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Story Publication logo September 4, 2008

Closing in on the Tigers' Lair



Sri Lanka is a byword for beauty and tragedy. Even the wholesale devastation of the Asian tsunami...


The 25-year old war between the Sri Lankan army and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has entered what the government calls a "decisive and impressive" phase in its "war for peace". On September 2nd the government reported it had overrun an important Tiger bastion, Mallavi, killing dozens of rebels and bringing the army one step closer to their headquarters at Kilinochchi, seat of their brutal leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Claims of imminent victory have come and gone in the war against the Tigers, who are fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of the Sinhala-majority country for the Tamil minority. But this latest offensive has unprecedented momentum.

The Tigers are responding. Hundreds of miles from the front lines, security in the capital, Colombo, is intense. Under pressure, the Tigers habitually resort to terror tactics. On August 30th a package exploded in a crowded market in central Colombo, wounding 45 people. The attack was blamed on the Tigers. In another defiant gesture, they had on August 27th used their primitive jerry-built air force to attack the Sri Lankan navy at Trincomalee.

Since January, when it scrapped a tattered Norway-brokered ceasefire and vowed to crush the Tigers by the end of the year, the government has poured $1.5 billion dollars into an all-out offensive. It claims to have killed more than 6,300 rebels and, according to a spokesman quoted in the press, reduced their last stronghold in the Wanni region by nearly three-quarters. Draconian media restrictions make the claims impossible to verify.

In the process, some 145,000 northern Tamils have been displaced by daily gun battles and shelling between two sides with poor human-rights records. The United Nations says this figure could climb above 200,000 in the violent weeks ahead. Human-rights groups say the Tigers are forcibly recruiting women and children to fill depleted ranks, as well as moving families to serve as human shields against the military onslaught. President Mahinda Rajapakse is not deterred. He has said his forces will not turn back "until every inch of land is recaptured and each and every terrorist is killed or captured."

A stalemate held until June, when forces finally punched through rebel lines to seize the strategic Mannar peninsula. On July 16th an important naval base was overrun, followed by four more bases. The army now has to seal the north-west coast to cut a vital Tiger weapons supply-line from southern India, and simultaneously drive up the eastern flank, which has put up stiff resistance. The army says advance units are now within artillery range of Kilinochchi, where Mr Prabhakaran is believed to be hiding in an underground complex. The last of the Tigers' elite cadres are believed to have dug in for a final showdown. A fierce fight is expected.

The Tigers are under financial as well as military pressure. Their once ample war chest has shrunk. At their peak they are estimated to have raised as much as $300m a year, nine-tenths of it abroad. But a worldwide crackdown on their fund-raising operations and weapons procurement has hurt. Millions of dollars in assets have been seized or frozen. Meanwhile, joint India-Sri Lanka naval patrols of the Palk Strait between the two countries has reduced the inflow of desperately needed arms, provisions and materiel.

Sri Lanka's soldiers hope to crush the Tigers as a standing force by the end of this year. However, some observers note the current offensive has yet to encounter the full might of the rebels, who have in the past ceded territory as bait to draw in government troops. The rebels still have hundreds of hardened fighters. There is even talk of chemical weapons.

Even if the Tigers are soon broken as a conventional fighting force, they might regroup in remote northern jungles to wage a protracted guerrilla war. This would mean a greater reliance on terrorism to "bomb themselves back onto the agenda", according to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think-tank in Colombo. The market bombing could be a sign of worse to come.

President Rajapakse's war up north may soon be won, and a flag planted in Kilinochchi. But an end to the broader conflict will be elusive until his government tackles the economic, cultural and political grudges that have long fuelled Tamil nationalism. And the victory march is itself creating new resentments—in the traumas endured by thousands of Tamils now trapped in the northern war zone.

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