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.
Related Links: Lanka Libertarian on moral standards and hypocrisy; and recent statements and reports on the government’s approach, at Subcontinent South.
2 thoughts on “The offensive Rajapakse”
Looking back, one now witnesses the most hardline administation in Colombo. A survey a few months back revealed that 59% of the Sinhalese population favored a military solution. The Indian intervention in 1987 had dampened such extremism. However, the ineptness of the current Sonia administration has led to a resurgence of open racism in the Sri Lankan south.
The current administration demerged the North and the East. It placed the strategic district of Trincomalee under a military governor. A Rear Admiral serves as the Governor of both the North and the East. Vast tracts of land in Trincomalee have been declared off limits to the Tamil population. It attempted to deport those Tamils who happened to transit in Colombo. It has questioned the province as a unit of devolution much preferring to reintroduce the earlier district system.
In retrospect it now appears that the order to deport Tamil lodgers in Colombo and the decision to bar displaced Tamils from returning to south Trincomalee happened on the same day i.e. May 30. One succeeded while the other failed due to an international uproar.
All in all, the Tamil population is on the defensive with a ruthless majoritarian ethos unseen in the country since the mid-1980s. However, there is hope.
I was alarmed at the islandwide pogram against the Tamil minority in 1983. I assumed all was lost then. The Tamil insurgents rose in strength the very next year pretty much confining the Sri Lankan military into enclaves within the Jaffna peninsula. The Sri Lankan Government launched the Vadamarachchi offensive in 1987 that promised to do away with the LTTE once and for all. This precipitated an Indian intervention. The administration in Colombo then launched an offensive to retake Jaffna in December 1995 and succeeded in driving out the LTTE. The LTTE resurfaced two years later with devastating attacks on the naval base in Mullaitivu, the military base in Kilinochchi and vast tracks of land in the Vanni, each of which fell one by one.
The hardline Rajapakse administration has now pushed back the LTTE from the East declaring certain areas in Trincomalee as no-return zones for the indigenous Tamil population there. I foresee many of these displaced joining the LTTE ranks.
There can be no imposed solutions in a centuries old ethnic conflict. Liberal Indians need to learn from this when they deal with Kashmir. Defeat only fuels resolve.
For the first time, I have come around to the opinion that Sri Lanka would not remain united as we know it for much longer. I foresee possible international intervention that would witness a Kosovo type arrangement where the North would still be linked to Colombo de-jure but for all purposes would be on its own. And unless India acts now, it would be irrelevant to what happens on its southern flank.
There is speculation of a possible Hezbollah-LTTE link which you might want to research further.
Thanks for your comments.
While “separation” may appear attractive to those worst affected by the civil war, I believe that arriving at ethnic-national reconciliation, through common institutions, an legal framework that incents tolerance, and the elevation of the rights of the individual is the best way ahead for modern societies. This is because there will always be minorities…the Balkans being the classic case. Unless there was the hope of joining the EU, the ethnic wars in the Balkans would continue.
It is naive to believe that re-drawing political boundaries would make up for a lack of tolerance. I do hope right-thinking Sri Lankans would get out of thinking along ethnic battle lines: there are two hurdles to this—the LTTE and the Sinhala parochialists.
On another note: while I agree that feeling of defeat often engenders greater resolve, there is no comparison between the civil war in Sri Lanka and the proxy-war in Kashmir. There were no centuries old ethnic conflict there: on the contrary, there is a remarkable tradition of inter-religious tolerance. As a state, J&K has enjoyed political rights and freedoms that Prabhakaran would readily give his arm for. The ‘human rights abuses’ that the Indian troops are quite often accused of did not occur before the ‘proxy war’ started. J&K gets (and has been getting) more money per capita from the central government than any other state. Besides who are the refugees that have been driven out of their homes? Are they, as you suggest, fighting it out because “defeat fuels resolve”?
But we can draw some broad lessons: that cynical politics, whether it is based on exacerbating ethnic or religious divisions, leads to conflict. And such conflict will be recursive. The solution is to devise frameworks for co-existence: desirably grassroots driven, but externally imposed, if need be.
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