Tamil Tigers on the retreat?
The conventional wisdom has long been that the Tamil insurrection in Sri Lanka cannot be brought to an end by military means. Events in recent weeks culminating with the capture yesterday of a key town would seem to be proving this wrong. The retaking of Pooneryn which has been occupied by the rebels for 15 years is significant because it means that there is now a direct link northward with the government-held city of Jaffna.
The Sri Lankan military does not permit independent reporters in the conflict zone. They admitted that though Pooneryn had been taken, the Tamil Tigers were putting up fierce resistance outside the town. The strategy now seems to be to push eastward toward Kilinochchi, said to be the key administrative center for the Tamil rebels.
Government forces have clearly been buoyed up by a growing list of successes against the rebels in the past months. Diplomatic observers say that better trained troops using more suitable tactics against seasoned Tamil fighters have partly been responsible for the successes. There have not been reports of the suicidal front assaults that were once tried by unimaginative commanders with the consequential heavy losses and damage to morale.
But there may be a sense in which the Tamil Tigers are contributing to their own defeat. More than 30 years of conflict have not gained the rebels the separatist state they want. The rebellion that began after the Tamil minority felt they were being marginalized by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, has seen periods of stability and relative peace but Tamil society has struggled in isolation. Even though Tamil school children emerge highly politicized and eager to continue what they have been taught is a righteous struggle, wiser Tamil heads are fed up with the violence and lack of opportunity. They have also had enough of the dominance of Tamil Tiger commanders who run a society constantly on a war footing. There was considerable hope on both sides of the divide following the 2002 signing of a cease-fire after long and patient mediation by the Norwegians. That agreement should have turned into a peace deal in which the Tamils would have obtained a degree of autonomy within a united Sri Lanka. That it did not was largely due to the intransigence of Tamil leaders.
If the government is indeed on the verge of victory, it should be thinking now of how it will handle the peace. This has been a terrible war. The defeat of the Tamil Tigers' conventional forces will probably lead to low-level guerrilla violence. Guerrillas must rely of locals to survive. If Colombo creates a peace that includes some autonomy and does not lead to the humiliation of defeated Tamils, that support is unlikely to be forthcoming. Handle Tamils insensitively and the seeds will be sown for a future insurrection. All this, however, is to assume that Sri Lanka's military is on the verge of smashing Tamil Tiger power. These advances may be unprecedented but the Tigers have proved themselves resilient and resourceful and they may yet reverse their defeats.
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