The fall of Kilinochchi to the Sri Lankan army is of great symbolic value. The town was the “capital” of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But more than the symbolism, it marks the quick collapse of an organization that had transformed itself from a guerrilla band to a force that could take on an army in open battle. That transformation has run its course and the dream of a separate motherland for the Tamils of Sri Lanka may well be at an end.
Militarily, the LTTE capsized fairly quickly. In January last year, the Sri Lankan government withdrew from the ceasefire agreement. By the time Pooneryn town in the north was captured in mid-November, the end was visible. That allowed government troops to control the northern part of the strategically important A-9 highway, behind LTTE lines in Kilinochchi. The end came in late December.
Illustration : Jayachandran / Mint
The foundations for the defeat, however, were laid much earlier. The LTTE sourced its troops, in the form of young boys, from a tired and harried Tamil population of the Jaffna peninsula and areas under its control. This pool was steadily drying up. But more importantly, in organizational terms, by 2008, the LTTE had lost all its founders and top commanders. The more grievous losses were self-inflicted. The murder in 1993 of LTTE deputy commander Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah on the orders of LTTE chief V. Prabhakaran was the first major blow. Now, a gulf separates Prabhakaran and all LTTE commanders of recent vintage: No one dares stand up to the “supreme leader”. No one can tell him about the strategic and tactical mistakes he has made or is making. For an armed movement fighting for a separate nation, such tendencies are fatal. The successes of the Lankan army are proof of this.
That, however, may not mark the end of problems for the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan establishment. The decades of bitter feelings generated by discriminatory laws (such as the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948, the standardization policy of 1973 that restricted Tamil intake into universities, the biased language policies) require more than mere tokenism of the kind witnessed during provincial elections last year. In fact, the demerger of northern and eastern provincial councils is viewed by Tamils as part of the “divide and rule” tactics perfected in Colombo. In any case, the strong unitary nature of the Lankan state is a barrier against any durable peace on the island. Meaningful autonomy to Tamils is the only way out. But that is unlikely in the triumphalist atmosphere that pervades the corridors of power in Colombo.
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