included women and teenage boys who underwent vocational training in carpentry, masonry and plumbing – to “not dwell on the bitter past but look to a prosperous future.”
“You go out as free men and women,” he said, before they were reunited with their families. “There will be anti-social elements who will prey on you, but I hope you will work for peace and ethnic harmony in this nation of ours.”
They were among a final batch of 12,000 rebels who had surrendered to the Sri Lankan army in May 2009 at the end of a bloody, three-decade separatist war.
The fanatically cultist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers – who fought for a separate homeland for the pear-shaped island’s Tamil minority – were boxed into a tiny sliver of land on its eastern coast in the final phase of the war before being vanquished.
The demise of the LTTE – who pioneered the use of suicide vests even before Al-Qaeda – marked the end of Asia’s longest-running armed conflict which claimed more than 100,000 lives. The war also served as a test case for successfully obliterating a fierce armed separatist group through conventional warfare – a feat that no other government has managed to replicate in the modern age.
The Tamil Tigers were one of the world’s most brutal insurgent groups. They had a well-trained and disciplined militia cadre, a full-fledged naval wing and an air force wing comprised of rudimentary light aircraft. They used children as fighters, used woman as suicide bombers to assassinate political heads and carried out daring raids on government installations.
But Rajapakse’s government made the war its priority after the breakdown of the peace process with the rebels in 2006. It augmented the island’s military budget to $1.7 billion for the 2009 fiscal year, nearly five percent of GDP. Mahinda’s brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, led the war effort as he intensified recruitment of soldiers across the island, and even re-recruited war deserters by granting them amnesty pardons if they returned to the frontlines.
However, the 2009 victory only marked the end of the conventional phase of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka – a land of immense ethnic strife between the island’s majority Sinhalese community and the minority Tamils. Post war, the biggest challenge confronting the island is to provide a negotiated settlement for Sri Lanka’s Tamils, who make up only 18 percent of the population.
However, before the island can move toward national reconciliation, it has to deal with the ghosts of the past. Sri Lanka is grappling with mounting international pressure over charges of war crimes committed in the final days of the 2009 offensive. Human rights groups say that up to 40,000 civilians were killed by both sides in the final five months of fighting alone.
A United Nations report released in April accused the Sri Lankan military of a majority of the killings. The report describes the “systematic shelling” of hospitals and Red Cross aid ships by the Sri Lankan airforce.
The army allegedly ordered the execution of most of the captured senior Tiger leadership as they surrendered. Prisoners were allegedly shot in the head and women were raped – and trophy videos of the torture and killings began to leak soon after the victory.
The war atrocities were committed in the most discreet way, it claimed, as foreign journalists and humanitarian workers were deliberately barred from the warzone.
A documentary by Britain’s Channel Four in June reiterated UN claims, with footage of prisoner executions and the scarred bodies of sexually assaulted LTTE fighters. It also claimed that the government bombarded self-declared “No-Fire Zones” with heavy artillery, and targeted columns of retreating civilians.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged the Sri Lankan government to probe the war crimes. But the island has defiantly resisted such calls for war crimes investigation after insisting that no civilians were targeted by its troops.
The government set up its own inquiry panel – the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) – to review the final stages of the offensive, insisting that the offensive was aimed at a “humanitarian rescue” of 330,000 Tamil civilians who were used as human shields by the rebel commanders. Amnesty International has slammed the panel as “flawed at every level – in mandate, composition, and practice” in a report released in September and titled “When will they get justice?”
But the government has dismissed the international outcry as “interference” – and has remained steadfastly defiant.
Last month, when Major General Shavendra Silva, a battle-hardened army commander – who led the army’s 58th Division, which played a prominent role in the 2009 offensive – was served a summons by a New York court over war crimes charges, he rejected it as “another sinister attempt to tarnish the hard-won victory,” adding, “I will not let any person or organization downgrade the defeat of terrorism in Sri Lanka”.
The Sri Lankan general, who is serving as a UN diplomat in New York, evaded the summons, saying he was entitled to diplomatic immunity. The summons was issued after a civil case was filed on behalf of two Tamils whose relatives were killed in the final days of the war.
President Mahinda Rajapakse has also rejected the international calls for inquiry as “malicious propaganda”.
“My country has reason for concern with approaches tainted by an unacceptable selectivity, which we have brought to the notice of the organizations in question in recent weeks,” he told a UN summit last month. “After three decades of pain and anguish, today Sri Lankans of all ethnicities living in all parts of Sri Lanka are free from LTTE terror and no longer live in a state of fear.”
Many observers say that Sri Lanka, a tiny nation roughly the size of Ireland, can afford to remain defiant amid support from several countries.
During the war, China provided the island cash, arms and diplomatic cover in the UN Security Council. Iran, Burma and Libya followed up with their own packages of support.
But the most loyal friend has been India – a self-proclaimed regional hegemon in South Asia. The Indian government has long supplied arms and ammunitions to the Sri Lankan army, though it officially denies providing any such logistical help to Colombo.
India has refrained from openly meddling in the Sri Lankan war since it had its fingers badly burned in the early 1990s when a peacekeeping force was routed by the LTTE. India was also hamstrung by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991.
There are also concerns that the defunct LTTE could regroup and use the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu as a launching pad to wage a low-level insurgency in Sri Lanka, similar to the way the Taliban uses Pakistan.
In the past, Tamil Nadu’s nationalist groups have been accused of providing logistical military and financial support to the LTTE.
India has also been conducting joint military exercises with Sri Lanka.
A nation that is plagued by myriad homegrown insurgencies, India often cites the island as a model of counterinsurgency.
“The general perception in the [Indian] government is that if Sri Lanka, a tiny island, can eradicate a [separatist group], why can’t we?” an Indian intelligence officer told ISN Security Watch in 2009.
But the real test is whether Sri Lanka’s lauded model of counterinsurgency – which does not weigh in the true cost to civilian life – can be a recipe for long-term peace.
Anuj Chopra is an independent journalist currently based in Hong Kong. He has also reported from India, Afghanistan, Burma, Iran, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. His reporting has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Economist, US News & World Report, San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor, among many other publications. He was awarded the 2005 CNN Young Journalist Award for his reporting in the print category.
This article was published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)