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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 45, October 24, 2009

Sri Lanka: Five Months After

Sunday 25 October 2009, by Apratim Mukarji


Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa must be a rare civilian leader who has given birth to a new military concept by winning the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Defence academies and experts have been studying what has come to be known as the “Rajapaksa model”.

The unexpected and complete demolition of the LTTE—long considered the most feared terrorist organisation in the world which had successfully withstood the might of the Sri Lankan state for nearly three decades—in May 2009 immediately caught the attention of the international community, and has since been under scrutiny.

In their studies, the defence community is largely following the Indian Defence Review’s lead and accepts the following description of the underlying principles of the doctrine. These are: unwavering political will; disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal; no negotiations with the forces of terror; unidirectional flow of conflict information; absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the LTTE; accent on young commanders; and keep your neighbours in the loop.

The defence community’s reactions, however, vary. Those belonging to developed and democratic countries have unambiguously rejected the one single thread that runs through the aforementioned principles, that is, ruthlessness. The extent of ruthlessness that Rajapaksa and his defence forces showed in literally mowing down the LTTE in battlefields—crowded with helplessly trapped civilians—continues to appall the international community

However, the reactions in developing countries and those battling terrorism in its various manifestations are decidedly favourable to this underlying theme of ruthlessness. Perhaps not quite surprisingly, India is among these countries. In a recent manifestation of this kind of thinking, the Indian Air Force advocated aerial bombing to fight Maoists in Madhya Pradesh.

A look at the principles which go into the making of the Rajapaksa model shows that the Sri Lankan President learned his lessons very well indeed from the history of the civil war over the past decades and decided to remove the impediments that had traditionally acted as brakes on the military campaigns.

It was long known that the civil war continued over the years due to a combination of factors. These were: the LTTE’s ability to draw international sympathy to the humanitarian crisis that invariably followed every outbreak of hostility. Civilians in their thousands were always caught in the midst of the hostilities forcing them to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere. The LTTE was usually successful in diverting the fleeing refugees to Tamil Nadu in India, which thereafter led to an Indian involvement ranging from the civil society to the government in New Delhi.

The substantial Tamil diaspora also played its part in perpetuating the cycle of events. Pressure used to build up urging Western governments and India to intervene in order to save the helpless Tamils in Sri Lanka. And invariably this sequence of phases led to an international call to the Sri Lankan Government of the day to stop hostilities and initiate peace talks with a view to reach a political settlement.

However, it was not merely the LTTE’s manoeuvrings that helped repeating this cycle of events. The political party in power and the military also benefited enormously from the perpetuation of the conflict. We have an excellent authority to substantiate this statement.

On August 19, 1994, the then Prime Minister (and about to become the President) Chandrika Kumaratunga told a media conference in Colombo, “My government wants to bring about peace because it does not wish to make business out of the war.” Her reference was to a persistent allegation against the United National Party whose seventeen-year-old rule had just ended (and which was extensively used as an election slogan by the victorious People’s Alliance in its election campaign) that the war had dragged on because ruling party politicians and security forces personnel were making a tidy sum out of it. Sometime earlier, an exposure that then President Ranasinghe Premadasa had clandestinely supplied arms and ammunition to the LTTE had led to a threat of impeachment to the strongman.

The indefinite prolongation of the war and the repeated failures of the government of the day to convince the people of its determination to pursue the conflict to a logical conclusion—coupled with inadequate training and equipment—demoralised the forces so much that all through the years each of the four services (the Army, Navy, Air Force and the police) suffered from serious levels of desertions. Amnesties, routinely announced to lure deserters who would otherwise remain unemployed, seldom succeeded in strengthening the ranks. Sri Lanka also ranked as harbouring one of the largest numbers of victims of land mines. Its southern villages from which the majority of the ranks were recruited were peopled with maimed young men.

RAJAPAKSA decided to eliminate these impediments by establishing the aforementioned principles which basically meant a single-minded pursuit of the military option until the LTTE was soundly defeated and its leadership killed or captured and the lost territory fully brought back under government control.

All through the last two years and a little more, Sri Lanka was under tremendous international pressure to desist from flagrant human rights violations. But, to the surprise of the international community, the little island resolutely ignored the pleadings, advices and outright threats from powerful quarters sticking to the President’s declaration that Sri Lanka would solve its problem by itself and would not brook interference.

“Keeping the neighbours in the loop” constituted the most astute diplomatic principle that the government followed and which brought rich dividends to it. Remarkably, the Tamil Nadu Government failed to influence the Manmohan Singh Government to deviate from the line of non-interference that New Delhi had been following since the debacle of the military intervention in the late 1980s. On the contrary, Colombo continued to receive substantial assistance and support from New Delhi. There were occasional statements from the latter advocating restraint but Colombo knew these were more for domestic consumption than otherwise.

Thus, Rajapaksa achieved what none of his predecessors could. He went on demolishing the LTTE and wiping out its leadership ensuring in the process that Tamil separatism was uprooted forever.

This success has also brought in its wake two new situations. One, that he must now equally successfully lead the Tamils in the north and east to a life of peace and development. Two, that he must now lead the country to the day when the political aspirations of the minority communities will be fully satisfied.
Disturbingly, there is yet another understated principle in the making of the Rajapaksa model. This states quite plainly that Sri Lanka will be a Sinhala country in which the minorities will always live as minorities.

The author is an analyst of South and Central Asia.

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