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Kilinochchi and after

On November 27, 2008, Velupillai Prabhakaran, supremo of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, proclaimed in his annual Heroes’ Day message that the Sinhala state was “living in a dreamland of military victory.” He promised that it was “a dream from which it will awake.” A month earlier he had declared the capture of Kilinochchi — the LTTE’s administrative hub and de facto ‘capital’ following the loss of Jaffna in 1995 — to be “a day dream of Rajapaksa.” The realisation of this dream in the New Year is a body blow from which there can be no recovery as far as anyone knows. This is true in a political as much as military sense. Militarily, the LTTE has taken a continuous battering over the past two years. President Mahinda Rajapaksa did give it a window of opportunity to return to the peace talks. But after the success of the Mavil Aru operation — provoked by the Tigers’ foolish act of blocking the sluice gates — there was no stopping the Sri Lankan armed forces. In 2007 they rapidly evicted the LTTE, which had been fractured and weakened by the Karuna revolt, from the province. More surprisingly, over the past year the Sri Lankan army, backed effectively by the air force and navy, has made dramatic inroads into LTTE-held territory in the Northern Province. The capture of Kilinochchi was delayed owing to the presence of a large number of civilians, torrential rains, and the government’s determination to avert collateral damage. President Rajapaksa has done well to emphasise that the military achievement was not a victory of “one community over another” or a “defeat of the North by the South” but “a decisive victory over savage terrorism.”

Post-Kilinochchi, the armed forces are all set to zero in on the bases of the Tigers in Elephant Pass and Muhamalai across the Jaffna peninsula. It is only a matter of short time before the cadres of the LTTE are confined to the jungles of Mullaithivu. The organisation will still have some residual fighting capability — in the guerrilla mode and also through its trademark human bomb terrorism. The other resource it will be counting on is the civilian human shield within the small territory it still holds. The Sri Lankan government reckons that there are about 100,000 civilians trapped behind the LTTE lines but some other estimates put the number considerably higher. Whatever be the actual number, the basic needs and safety of Tamil civilians in the Mullaithivu war zone must be the paramount concern. President Rajapaksa, who has instructed the armed forces to follow a ‘Zero Civilian Casualty Policy,’ has pledged that his government would accept responsibility to ensure civilian “safety and freedom” now and in the future. The military victories need to be consolidated, more or less simultaneously, by addressing the legitimate grievances of the Tamils and generating a consensus for an enduring political solution to the ethnic conflict. Meanwhile, it is clear that the situation has developed to a point where no political bail-out package can help Prabhakaran’s organisation come out of its existential crisis — the gravest it has faced in a quarter century of armed struggle.

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