Friday, January 11, 2008

Wall Street Journal: Rajapakse's Big Bet


REVIEW & OUTLOOK

Sri Lanka's civil war has been raging for more than two decades, but President Mahinda Rajapakse is now betting he can win it. After formally withdrawing from peace talks last week, his government commenced a major offensive in the Tamil Tigers' northern stronghold. This is a risky gamble, by many measures.

Mr. Rajapakse is right to argue that it's well past time to end to the conflict. More than 70,000 people have died so far, with more than 5,000 perishing in the past two years. Last week's assassination of Thiyagarajah Maheshweran, a Tamil member of the opposition United National Party (UNP), plus a roadside bombing in Colombo on the same day, triggered the abrogation of the cease-fire.

Mr. Rajapakse is also right to note that the Tigers aren't negotiating in good faith on behalf of the Tamils, a minority ethnic group. The Tigers -- also known by their formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -- employ child soldiers and target civilians. The U.S., European Union, Canada and Australia all label the group a terrorist organization and have cracked down hard on its funding.

Yet despite this moral high ground, Mr. Rajapakse and his party, the People's Alliance, have done little to win over moderate Tamils -- the surest way to undermine the Tigers. After a terror attack in Colombo in June, for instance, the government rounded up hundreds of Tamils and literally bused them out of town. After last week's political assassination, more than 200 Tamils were hauled in for questioning. Meanwhile, tongues are wagging about Mr. Maheshweran's death: Just before he died last week, the Tamil legislator publicly threatened to unveil evidence of government involvement in human rights abuses in Jaffna.

In hindsight, Mr. Rajapakse's commitment to the negotiated cease-fire has always been shaky. He won office in 2005 largely by vowing to take a tougher line with the Tigers than his predecessor. His government has done little to reach across the aisle and draft a political solution, not to mention legislation to address discrimination against Tamils by the majority Sinhalese. Part of the blame goes to Mr. Rajapakse's weak political coalition, which is heavily reliant on the support of the hawkish People's Liberation Front.

Now, the military solution is all Mr. Rajapakse has left, and it's not a sure bet by any means. The army is taking on the Tigers where they're strongest -- in the north. The military also hasn't consolidated its recent victories, particularly in the Eastern province. That, plus the uptick in bombings in the capital -- the Minister for Nation Building, another Tamil legislator, was killed by a car bomb in the heart of Colombo on Tuesday -- doesn't inspire confidence.

Meanwhile, it's ordinary Sri Lankans who are suffering. The Colombo bomb attacks are scaring away tourists. Investment is in decline, and the stock market is listless. The Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which monitored human rights violations during the truce, is pulling out of the country.

Mr. Rajapakse declared last month that "there is no point in talking about a political settlement without first defeating terrorism." That's true. Mr. Rajapakse may yet prevail in the military battle in the north. But if he doesn't figure out a lasting political solution, he'll never win the war.

Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal

1 comment:

  1. And figuring out a lasting political solution will be next to impossible upon the total decimation of the LTTE – as extremist Sinhalese-Buddhist sentiments are then certain to ascend in their power thereby destroying the conducive political environment essential for the evolution of a solution. It would be a case of back to the future.

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