How US 'war on terror' emboldened Sri Lanka's

The Army appears on verge of crushing Tiger rebels.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Sri Lankan soldiers walked on a road in the Puthukkudiyirippu area, where fighting between the Sri Lanka army and the Tamil Tigers has taken place, in northeast Sri Lanka on February 28, 2009.
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In 1992, Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa retired from the Army after two decades in uniform. A year later, he moved to Los Angeles and began working in IT. In 2001, he heard President Bush declare that "you're either with us or against us" in the global war on terror.

Mr. Rajapaksa didn't need convincing. The decorated officer – today Sri Lanka's defense secretary – had long ago concluded that his own country's fight against extremism, which broke into civil war in 1983, required a military solution by a united front.

"The lesson that I have learned is that peace talks will never go anywhere.... Tell me a place where this has worked," he says.

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After a massive buildup of troops and equipment, Sri Lanka appears on the verge of victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. If successful, It will have succeeded where others in the region, such as India and Pakistan, have failed in putting down an armed rebellion by force.

Behind Sri Lanka's war machine is Chinese military hardware, foreign intelligence sharing, and a focus on military professionalism. "They've insulated the way the Army operates. It's purely military logic," says a Western diplomat in Colombo.

The government has also tried to clamp down on LTTE overseas funding, with limited success. While the United States has frozen two Tamil charities as terrorist fronts, European countries have dragged their feet, say Sri Lankan officials.

To its supporters, including exiled Sri Lankan Tamils, the LTTE are freedom fighters. That view had sympathy in India, home to more than 60 million Tamils, and in the West, whose governments sought to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table, most recently in 2002.

But a hardening of global opinion against the kind of violent tactics used by the LTTE has emboldened Sri Lanka to revive its own war on terror. Its chief architect is Rajapaksa, who returned as defense secretary after his elder brother, Mahinda, won the presidency in 2005.

Sri Lanka's allies were skeptical that it could take on the Tigers, says foreign secretary Palitha Kohone. A Swedish general who had commanded NATO forces in Bosnia and who led a cease-fire monitoring mission to Sri Lanka told him they had no chance. Other diplomats here shared this gloomy view.

"We didn't expect the LTTE to collapse so soon. They'd built such a reputation for themselves as being invincible," says Mr. Kohone, a former UN diplomat.

That reputation was sustained by generous funding from Sri Lanka's Tamil diaspora, who live mostly in Canada and Britain and are estimated to number about 800,000. Many fled the country after anti-Tamil riots in 1983 and are loyal backers of the LTTE's fight for self-rule.

Exiles also show up in the opposite camp. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is a US citizen after 12 years there. Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka holds a green card. Researchers point out that just as exiled Sri Lankan Tamils often cling to hard-line positions on homeland politics, so do those in the majority Sinhalese community, like Rajapaksa. And, in a mirror of the LTTE's fundraising, Sri Lanka's Central Bank has begun selling "Patriotic Diaspora Bonds" to support postwar reconstruction.

War on terror's other front: critics

The success on the battlefield has been shadowed by another campaign, that of clamping down on critics of the war. Since 2006, attacks on Sri Lanka's media have spiked, and a once-vibrant civil society has been largely muted. Last week, a Tamil newspaper editor was arrested and accused of links to the LTTE. In January, the outspoken editor of an opposition newspaper was shot dead in Colombo, the capital.

As defense secretary, Rajapaksa has equated criticism with treason, and he makes no apologies for silencing anyone who undermines the fight against terrorism. "You can't win a military campaign without the public support. You can be a genius or a hard person or whatever, but you can't win unless you have the public support," he says.

Sri Lanka's authoritarian tilt comes as the Obama administration tries to redefine its fight against militancy and lift the lid on the cost of war, in terms of spending and lives. By contrast, officials here refuse to update casualty figures or reveal details of a roughly $1.6 billion military budget. The war and the global downturn have squeezed the nation's finances, forcing it into talks on an International Monetary Fund bailout.

China and Pakistan are the military's largest suppliers of arms. In 2007, Congress halted US military aid to Sri Lanka over its human rights record. However, the US and India have supplied intelligence on LTTE ship movements, which has helped Sri Lanka choke off illegal arms imports.

South Asia is home to many insurgencies that have resisted military solutions, from communist rebels in India to Islamic militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

'Deep wounds and scars' for Tamils

Critics say the emphasis on crushing the LTTE comes at the expense of a political solution to longstanding grievances. They warn that a triumphant government could renege on past promises to devolve power to the Tamil-speaking north, spawning another generation of alienated youth.

"I don't think a people can be beaten down by force. What has been happening in the latest military operation has left deep wounds and scars in the minds of young Tamils," says R. Sampanthan, an opposition lawmaker.

Government officials argue that political reform can only happen after the fighting stops. They point to provincial elections held last year in the east, which the LTTE surrendered in 2007, as proof of their intent. In that vote, an LTTE defector was elected as chief minister.

The removal of the LTTE may open up space for political alternatives in Tamil communities, says Alan Keenan, a senior analyst in Colombo for the International Crisis Group. "But that requires the government to let Tamils speak freely, to hear them and to respond, even if they criticize government policies. That's what they've yet to prove willing to do," he says.

President Rajapaksa is expected to call early elections this year to capitalize on the war's popularity. His coalition relies on right-wing Sinhalese parties that oppose concessions to Tamils. A personal mandate could give him room to be bold, says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.

"Mahinda Rajapaksa has a unique opportunity to go down in history as a grand unifier of the country, to fashion a coalition that forges a political settlement along devolved, power-sharing lines," he says.

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