Sri Lanka: under siege but intact

On a visit to the island, US Undersecretary of State Pickering encourages rebels to negotiate.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Tamil Tiger separatists stampeded a Sri Lankan stronghold called Elephant Pass on April 21, most experts wrote the epitaph for the unity of Sri Lanka and its Army. Armed with rocket launchers, 5,000 Tiger soldiers overwhelmed 40,000 Sri Lankan troops and in three days took a position the Army had captured only after 17 painful months.

It seemed only days or hours before the ferocious Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the most feared and efficient guerrilla groups in the world, would roll into Jaffna city. Located near the tip of Sri Lanka's Tamil-majority northern peninsula, Jaffna is considered by Tamils to be the mythic capital of a greatly desired independent Tamil homeland, or "Eelam."

Yet in the past two weeks, the Sri Lankan Army has begun to do what no one expected: They have started to fight back.

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Journalists are barred from the fighting areas, but reliable sources report that the military has been rearming. It's using satellite imagery provided by the West to detect guerrilla positions, and it has stalled the Tigers' three-pronged attack in northern Sri Lanka. Early in the week the Army had, at least temporarily, driven the guerrillas from Chavakachcheri, a key city.

"The momentum has shifted in the past week," says Ajay Behera, an expert on Sri Lanka at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "If the LTTE was going to take Jaffna, they were going to have to do it quickly. They can carry out a conventional war for only a short period of time. The LTTE is a great fighting force, and they may still take Jaffna. But they are not an army, and they are now exposed on the field."

To the ethnic majority Sinhalese government of Sri Lanka, which has battled the LTTE since 1982, the taking of Elephant Pass was a devastating loss - capable of dividing the tropical island nation, creating political and economic chaos, and adding to the instability of an already unstable region.

The LTTE, led by brutal warlord Vellupillai Prabhakaran, had never captured the strategic pass, a redoubt built by the Dutch that overlooks a narrow highway connecting the Sri Lankan mainland with the tiny peninsula.

The potential fall of Jaffna has caused concern in India, just across the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka, and in the international community. The US State Department has labeled the LTTE a terrorist organization. The Tigers, operating often with young boys and girls who join suicide mission groups, have assassinated dozens of Sri Lankan officials, a president, defense ministers, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as well as much of the moderate Tamil leadership.

After Elephant Pass was overrun, debate in India was thick over whether to intervene. But in recent weeks, India has bowed out of any military role short of possibly helping Sri Lankan forces to withdraw - largely due to negative public opinion based on India's last troubled experience in Sri Lanka.

In 1987, as the LTTE was on the outskirts and about to take Jaffna, Indian forces did intervene and quickly found themselves in a quagmire against the expert jungle fighters of the LTTE. The Tigers took Jaffna in 1990 when Indian troops withdrew, and held it until December 1995 when Sri Lankan forces recaptured the city.

Whether Mr. Prabhakaran can actually realize a homeland and administer it, however, is problematic, even if he takes Jaffna. The LTTE is almost exclusively a military group.

Also, no international state seems willing to recognize an Eelam. This week in Sri Lanka, US Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering stated unequivocally that the US supports the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

Tensions between the 18 percent Tamils (12 percent native, 6 percent from Tamil Nadu in India) and the Buddhist Sinhalese majority are complex and longstanding. The Tamils, who flourished and were favored under British colonial rule, say they have suffered discrimination since independence in 1948. For years, mainly between 1972 and the mid-1990s, they complained of being second-class citizens - with few jobs, language restrictions, a discriminatory new Constitution in the 1970s, and an open "Tamil-crushing" policy by Colombo in the 1980s.

Ironically, it has been the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga that has gone furthest in trying to redress Tamil grievances. Mrs. Kumaratunga, who survived an LTTE assassination attempt in December, has put her political future on the line with a "war for peace" strategy that promises to devolve federal powers to outlying states.

Should Jaffna fall after what even Sri Lankan officials admit was a lapse of judgment in not preparing troops for an attack on Elephant Pass, the effect on the country would be demoralizing in the extreme. Observers in Colombo worry about a backlash against Tamil civilians in the south. Sri Lanka's Parliament is due to be disbanded in August prior to an election. But with a series of losses at the hands of the Tigers, including a major defeat last November in the central part of the country, it is questionable whether Kumaratunga would find a majority on her side.

"I think you would have a split government in a split country," says a Delhi observer. "The country could become ungovernable at a very weak moment."

Colombo hopes that the LTTE will sit for talks, mediated by Norway, but so far it has not responded. Last week Kumaratunga even suggested that Prabhakaran could be a chief minister in a new confederal state.

Much depends on the fighting taking place in the fields and villages around Jaffna. Sri Lankan officials discovered in April that many of their jets and helicopters are missing spare parts; a Sri Lankan diplomat says that Colombo has earmarked $100 million for purchase of weapons. Last month, Colombo reestablished ties with Israel, which had been suspended in 1970. Israel responded by selling several jets and gunboats to Sri Lanka, which have played a role in the Army's ability to stall the rebels.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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