The Forgotten War


It spans nearly three decades of brutal conflict and occasional fragile peace, and has cost over 70,000 lives so far. It is one of the longest wars to have gained further momentum under the global "war on terror" umbrella following September 11; and it has some direct impact in Australia, with two people arrested in the last two years under the controversial anti-terrorism laws for allegedly supporting one of the warring parties.

Does anyone know which country I’m referring to? If you rely on the Australian media for your news, you can probably be excused for answering "no".

Sri Lanka’s 25-year war is one of the less covered stories in Australia’s main media outlets, despite the fact that it’s in our region, and that over 100,000 people of Sri Lankan origin now live here. This contrasts with coverage of the 2004 tsunami, where a quick check of leading News Limited and Fairfax outlets shows just under 140 stories focussed on the disaster in Sri Lanka — that excludes over 320 stories on the tsunami Asia-wide in which Sri Lanka was mentioned.

The war in the past year, however, checked in at around 30 stories, unevenly spread across those same outlets, with the largest proportion focussed on battlefield updates; Sri Lankans caught in asylum procedures came in second with around 20 mentions. (Searches were done using the Factiva database, for those interested.)

The drama of the tsunami, and Australian involvement in its reconstruction, made it a powerful, human story. Yet since 2005 the war has taken over, and effectively subsumed a lot of the tsunami reconstruction process. Perhaps it’s simply too complicated, and too distant, to easily tell this story to an Australian audience.

It’s certainly complicated. (A good short summary of the decades-long conflict’s origins can be found here.) And right now, the country is at a decisive stage.

The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) has captured broad swathes of territory over the past two years. In July 2007 they drove the last permanent bases belonging to the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) out of the country’s east. More recently they captured the last LTTE-controlled town on the northern west coast, Pooneryn thus cutting a supply link with possible independent support networks in nearby India. Now SLA troops are just a few kilometres from the Tiger’s political and administrative capital, Killinochchi, and are advancing on several fronts. (A Ministry of Defence map proudly shows their stated progress, including a miniature animation of territory captured over time in the top right corner.)

In public, the Sri Lankan Government and military officials are exuding confidence that they will soon defeat the LTTE on the battlefield. Army Chief Fonseka has been reported as saying that "about 80 per cent of the war" has been completed, and the fall of Killinochchi is described as "imminent". This would be a major event in our region, both for sheer humanitarian significance — even now an estimated 300,000 are believed displaced by the conflict in northern — and for a Government that would then claim triumph in its own "war on terror" (something that has so far eluded more powerful states).

But is a definitive victory really imminent? The LTTE are certainly on the back foot, and some commentators see their battlefield defeat as a real possibility. But maps can only show so much. "The recapture of Killinochchi has been in the news for well over four to five months now," says Iqbal Athas, who writes the Sunday TimesSituation Report defence column. "[T]he rebels have been holding out so far." He also points out that while Killinochchi is of enormous significance, the LTTE’s military "epicentre" is not the town itself, but in Mullaitivu further to the east. And the LTTE has lost Killinochchi before. In 1996 the SLA captured the town as part of a sustained campaign lasting several months — but in the end they lost almost all that territory in a few short days to an overwhelming Tiger counter-attack.

A comprehensive 1990s-style military offensive by the LTTE is less likely this time around. Colonel Hariharan, a former Indian intelligence officer who now writes on Sri Lanka for the South Asia Analysis Group, believes the LTTE will rely more exclusively on conventional guerrilla tactics — which would in effect take them back more than 20 years.

Athas notes that the Tigers have extended their already considerable capacity to strike civilian and military targets outside the battlefield, including in the most southern areas of the country — multiple bombs in the capital Colombo and elsewhere have created the need for nationwide security precautions. And there’s still the suspicion that the LTTE maintain the capacity of a large-scale "game-changing" single attack that could profoundly alter the conflict — as happened when they attacked the international airport in 2001, or the capital’s Central Bank in 1996. And of course, even as the SLA captures territory, it then has to occupy it at least until a replacement police force can be recruited, trained, and installed — a long, complicated, and expensive process.

Crucially, Sri Lanka’s economy is also struggling. Inflation of consumer goods prices has jumped from under 6 per cent in 2005 to over 15 per cent in 2008, and the global financial crisis can only make this tougher. In the meantime, defence expenditure has increased from $US1.5 to 1.6 billion for 2009, a staggering 18 per cent of the state budget.

Athas is not the only one to wonder if the economy can sustain the conflict over many more months. "[T]he more [the LTTE]delay the military’s advance … they’re also wearing the economy down in a big way… All this is going to have a cumulative effect." In 2002 it was a war-inspired recession, together with a military stalemate, that forced both parties to the negotiating table to sign a Cease Fire Agreement (CFA).

Yet a more fundamental question is not just whether an SLA victory is possible, but rather: what would it mean? When full-scale fighting over territory resumed in August 2006 after four years of relative peace, despair swept over much of the island nation. Renewed conflict didn’t only mean another round of killing – it was also the death of many people’s hopes that the fighting could be resolved by negotiation. Although the 2002 CFA had by then become degraded through repeated violations, it had still provided the longest stretch of something resembling peace since large-scale violence began.

(I say despair, but many segments of society had been agitating for war, including members of political parties. The current President, Mahinda Rajapakse, won election in 2005 on an agenda backed by pro-war parties. Rajapakse’s administration says it will negotiate with the LTTE if the separatists lay down their arms, clearly a rhetorical proposal only, and intended to reinforce Government commitment to a total victory.)

And so the country is plunging ever-deeper into a human rights crisis, where zero-sum logic dominates and the goal of "defeating terrorists" overwhelms all else. Sri Lanka’s Government stands accused of involvement in and links to ongoing, egregious human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings, disappearances, intimidation, and actively encouraging a culture of impunity. Sometimes violations have been justified as an unavoidable part of security measures — it is a war, after all. Yet abuses take place not just in battlefield areas, but across the country. They have included occasions of wholesale roundup and detention of Tamil neighbourhoods in Colombo, and bouts of kidnapping and disappearances, particularly in Tamil areas.

Concerns are dismissed out-of-hand, with critics denigrated and attacked as traitors, LTTE cats-paws, or stooges for international donors and agencies (who, it is averred, aim to undermine national sovereignty). Media is particularly targeted, with journalists, editors, other staff and their institutions suffering attacks that include murder, kidnap, arson and more; none of these cases have gone to court.

Victories are claimed, but civil society continues to be deeply damaged. Alternative points of view are largely overwhelmed in public fora by the cry to defeat the terrorists, which overwhelms human rights concerns — something we’ve all seen reported from many other places. It also misses too much of the mark: while the LTTE has certainly committed multiple terrorist acts, including pioneering the use of the "suicide bomber", these acts are employed as one set of a range of tactics. The LTTE is a sophisticated military, political, and administrative organisation, and to simply denote its members as "terrorists" obscures much of the organisations’ operations and genesis.

Zero-sum means that supporters of each party point to a list of violations and accusations committed by the other to justify their side of the conflict. The idea of negotiations with the LTTE is scoffed at by several analysts, who assert that they’re a militant organisation unable to shift to political transition. Yet it’s equally hard to imagine a peaceful, just democracy under the current regime, which has built its political fortunes on mobilisation for war. Deeply concerned, Human Rights Watch successfully campaigned against Sri Lanka’s bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council because of its worsening record.

Victory would vindicate the current approach — that is, victory with impunity for those committing violations, not only on the battlefield but beyond it. Such a version of a "war on terror" is inimical to the democracy it supposedly defends, and extends the same logic that generated the conflict in the first place. That’s just a hair’s breadth from ensuring that the conflict cycle and its attendant abuses, with or without the LTTE in its exact current form, will continue.

A tragic and harrowing conflict that’s complicated, difficult, and involved? Yes. Difficult to fit in mainstream formats, for general audiences? Most definitely — this article is way beyond the space available in most outlets. Yet it’s in our region, it’s part of the "war on terror" at a national level, and it has intimate personal relevance to many of our citizens. It wouldn’t hurt us to know a little more.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.