- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 30, 2009



After 16 years and 70,000 dead, one of Asia’s longest-running civil wars has come to a bloody end. In a relentless campaign since January that alone produced 8,000 civilian dead and 265,000 refugees, the government forces of Sri Lanka pounded their nemesis, the Tamil Tigers, into half a square mile on the northern coast before overrunning the remnants of a once-lethal guerrilla army.

Killed in the final days of fighting were the Tigers’ elusive and wily leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran and his top commanders. Their defeat was total, but now it is up to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that defeat is permanent by addressing the concerns that led to the insurgency in the first place.

Like many insurgencies, the Tamil rebellion was grounded at the outset in legitimate grievances. When Sri Lanka - the teardrop-shaped island at the foot of the Indian subcontinent - became independent, the largely Buddhist majority Sinhalese rampantly discriminated against the largely Buddhist minority Tamils. Sinhalese got preferences for education and jobs, and their language was declared exclusive in the government and the culture.

The Tamils rebelled and proved extremely resourceful fighters. For a while, they had a de facto government with courts, police and radio and TV stations in the north of the island. But under Prabhakaran, who envisioned a Marxist state, the movement morphed into a terrorist organization, and many nations finally recognized it as such.

The Tigers forged links with other terrorist organizations, including, it is purported, al Qaeda. Prabhakaran, in fact, is credited with pioneering the suicide belt and the use of women as suicide bombers. The Tigers assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and a year later the president of Sri Lanka.

There was a cycle of truces and cease-fires, none of them lasting, until 2005, when Mahinda Rajapaksa, until then prime minister, became president. Mr. Rajapaksa, with his two brothers - one the defense minister, the other a senior adviser - was determined to prosecute the long-running war to its finish.

They greatly increased defense spending, bought weapons from nations including China and Pakistan that would sell to them, and launched the largest offensive of the war, barring journalists and international aid organizations from the embattled enclave and ignoring international calls for negotiations.

The Rajapaksas succeeded but now need major international aid, the price of which should be the Sri Lankan government making Tamils full members of Sri Lankan society while allowing them their language, culture and a decent autonomy.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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