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Defeating terrorists

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, Colombo.

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 Government’s budget.

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 solution.

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 political fix.

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 terrorism continued.

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 principle.

Then the Tigers nixed their own deal, betting they could do better with violence after all. They spent the next four years violating the ceasefire.

Repeated negotiations made a settlement harder to achieve. The Tigers gladly murdered moderate Tamil leaders open to genuine negotiations with Colombo.

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 politicians.

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 financing.

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 changes.

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.


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