NEW DELHI: In early 2006, shortly after he took charge as Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary in his brother’s Cabinet, Mr Gotabhaya Rajapakse submitted a long list of expensive war equipment he wanted to purchase.
Many, including newly installed President Mahinda Rajapakse, were surprised.
‘All of you will start with hopes of talking peace with the Tigers and when you realise it is futile, you will come to me,’ the Defence Secretary responded, referring to the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
‘I cannot wait until that moment. I need all this now to be fully prepared.’
Once it finally dawned on Colombo that the Tigers would never accept anything less than an independent state despite the occasional ceasefires and posturing for peace, there was only one option left. This was a full-court press by the military and the use of overwhelming force.
It was a policy that would come with a heavy cost. Last year, the military even stopped giving out its casualty numbers, fearing a public backlash if the figures were known. When the full story emerges, those numbers may well be frightening.
As Sri Lankan troops, bolstered with equipment bought from India, China, Pakistan and Russia, bashed on, they began to meet with success. Thanks to intelligence inputs provided by New Delhi, Tamil Tiger supply lines were broken. For the first time in years, the army, which had seen heavy desertions in the past, saw young Sinhalese queueing up to enlist.
This week, the result of that policy is being celebrated in Colombo. The Tigers have surrendered after a quarter-century of violent insurrection. Their chief Velupillai Prabhakaran is dead and so is the rest of the Tiger leadership.
‘This battle has reached its bitter end,’ the Tigers said in a statement on Sunday.
With that ends a bloody conflict that has cost more than 70,000 Sri Lankan lives in battles, suicide attacks and assassinations. It was a war that held back the immense potential of this strategically placed Indian Ocean island and prevented it from emerging as a larger version of Singapore at the tip of the Indian peninsula.
Sri Lanka could have ended the conflict three weeks ago, but President Rajapakse, mindful of the impact that a Prabhakaran death would have on the election prospects of India’s Congress party in Tamil Nadu, held back the troops.
Once Tamil Nadu completed voting on May 13, the President left for an overseas trip leaving a simple order for his military: Finish the job before the next government is installed in New Delhi.
And so ends one of the world’s longest running conflicts.
Never again will the ‘boys’, as the guerillas are called, be able to regain the military muscle that saw them running their own virtual administration across some 15,000 sq km in the north and east of the island.
Limited guerilla strikes may well continue sporadically, with the remnants of the movement finding some sort of support from a sullen Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. But rebuilding the Tiger war machine looks next to impossible.
Tamils all over the world will probably feel a twinge of sadness at Prabhakaran’s passing. After all, he successfully turned a mild-mannered and meek people into a formidable fighting machine, willing and able to stand up for their rights.
However, there comes a tide in the affairs of every insurgency movement when it begins to lose its original moorings and moves in a direction more aligned to the personal interests of its leadership.
The Tigers reached that pass long ago, when Prabhakaran began wiping out several key Tamil figures, including some of his own senior cadres, when they disagreed with him or appeared to be less than loyal. His hubris was such that he even dared wipe out a former Indian prime minister, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, fearing that Mr Gandhi would return to power.
Towards the end, his struggle for Tamils increasingly looked like a massive joke, especially when the rebels held thousands of Tamils hostage and fired at those seeking to flee to safety.
Like Mr Kim Jong Il in a food-short North Korea, pictures of the chubby Prabhakaran and his son Charles Anthony contrasted sharply with the weary, starved look of his cadres and the Tamils he supposedly was protecting.
In its hour of victory, Colombo would do well to heed two pieces of cautionary advice.
First, it should not allow triumphalism to overcome good sense. If Sri Lanka does not immediately sit down to working out an honourable peace for its Tamil minority, the hard-won war will only be replaced with a brittle peace.
Secondly, Colombo will do well to ponder what led the country to its current situation. In the 1980s, then President J. R. Jayewardene’s move to grant permission for a Voice of America transmission facility on the island, the lease of an oil tank farm in Trincomalee to a company that was a front for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other such measures triggered insecurities in the late Indira Gandhi. It led the then Indian Prime Minister to start meddling in Sri Lanka’s ethnic cauldron.
Given Sri Lanka’s strategic perch on the East-West sea trade route, it may well emerge again as a focus of Big Power play, now that peace is at hand. It would be a pity if a future government in Colombo made foreign policy miscalculations that once again provoked malefic forces to hurt it.
While sovereign nations have a right to their policy choices, it is wise to heed the insecurities of neighbours, especially one as huge as India.