After negotiation failed, Sri Lanka pursued a military solution.
The war on terror scored a big victory this weekend with the Sri Lankan army’s battlefield defeat of the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The event vindicates one of the major lessons of September 11: Most of the time, terrorists have to be defeated militarily before political accommodation is possible.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that the army had routed the Tigers from their last redoubt in the island’s Northern Province, killing Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and several hundred top militant leaders. Prabhakaran’s apparent demise is the Sri Lankan equivalent to killing Osama bin Laden. It’s much less likely the cadres will continue a low-level terrorist insurgency.
How Sri Lanka got here is worth recounting. The island’s conflict started in 1983. After Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain, the ethnic Sinhalese majority pursued many discriminatory policies against the Tamil minority: a Sinhala-only language policy, preferences for Sinhalese in university admissions and government hiring, and the exclusion of Tamils from the police.
The war quickly became more about Prabhakaran’s determination to form an independent Tamil state under the exclusive control of his Marxist Tigers than about those Tamil grievances. The Tigers killed many moderate Tamil politicians who would have been willing to cooperate politically with Colombo.
Prabhakaran made extensive use of suicide bombers — including a teenage girl who blew herself up to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 — and relied heavily on child soldiers. Sri Lanka’s conflict has claimed 70,000 lives by most counts. It should have been clear early on that government negotiation would go nowhere with such a committed killer.
Mr. Rajapaksa, elected in 2005, put an end to the “peace process” with Prabhakaran and focused on winning the military fight. In 2007, with the help of a Tiger splinter group, the government subdued the Eastern Province; the first elections were held there last year. The fighting then moved to the North. It has not been cheap or easy. Military spending in the 2009 budget is $1.7 billion, 5% of GDP and 20% of the government’s budget.
Colombo also learned lessons from its earlier failures. The military improved its training in counterinsurgency tactics, and Colombo invested the resources to enable the army to hold territory it won. Moves by the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries to freeze Tiger fundraising among the Tamil diaspora helped weaken the Tigers. Mr. Rajapaksa wisely ignored international calls for a ceasefire as he got closer to victory, including threats from the Obama Administration to block $1.9 billion in International Monetary Fund aid money.
The government now faces a potential humanitarian crisis in housing, feeding and clothing the more than 200,000 Tamil civilians who have fled the fighting. Sri Lanka has to more fully address the political grievances of moderate Tamils and ensure that there are economic opportunities for all Sri Lankans. After decades of socialism, several rounds of liberalization have since paved the way for 6% to 8% annual growth even amid a civil war.
As Colombo starts to grapple with those post-conflict problems, everyone else can take note: Thanks to a strategy of defeating the insurgency, Sri Lanka is now in a position to talk seriously about peace and economic growth. When negotiating with terrorists doesn’t work, Plan B is defeating them.
(Wall Street Journal)