Sri Lanka nears victory in long war with Tamil Tigers

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jan 27 16:30:04 UTC 2009

Sri Lanka nears victory in long war with Tamil Tigers

The Army has squeezed the rebels into a small patch of jungle since
seizing their last major stronghold Sunday. But they could still mount
a messy counterinsurgency.
By Simon Montlake | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the January 27, 2009 edition

Bangkok, Thailand - Sri Lanka has edged closer to its military goal of
defeating the Tamil Tigers, a rebel movement whose violent struggle
for an independent homeland has spanned 26 years and shaped a
generation of political strife. Government troops said Sunday they had
captured the town of Mullaittivu, driving the rebels from their last
garrison and into a shrinking patch of jungle. Army chief Lt. Gen.
Sarath Fonseka went on national television to declare that 95 percent
of the war was over and that victory was imminent. "The end of
terrorism is near and we will definitely win," he said.

The fall of Mullaittivu is another blow to the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam, which has held the coastal town since 1996. Earlier this
month, the military overran Kilinochchi, the LTTE's administrative
capital, and seized a strategic road to Jaffna peninsula in the north.
General Fonseka said Sunday the retreating rebels were in a narrow
strip of land measuring about nine miles by 12 miles (20 km by 15 km).
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped by the fighting.

The rapid retreat by one of Asia's longest-running and most ruthless
insurgencies has fanned talk of a deliberate ceding of territory in
preparation for a protracted guerrilla war. Military commanders have
warned of this tactic, as well as of retaliatory terrorist attacks in
Colombo, the capital. The LTTE has long used suicide bombers to strike
at the heart of Sri Lanka's government. But another possibility is
that the rebels are flailing in the face of a Sri Lankan military that
is better equipped and trained than in past battles. Their fighters
may also be rudderless: The military has claimed that their commander,
Velupillai Prabhakaran, could already have escaped by sea to Southeast
Asia. "The Tigers are putting up a lot less resistance than many
expected at this stage of the battle," says Alan Keenan, a senior
analyst in Colombo for the International Crisis Group.

Civilian casualties mounting

As the conflict continues, civilian casualties are mounting, to the
alarm of UN officials who have urged both sides to minimize suffering
to civilians. Last Thursday, a hospital was shelled, killing at least
30 people. The attack was blamed on the military, which denied firing
on the hospital. The pro-rebel Tamilnet website said several people
died Sunday when government mortars landed near a UN-run aid
warehouse. The endgame in Sri Lanka's civil war remains murky.
Flushing insurgents out of their jungle redoubt is complicated by the
presence of civilians, whom human rights groups accuse the LTTE of
using as shields in the conflict.

The government fears that militants will avoid a final surrender by
melting into the displaced Tamil population in the north. What is
certain is that the separatist movement will probably regenerate
unless the government destroys its political and military wings and
offers something in its place to the alienated Tamil minority, says
Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political
Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore and the author of several
books on the LTTE. "It's not only a fight for territory, it's a fight
for the hearts and minds of the people. Neutralizing the LTTE and its
leadership ... isn't sufficient," he says.

No calls for cease-fire

Unlike in Gaza, virtually no foreign government has called for a
cease-fire in Sri Lanka. The difference is partly explained by the
lack of visibility for the conflict. The LTTE also lacks legitimacy in
the eyes of foreign powers, including India, whose former prime
minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was killed by a LTTE suicide bomber in 1991.
Some Western donors who supported a cease-fire in 2002 between Sri
Lanka and the LTTE soured on the intransigence of the group's
leadership. Peace talks later fell apart.

Since taking office in 2005, President Mahinda Rakapaksa has hiked
military spending and rallied support for the troops. He has gained in
popularity from the recent victories and is expected to call early
elections this year. Human rights groups and opposition politicians,
however, accuse the administration of silencing dissenting voices.
Several journalists have been killed in the past two years, including
a pro-opposition newspaper editor who was gunned down earlier this
month and a stabbing attack on another editor and his wife last

The government's emphasis on unity among the majority Sinhalese
population may allow it more space to pursue a long-term political
solution to the conflict, says Mr. Gunaratna. That must include equal
treatment of minority Tamils who are concentrated in the north and
east of the country, he continues.

Little progress in state-held east

Since the government wrestled back control of the east in July 2007
following the defection of an LTTE commander, there has been little
progress on this front, says Mr. Keenan. Nor has the military managed
to put a lid on violence, including bombings by rebel holdouts in the
area. This may set a pattern for liberated areas in the north, with a
battlefield victory followed by a dirty counterinsurgency war. "What
the east shows is you don't need that many people [to resist], if you
can move through the civilian population without getting denounced and
handed over to the government. They [LTTE] can do a lot of damage,"
says Keenan.

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