Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sri Lanka's Opportunity of a Generation: A Rare Advent of Peace

Part 1 of a 5-part article about what the Sri Lankan government should do to rebuild its country after nearly 30 years of civil war, and why the rest of the world has a stake in Sri Lanka's success.

Five years before Hezbollah, ten years before Al Qaeda and Hamas, and 15 years before the Taliban, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was founded in the northern tip of Sri Lanka in 1976.

Although never garnering the same level of international publicity as the various Islamic extremist groups, the LTTE was arguably one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world during its nearly 30-year-long conflict with the Sri Lankan government. Indeed, the LTTE pioneered tactics that have since been adopted by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, such as equipping suicide bombers with concealed vests filled with explosives (now a favorite of the Taliban and Al Qaeda) and using speedboats full of explosives for suicide attacks against naval targets (the technique that Al Qaeda used to bomb the U.S.S. Cole in 2000)(1).

The LTTE began as one of many militias fighting for Tamil independence from the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lanka. Over the course of the next three decades, the LTTE forcibly eliminated or absorbed all of the other Tamil separatist groups and consolidated its hold over the Tamil areas of the island, all the while waging an all-out civil war against the Sri Lankan government(2). Throughout the war, the LTTE employed ever more brutal tactics to fight against Sri Lankan forces and to preserve its power; these included the use of child soldiers, ethnic cleansing of Sinhalese and Muslim communities, killing of civilians (including Tamils), assassinations, and various forms of extortion and smuggling to raise funds(3).

To contemporary observers, it must have seemed like the conflict would never end. The civil war had all too many disturbing parallels with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ongoing land dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the endless struggles plaguing many countries in Africa. Most of these conflicts are rooted in ethnic tensions, have involved state and non-state actors that manipulate and distort such sentiments – some of which, like the LTTE, have an active interest in prolonging the conflict – and have alternated between periods of all-out war and periods of ceasefire and regrouping. This vicious cycle, so prevalent in today’s “modern” world, seemed doomed to permanently engulf Sri Lanka.

Then, fourteen months ago, the unthinkable happened: the LTTE was completely defeated and the 30-year-long civil war came to an end. In a remarkable, albeit ruthless three-year push, the Sri Lankan military overran the LTTE-controlled eastern coast(4) and then turned north, captured Kilinochchi(5), the LTTE’s administrative capital, and eventually trapped the LTTE in a tiny strip of land in the north of the island. As brutal as ever, the LTTE held hundreds of thousands of Tamils hostage in its miniscule enclave, using them as human shields against the advancing Sri Lankan Army and trying to use their suffering as leverage to pressure the Sri Lankan government to declare some sort of ceasefire. In one of the most moving episodes of the entire war, over 100,000 civilians flooded out of the LTTE-controlled zone through a breach created by the Sri Lankan Army in a section of the LTTE’s fortifications(6).

Such desperate, despicable methods would be to no avail. By May 2009, the LTTE’s territory had been reduced to the size of Central Park, and its remaining soldiers and core leadership were dying fast(7). Finally, in mid-May, the LTTE’s leader and founder, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed, and the last remnants of the LTTE were subdued, with some of the more radical fighters preferring suicide attacks to surrender(8).

For the first time in nearly 30 years, Sri Lankan forces control the entire island and face no armed resistance from any militant groups. This advent of stability has provided the current Sri Lankan government, under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, with the opportunity of a generation: a chance to permanently turn the page on this violent chapter of Sri Lankan history and lay the foundation for lasting peace in Sri Lanka. Countries like Congo and Lebanon, which have been mired in civil wars for most of their existence, can only dream of a similar opportunity.

Note: A shorter version of this piece appeared in the May 2010 issue of American Foreign Policy, a Princeton monthly foreign policy publication.

(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.

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