The Sri Lankan government can’t win by targeting Tamils
The Rajapakse brothers, the dominant faction within the Sri Lankan government, have been pretty aggressive lately—both in talk and in action. Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the unelected defence secretary and a brother of President Mahinda Rajapakse, launched a famous tirade that won him few admirers outside Sri Lanka’s Sinhala right-wing. Responding to recent moves by the West—specifically Britain—to take the Sri Lankan government to task for human rights violations, Gotabhaya breathed fire: he condemned their bullying, alleged that they were not giving any (aid), and claimed that SAARC and Asian countries were on his side. And on another day, he told the New York Times that he had instructed the Sri Lankan army to kill Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE chief, and eradicate that organisation. It would take, he declared, two-three years. In a conflict that has remained more-or-less in a bloody stalemate for decades now, such utterances should make one worry whether the man actually believes his own bluster.
His actions suggest that he does: whether or not the Sri Lankan army is any closer to winning the war against the LTTE, the Rajapakse government has opened up a new front: against the civilian Tamil population. While international attention has focused on the eviction of several hundred Tamils from Colombo lodging houses, there are reports that it is preventing—by designating a ‘special economic zone—internally displaced Tamils from returning to their homes in the North East. The actions of the Rajapakse faction do not mean that Sri Lankan institutions and civil society have been silent at these roughshod policies. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court has reversed the evictions, the prime minister has apologised and the leader of the opposition has hauled the government over coals. Yet, given the dominance of the Rajapakse faction—the three brothers control 70% of the government’s budget—these forces have been too weak to prevent the impression that the Sri Lankan government makes no distinction between Tamil people and Tamil Tiger terrorists. As Col Hariharan writes, “curiously both the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE appear to be arrayed on the same side—against human rights.”
So why are the Rajapakses so confidently aggressive? One explanation is that they believe that the deals they have struck with China provide them both with sufficient military strength to take on the Tamil Tigers on the ground, and to resist Indian and Western pressure over their treatment of the Tamils. India—especially under the UPA government—has stalled on providing greater military support to the Sri Lankan government. This has caused it to both lose influence in Colombo and made the Rajapakse government’s overtures to China and the United States appear more ‘legimate’. Unless India changes its approach, the Rajapakses may have gotten one part of their calculations right—Chinese arms and American silence could give them a upper hand militarily. But what they have already started getting wrong is this: even the perception that it is wilfully targeting its Tamil population will have deep domestic repercussions, not least by playing into the LTTE’s hands. That’s not all. Even if Colombo lacks the discrimination to distinguish between civilians and terrorists, New Delhi does not. The brothers Rajapakse would do well to remember the events that led up to Operation Poomalai.
Another explanation is that they might have calculated that they have nothing to lose by adopting an aggressive policy. It plays well to certain sections of the electorate. It might even change the military balance in its favour in some theatres, although Gotabhaya’s three year target to eradicate the LTTE will certainly be missed. And India’s discomfiture at violence against Tamils (and a possible refugees crisis) could be used against it. The grand bargain—the Sri Lankan government would stop targeting Tamil civilians only if the Indian government supported it against the LTTE.
In any event, just like the LTTE’s acquisition of air attack capacity, the Rajapakse offensive too suggests that there is an urgent need for India to revitalise its policy thinking on Sri Lanka. It’s inactivity has achieved nothing: neither peace nor stability, neither a federal solution nor the well-being of the ethnic Tamils.