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The Indo-LTTE War (1987-1990)

An Anthology, Part III

The same fate overtook the many Madras regiments, not because of unrealiability but because, for no good reason, the British officers of the old Indian army had decided that the Madrasis and all south Indians were not ‘martial’...

It cannot be argued that the Sri Lankan Tamils are a specially tough, fierce species of the Tamil race. Nobody could have prophesied that the easy going Kampucheans or the money-loving Lebanese could be as belligerent as they have shown themselves to be. To use a Toynbeean concept, they were over the years, under a severe challenge and they made their chosen response. Economist, Oct 29, 1987

Part 1 of Anthology

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

The real secret behind Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to send the Indian army to Eelam territory in 1987 has been largely muffled by the Congress Party retainers and their media affliates, to protect Rajiv’s flawed legacy. It need not be stressed that Rajiv Gandhi’s violent death in 1991 also was used as a smoke screen to gloss over the failure of his Sri Lankan policy, which deviated from that of his predecessor and mother Indira Gandhi. The irony is striking in that Natwar Singh, one of the leading Rajiv retainers of that era who used to preach homilies to Eelam Tamils, has now been thrown out of the Congress Party led by Rajiv’s widow.

Troops of 13 Sikh LI traverse the roads of Jaffna on a T-72 tank of the 65 Armoured Regiment at the height of the fighting. Bharat Rakshak 1987 Jaffna

Troops of 13 Sikh LI traverse the roads of Jaffna on a T-72 tank of the 65 Armoured Regiment at the height of the fighting.

To the best of my knowledge, only Shelton U. Kodikara (the foremost Indian expert among the Sri Lankan academics) had shed some light on the delicate issue of how Rajiv was fooled to play into the wily Jayewardene’s hand, on the issue of landing the Indian army (a) to fight the LTTE, and (b) simultaneously relieve the Sri Lankan army, for services in the southern Sri Lanka to suppress the JVP rebellion. What Kodikara, in a 1995 academic paper, entitled ‘Genesis of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement of 29 July 1987’, had noted is worth quoting in length, since it also includes a segment of Rajiv Gandhi’s speech made at the Lok Sabha on July 30, 1987, immediately after the near-fatal assassination attempt on his life and public humiliation by a Sinhalese naval rating. The dots are as in the original. To quote Kodikara,

“There is one aspect of the Accord, which has hitherto received little attention, and which explains its timing as well as its security provisions. This relates to its military assistance provisions. The provision that the Government of India would provide military assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka at the latter’s request for the purpose of implementing the proposals in the Accord [para 2.16(c) of Agreement], and that ‘an Indian peace keeping contingent may be invited by the President of Sri Lanka to guarantee and enforce the cessation of hostilities, if so required’ (Annexe to Agreement, para 6) was intended to deal…not only with Tamil terrorism in the north, but also with a southern Sinhala insurgency which was threatening the Jayewardene regime. The Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), together with two other left parties, had been proscribed for alleged involvement in the ethnic violence of 1983, but while the proscription on the other two parties had been lifted subsequently, the JVP remained a proscribed party until May 1988. In the months preceding July 1987, the JVP and its military arm, the DJV (Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya or Patriotic Peoples’ Movement) had been active as an underground movement collecting firearms and engaging in political indoctrination. In December 1986, the Sri Lanka police set up a special Counter-Subversive Division to meet the southern insurgency. Already by April 1987, the JVP had begun a campaign alleging that the Sri Lanka Government was on the verge of signing a pact with India to divide the country, and urging all patriotic elements in the country to join or support it in the national liberation struggle against Indian imperialism and Eelam terrorism. The signing of the Accord led to an acceleration of JVP activity, to its acts of selective assassination, sabotage and anti-government propaganda. It also made it a much stronger political force than it had ever been before. That such a reaction to the Accord would follow seems to have been anticipated by President Jayewardene. He repeatedly stated one of its chief advantages to be that it permitted him to withdraw Sri Lankan forces engaged in battling Tamil terrorism in the north to deploy them to quell Sinhala insurgency in the south. Explaining the decision to send the IPKF to Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi also stressed India’s support of a Sri Lankan request.

‘President Jayewardene explained that because of the deteriorating situation as a result of (these) disturbances and the increasing demands that this puts on the Sri Lankan security forces, his Government would need assistance to implement the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement for ending the ethnic crisis. For this purpose the Government of Sri Lanka made a formal request for appropriate Indian military assistance to ensure the cessation of hostilities and surrender of arms in the Jaffna Peninsula, and if required, the Eastern Province. He also requested for air transport to move some of the Sri Lankan troops from Jaffna to points in the South. In response to this formal request from Government of Sri Lanka, and in terms of our obligations under the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, units of the Armed Forces of India have landed in the Jaffna Peninsula today.(i.e. 30th July 1987). Let me repeat that our troops have landed in Sri Lanka in response to a specific and formal request of the Government of Sri Lanka who have invoked our obligations and commitments under the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.’ [Lok Sabha Debates, vol. 29[54], 8th series (30 July, 1987), col.344]” [source: Contemporary South Asia, July 1995, vol.4, no.2, pp.171-185].

I present below the third set of chronologically-arranged newsreports that appeared in October-November of 1987, in the Asiaweek, Economist, Newsweek and Time magazines. These cover the first two months of the Indo-LTTE conflict. Some thoughts on the item which appeared in the Economist magazine of Oct.17, 1987, with the caption ‘Requiem for the Tigers’, falsely predicting the demise of “outnumbered and outgunned” LTTE at the hands of Indian army. ‘Even an elephant is bound to slip’ [Aanaikum adi sarukkum.] is a Tamil proverb. The material presented in this commentary presents evidence that not only an elephant but even the Economist magazine, the loudest mouthpiece of British imperialism, racism and snobbery, slipped in its predictions on the fate of Tamil Tigers.

At that time, the guy who covered the Sri Lankan scene for the Economist magazine was Mervyn de Silva, one of the finest journalists and analysts to lead the field in the island. By the magazine’s adopted (now hopelessly out-dated!) convention, the newsreports and commentaries in the Economist magazine appear unsigned. But as Mervyn de Silva also simultaneously served as the editor of his own fortnightly magazine Lanka Guardian, it is not that hard to identify the author of Economist commentaries of that period, from the journalistic style and the vocabulary used to cover the same events. Personally, I consider the ‘Requiem for the Tigers’ commentary (Economist of Oct. 17, 1987), a low point in Mervyn de Silva’s acumen. Maybe either due to time constraints, or to be in the good books of the diplomats, it seems Mervyn de Silva had simply swallowed the propaganda rope provided by the publicity division of the Indian embassy folks in Colombo, and abandoned his analytical skills temporarily. This is one of my favorite items, for it shows how the 1987 prediction of the Economist magazine went astray due to Pirabhakaran’s diligence and astute skills as a military tactician.

Indian troops embarking onto a Mi-8 Chopper in Sri Lanka. Bharat Rakshak 1987 Even the item which appeared in the Economist of Oct. 24, 1987, contributed by its “Ethnology Correspondent,” reeks of cliches and contempt for the LTTE. To quote a passage, “The Tigers have shown themselves to be fanatically brave, appallingly cruel and committed unto death; very much like the average Japanese soldier in the Second World War.” This unidentified “Ethnology correspondent” appears to me as a bookish egghead. But one thing is pretty sure that he/she wouldn’t have smelled the air of a battlefield. As an aside, I mention here that last month I had the occasion to meet with Prof. John Erdman, my American mentor, after 16 years. He had seen combat action in the Vietnam war. Though I have known him since 1981, he has been somewhat reticent to talk about his combat duty in Vietnam. This time, I asked him about what experience he treasures most, from his Vietnam combat days, and he told: ‘Those who croak much about battles and wars least know about it. In the battlefield, the difference between one’s life and death is just one foul up.’ This pretty well sums up the spins provided to the media by the Indian diplomats and journalists.

The nine newsreports and commentaries that appear in this part are (in chronological order):

Sri Lanka correspondent: Requiem for the Tigers. Economist, Oct. 17, 1987.

Ethnology correspondent: The making of a guerrilla. Economist, Oct. 24, 1987.

Angus Deming: India on the Attack. Newsweek, Oct. 26, 1987, pp.10-11.

Sri Lanka correspondent: The Other Side is Just as Bloody. Economist, Oct. 29, 1987, p.24.

India correspondent: The Other Tamils. Economist, Oct. 29, 1987, p.25.

Susan Tifft: What Price Peace? Time, Nov. 23, 1987, p.7.

Anonymous: Search for Serendipity. Asiaweek, Nov.27, 1987, p.19.

South Asia correspondent: Costly campaign. Economist, Nov. 28, 1987, p. 28.

Anonymous: A Welcome Pause. Time, Nov.30, 1987, p.7.

Wherever they appear, the dots and the words within parenthesis are as in the originals.

Requiem for the Tigers

[Sri Lanka Correspondent; Economist, Oct.17, 1987]

The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka are facing extinction. Like the great beasts they named themselves after, they were fighting tooth and claw this week against the Indian soldiers sent to disarm them, but it was a losing fight. They were outnumbered, outgunned, running out of supplies and, with the Indians blocking every exit, had no place to retreat to. Guerrillas are no match for orthodox battalions in a pitched battle, the sort that was taking place in the Tigers stronghold in Jaffna. By Thursday it was estimated that maybe 300 Tigers had been killed, for the death of 57 Indians. Never before in Sri Lanka’s civil war had the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, to give the guerrillas their formal name, taken such punishment.

The Indians clearly miscalculated. They thought they could convert the Tigers from terrorists into politicians. The Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Mr. J.N. Dixit, believed he was on the right track when he got the Tigers to agree to accept almost half (on some disputed accounts, a majority) of the seats on the interim council that is to run the new, merged province. In the end, India’s gentle handling of the Tigers proved a failure. Many Tigers had no taste for the agreement in the first place, and decades of mistrust and suspicion did not dispose them to listen to reason once it had been signed. They could not in their hearts abandon the aim of the separate state, and were going to kill and die for it as many of them have this week.

The Indians have found themselves sucked into doing a job that the Sri Lankan army was not – by India – allowed to do earlier. The 5,000 Indian soldiers who came to the island in August have now become 15,000. In Jaffna they have claimed to be using their heavy weapons sparingly, to protect civilians’ lives, and offensive air power not at all. The only aircraft over Jaffna seem to have been Sri Lankan ones on freelance missions. Officially, all of Sri Lanka’s armed forces were confined to barracks.

When they have won the battle of Jaffna, will the Indians win the propaganda battle that is part of it? The Tigers say the Indian troops have committed atrocities. This is almost certainly part of their desperate attempt to drum up support abroad, especially in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, which is home to 50m Tamils. Another sign of desperation was a reported offer on October 13th by the Tigers’ leader, Mr Velupillai Prabhakaran, to talk peace if the Indian would call off their offensive. They were never likely to do that. They wanted to finish the Tigers once and for all. Another truce, followed by another outbreak of fighting and the Indians could become as hated by the Jaffna Tamils as Sri Lankan soldiers are.

For the present they are not. Many of the Indian soldiers are themselves Tamils, from regiments recruited in the south of India. This helps to account for the relatively mild protest the Indian army’s offensive has drawn in Tamil Nadu, from which the Tigers have in the past received arms, money and moral support.

In Delhi there have been the inevitable quivers about ‘another Vietnam’. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has asked for parliament to be convened immediately for a debate on Sri Lanka. The government is being blamed for not thoroughly disarming the Tigers as soon as the peace agreement had been signed. But there is widespread support for Mr. Gandhi’s decision to be, at last, tough with the Tigers. Many Indians began to lose enthusiasm for the Tigers last month, when they killed more than 100 fellow Tamils belonging to rival organisations. The subsequent massacre of Sinhalese in Batticaloa confirmed the new scepticism.

The Indian soldiers in Sri Lanka are not there simply on a mercy mission, if that is the right phrase. The regional superpower will not allow persistent instability in its small southern neighbour, if that threatens to spread over the water into Tamil Nadu or to give other powers an opportunity to intervene. This is India’s backyard. Few Sri Lankans, Tamils or Sinhalese, have yet recognised this reality of the subcontinent’s politics.

*****

The Making of a Guerrilla

[Ethnology Correspondent; Economist, Oct.24, 1987]

The Indian soldiers trying to impose their authority in northern Sri Lanka spoke this week of ‘a final push’ against the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. Both sides were taking sharp casualties in street fighting which has moved steadily closer to the centre of Jaffna town; but there seemed little doubt that the 8,000 or more Indians would subdue the remaining Tigers.

All the same this was not the ‘peace keeping’ job India expected to do when it signed the agreement with Sri Lanka designed to end the civil war. The Tigers have shown themselves to be fanatically brave, appallingly cruel and committed unto death; very much like the average Japanese soldier in the Second World War.

Other smaller, less well-known Tamil groups have displayed the same charactristics when fighting the Sinhalese, or each other. Yet the conventional assessment of only 50 years ago, a short space of time in the history of race deemed them to be the exact opposite. One lesson to be drawn from the tragedy of Sri Lanka may be that it is foolish to pass judgement on what are said to be the inherent racial characteristics of a particular people.

The mother-community of the Sri Lankan Tamils is the Tamils of Tamil Nadu in south India, who used to be referred to, even by other Indians, as Madrasis. The East India Company, and after the Indian Mutiny in 1857 the British Raj conquered India by making large use of ‘native infantry’. These came from the Bengal and Madras armies; but after the mutiny the Bengal regiments were disbanded because of political ‘unreliability’. The same fate overtook the many Madras regiments, not because of unrealiability but because, for no good reason, the British officers of the old Indian army had decided that the Madrasis and all south Indians were not ‘martial’.

As late as 1933 Lieutenant-General Sir George Macmunn wrote that only 10% of the people of India, all of them in the north – Punjabis, Jats, Pathans – were ‘martial’. This was in line with ideas that had been held to be self-evident for the preceding half-century. That very distinguished officer of the British Indian Army, Field Marshal Lord Roberts, ‘Bobs Bahadur’, had insisted on basing recruitment to the Indian army on the martial-races theory; ‘The warlike races in northern India’ contrasted with ‘the effeminate races of the south’. These had been brave once but ‘years of peace, security and prosperity had upon them…a softening and deteriorating effect…The ancient military spirit had died in them.’

At the outbreak of the Second World War there was not a single infantry regiment in the Indian army recruited from anywhere in south-central India, the vast area that includes Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Another officer of the Indian Army, General Claude Auchileck, swept aside this non-historical racial nonsense  and revived the Madras regiment, which had a distinugished fighting record in the war and in India’s all-too-many wars since independence.

It cannot be argued that the Sri Lankan Tamils are a specially tough, fierce species of the Tamil race. Nobody could have prophesied that the easy going Kampucheans or the money-loving Lebanese could be as belligerent as they have shown themselves to be. To use a Toynbeean concept, they were over the years, under a severe challenge and they made their chosen response. It should not be argued, extrapolating from the guerrillas, that all Tamils are hard men. It has been bloodily shown that some can be.

*****

India on the Attack: Its troops close in on the Tamil guerrillas in Jaffna

[Angus Deming; Newsweek, Oct.26, 1987, pp.10-11.]

With the sudden fury of a blitzkreig, Indian peacekeeping forces set out to crush the Tamil guerrillas in Sri Lanka last week. In the north of the island, 6,000 Indian infantrymen with tanks, armored cars and heavy mortars closed in on Jaffna, the rebel stronghold. The defenders – some 2,500 militant separatists from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. But they fought back fiercely from a network of homemade bunkers, and they put up stiff enough resistance to halt the Indian offensive in its tracks. ‘The Indians may have underestimated the capacity of the LTTE,’ said a Western military expert in Colombo. ‘The Tigers have had four years to prepare for an attack on Jaffna, although they thought it would come from the Sri Lankan – not the Indian – Army’.

Casualties were surprisingly heavy on both sides. The Indians claimed to have killed 507 guerrillas in the offensive’s first week and to have taken more than 300 prisoners. But the attackers admitted to staggering losses of their own: 101 Indian soldiers killed, 300 wounded and 25 missing. Indian forces suffered some of their heaviest casualties in an assault on Urumpirai, a village four miles northeast of Jaffna. When Indian helicopters airlifted paratroopers into a nearby cemetry in an effort to flank rebel positions, Tiger machine gunners waiting in ambush laid down a withering cross fire, killing 30 paratroopers and wounding dozens more. Mines and booby traps took a further toll among Indian troops. Indian forces also suffered serious losses in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, where Tiger guerrillas staged hit-and-run raids on Indian and Sinhalese military targets. In one devastating attack near the town of Batticaloa, rebel commandos detonated a huge land mine beneath the trucks of an Indian Army convoy, killing 20 soldiers.

Indian officers attributed their own heavy combat losses to efforts to minimize civilian suffering during the offensive. Thus far, at least, Indian forces have had to attack without close air support and without artillery barrages to soft up guerrilla strongpoints. Instead, they have had to rely chiefly hand-held infantry weapons, such as automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, when attacking guerrillas hidden in fortified bunkers. Even so, the slow and costly offensive belied India’s overwhelming military advantage over the Tamil rebels. Though denied air support and artillery, the Indian troops still had tanks and 120-mm mortars at their command, as well as armored personnel carriers to ferry them safely through areas filled with mines and booby traps.

Journalists were barred from the combat zone and thus could not verify Indian claims of special efforts to spare civilian lives. But refugees arriving in Colombo from Jaffna estimated that more than 100 civilians had died in the fighting so far. Many residents in Jaffna and nearby villages heeded air-dropped Indian leaflets urging the northern peninsula’s 600,000 residents to take refuge in designated safe areas – usually schools and Hindu temples. Other civilians were caught up in the fighting. Many were forced to flee their homes and live outdoors in rainy weather. There were also reports of food shortages and a lack of sanitary facilities. Inside Jaffna itself, Red Cross officials reported appalling conditions. Food supplies were running out, they said, and infants were in danger of malnutrition. The Jaffna hospital had no electricity and had run out of oxygen, blood, bandages and medicines.

Four-day rampage: India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent his peacekeepers into action against the Tamil Tigers because the rebels and their militant leader, Velupillai Prabakaran, were sabotaging the Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord Gandhi had orchestrated last July. The rebels – who have waged a bloody four-year war to establish an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka – refused to give up their arms in accordance with the agreement. Prabakaran’s men also gunned down members of rival Tamil groups and, two weeks ago, slaughtered more than 200 Sinhalese civilians during a four-day rampage in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Gandhi clearly felt his honor – and that of Indian – was at stake, and he ordered his troops to fight back.

Though they inflicted heavy losses on Indian troops at Jaffna, the Tigers were cornered and knew it. According to officials in New Delhi, Prabakaran sent an urgent message to Gandhi last week pleading with him to call off the offensive and to open ‘a dialogue’. But India’s government had little sympathy for the Tamil rebels, particularly after reports circulated in India that guerrillas had mutilated and burned the bodies of Indian paratroopers shot down outside Jaffna. India’s response was to air-lift several thousand more troops to Sri Lanka, bringing the peacekeeping force there to a strength of 17,000 men. Indian naval vessels also stepped up their vigil in the waters between northern Sri Lanka and India’s Tamil Nadu Province – home to 50 million ethnic Tamils – in order to intercept arms or other supplies destined for the Tigers in Jaffna.

With food and ammunition running low, and with a naval blockade sealing them off from the sea, the rebels in Jaffna had few military options left. They may also have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Jaffna Tamils, many of whom support the peace accord and have grown weary of the Tigers’ violent ways. As a result, says one Western diplomat in Colombo, ‘the Tigers don’t have a long-term defensible position in Jaffna city. It’s only a matter of days before they either have to surrender or try to escape.’ Still, the Indian offensive could boost the Tigers’ flagging popular support and create the very thing the laboriously negotiated Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord was designed to eliminate: more alienation and more extremism among Sri Lanka’s embittered Tamils. [reporting by Ron Moreau in Colombo and Sudip Mazumdar in New Delhi]

*****

The Other Side is Just as Bloody

[Sri Lanka Correspondent; Economist, Nov.14, 1987, p.24]

Another bomb went off in Colombo on November 9th, the day before parliament began debating the controversial bills designed to give the Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka a measure of autonomy. The bomb, which exploded at the height of the rush hour in a busy street leading to the capital’s business district, killed 32 people and injured more than 100.

There might well have been far more deaths, for the bomb was as big as the one that killed 106 people in Colombo last April. But it is still uncertain whether passers-by were meant to be the victims – as they were in April, when the Tamil Tigers planted their bomb in a bus station – or whether this bomb went off while being taken to a different target.

Nor is it yet known who did it this time. Both the Tigers and the JVP (a once Trotskyist but now militantly nationalist Sinhalese group whose acronym stands for People’s Liberation Front) have denied responsibility. But the Tigers always disown such acts, even when they are responsible, and the JVP would not like to acknowledge killing ordinary Sinhalese civilians.

The government had just imposed tight security measures on the city. But it had done so mainly to protect its members of parliament, who had been summoned to provide the majority of two-thirds required to pass the two devolution bills (one to set up provincial councils, the other an enabling constitutional amendment). Many of them were put up in one of Colombo’s five star hotels and convoyed to parliament for the debate in buses escorted by armoured cars. The lake around the parliament building was patrolled by naval speedboats, and the public gallery was closed.

Despite the resignation of the respected minister of agriculture, Mr Gamani Jayasuriya, who is an ardent Sinhalese nationalist, the government had no trouble in mustering its majority. The week before, moreover, the Supreme Court had decided by a narrow majority that the government would not have to hold a referendum on the devolution bills (which, in the present embittered atmosphere, it would lose).

When the three-day debate began on November 10th, the JVP launched its expected campaign of sabotage throughout the island’s centre and south. Its targets were public property: electricity installations, roads, railways and telecommunications. On the first day there were widespread disruptions to power and rail services; on the second, student protests grew, but there were fewer attacks and little sign of popular support for the JVP campaign. The government seemed prepared to ride out the storm, believing that once the provincial councils bill had become law elections could be held and things would begin to simmer down.

In all the excitement it was easy for Sri Lankans in the centre and south to forget the Indian army’s battle against the Tamil Tiger guerrillas in the north and east. The Tigers’ resistance was waning. The government of India seemed willing to consider a ceasefire in Sri Lanka (it was starting to face some pressure for one from its own southern state of Tamil Nadu) so long as the purpose was to allow the Tigers to surrender their remaining weapons. It seems unlikely that they will agree to do that while their leader, Mr Velupillai Prabhakaran, is alive and free. But if, after even a brief ceasefire, the Tigers still refused to surrender their arms, the Indians would feel fully justified in wiping them out – if they could.

The crucial thing now, however, for both the Indian and the Sri Lankan governments, is to get the devolution bills signed, sealed and delivered. Then a new game can start. It is called politics.

*****

The Other Tamils

[India Correspondent; Economist, Nov.14, 1987, p.25]

Some of the shrapnel from Sri Lanka’s battlegrounds is beginning to land in Mr Rajiv Gandhi’s backyard. Critics on every side have been telling the Indian prime minister that by sending his army to take over Sri Lanka’s fight against its Tamil separatists, he has stepped into a minefield. The magazine India Today has just carried a cover showing a dead Indian soldier. Another prominent photograph showed a dozen dead Tamil civilians. Opposition members of parliament have had a walk-out to protest against Mr Gandhi’s Sri Lanka policy.

If the Indian prime minister starts running into serious trouble at home over this policy, he is likely to feel it first in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which lies just across the water from Sri Lanka. The state has 50m Tamils and used to give shelter and arms to the Tamil Tigers. With the Indian army now getting shot at by those same Tiger guerrillas, Mr Gandhi cannot afford to let Tamil Nadu return to its bad old ways.

The state’s Tamils understandably still feel sympathy for their Sri Lankan cousins. Last week in Madras, Tamil Nadu’s capital, young people took to the streets, made a human chain several miles long and chanted ‘Indian army stop killing Eelam Tamils’. But that is the worst Mr Gandhi has faced. For the moment he is saved by the effectiveness of the government’s anti-Tiger propaganda campaign in the state (which the Tigers’ own savagery makes easy), and by the support of Tamil Nadu’s popular chief minister, an ex-film star, Mr M. G. Ramachandran. He is Mr Gandhi’s most valuable ally among the mostly hostile politicians in India’s south.

But Mr Ramachandran (known as MGR) is seriously ill. Local newspapers make daily reports on the delicate state of his kidneys. The worry for Mr Gandhi is that MGR will die before the troubles in Sri Lanka do, thus throwing Tamil Nadu’s politics into turmoil. Already MGR’s main political rival, Mr M. Karunanidhi (who once wrote scripts for Mr Ramachandran’s movies), has begun a pro-Tiger agitation in the hope that it will help him in his bid for power when the old man dies. The sooner Mr Gandhi can beat the Tigers, the better for him – especially in Tamil Nadu.

*****

What Price Peace?

[Susan Tifft; Time, Nov.23, 1987, p.7]

‘The peace that is brought in by an alien conqueror does not provide the restful qualities of the real article,’ Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa told a packed Parliament in Colombo last week. The quote, taken from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had a ring of irony. And truth. Nehru was referring to Britain, which ruled a racially and religiously divided India for a century and a half, until 1947. Premadasa was alluding in turn to India, which last July joined Sri Lanka in signing an agreement aimed at ending a four-year battle by the island’s Tamil separatists for an independent homeland. Since that time India has discovered how difficult it is to be a gurantor of peace in a foreign land.

The point came home with deadly force last week when a bomb, probably planted in a moving bus, exploded in Colombo’s bustling Maradana commercial district. The toll: 28 dead and 104 injured. The blast damaged 21 vehicles, broke the windows of nearby buildings and strewed chunks of human flesh up to 20 yards away. ‘It was terrible,’ said a bystander. ‘There were parts of people and blood all over the place.’

The terrorist attack came on the eve of a debate in the Sri Lankan Parliament on two bills that would provide for provincial councils in the predominantly Tamil areas of the north and east, thus giving them a measure of self-government. The primary suspects were the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But authorities did not rule out the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, a militant band drawn from the ethnic Sinhalese majority. The JVP opposes Tamil autonomy as well as what it perceives as Indian encroachment on Sri Lankan sovereignty. Although the bombing victims were mostly Sinhalese, the JVP may have cynically calculated that the Tamils would be blamed, thus provoking a well-timed backlash against the parliamentary bills.

Security was unusually tight the next day as phalanxes of rifle-wielding troops lined the road leading up to Parliament. Sinhalese extremists had threatened legislators from Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene’s ruling United National Party with death if they voted for even a limited measure of Tamil autonomy. Not that the President’s forces were unanimous in supporting the bills. Agriculture Minister Gamani Jayasuriya angrily resigned from the Cabinet after he was prevented from taking part in the debate because of his opposition to the proposals. By week’s end, however, the bills passed by a vote of 138 to 11.

As the legislators met, Sinhalese militants, suspected of being members of the JVP damaged power and telecommunications installations, rail lines and state buildings. These acts of sabotage, coupled with student demonstrations and hunger strikes, convinced the government that the Sinhalese protests could be violent and long lasting. Rather than fight two separate civil insurgencies, Colombo late last week sent feelers to the JVP offering to life an official ban on the outlawed group in exchange for a renunciation of violence.

Ironically, even moderate Tamils do not approve of the laws that Jayewardene’s supporters risked their lives to pass. As for the militant Tigers, their spokesmen did not bother to comment on the new laws. ‘They will make the bills irrelevant,’ predicted a Tamil lawyer in Colombo who feels the Tigers have not given up their dream of a separate state. In effect, the Tigers wield a veto over the whole peace process: elections to the newly established provincial councils cannot take place until they voluntarily surrender their weapons or are disarmed by Indian troops, neither of which appears imminent. [reported by Qadri Ismail in Colombo]

 *****

Search for Serendipity

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, Nov.27, 1987, p. 19.]

Police were routinely searching vehicles in Sri Lanka’s eastern Amparai district Nov.14 when they became suspicious of the couple. The man had claimed he was Sinhalese, but an identity card in his wallet showed he was Tamil. He and his female companion were detained for questioning, and their car searched. That’s when police found a timing device often used in making bombs. The two were immediately suspected of complicity in a massive explosion that had ripped through a Colombo district Nov.9, killing 29 people. Suddenly, while his companion was being interrogated, the man pulled out a cyanide capsule from the seam of his trousers and swallowed it. The dead suspect was later identified as a guerilla belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Tamil separatist group fighting a seven-year war against the majority Sinhalese. Police also established that the lethal blast was the Tigers’ handiwork.

The explosion was the latest in a series of violent reactions to a controversial Provincial Council Bill. The legislation, passed by Parliament on Nov.12, fulfils a major clause in the India-Sri Lanka peace accord: merger of the island’s Eastern and Northern provinces. The July 29 pact promised limited autonomy for Tamils in the North and East, where they predominate. In accord with that pledge, the Council Bill grants all provincial assemblies, including those in central and southern Sri Lanka, additional governing powers.

However, it has been vigorously opposed both by the Tigers and by Sinhalese hardliners. Following a Tiger terrorist campaign, Indian peacekeeping forces last month launched a major offensive against the Tamil rebels in northern Jaffna peninsula. Since then, by official count more than 230 Indian soldiers and at least 800 rebels have died in fighting.

Now, a virulent Sinhalese backlash to the Council Bill has pushed news of Indian-Tiger skirmishes to the back pages of local newspapers. Even as Parliament debated the legislation, Sinhalese hardliners went on the rampage, wrecking railway tracks and damaging power lines. One day before the bill was made law, Gamani Jayasuriya, a bitter critics of the peace pact, quit as agriculture minister. Although the resignation was an embarrassment for President Junius Jayewardene, it had little impact on the bill’s passage through Parliament, where the ruling United National Party (UNP) has a two-thirds majority.

Sinhalese anger against the bill, however, is by no means spent. Indeed, observers believe that Sinhalese terrorist groups such as the Deshapriya Janatha Viyaparaya will soon step up attacks against UNP legislators. In the months since the peace pact, more than 70 UNP supporters have been killed by activists of the DJV and its parent, the outlawed Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Aware of the dangers, the government has allocated 150 ‘home guards’ to each ruling party parliamentarian. The MPs are responsible for arming and training them as personal bodyguards. Criticism of these ‘militias’ by opposition politicians has angered government legislators. Snapped one: ‘[The oppositionists] don’t wake up every morning thanking God for letting them live through the night.’

A chilling response to the anti-UNP backlash is the recent emergence of pro-government goon squads. Dubbed the Green Tigers (the ruling party’s colour is green), they have begun prowling the south, openly threatening people opposed to the peace accord. The Green Tigers are believed to be responsible for at least one killing – that of Fr. Michael Rodrigo, a Roman Cahtolic priest who ran an innovative youth movement in southern Buttala district.

Interestingly, the JVP and other disaffected factions figured prominently in Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel’s budget speech last Tuesday. ‘What good does it do to ban [these groups]…just because they do not happen to be closely associated with the party in power?’ said the minister. However, he called up the JVP to lay down arms and eschew violence.

On the financial front, de Mel in his eleventh consecutive budget speech projected a deficit of more than $1 billion for the new fiscal year. In his latest budget, the cost for rehabilitation and reconstruction of war damaged areas ballooned government expenditures to $2.8 billion, against revenues amounting to only $1.6 billion. Income and wealth taxes were slashed by 10%, while taxes on tobacco, alcohol, cigarettes and cosmetics were increased. Import duties were also relaxed in a bid to bring the tariff structure closer to standards laid down by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

To make up the deficit, de Mel is banking on gleaning $750 million in foreign grants and loans, and an additional $440 million from domestic savings and commercial borrowings. But all this, warned the finance minister, would only be possible if the country regained its lost serendipity, a play on the ancient name for Sri Lanka – Serendib.

Indeed, in just four years of ethnic turmoil the economy has suffered a loss of $1.8 billion. As de Mel and other financial advisers see it, a financial recovery will only be possible if the New Delhi-backed peace plan is fully implemented. Although India’s 20,000-strong forces have broken the Tigers’ hold on Jaffna, the militants are far from vanquished. Late last week they released a group of captive Indian soldiers, but New Delhi has refused to accept their call for a ceasefire. India wants a total surrender of arms and an unconditional acceptance of the accord. As of last week, the Tigers were still holding out.

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Costly Campaign

[South Asia Correspondent; Economist, Nov.28, 1987, p.28]

There was a chance for peace in Sri Lanka last week. On November 19th the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam handed over 18 Indian soldiers captured in Jaffna in October. The Indians responded by declaring a 48-hour unilateral ceasefire, starting on November 21st.

However, India could not accept the terms that the Tigers demanded to negotiate a timetable for surrendering their arms. They insisted that the Indian peacekeeping force should pull back to the positions it held before the fighting began seven weeks before, and stop its patrolling and search operations. This would have meant handing Jaffna town back to the Tigers. Members of other Tamil organisations, and the Muslims and Sinhalese in the east, would have been left defenceless.

So the Indian force resumed operations on November 23rd. It had already penned many of the most battle-hardened guerrillas into two areas north and north-west of Jaffna. To the north, it has encircled Vadamarachi, the Tigers’ political nerve centre. To the north-west, the Tigers’ main formations are said to be trapped in two villages, Moolai and Suthumalai.

Their encirclement was completed in the two weeks before the ceasefire, as part of an Indian change of tactics that has apparently paid off. The Indians concentrated on making house-to-house searches to unearth arms caches and keep the guerrillas on the run. These tactics seem to have induced those Tamils who had no love for the Tigers to offer the Indian force more help. A spokesman for the Indian army claimed that in the eight days before the ceasefire the flow of information to the force had sharply increased, enabling it to seize 75,000 rounds of ammunition and large quantities of explosives; enough to cripple the Tigers’ bomb-making capacity.

The Indian government now favours a swift campaign because it thinks the Tigers are less interested in making peace than in making propaganda for their cause among their fellow Tamils in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu. The Tigers had insisted on handing over their Indian prisoners in the presence of journalists from Madras, Tamil Nadu’s capital.

India hopes to declaw the Tigers by seizing their arms caches rather than by destroying the guerrilla bands themselves. For one thing, there are fears in Delhi that, if the Tigers were wiped out, the Sri Lankan government might be less willing to carry out the India – Sri Lanka agreement under which Tamil areas will be granted a degree of autonomy. For another, the fighting has already cost the Indian army dear.

Privately, Indian defence ministry officials concede that 500 soldiers were killed in northern Sri Lanka (twice the number publicly acknowledged) and almost as many wounded; 25 of the dead were officers. The Tigers’ casualties, on the Indian count, have also been high. The Indians have taken 480 prisoners and estimate the number of guerrillas killed at more than 600. But the Tigers are still picking up recruits. The battle for Sri Lanka is far from won.

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A Welcome Pause

[Anonymous, Time, Nov.30, 1987, p.7.]

For the first time in more than a month of fighting, residents of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula awoke to relative peace last week as India called a 48-hour ceasefire in its battle against Tamil guerrillas. The pause affected more than 20,000 Indian troops, brought in to enforce a peace accord between New Delhi and its southern neighbor. The agreement is aimed at ending the four year-old civil war between the Sri Lankan government and an estimated 2,000 rebels, who have refused to lay down their arms in exchange for promises of increased local rule for the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

The cease-fire came just a day after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the largest rebel group, freed 18 captured Indian soldiers. The release was preceded by a series of inconclusive negotiations in which the Tigers sought a pull-back of Indian troops while India stuck to its demand for the rebels’ unconditional surrender. K. Natwar Singh, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, called the release a result of his government’s ‘firmness coupled with a willingness to keep the door open for negotiations.’ At week’s end Tiger Leader Velupillai Prabakaran reportedly pledged that the Tigers would turn in their arms if New Delhi would ‘provide adequate protection’ for them. Prabakaran was expected to go to India for talks on the peace pact.

Continued...Part IV

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