This week, the Sri Lankan Army said it had captured the last piece of
the northern Jaffna Peninsula, one of the few remaining strongholds of
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist organization that has
waged a 26-year civil war that’s claimed tens of thousands of lives,
including those of a Sri Lankan President and an Indian Prime Minister.
That’s a huge turnaround from only three years ago, when the Tigers
effectively controlled the bulk of the Northern and Eastern Provinces
and were perpetrating suicide bombings in the country’s capital,
Credit goes to the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has
made eliminating the Tigers a priority and invested resources to make it
happen. Military spending has surged to $1.7 billion for fiscal year
2009, roughly five per cent of GDP and nearly 20 per cent of the
The expanded Sri Lankan Army is now equipped to employ sophisticated
counterinsurgency strategies such as a multi-front attack and quick
raids behind Tiger lines. In 2007, the Army won its first significant
victory by pacifying the Tamil-Muslim-majority Eastern Province,
historically a Tiger stronghold.
Local and provincial elections were held there last year. The
military offensive will now turn to Mullaitivu, the last district
controlled by the Tigers in the Northern Province.
This string of victories is a shock to those who thought this
conflict, which has political origins, could have only a political
The violence started in 1983, ostensibly over Tamil grievances with a
Sinhalese-majority government that made Sinhala the country’s official
language and doled out economic favours to the Sinhalese, who are
Buddhist, including preferences for government jobs and schooling.
Devolution of power to the provinces has long been floated as the best
But the Tigers always had other ideas. To wit: They wanted the Tamil
homeland to be an independent State with the Tigers at its head. Like
other terrorist outfits, the Tigers never accepted the legitimacy of any
other group to speak on behalf of their supposed constituents. They were
unwilling to accept any negotiated settlement that wouldn’t entrench
their own power.
That’s why earlier efforts to negotiate away Sri Lanka’s terror
problem failed. In 1987, then-President Junius Jayewardene offered the
Tamils a homeland in the north and east that would have given them wide
powers, although not a separate State.
In the 1990s, another President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, offered
another devolution plan. The Tigers refused both offers and the
In 2002, Norway orchestrated a Peace Process that resulted in a
ceasefire. This time, the Tigers themselves concocted a proposal for a
form of regional autonomy in Tamil areas, and the government agreed in
Then the Tigers nixed their own deal, betting they could do better
with violence after all. They spent the next four years violating the
Repeated negotiations made a settlement harder to achieve. The Tigers
gladly murdered moderate Tamil leaders open to genuine negotiations with
The European Union dithered on declaring the Tigers a terrorist group
for the sake of encouraging the peace process, hindering efforts to cut
off funding and allowing the killing to continue.
Meanwhile, occasional efforts to subdue the Tigers by force failed
through lack of political will or because of outside interference. In
1987, Mr. Jayewardene gained ground in the north, only to be undermined
by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who airlifted food to the
militants to curry favour with his country’s own Tamil population.
Then the Indians changed tack, and an Indian peacekeeping force
managed to quell the Tiger insurgency for a time between 1987 and 1989.
But that operation was derided as a “quagmire” by some Indian
The force was withdrawn prematurely in 1990. Another Sri Lankan
military effort, begun in 1995, collapsed in 2000 due to insufficient
troop numbers and political meddling in military decision-making.
Mr. Rajapaksa appears to have learned from all this, which is why he
has insisted on military victory before implementing a political
solution. It helps that India has stayed out this time around and other
countries including the EU are now tracking and thwarting Tiger
Peace still will not be easy or, despite recent good news, immediate.
The Tigers may still be able to carry out some terror attacks, though
they no longer pose a wide-scale threat. And Colombo faces questions
about its commitment to a permanent political settlement.
It has taken some steps, such as a 1987 constitutional amendment
again making Tamil an official language, and in 2006 it convened an
all-party conference to recommend further pro-devolution constitutional
It is dragging its feet on implementing other constitutional measures
that would pave the way for devolution. But a political settlement is
something to discuss after the Tigers have been subdued.
We recount this history at length to make a simple point: Colombo’s
military strategy against Tamil terrorists has worked. Negotiations
haven’t. That’s an important reminder as Israel faces its own terrorism
problem and as the U.S. works to foster stability and political progress
in Iraq. Take note, Barack Obama.