Posted by: John Elliott | February 9, 2009

Sri Lanka’s government needs to make peace out of military victory

Will Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse replicate George W.Bush’s famous 2003 “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier performance and declare “victory” when his forces finally defeat the last of the Tamil Tiger rebels?

Does he, like Bush after the Iraq invasion, assume that a victory by the military will be the end of the story, and that the great mass of the Tamils will quietly go about their daily lives, causing no problems for the majority Sinhalese who run the government?

President Mahinda Rajapakse

President Mahinda Rajapakse

It looks as though he does, judging by his virtual silence and that of his brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, about what will follow a military victory – and their lack of concern for the plight of Tamil civilians caught in what looks like the last stages of the fighting. If that is so, there will only be a temporary victory.

One must however give the Rajapakse brothers credit for what they have achieved. It looks as if they are on the brink of defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which has waged a guerrilla war and launched terrorist attacks for just over a quarter of a century since the Tamils’ campaign for some sort of autonomy or independence in the north and east of the island escalated in July 1983.

When I was last there 13 months ago this victory seemed almost impossible, but that was because, like others, I under-estimated the government’s determination and the dramatic improvement in its military capability.

With military success in sight, it is not surprising that the government has ignored most of the pleas from the West for cease-fires that would give tens of thousands of Tamil people a chance to escape from the final battle areas. Too often in the past 25 years, potential military success has been undermined by cease-fires, the last of which ended in 2006. It is logical therefore for the Rajapakse brothers to continue the fighting until they have wiped out the rebels.

But sympathy and understanding for what the government is doing can go no further than that.

There is a huge humanitarian crisis in the areas where the final battles are being fought. More than 15,000 civilians are reported by the government to have fled from the war zone in the last three days.

Aid agencies have claimed that more than 200,000 civilians are trapped by the fighting in the area. The government disputes those figures and accuses the Tigers of preventing the non-combatants from leaving, and of using them as human shields.



Rivalry had been simmering for years before 1983 between the minority mostly-Hindu Tamils, who had been favoured under British rule that ended in 1948, and the Sinhalese majority who regard their island as a sacred Buddhist homeland.

Velupillai Prabhakaran, the reclusive and powerful leader of the Tigers, began a militant campaign in the early 1970s. In 1983,  Tamil Tigers killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers in the north, and Sinhalese rioters retaliated by burning and looting carefully selected Tamil homes and shops in Colombo.
I was there soon after, reporting for the Financial Times, and wrote that “troops and police had either joined the rioters or stood idly by” . A few days later, the then President Junius Jayawardene told me that “everything is back to normal”. But it wasn’t. Weeks of ethnic clashes followed, and then the years of guerrilla war that has led to over 70,000 people being killed.

It should have been possible to broker peace several times in the past quarter century, but efforts have repeatedly failed because of two seemingly immovable forces.

On one side has been Prabhakaran who wants nothing less than independence and only agreed to ceasefires when he needed to regroup and rebuild his forces. He whereabouts are now not known, but he no doubt hopes to fight back some time in the future with renewed attacks.

On the other side, Sinhalese self-serving and competitive politicians have tripped each other up over possible peace deals. They have seemed unable to resist hard-line anti-Tamil Buddhist monks whose backing for a military victory belies their religion.

No doubt the monks and other hard line Sinhalese will now celebrate the military success, and will be in no mood to concede anything to the Tamils in terms of autonomy.

This means that there is an urgent need for the government to take the lead and map out a constitutional future that will give the Tamils at least some form of regional autonomy. President Rajapakse has set up a commission to look into devolution possibilities and has talked of Tamils being given “equality and all rights”, but that will not be enough.

He should learn from Bush’s mistakes, and be ready to work for peace when a war is won.

This post is also on the Financial Times’ website –


  1. The ‘Forces’ that helped Sinhala Security to weaken the LTTE and help kill, maim,rape & torture the Tamil civilians should take responsibility of making sure that Tamils get their due rights i.e to live without fear, to live as equal to the Sinhalese ;without discrimination.
    The ‘forces’ I refer to is the Indian Government and others—including Great Britain,USA, EU

  2. I recently met an Ambassador to Sri Lanka from a influential country. He echoed your thoughts and felt that no one in Sri Lanka political establishment is listening to any of the statesman like behavior needed at this time.
    Being a Tamil and understanding the psyche, the need of the hour is healing touch. i do hope that countries like India, US, UK force the hand of Sri lanka before any aid is promised.
    Recently Sri Lanka and its agents have systematically eliminated any voices of reason.

  3. While I agree totally that there will be no lasting peace without a statesmanlike solution to the Tamil desire for a degree of autonomy and the need for immediate access for relief efforts directed towards the civilain population, realistically this will be politically difficult after the years of Tamil attacks on the south including on civilians. To be realistic, any Marshall type plan will have to have carrots for the Sinhalese as well as for the Tamils. I don’t think that it is only hard line Sinhalese monks and politicians who are cheering military victory but a vast majority of civilians outside the Tamil areas who have also suffered from insecurity and terrorism for the last 20 or so years. Pressure from the outside will have to recognise this and act accordingly to be effective.

  4. The SL government emphatically has secured a military victory, but whether it can switch its mindset, which it has to do, to secure the peace remains in doubt.
    If a humanitarian disaster is to be avoided the SL gov must now give priority to working in close harmony with international organisations and relief agencies, which it has not done while pursuing its military aims, to help the plight of the homeless, allow humanitarian assistance, medicine, water, basic infrastructure, schooling, integration into the wider community and economic reconstruction.
    A new constitution that protects minorities and is fair to all has to be pushed through as a priority, federal or otherwise.
    I hope I am wrong about my doubts about the government’s resolve but a Marshall, as in Marshall Plan, is needed and the govt must now collaborate fully with the many organisations that can and wish to help.

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