Healing the wounds in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s Government was right to finish off the Tamil rebels,
despite the risk to and ultimate loss of civilian life. Decisively
ending the civil war, which lasted 26 years and killed more than 70,000,
will save more lives than were lost in the final assault.
United Nations officials, Western leaders, and human rights groups
had called on Sri Lanka to agree to a Ceasefire to allow civilians to
flee the shrinking enclave where Government Forces had finally hemmed in
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Complying with the request would
have been a major strategic mistake.
Those international voices ignored - or maybe didn’t know - the
pattern to pauses in the civil war: The Tamil Tigers used every
ceasefire to rest, recruit and rearm. Then they took the offensive.
That’s how they broke a 2002 ceasefire. Another ended in 1995 when the
rebels, dramatically, sunk Government Navy ships.
Beginning this January, Sri Lanka faced the risk that rebel
commanders would slip out alongside innocent civilians and live to keep
fighting. It had happened before. In 1987, 70,000 troops from
neighbouring India flushed the Tigers from their Northern stronghold in
Jaffna. Most of the rebels escaped to reconstitute an insurgent force
that would fight for two more decades.
Americans and citizens of other countries that have suffered
terrorist attacks should be glad to see the Tigers and their maniacal
leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, done for good. They bequeathed the world
the suicide bomber. What other deadly innovations would they have
produced had the fighting force survived?
As a foreign correspondent covering the region, I saw enough of the
Tigers’ terrorism in the late 1990s to know the world is a safer place
after their defeat. There was the suicide truck bombing of the country’s
Central Bank that killed more than 80 and devastated downtown Colombo,
It was my first trip to the country, and I had rolled past the bank
building in a taxi about 15 minutes before the blast.
I also covered the aftermath of the bombing inside a commuter train
headed out of Colombo. Peering into one of the train’s damaged cars, I
unconsciously clutched my forehead as I surveyed the floor and spotted a
shoe, scattered groceries, strands of hair and streaks of blood. I was
imagining what it must have been like to be idly riding home after a
day’s work, perhaps bringing home food for that night’s dinner, when the
bomb exploded in the crowded, enclosed car.
Not only majority Sinhalese were inside that commuter train and
downtown near the central bank. Did the Tigers care about killing other
Tamils? No. The Tigers actually targeted Tamil individuals who did not
go along with their bloody program. After I left the region, assassins
bombed Harvard-trained lawyer Neelan Tiruchelvam and shot Foreign
Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, both Tamils.
LTTE attacked Central Bank in 1996 with an explosive laden
lorry. Over a hundred people were killed. Courtesy:
I knew them to be decent men who did not deserve that fate.
For the 12 percent of Sri Lankans who are Tamils, for whom the Tigers
claimed to fight, the shame is that indefensible methods tarnished a
just cause. Sinhalese discrimination against Tamils, sometimes with
violent expression, sparked the rebellion. Sri Lanka has paid a heavy
price, in life and treasure, for attempting to subordinate Tamils, who
were favoured during British rule and still dominate the intellectual
Here’s hoping the Sinhalese have learned a costly, painful lesson
and, in victory, are big enough to negotiate a new dispensation for the
Tamils. I think they may be.
Back after the Central Bank bombing, I heard a hotel manager confess
to disrespecting Tamils as a young man and acknowledge, with apparent
regret, such acts provoked the violence.
At this point, it would be reasonable for the Government to grant a
measure of autonomy to Tamil-majority areas of the North and East -
short of creating a separate state, which never made much sense on a
relatively small island.
If it can heal its ethnic wounds, Sri Lanka has a bright future. With
the climate of the Caribbean, a relatively literate population, a savvy
business class, and three deepwater ports, the South Asian country could
become as prosperous as Singapore, if peace reigns.
The writer, a former member of the Globe staff and a former South
Asia bureau chief of the Washington Post, is a freelance journalist.