Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wall Street Journal on Sri Lanka's Victory Over Tamil Tigers

I never understood why the US and the so-called "international community" insisted that Tsunami aid be funneled to the Tamil Tigers, thus reviving a moribund terrorist movement a few years back. We visited Colombo in 2003 and saw the roadblocks, heard of the 60,000 dead in the civil war, visited the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy where terrorists had machine-gunned worshippers. The Tamil Tigers invented suicide bombing, were trained by the PLO and supported by the USSR, and for a while by India (there is already a Tamil state in India). When the Soviet Union collapsed, it looked like the end...but instead so-called "humanitarian" NGOs and Western governments rushed to their support in the wake of the Tsunami... and prolonged a horrible civil war until its end (we hope) a few days ago by a decisive and crushing military attack.

Strangely, even the Wall Street Journal doesn't seem to understand that the West is partly responsible for the problem, that ongoing negotiations with the Tamil Tigers just made matters worse. Crushing them--and backing the Sri Lankan government--should have been PLAN A, not PLAN B, IMHO. Nevertheless, the paper has the only halfway reasonable commentary that I've read to date, so here's an excerpt from today's editorial:
How Sri Lanka got here is worth recounting. The island's conflict started in 1983. After Sri Lanka's independence from Britain, the ethnic Sinhalese majority pursued many discriminatory policies against the Tamil minority: a Sinhala-only language policy, preferences for Sinhalese in university admissions and government hiring, and the exclusion of Tamils from the police.

The war quickly became more about Prabhakaran's determination to form an independent Tamil state under the exclusive control of his Marxist Tigers than about those Tamil grievances. The Tigers killed many moderate Tamil politicians who would have been willing to cooperate politically with Colombo.

Prabhakaran made extensive use of suicide bombers -- including a teenage girl who blew herself up to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 -- and relied heavily on child soldiers. Sri Lanka's conflict has claimed 70,000 lives by most counts. It should have been clear early on that government negotiation would go nowhere with such a committed killer.

Mr. Rajapaksa, elected in 2005, put an end to the "peace process" with Prabhakaran and focused on winning the military fight. In 2007, with the help of a Tiger splinter group, the government subdued the Eastern Province; the first elections were held there last year. The fighting then moved to the North. It has not been cheap or easy. Military spending in the 2009 budget is $1.7 billion, 5% of GDP and 20% of the government's budget.

Colombo also learned lessons from its earlier failures. The military improved its training in counterinsurgency tactics, and Colombo invested the resources to enable the army to hold territory it won. Moves by the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries to freeze Tiger fundraising among the Tamil diaspora helped weaken the Tigers. Mr. Rajapaksa wisely ignored international calls for a ceasefire as he got closer to victory, including threats from the Obama Administration to block $1.9 billion in International Monetary Fund aid money.

The government now faces a potential humanitarian crisis in housing, feeding and clothing the more than 200,000 Tamil civilians who have fled the fighting. Sri Lanka has to more fully address the political grievances of moderate Tamils and ensure that there are economic opportunities for all Sri Lankans. After decades of socialism, several rounds of liberalization have since paved the way for 6% to 8% annual growth even amid a civil war.

As Colombo starts to grapple with those post-conflict problems, everyone else can take note: Thanks to a strategy of defeating the insurgency, Sri Lanka is now in a position to talk seriously about peace and economic growth. When negotiating with terrorists doesn't work, Plan B is defeating them.
More on Sri Lanka from the BBC website, which describes how Western aid to Tamil Tigers has affected "hearts and minds" of the Sinhalese:
Beijing has provided huge stocks of weapons to Sri Lanka in the last few years, at the same time as it has been building a new deep water port on the island's southern coast.

It has not gone unnoticed that China's oil supplies from the Middle East pass through the waters of the Indian Ocean, along the sea lanes just south of Colombo.

Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict has lasted nearly three decades

And now that China has helped Sri Lanka defeat the Tamil Tigers, it may be looking to call in a few favours, as it slowly extends its influence across the region.

All this at a time when the Sri Lankan authorities are casting around for new friends.

They have bitterly resented Western criticism of their conduct of the war.

Suggestions that the treatment of civilians demands an investigation into possible war crimes are angrily rejected.

Those who speak out are quickly condemned, no matter who they are. A few days ago an effigy of UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband was burnt outside the British High Commission in Colombo.

"Tamil Tiger Headquarters" said the graffiti spray-painted onto the wall.
UPDATE: Christopher Hitchens has some reasonable points to make about Sri Lanka in Slate:
I also became vaguely aware that, behind the general litany of Tamil complaints and grievances, many of them justified, there was another force altogether. It was referred to in rather hushed tones as "the Tigers," and its sympathizers could often be detected by their habit of referring not to Sri Lanka or even to Ceylon but to "Eelam": the name of a future Tamils-only state. Unwittingly, I was present during the early stirrings of this organization—which had a good deal of support, as irredentist and ultra-nationalist movements so often do, among the diaspora. There are many high-earning communities of Tamils in other countries of the British Commonwealth as well as in Europe and North America, and their support was a major contributing factor to the duration of Asia's longest insurgency or (if you prefer) civil war: one that may possibly just have ended.

Even if you add the two recognized Tamil populations of Sri Lanka together, they do not amount to even one-fifth of the overall population. But at the height of their desperado militancy, a decade or so ago, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, controlled perhaps one-third of the country's territory, including the Batticaloa-Trincomalee coastline in the east and the Jaffna peninsula in the north. There was never any possibility that the Sinhala parties, or indeed many of the urban Tamils, would accept such a fait accompli. Nor was there any chance that China and Pakistan would allow such an obviously strategic island, with its former Royal Navy harbors and ports, to become partitioned in favor of a minority with such strong links to India.

Under the leadership of the late Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE enormously overplayed its hand. It established a dictatorship in the areas it controlled and recruited both child-soldiers and suicide-bombers. One of the latter even assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991: a truly suicidal thing to do, given the need of the Tamils for Indian sympathy. The hardening of Sinhala sentiment, the inevitable splits and defections that arose from the Jonestown style of Prabhakaran, and, perhaps above all, the acquisition of warplanes and other materiel from China and Pakistan eventually gave traction to the central government in Colombo. Deciding to fight as a conventional army that belonged to a separate state, the LTTE has now been defeated as a conventional army, and its state has ceased to exist. Not since the British defeated the Malayan Communists, who were too much restricted to the Malay Chinese population, in the 1940s and 1950s, has any major Asian rebellion been so utterly defeated.

There remains, as there always did, the question of the Tamil population itself. It doesn't seem overwhelmingly likely that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's victorious regime, currently engaging in a spasm of triumphalism, is in the strongest position to offer a hand to the civilian Tamil leadership. But it would be a very agreeable surprise if it did.

It's just not true, as some liberals tend to believe, that insurgencies, once under way, have history on their side. As well as by nations like Britain and Russia, they can be beaten by determined Third World states, such as Algeria in the 1990s and even Iraq in the present decade. Insurgent leaderships often make mistakes on the "hearts and minds" front, just as governments do, and governments are not always stupid to ban the press from the front line, tell the human rights agencies to stay the hell out of the way, and rely on the popular yearning for law and order. It can also be important to bear in mind, as in Sri Lanka became crucial, that majorities have rights, too.