Sri Lanka, known in British colonial times as Ceylon, is a tear-drop shaped, picturesque island south of India’s Tamil Nadu province. Home to 21 million people, Sri Lanka is made up of a Buddhist Sinhalese majority in the south and central parts of the island. The Hindu Tamil population resides primarily in the north and eastern regions. Since 1983, the island has been the scene of horrific violence stemming from its population’s ethnic and religious differences. For over a quarter of a century, that violence has taken the form of terrorism attacks and guerrilla warfare—and has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of combatants and innocent victims alike.
As a young man in the service of his country, I served in Sri Lanka in the 1980’s, at a time when 80,000 members of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) roared into the north and eastern portions of the island. They arrived with the objective of enforcing a peace agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and a group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The peace agreement had been brokered by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Some years later, a young Sri Lankan woman would meet Gandhi, place a garland of flowers around his neck, and detonate a suicide belt wrapped around her body. The women—known as a Black Tiger—was an anointed suicide attacker for the LTTE.
The LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers, have been led these many years by the dictatorial Velupillai Prabhakaran. Under his leadership, the Tigers eliminated or absorbed six other Tamil militant groups by force early in the group’s history. Considered revolutionary in terrorist strategy, Prabhakaran employed every means of explosive delivery to include bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, boats and hang gliders. In the late 1980’s, he sent a squad of suicide fighters into Sri Lanka’s Katanayke International Airport with rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s) and destroyed the entire fleet of Air Lanka commercial aircraft as they sat astride the main terminal. Despite all of this—or perhaps because of it—Prabhakaran has enjoyed a measure of celebrity status and gained the attention of the international community. Numerous governments including those of Norway, Finland and the United Kingdom have tried honestly and earnestly to broker peace. But peace, like Prabhakaran himself, has remained elusive.
In reviewing the LTTE’s ruthlessness, it is worth making a brief aside. American politicians talk tough about fighting terror but few encounter personal risk in this regard. By contrast, a generation of Sri Lankan political leaders, and many others for that matter, have sacrificed their lives while confronting Tamil Tigers terror: Lalith Athulathmudulai, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Gamini Dissanayake to name a few. Of this group, Athulathmudulai was my favorite. He was the first non-British President of the Oxford Student Union in the United Kingdom. He also served as the National Security Advisor for Sri Lankan President J.R. Jaywardena. Athulathmudulai spoke the King’s English confidently and was a young South Asian version of Winston Churchill. He understood the nature of his adversary— Prabakaran—and knew that though diplomacy is always preferable, there are those with whom one cannot negotiate.
Today, it appears the Sri Lankan military has finally overrun the Tamil Tigers on the Jaffna Peninsula and sent the greatly advertised, steel-willed Prabhakaran into the jungle or in flight out of the country. Some speculate the mass-murdering Prabhakaran has fled to Malaysia or South Africa in order to blend into large South Asian communities in those countries. As the Sri Lankan military zones in on remaining LTTE forces, the removal of Prabakaran, if only temporarily, provides an opportunity to advance a needed dialogue between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. British Member of Parliament Liam Fox, the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party’s Shadow Defense Minister, is the most recent of negotiators involved in the conflict and needs to return to the troubled island quickly. M.P. Fox, a former military doctor, is well versed in the complex history of Sri Lanka, knows all the players intimately and is respected internationally.
Any viable plan to establish sustainable peace in Sri Lanka must include support to the Tamil populations of the North who have suffered tragically under Prabhakaran’s rule. The plan must also include provisions that allow for a level of autonomy for the Tamil people, guaranteeing the protection of their cultural and religious traditions. If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that timing matters. The provision of aid and establishment of security for a beleaguered population must come sooner rather than later. This will make all the difference in terms of reestablishing order and prosperity. And it may ensure a new generation of Tamil Tigers does not emerge.