Thursday, May 21, 2009




    After 25 long years of brutal fighting, major military setbacks, torturous negotiations, ceasefire deals that gave the impression of surrenders, all sorts of domestic and international pressures, resource constraints that prevented acquisition of essential military equipment, an anaemic economic performance (in large part because of the war), Sri Lanka has finally crushed the Tamil insurgency led by the LTTE. The final victory of the Sri Lankan army over its deadly adversary is the result of a combination of factors – a political leadership committed to pulling out all stops to win the war, an inspiring military leadership that forged a largely ceremonial army into a fine fighting force, and some deft diplomacy (especially with India), which in turn was helped in no small measure by the enormous blunders made by the LTTE. In this, the Lankan experience holds important lessons for other countries in South Asia that confront challenges that are in one way or another not very different from what the Sri Lankans have overcome.

    Among the most important factor that enabled the Lankans to defeat the LTTE was that there was absolutely no confusion about the enemy. Unlike in Pakistan, where the Pakistan army is unable to decide whether they want to exterminate the Islamist insurgents or merely want to bludgeon them to a point where they once again become amenable to working as strategic assets of the Pakistani state, the Sri Lankans had no such confusion about the LTTE. Only once did the Lankans try to use the LTTE for a strategic purpose. This was when President Premadasa joined hands with the LTTE to force out the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF). But very soon the Lankans learned to their cost – the assassination of Premadasa – that double-games invariably backfire.

After that one mistake, the Lankans very sensibly avoided cutting their own nose to spite India, something that the Pakistanis seem incapable of doing. Had Sri Lanka been Pakistan, the Lankans would have probably tried to deflect the unrest among the Lankan Tamils by starting a separatist movement inside the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. That in the process their own country would have got severely destabilised is hardly something that they would have even paused for a moment to consider. But Lankans being Lankans, they very wisely came to the conclusion that toxic matter – Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka and radical Islamism in Pakistan – can never become a strategic asset.

The Lankans understood very early on that they could neither fight on two fronts (against both India and LTTE) nor was there anything to be gained by entering into a hostile relationship with India. Unlike Pakistan, the Lankans never felt the need to define their identity as 'not India', or to assert their independence and sovereignty by being seen to be standing up to India. In a sense, Sri Lanka is a unique case in South Asia, being the only country that has learnt to live comfortably with the huge power differential that exists between it and India. The Lankans know that India is in many ways irreplaceable. After all, if there is a shortage of onions it makes sense to import them from Kerala rather than Brazil. If there is a shortage of medicine or someone needs medical treatment, it makes sense to go to Chennai rather than Beijing. The Indian tourist and businessman is valued more in Colombo than any other country of South Asia.

This is not to say that Sri Lanka has not tried to balance the influence of India by developing relations with countries like China, USA or even Pakistan. But even while forging ties with these countries, the Lankans have either taken India into confidence, or else given India the first right of refusal (for instance on the Trincomalee oil tanks, or the leasing out of the radio frequency to the Americans, or in the latest case of procuring weapons from China and Pakistan). There have of course also been times when the Lankans have indulged in patently imprudent acts like giving Pakistan logistic support during the build up to the 1971 war to counter India's stoppage of over-flight rights to Pakistan. But once again the Lankans learned from their mistakes and rectified them.

While Tamil separatism was an outcome of the chauvinistic and extremely discriminatory 'Sinhala only' policy, the Lankans understood that India had and continues to have a legitimate interest in an amicable settlement of the Tamil question in the Island nation. Rather than rejecting outright or reacting strongly to any Indian intervention on the ethnic issue, the Lankans kept a dialogue open with India at all times. Despite the dubious role played by India in the initial years of the Tamil separatist movement, the Sri Lankans never burned their bridges with India. This is something that helped the Lankans immensely after the LTTE became a four-letter word for India, first by fighting the IPKF and then by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi.

On its part, the LTTE made two very big miscalculations: one, losing the support of India; and two, going for broke in its quest for Eelam and sabotaging the peace process which was initiated by the Ranil Wickremasinghe government that offered a de facto Eelam. Like so many other South Asian militant and separatist groups – the Taliban, the Kashmiri separatists, the Naxalities – the LTTE too never could understand that there was a time for war and a time for a negotiated settlement, especially if such a settlement is offering very favourable terms.

For the Lankans, the break between India and LTTE came as a Godsend and tilted the balance against the LTTE. Unlike other South Asian countries, the Lankans realized that good relations with India were extremely important for their territorial integrity and unity. Even if India did not give any monetary or material support to Sri Lanka, it was enough for the Lankans that India did nothing to add to their difficulties. Imagine the Pakistanis or the Bangladeshis or even the Nepalis adopting a similar attitude vis-a-vis India. This is so even if it involves an issue on which India's interests are in conjunction with those of these countries. For instance, India is as worried as many Pakistanis claim to be over the prospect of the spread of talibanisation in Pakistan. And yet, rather than use this to forge a common front with India against the Taliban threat, the Pakistanis are more interested in accusing India of supporting and sponsoring the Pakistani Taliban and trying to leverage their war against the Taliban for a solution to the Kashmir issue on their terms!

While there is a lot that other South Asian countries can learn from the Lankans in how to fight a war and conduct diplomacy, it remains to be seen whether Sri Lanka can now also teach them how to bring peace and reconciliation. Having won the war, President Mahinda Rajapakse has earned enough political capital to push through constitutional measures that will address Tamil aspirations without necessarily leading to a backlash from the Sinhala community. If he can indeed pull this off, he will go down in history as a statesman. If he fails he will have squandered all the gains that Sri Lanka made by vanquishing an implacable foe like the LTTE.


    <1215 Words>                    21st May, 2009



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