*A Pyrrhic Victory? The ‘End’ of the LTTE and the ‘Tamil Question’

The Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, has proclaimed the end of the three-decades old civil war that reportedly has taken more than 100,000 lives. In a speech to the nation, Rajapakse has declared that Sri Lanka has achieved a military triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or, as they are commonly known, the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE leadership has been killed, and among the dead are, reportedly, the secretive Prabhakaran, who forged a unique if ferocious and unrelenting fighting force and led it in a bitter war to the end with the Sri Lankan army and state; Pottu Amman, the LTTE’s intelligence chief; and Soosai, commander of the Tiger’s naval forces.

Many more details of the last stage of the war will surely emerge as human rights organizations and journalists, who had hitherto been barred from the scenes of military action, swoop into the pockets of northeast Sri Lanka from where the Tigers staged their last futile acts of resistance. But this much is already clear: in its drive for military supremacy, the Sri Lankan army put tens of thousands of Tamil civilians at great risk, often in sheer defiance of calls to ensure the safety of civilians, and the 7,000 odd Tamils who lost their lives in the last stage of conflict stand forth as mute testimony to the reckless disregard for human life shown by both the Sri Lankan army and the Tigers. The Sri Lankan army claims, as official armies generally do on such occasions, that the Tigers used the civilians as ‘human shields’; the Tigers, on the other hand, allege that the Sri Lankan army, in its single-minded and bloody pursuit of a victory that had seemed ever so elusive, was determined that nothing, not even the lives of innocents, would be allowed to stand in the way of total victory. That both views should have some credibility is evidence enough of the reputation that both the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers had deservedly acquired for brutality, senseless killings, and the callous disdain for human lives that have signaled the hostilities in this long-drawn war. It is characteristic of both the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil Tigers that, down to the very end, they should have been so fiendishly true to the reputations that they wore around themselves as ornaments of their sincerity.

Wars have been described as tragic and senseless by countless number of commentators, though there is no end to them in sight. When it is the rebels or insurgents who triumph, they often find that a military victory is perhaps more easily accomplished than the task of reconstruction. Rebels have, as well, been known to become dictators. But the triumph of states over insurgents is almost always a pyrrhic victory, unless one is willing to accept the idea that a nation-state can be something other than a repressive force in history. For the present, the question is: having compelled the LTTE into submission, is the Sri Lankan state prepared to treat the Tamil as equals? Is it prepared to take seriously the question of autonomy within a federal republic, and is it willing to persuade the Sinhalese that they have to disown some of their privileges? Had these questions not been ignored in the first place, what might have been the need for LTTE? Much the greater part of the task of the state, which does not inspire much confidence, is before it: not only will it have to work with a subjugated and angry Tamil population, it will have to keep the hounds among the Sinhalese at bay. So much for victories.