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Will The Fall Of Killinochchi End Ethnic Crisis In Sri Lanka?

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • January 12, 2009

    After nearly four months of intense conflict, the Sri Lankan military has finally taken control of Killinochchi, a key northern Sri Lankan town and the de facto capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In fact, in the ongoing fourth Eelam War, Killinochchi is an important milepost, and thus constitutes an outstanding victory for the advancing troops and a big blow to the Tigers. In particular, the capture of the administrative capital of the rebels represents a symbolic victory for the Sri Lankan government, which has been fighting the rebels for over two decades. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan Army deserve credit for this triumph and the remarkable advances made in establishing control over northern Sri Lanka. However, until and unless the government finds a political solution to the ethnic crisis, an end to the ethnic conflict is unlikely. Thus, much depends on the manner in which the government handles the All Party Representative Committee and the political process.

    The victory at Killinochchi has indeed meant that Sri Lankan forces have been placed in a position of relative strength, with the confidence of dislodging Tigers totally. President Rajapaksa vowed to crush the Tigers once and for all in 2009. Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka too echoed similar views, noting “we are confident that we can see the end of them within this year,” and may be “we don't need even a year to see their end.” The high morale of the Sri Lankan military since their victory in the East in 2006, overwhelming Sinhala support for the Rajapaksa government’s ‘peace through war’, and the seeming helplessness of the LTTE have all greatly contributed to the government’s confidence and determination to chase down the Tigers.

    Doubtless, compared to previous governments, the Rajapaksa government is distinctly different. It made a bold choice to initiate operations against the Tigers in their own den that too when the peace process was still formally on. Perhaps Rajapaksa was justified because he was elected as President in November 2005 for his anti-peace talks manifesto. Gradually, the President has strengthened the security forces to unprecedented levels and managed to secure the support of the international community. In particular, the modernization of forces through the purchase of new equipment helped the troops conquer positions that they could not capture before.

    For the Tigers, the fall of Killinochchi is a debacle since the outbreak of armed hostilities triggered by the Mavilaru crisis in July 2006. With Jaffna under the control of Sri Lankan Forces, the fortified Killinochchi base had served as the political headquarters for the rebels and a de facto capital of Eelam. Its prestige as a fighting force has taken a severe hit. Speculation that this is the endgame for the LTTE has surfaced again. The Tigers are at present confined to the forested Mullaitivu district – an area of 2617 square kilometres. However, the Tigers swiftly signalled that they would fight on, by carrying out a suicide attack near the Air Force headquarters in Colombo, killing three airmen and wounding 37 others.

    The fall of Killinochchi is not the first such military setback for the LTTE. Earlier in September 1996 the LTTE lost Killinochchi to the government forces and recaptured it in September 1998. In fact, the loss of Jaffna city to government forces in 1995 was the biggest debacle that the Tigers have faced so far. For the Tigers, the loss of territory and military setbacks has been common and they have made military comebacks and reclaimed some lost territories. Nevertheless, the current situation is different. The Tigers are short of cadres and not in a position to conscript new ones. The loss of the East has deprived them the opportunity and time for recruitment. And though Tamils in the North sympathize with the Tigers’ cause, they dislike their children being forcibly conscripted, and are moving them to safe places, either to the South or to Tamil Nadu.

    Meanwhile, with the capture of Kilinochchi, there were both spontaneous and government-inspired celebrations, including fireworks among the Sinhala population. Although President Rajapaksa in his address acknowledged that the “capture of Kilinochchi should not be seen as a victory of the south over the north,” the celebratory mood in Colombo and elsewhere among Sinhalese indicate otherwise. Apparently for the hardliners and the majority Sinhalese, victory against the LTTE is victory against Tamils. This has given the government and security forces further momentum and certainly emboldens them to take on the Tigers in Mullaitivu. The Rajapaksa government is even trying to make political capital out of the fall of Killinochchi by advancing the date of presidential elections. The government’s desire is indeed understandable and normal. The lack of a strong opposition and immense support from the Sinhala segment of the population would be incentives for such an approach.

    Euphoria and celebrations are generally acknowledged as expressions of Sinhalese nationalism and reflects a deep mistrust of Tamils. But what is needed now are confidence building measures by the government. If the Killinochchi victory is to be sustained by the government, it needs to put forward a just political package quickly. Failure to combine a political solution with military action could jeopardize the momentum secured by the military victory. A greater cause for concern and urgency for a political solution is the Rajapaksa government’s inability or unwillingness to reach out to Tamils and other southern parties for a political consensus on power sharing. In fact, Sri Lanka is still a psychologically divided nation. Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamil reactions are, in general, diametrically opposed. This is an ‘understandable divergence’ since it is the Tamils who have to bear the brunt of the war and suffer the most.

    Therefore, even if the Tigers are dislodged from Killinochchi, without a just political solution most Tamils are unlikely to feel elated about the government’s victory. They would instead tend to support the rebels. As long as the Sinhala supremacist mindset and the absence of a political solution to the ethnic problem are alive, the LTTE will neither give up the fight nor their arms. The heightening human rights and humanitarian crisis would only exacerbate the crisis, and would invariably suit the Tigers’ politico-propaganda needs. Hence, what is now required is for the government to rise above ethnic and political considerations to work towards a durable political settlement. Indeed, winning a lasting peace by bringing about a reasonable power sharing accord is the bigger challenge that President Rajapaksa and his government face now.