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The Rediff Special/ Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)

Sri Lanka -- war without end, peace without hope!

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Most analysts accept that the roots of Tamil insurgency are to be found in the rise of Buddhist revival that took place during the celebrations of the 2,500th Mahaparinirvana or death anniversary of Buddha in 1956. This is not to assert that Buddhist revivalism is a recent phenomenon. The revivalist movement was a part of the anti-colonial struggle.

The kind of national struggle that arose in India never took place in Sri Lanka. The British often described it as a 'model' colonial territory. The Buddhist revival had much to do with the activities of Christian and Muslim missionaries and was initially directed against them. The Buddhist revival was also a part of the search for roots and identity and to build a nation state in the European mould.

The social component of the Buddhist revival borrowed heavily from Gandhiji's concept of Sarvodaya. Unfortunately, along with this also arose the concepts of Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhala people only, Aryan in race, Buddhist in religion and Sri Lanka as the Dhamma Dwipa -- a land to protect Buddhism, much on the lines of Pakistan. As the majority of the Sinhalese developed the concept of 'chosen race' , on the lines of Semites, Tamil separatism grew in response. By adding the twist of Dhamma Dwipa, the Sinhala nationalism easily identified India as the adversary -- a land where Buddhism had vanished. The Aryan race, shared by Indians other than Tamils, produced a curious effect of 'selective anti Indianism'. The full brunt of this was borne by the Tamils who in desperation had no choice but to take to violent struggle.

A conflictual situation is complicated when on both the sides of the divide there is a strong sense of legitimacy. The Sinhala regard Sri Lanka as Dhamma Dwipa and Dhamma Shasan ordained by the divine Buddha himself. It is the central purpose for which the state of Sri Lanka exists. The perception is sanctified by the 'visit' of Buddha to Sri Lanka, the presence of his relics and the Bodhi tree itself. The whole exercise in establishing 'independence' from the Buddhist roots in India was initiated in the fifth century AD as the decline of Buddhism in India began. Thus many of the myths infused in Buddhism in Sri Lanka has this strong purpose of 'preservation' and an unspoken sense of insecurity.

The Sinhalas reject the history of Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of Sri Vijaya in 600 BC and have been helped on in this direction by the Indian Marxist historians who question the authenticity of the Ramayan and locate the Lanka of Ravana in some small village in UP. The orthodox Buddhists and modern Marxists agree on this score.

The Tamils, according to the Sinhala version, came with the invading armies of Chola kings and established themselves in Jaffna. The ruins the of Sinhala civilisation, specially the amazing irrigation works, was the result of the invasions from the North and from India. Now that Sri Lanka is independent, the North must be liberated and integrated with the rest of the country.

The Tamils of Jaffna predate the Sinhalas. Their civilisation is traceable back to the Mohenjodaro-Harrapa days of 3,500 BC. Tamils in Sri Lanka consider themselves the last of the pure Dravidians with Saivite Hinduism as their religion. There are enough ruins and legends associated with the Ramayan days to show the existence of the Dravidian kingdom of Jaffna in 1500 BC.

The Tamils fear that the Sinhalese want to wipe them out from Sri Lanka or reduce them to second class citizens. The present struggle between the Tamils and the Sinhalas is a repeat of the history of nearly 400 years of constant warfare that led to the ruin of Sri Lanka. In place of the Kingdom of the Chola or Pandyas, there is today the state of the Indian Union, in place of the erstwhile kings of Kandy, we have the president/prime minister of Sri Lanka.

Two primordial emotions -- Tamil insecurity and Sinhala sense of grievance -- thus fuel the conflict in Sri Lanka. Thus while the Tamils' actions seem aggressive, they are in effect defensive. It is worth noting that except for a sneak attack once in while, the LTTE has confined its actions to the North and Eastern provinces. The LTTE is thus only using offensive tactics while it is on a strategic defensive. The Sinhalas are on strategic offensive and believe that they have a right to rule the whole island. The struggle is thus also about power sharing.

Wider implications

Geography dictates that any conflict in the countries of the Indian subcontinent affects India as she is at the centre and her borders touch each and every country. Common borders, race, religion and history make India and Sri Lanka one of the closest neighbors in the region with the possible exception of Nepal. But mere cultural similarities or even common religion or race do not necessarily lead to peaceful relations. Sino-Japanese ties or relations between a dozen-odd middle eastern countries prove this assertion.

Sri Lanka is a plural society and a multi-ethnic country. Like the other developing countries, the process of economic development as well as nation building, on since 1945 all over the Third World, has often led to clashes between various groups within the nation. India has experienced this and so has Sri Lanka. In the late nineteenth century, conflicts took place mainly between the Buddhists and the Catholics and the Muslims. The most serious riots against the Catholics took place in 1883 and 1903. Major anti-Muslim riots took place in 1915. But since 1958, the focus of Sinhala violence has shifted to the Tamils. Major anti-Tamil riots took place in 1958, 1977 and 1981-'83. This antagonism has led to a feeling of insecurity among the Tamils and the movement for Tamil Eelam or homeland, was born out of this cauldron of hate.

The Tamil-speaking people of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu have historical and blood relations with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. They could not remain inactive and watch the genocidal tactics of the Sri Lankan army against their own brethren. The rise of Dravidian parties like the Dravid Kazhagam and later of its two offshoots, the DMK and the AIADMK ensured a competitive backing for the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils. The late MGR went a step further and linked the Tamil survival with Indian nationalism.

Indian support to the Tamil militants was good politics, both regionally as well as nationally. This brought the Indian State in direct confrontation with Sinhala nationalism. Being a militarily stronger power, India intervened in Sri Lanka in 1987, initially with the sole aim of saving the Tamils. That subsequently it ended up fighting the Tamils themselves can be only understood to be the result of the naivete of top Indian leaders, of the bungling of an egotist diplomat and the shrewdness of President Jayawardene.

The IPKF saga

Intervention in the affairs of Sri Lanka from South India dates back to ancient times. The Sinhalese played one side against the other (the Cholas against the Pandyas) and survived. This is much more difficult in the case of a united India. It is still true that under the Indian federal system and a multi-party democracy, the Sri Lankans did play this game successfully by pitting the Tamil Nadu government against the central government and the DMK, an ally of the National Front against the Congress party.

Indian military intervention in the Sri Lankan conflict was a spur of the moment decision by an airline pilot turned prime minister. Indian politicians have consistently resisted the formation of an institution to deal with national security and the whole politico-diplomatic approach was based on assessments by India's non specialist bureaucracy at the defence and external Affairs ministries. As an instance, the Indian consul general in New York was pitchforked into the role of chief negotiator with the Tamil Tigers overnight. Even when the crucial briefing was going on for the top military commanders for an impending operation in Sri Lanka, the single map used was of 1937 vintage.

The 10,000-strong force landed in Kankesanturai Port with the expectation of playing a UN-like peace keeping role under the terms of the Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord signed on July 29, 1987, by Lankan President Jayawardene and the Indian PM. Indian intervention was inevitable as the Sri Lankan offensive in May 1987 saw the genocide of Tamils. The destruction of the oldest Tamil library in Jaffna showed that the Sri Lankans were intent on wiping out the Tamil culture. The killing of civilians in Jaffna produced a flood of refugees and an outcry in Tamil Nadu. An impending provincial election in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu made it a sensitive issue for the Congress party anxious to retain its support in the state. The Lankan government also imposed an economic embargo on the Jaffna peninsula leading to great hardship for the people of the area.

It was an accord forced on the Sinhalese by the Indian might. During the initial stages there was apprehension that the Sri Lankan army may oppose the move. To safeguard the Lankan President against a military coup, a battalion of Indian commandos was stationed in Colombo harbour on board an Indian naval ship. Contingency plans were made to fight the Lankan army should it oppose the landings. The LTTE fully co-operated with Indian army.

There was reluctance on the part of the Lankan government to release political detenues and pressure was brought on the LTTE to lay down arms before the peace process could progress further. Amid this tension, Prabhakaran, the LTTE supremo, repudiated the July 29 accord. He, however, agreed to go along as long as the Lankan government kept its side of bargain. In order to surrender weapons, the Indian high commissioner in Colombo began building pressure on the LTTE through the Indian army.

To counter this and also to test the Lankan government's intent, the LTTE demanded the release of its cadres languishing in Lankan jails. Thileepan, the Tigers' propaganda chief began an indefinite fast on this issue on September 15. He died on September 25. His death was blamed on the Indian government and its policy of appeasing Sri Lanka and of bringing pressure on the Tamil Tigers. The local Indian army commander in Jaffna was close to the LTTE and appreciated their anxieties over the peace process. But the Indian high commissioner in Colombo was full of bluff and bluster. In the absence of direct communications between the local army commander in Jaffna and Delhi, this diplomat assumed command of the operations on the field. He continued to breathe down the army's neck to expedite the laying down of the arms by the LTTE. A breach with the LTTE was now imminent.

The last straw in this sordid drama was the suicide of 12 LTTE cadres on October 3. These LTTE men were captured earlier and were in the custody of the Indians. On orders from the Indian high commissioner they were to be handed to the Lankan authorities for sure torture and brutal treatment. Despite the pleadings of the local military commander, this was done and resulted in their mass suicide.

Earlier, the Indian diplomat in Colombo had a stormy meeting with Prabhakaran. The meeting turned out to be a clash of egos between a career diplomat and a natural leader. The last minute efforts of the Indian general in charge of operations and much aware of the ground realities, were of no avail in the face of the ignorant obduracy of the Colombo-based diplomat.. The LTTE now began reprisal killing of hostages held by them.

To assess the situation, the Indian army chief arrived in Sri Lanka and made an astonishing statement -- that the Indian army will finish the LTTE in a week. Indian troops were rushed in civil airlines from peace time cantonments. Many of the soldiers had been barely for months in their peace-time locations after a hard tour of duty on the border. They were to spend their time in fighting in Lanka.

With the offensive against the LTTE, India threw away the only card it held to pressurise the Lankans to give concessions to Tamils. The Sri Lankan government was the biggest gainer. While the Indian army battled the LTTE, there was very little progress on the political front. But for the naivete in Delhi and the mishandling at Colombo by the high commissioner, the break with the LTTE was entirely avoidable. India did and continues to pay a heavy price for that folly, Rajiv Gandhi paid for it with his life. At the end of two years of campaign the Indian army lost 600 men and nearly 2500 wounded.

The diplomat responsible for this blunder continued to prosper and retired as a foreign secretary. Ever since the LTTE's offensive in the Jaffna peninsula began nearly a fortnight ago, Colombo has been alive with rumours. Total censorship imposed make it difficult to understand at what stage was the military offensive.

Balance of forces

According to the generally accurate `Military Balance 1994-95', Sri Lanka has a total force of four divisions with 25 T-55 tanks and around 150 assorted armoured personnel carriers. The air force has a squadron of F-4 fighters and three squadrons of helicopters. The artillery component is four field regiments, ten heavy mortar regiments. The navy has 43 coastal and 41 inland vessels that are more in the class of fast patrol boats than ships. Opposing this force the LTTE has over 4,000 strong cadres with another 3,000 in support. The LTTE is well equipped with AK-47 rifles, machine guns of .50 calibre, plenty of land mines and improvised mortars that have ranges up to 1500 m. The anti-aircraft capability of the LTTE is based on machine guns and SAM-7 missiles.

Military situation

It is inevitable that memories of the IPKF's operations to take Jaffna in 1987 are invoked. The Indian army used nearly a whole division's (10,000 soldiers) strength and suffered very heavy casualties. India had far greater resources and its army is also better trained. Sri Lankan forces now operating in Jaffna peninsula are possibly not as strong though it is believed that some latest equipment has been received from abroad. The LTTE is also today far stronger than it was in 1987.

In spite of these factors, it seems that the LTTE is achieving success at far lesser cost. The main reason for this is that while the Indian army fought with one hand tied behind its back in order to avoid civilian casualties, the Tamil Tigers are using the full might of the army, navy and the airforce.

It must be remembered that but for Indian intervention, even in May 1987, the LTTE ruled Jaffna. Thanks to the break between the LTTE and India and the bitterness generated by the suspected LTTE hand in Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, India is reluctant to intervene.

Options before the Tamil Tigers

In Jaffna the Sri Lankans are on the defensive. Should it decide to fight a positional defence it could be isolated and starved to death. The best that it can achieve is to inflict such heavy losses that there is a clamour for a cease-fire. In conjunction with this attack, the Tigers can mount terrorist attacks on Colombo itself in order to divert attention from Jaffna. An offensive in the eastern provinces will divert Sri Lankan forces meant for any offensive action.

Should the Jaffna attack not succeed, the LTTE has the option to melt away into the jungles and carry on a classic guerilla war just as it did in 1987 when the Indian army took Jaffna town. But this will mean a major loss of support and resources that Jaffna provided the Tigers. The civil population is also apprehensive of the Lankan army as unlike its Indian counterpart, the locals expect reprisals and harshness. The LTTE is facing a cruel dilemma, mainly of its own making, as it cannot expect overt Indian help.

Long term implications

The Tamil Tigers are not some desperados fighting in isolation but have the full moral, material and intellectual backing of the Sri Lankan Tamil community numbering over five million. They also have tacit sympathy, if not the active support, of sections of the nearly 55 million Tamils in India; specially when faced with extinction due to the actions of Sri Lankan armed forces.

Since the departure of the IPKF, the LTTE had been virtually running the government in Jaffna. All the other groups that claimed to be its rivals have either merged with it or have been eliminated. The LTTE in relation to Tamils in Sri Lanka is today in a position similar to that acquired by the PLO in relation to the Palestinian people in the Middle East. This gives the Tigers access to the intellectual resources of the Tamils not only in Jaffna but worldwide.

Ever since the `Sinhalese only' policy was implemented by the Sri Lankan government, over a million Tamils have sought refuge in the West. The largest concentration of expatriates is to be found in Germany, the UK and Singapore. Most of these are highly skilled professionals and in the fields of scientific research, computers and medicine. The Tamil Tigers have offices in all these places that carry out the triple role of propaganda, collection of donations and also acquisition of technology of destruction.

An American analyst once mentioned to this author that he found the Jaffna Tamils to be the world's most intelligent community. With such brains and access to Western technology, it is no wonder that the Tamil Tigers have some of the most modern innovative weapons including biological weapons. The undisputed and complete sway over Jaffna peninsula makes it easy for the LTTE to `persuade' even the reluctant overseas Tamils to contribute.

The safety of near and dear ones is dependent on this co-operation. That the Tigers have shown that they can be quite ruthless if necessary adds an element of coercion to the `collections'. There is also genuine support to the Tamil militants amongst the Tamils worldwide.

While many Tamils disagree with the means used by the Tigers and its fascist outlook, they nevertheless regard them as saviours of Tamils in the face of Sinhala chauvinism. This is the greatest strength of the Tigers and makes it possible for them to survive. Unless the LTTE adopts the suicidal strategy and open confrontation, the Sri Lankan conflict is likely to continue for many more years as a low intensity war.

The end of the Cold War has not meant the end of nationalism and international conflicts. The Indian Ocean is a unique area in as much as for an ocean it has very few littoral countries. As a consequence, most of its vast expanse consists of open or international sea. It is reputed to be very rich in minerals and in times to come as the resources on land exhaust, a race for sea-bed exploitation is a distinct possibility. The Chinese naval expansion, proceeding currently at a growth rate of 13 per cent per annum as well as her attempts to build a base at Coco Islands belonging to Myanmar, portend an Indian Ocean rivalry. India can ill afford to lose control of this area vital as it is for its security. Located at the apex of the Indian Ocean, a friendly Sri Lanka is essential for Indian defence.

The Rediff Specials

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