Sri Lanka's One Struggle Ends, Another Begins
A 25-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam officially ended Sunday, after the Tigers' leadership declared that "the battle has reached its bitter end" and announced the group's decision "to silence" its guns. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse had declared victory a day earlier, as military units had the Tigers cornered in territory measuring half a square mile, at the northeastern tip of the teardrop-shaped island. And the latest reports from the region claim that Tiger chief Vellupilai Prabakharan has been killed.
The Tigers emerged in the 1970s from an underground student movement that had been formed to defend Tamil rights from successive governments led Sinhalese Buddhists. The Sinhalese were a majority group that had resented British favoritism toward the mostly Hindu Tamil minority during the colonial period. By the 1980s, the Tigers had become one of the world's most sophisticated and lethal militant organizations, controlling large swathes of territory and capable of spectacular attacks by land, sea and air. But the group has been worn down by a 33-month battle with government forces, who are now busy with "mopping up" operations in the northeast.
Though Colombo has succeeded in putting the proverbial tiger to sleep by stripping the group of its conventional military capabilities, the Tigers may not be a wholly spent force. Instead, the veteran guerrillas more likely have been forced underground and will attempt to regroup. This effort could take quite some time, particularly in light of the leadership losses. However, we expect the guerrillas to rely on their skills and Colombo's continued marginalization of Tamils to melt back into the populace and revive their battle against the government through guerrilla tactics and militant attacks. Colombo's ability to defend against a Tiger revival therefore will depend less on troops and more on the ability of politicians to woo the Tigers' support base, with political and economic integration for the Tamil minority.
Sri Lanka's giant neighbor to the north, India, will play a prominent role in the island's postwar environment. New Delhi long has been trying to figure out the most effective way to consolidate influence over Sri Lanka. New Delhi, which faces competition from other foreign suitors, understands Sri Lanka's geopolitical potential. The island is situated astride the world's most strategic sea-lanes, connecting resource-hungry East Asia with the Persian Gulf. Trincomalee, one of the deepest natural ports anywhere, has been eyed by many foreign navies -- including those of the United States and China. Now that Colombo has gotten a handle on its insurgency, the door is open for foreign competition. And India is aiming for first place in this contest.
With its ethnic and religious ties to Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, India began an aggressive push for influence in Sri Lanka by providing covert support for the Tigers during the 1970s, under Indira Gandhi's government. The foreign arm of India's intelligence apparatus, the Research and Analysis Wing (at that time in its infancy), trained Tamil separatist rebels at camps in Tamil Nadu state and Chakrata, in Uttarakhand state. It provided the Tamil cadres with many of the skills that later earned the group its formidable reputation. But in time -- realizing that the Tigers had become too powerful -- India (under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) made a 180-degree policy shift, ending support for the Tigers and sending peacekeeping forces to help Colombo put down the rebellion. This move sparked a fierce Tamil backlash that cost hundreds of Indian lives -- including Rajiv Gandhi's. The Indians took a much more measured approach toward Sri Lanka afterward: New Delhi sought to balance overt support for Colombo without completely alienating India's own Tamil minority.
The groundwork now has been laid for India to harness Sri Lanka's potential as a major transshipment point for Indian Ocean commerce. Still, much remains up in the air. Whether Colombo can follow up its military success with a meaningful political campaign geared toward the Tamil minority remains unknown. And while the Indians are well ahead of their rivals in the geopolitical competition over Sri Lanka, New Delhi has a number of other distractions -- from a spillover of jihadist violence in Pakistan to internal Indian economic affairs -- competing for its attention.
It took 25 years of bloodshed to end the Tigers' ability to wage conventional warfare. It will take even longer for the South Asian country to fully to realize its geopolitical potential.