At the end of May, a braided military gaggle will gather in
Colombo's swank Galidari Hotel to extract lessons from Sri Lanka's thorough
2009 defeat of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. The seminar on "Defeating Terrorism"
will lead foreign military guests through a series of helpful how-to-do-it
PowerPoint presentations. Perhaps out of this forum we can expect a more secure
Undoubtedly, the world is a better place without the Tamil Tigers. A fearsome and cultish adversary of Sri Lanka's always-struggling democracy, the insurgent organization very nearly brought the state to its knees over three decades of war. The Tigers blew up high-rise buildings, killed Sri Lankan President Premadasa, slew civilians, and wiped out a moderate Tamil opposition. They used children as fighters, recruited women as suicide bombers, and carved out a de facto "homeland" in the country's north. They deployed scuba divers, submarines, shallow-water attack craft, and even light planes in devastating raids. In 2001, they destroyed 26 Sri Lankan aircraft on Colombo's tarmac in front of startled holidaymakers. They decimated an Indian force sent to keep peace, and assassinated former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in revenge at his interfering temerity.
In 2006, under the capable political leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a galvanized Sri Lankan state and army finally pushed back hard. None pushed harder than the president's brother. As defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa put steel in the gloves of the Sri Lankan defense forces. After years of hedging, and now under contract to build a billion dollar port in the island's south, China came to the party with cash, arms, expertise, and diplomatic cover in the U.N. Security Council. At Sri Lanka's request, Iran, Burma, and Libya followed up with varying packages of support. The gritty Gotabaya, a former Sri Lankan army colonel and U.S. passport-holder, shook up the officer corps, refined frontline tactics, and forged the defense forces into a unified fighting machine. Morale soared, and victory followed upon victory.
By January 2009 the army had bottled up the Tigers in a shrinking pocket on the northeast of the island, along with around 330,000 civilians. Foreign military observers I spoke with at the time continued to insist that the guerrillas were militarily unbeatable -- they were just too tough and resourceful to be defeated on the field of battle. Western leaders dutifully called for restraint and reminded the warring parties of their obligations under humanitarian law. Iran supplied oil, while China supplied easy credit, easing the Sri Lanka government's worries that material and cash-flow problems might collapse their strategy as they resisted diplomatic pressure. Sri Lanka cracked down on domestic opposition, gagged the press, and excluded foreign journalists and humanitarian workers. It assured U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that it was not using heavy weapons.
Troops fought doggedly in what was by all accounts a dreadful fight through marshland, scrub, and jungle. Artillery units pounded the Tiger front lines. By May, squeezed into an area the size of a few city blocks, Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was dead, and the few remaining Tigers were in captivity. Sri Lanka regained complete control of its coastline for the first time in close to 30 years. Officials in Colombo proclaimed that their "humanitarian rescue" of Tamil civilians was complete, and that nary a drop of innocent blood had been shed. Alone among the nations of the world, Sri Lanka had succeeded in "defeating terrorism."
So far so good. But a panel of senior international judicial experts appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September 2010 has just come to a vastly different conclusion. In a report released this week, the U.N. panel has in effect outlined a prima facie case for war crimes. It alleges that both sides caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in just the last five months of the war. The government is blamed for a majority of the killing, as it shelled the Tigers with long-range artillery.
The report describes what it calls the "systematic shelling of hospitals" and says that the government also withheld life-saving humanitarian aid from civilians being held hostage en masse by the Tigers. It allegedly ordered the execution of most of the captured senior Tiger leadership as they surrendered. Trophy videos of the torture and killing of other battlefield captives began to leak shortly after the victory. It appears that alongside the government's much vaunted "hostage rescue," one of the larger war crimes of this century was discreetly committed.
That the government allowed itself to stray into unlawful warfare on the cusp of victory is something of a mystery. The Tamil Tigers were a spent force. For two years, the army had driven the Tigers' lines back steadily across the breadth of the island, without causing a grossly disproportionate loss of civilian life. It had synchronized bombardments that drove civilians away from the front lines with the dispatch of small commando teams that sowed disorder in enemy territory. Drones pinpointed Tiger artillery and hovered over columns of retreating civilians.