How US 'war on terror' emboldened Sri Lanka's
The Army appears on verge of crushing Tiger rebels.
Colombo, Sri Lanka
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.