Hindu Rebel Tigers Lay Down Arms in Sri Lanka
Will This End the 26-Year Conflict -- By Jay Shankar (Bloomberg)
May 18 (Asian Time) -- Tamil Tiger rebels abandoned the defense of their self-declared homeland, handing President Mahinda Rajapaksa the task of unifying Sri Lanka while deflecting claims his army committed a "bloodbath."
"This battle has reached its bitter end," says Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s head of international diplomatic relations, in a statement, according to TamilNet, a Web site that gives reports from the Tamil perspective.
Ignoring calls for a cease-fire led by the United Nations, Rajapaksa’s government pressed ahead with its military offensive to end the three-decade separatist campaign that has claimed 100,000 lives.
At their peak, the Hindu Tamil rebels controlled a quarter of Sri Lanka’s territory and sent suicide squads by land, sea and air to strike the capital, Colombo.
Soldiers are hunting the last Tamil Tiger fighters hiding in heavily mined land on the northeastern coast near Mullaitivu, the Defense Ministry said early today.
More than 70,000 civilians were rescued from the rebels in past 72 hours "despite the speculations of a ‘bloodbath’ and a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ at the final military push" by some aid organizations, the ministry said.
The UN on May 11 said the conflict had become a "bloodbath" after more than 380 civilians died last weekend.
"Politically, in the eyes of the people, it is for the first time that someone did something so dramatic as this, defeating the so-called invincible LTTE militarily", said N. Manoharan, senior fellow at the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, in a telephone interview.
"That increases the chances of Rajapaksa becoming the president for a second term and he may announce parliamentary elections soon."
Rajapaksa, whose term ends in November, on May 16 said the army defeated the rebels "after 30 long years." The UN and its affiliated organizations should "understand the suffering" of people in regions affected by terrorism and pressure to contain military operations can be very "frustrating" as it gives a new lease of life to the terrorists, he said.
Rajapaksa will give a televised address to Parliament on the conflict at 9:30 a.m. Colombo time tomorrow.
The fate of LTTE founder Velupillai Prabhakaran is unknown and Tamil Tiger leaders are believed to be hiding in a 1.5 square kilometer (0.6 square mile) area in Mullaitivu district, military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara said in a phone interview.
The government is working on a political settlement to resolve the ethnic conflict that would involve both devolution and sharing of power with the local administration in Tamil- dominated areas in the north and east, Tissa Vitharana, chairman of the All Party Representative Committee drawing up the plan, said in a Jan. 8 interview.
Sri Lanka wants the settlement to be based on a 1987 constitutional amendment on power sharing. The amendment, which came out of a peace accord with India, established provincial councils to assume some of the central government’s role. The council for the Tamil-speaking northeastern province didn’t function because of the conflict and was suspended in 1990.
Rajapaksa was elected following parliamentary elections in November 2005. Parliament’s term ends in April 2010.
"I think he will adapt a very pragmatic approach to address what the Tamil people want," Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council, a Sri Lankan non-governmental advocacy organization, said in a phone interview from Colombo.
"His primary interests will be to maintain his popularity and support base amongst the Sinhalese," Perera said. This means he will not go out of his way to address Tamil grievances. "His overriding concern will be to retain Sinhalese majority support."
Tamils made up 11.9 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million in 2001 and the Sinhalese almost 74 percent, according to a census that year. The government says eradicating terrorism will allow work to begin on a durable political solution to the demands of the Tamil people.
The Tamil people will have to "reconcile themselves" to the loss of their property, lives, villages and towns in the conflict and "having obtained no political concessions as a result," Perera said. "They will now have to look at political means rather than violence to achieve their rights and the position they want in Sri Lanka."
The LTTE, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and India, was driven out of the Eastern Province in July 2007, three years after one of Prabhakaran’s commanders in the region, Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan, better known by his nom de guerre Colonel Karuna, broke away.
Karuna may oversee the reconstruction of the former LTTE territory after he was appointed minister of national integration in March.
"Military triumphalism will drive the political package," Manoharan said. "If one looks at history, when one party is convincingly defeated, they have not been treated with dignity. If the Sinhala regime treats the Tamil community with magnanimity then it is a win-win situation."
Rajapaksa’s government ended a 2002 cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers a year ago and began military operations to capture their bases in the north.
Prabhakaran, 54, founded the LTTE during the 1970s to fight for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka’s north and east. He led the secessionist campaign from jungle hideouts in the north since 1983, when the first landmine attack on the army killed 13 soldiers.
The Tamil Tigers were pushed to the brink of defeat when the army seized their political headquarters, Kilinochchi, on Jan. 2. A week later the rebels lost a strategic causeway, Elephant Pass, which links the northern Jaffna Peninsula with the rest of the island. The last northeastern garrison of the rebels fell on March 4.
Tens of thousands of civilians fled the war zone and are housed in government-run camps in the north and east of the country. The International Committee of the Red Cross said on May 14 that aid could no longer be delivered in the war zone because of fighting.
With rebel-held areas cleared, Sri Lanka may permit international aid agencies to enter, Perera said. "The government ideally has no reason now to prevent anyone from coming in."
"The humanitarian crisis is very precarious," Manoharan said. "Rajapaksa will have to see that civilians get at least the basic essentials."
Last Updated: May 17, 2009 19:52 EDT