Winning: Slow Victory in Sri Lanka

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October 5, 2007: The Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon, just south of India) civil war is staggering to a finish. After 25 years, and over 70,000 dead, the rebels are fading. The cause of the war was ethnic rivalry. Hindu Tamils are a minority (18 percent of the 18 million people on the island) and were originally brought in by the British as agricultural workers. There were always some Tamils on Sri Lanka, for the Indian province of Tamil Nadu is just across the 29 kilometer wide straits. But the large number of agricultural workers settled in the north and along the coasts, where the plantations were. The Tamils formed all Tamil communities and maintained their ethnic identity.

The majority of Tamils have long felt they were discriminated against by the majority Sri Lankans (Sinhalese, who are Buddhist). Not surprisingly, the native Sri Lankans took a dim view of all these foreigners the British had imported. There were tensions. In 1972 that anger began to get organized when Velupillai Prabhakaran formed the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) movement. In 1976 the, TNT renamed itself the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This was more than a name change, for the TNT had become, as the LTTE, a very disciplined and fanatical terrorist organization. The LTTE began using suicide bombers about the same time Islamic terrorists did, and more effectively. But the war in Sri Lanka never made the news much in the West.

The war had its ups and downs, and even an Indian intervention, with peacekeepers, in the late 1980s. Nothing worked. The LTTE wanted to partition the island, and by the late 1990s, had effectively done that. The LTTE controlled the northern tip of the island, and most of the eastern coast. In response, Sri Lanka recruited more troops, bought more weapons, and kept fighting. In 2002, there was a ceasefire, and a serious effort to negotiate a peace deal. Talks dragged on for three years. Two years ago, the violence resumed, triggered by growing refusal, by the Sinhalese majority, to even consider partition, and a split inside the LTTE. One faction of the rebels wanted to settle for more autonomy, but the hard core insisted on partition, or a fight to the death. But too many Tamils were tired of fighting. The renewed fighting has the government helping the rebels within the LTTE, causing the LTTE to lose control of the east coast. In the last three years, the LTTE has lost 60 percent of its territory, and about half of its best fighters. The government now has the initiative, and is picking apart the remaining LTTE force.

The violence could go on for a few more years, since the government does not want to get a lot of its soldiers killed in order to stamp out the LTTE. Moreover, the rebels still have an edge when it comes to fanaticism. Everyone remembers battles in the 1990s, where outnumbered, but more determined, LTTE fighters routed the army time and again. Until the LTTE organization on the island is taken apart, the Sinhalese majority cannot rest. But the current situation is the best the government has been in since the early 1980s.

 


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