Every day, rebel-controlled territory shrinks. The space for diplomacy is even smaller.
After 26 years of vicious civil war on the island of Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon in the British colonial era), the Sri Lankan government has decided to do what it once sought to avoid: destroy the fanatical Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) uprising in a relentless offensive. If the result is an ethnic and sectarian bloodbath, so be it. After all, "suicide attacks" are a Liberation Tiger trademark.
In 1983, Liberation Tiger fanatics began a separatist insurgency against the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government. The LTTE's leaders demanded a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamil ethnic minority. Religious divisions exacerbated the ethnic cleavage -- most Sinhalese are Buddhist, while the Tamils are Hindu.
United Nations officials believe that the Sri Lankan military has trapped some 50,000 ethnic Tamils on a sandy peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. The LTTE says 130,000 are there. Whatever the figure, the refugees are crammed in a slum of tents. With people packed so densely, one errant government bomb or artillery barrage, and the death toll instantly escalates.
Tamil political leaders who are not part of the LTTE call the situation "genocidal." Last week, Suresh Premachandran, of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), told the Voice of America that the Sri Lankan military had killed 10,000 Tamil civilians and wounded 20,000 since it began its "final offensive" against the LTTE. Leaders like Premachandran are attempting to look past the war to the political aftermath. Premachandran told the VOA that he believes the LTTE has fought for a "just cause," but "have committed excesses." While the government's offensive may destroy the LTTE as a guerrilla army, Premachandran argues the brutality has bred an embittering distrust among Tamils that damages prospects for a lasting peace.
As a description of the LTTE's legacy, "excesses" is gross understatement. Sinhalese domination of the Tamils is not a subject for dispute -- the Tamils have legitimate political, economic and social demands. However, the LTTE's history of fanatic and exotic violence has not led to liberation. The LTTE began employing "urban suicide terror bomb attacks" and suicide assassins against its enemies foreign as well as domestic before the Palestinians began use of similar homicide tactics in their intifada.
In a briefing I heard in the late 1990s, an intelligence analyst "credited" the LTTE with "inventing modern suicide terrorism." The claim is debatable, but the analyst's larger point is beyond dispute: The LTTE used suicide fanaticism as a demonstration of political will.
Terror, however, can backfire. Al-Qaida has learned that. In 1991, an LTTE suicide bomb assassin killed former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi. India had been torn by Sri Lanka's strife. Many Indian Tamils supported the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. Other Indians, however, were concerned about a violent secessionist movement establishing a precedent for ethnic separatism in South Asia.
Ghandi's murder, however, hardened Indian opposition to the LTTE, and it banned the LTTE as a terrorist organization. In 2006, a senior leader of LTTE apologized for Ghandi's murder. The apology was possibly a diplomatic appeal to New Delhi, with the goal of involving India in an effort to end the war. The apology sparked controversy within the LTTE. LTTE hardliners still regard Ghandi's murder as justified.
Now the LTTE is calling for "external intervention." No one seems interested. In the 1980s, India deployed a peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka, and it failed.
Jim Dunnigan, editor of StrategyPage.com, has been writing about the war since it began. According to Dunnigan, the government has pursued a "fight and talk" strategy with the LTTE, but it is now fed up. Over the last 20 months, the Sri Lankan military has chipped away at LTTE territory, and the LTTE is losing. "The LTTE has had to use coercion to maintain support from Tamils," Dunnigan notes. "It has had to shoot its own fighters to discourage desertion. People are tired of the violence."
When the government takes the last patch of LTTE territory, Dunnigan says, the guerrilla war will end, but some violence will continue. "The LTTE will linger as a terrorist organization, but one with little political support."
In this aftermath, the Sri Lankan government must act with compassion. Emergency relief, reconstruction aid and the inclusion of new Tamil leaders in a unity government are vital.