Taming the Tigers

BRUSSELS – Three years ago, Sri Lanka elected Mahinda Rajapaksa as president because he pledged to take the offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the guerillas who have been fighting for 25 years to carve out an independent homeland for the country’s Tamil minority. Many well-meaning people saw Rajapaksa’s promise as warmongering, and, even as Sri Lanka’s army has been pressing toward victory, urged him to negotiate with perhaps the world’s most fanatical terror organization (the Tamil Tigers, it should be recalled, virtually invented the cult of the modern suicide bomber.)

Fortunately, Rajapaksa listened more to his war-ravaged citizens than to outsiders, and today what seemed impossible – military victory over the Tigers, the oldest, largest, and wealthiest guerrilla army in South Asia – appears at hand. Over the past few months, the Tigers have suffered a series of devastating blows. Instead of commanding much of northern Sri Lanka, they are now confined to a shrinking pocket, and are reduced to mindless military stunts such as the recent bombing by light aircraft of the tax administration building in the capital, Colombo. Thousands of Tamil Tiger fighters have deserted.  A rebel army has dwindled to a fanatical few.

But fighting the Tigers and seeking a peace deal have never been alternatives. President Rajapaksa’s predecessors spent years engaged in fruitless talks and ceasefires, during which the guerrillas remained committed to their aim of dividing the country, and making demands for political and socio-economic changes that no democracy could accept, even as they carried on killing and kidnapping. Weakening the Tigers militarily has thus always been a necessary condition for achieving a political settlement with Sri Lanka’s Tamils.

Now that the guerrillas are boxed in, what can Rajapaksa reasonably offer to them and ordinary Tamils? The Tigers’ leaders have committed crimes against humanity, and some of them engage in criminal activities. So they have little incentive to demobilize. Some Sri Lankans say the best place for the Tiger leaders is jail. True, but in politics the best justice can be the enemy of the general good. Though the Tigers can no longer destroy Sri Lanka’s democracy, fighting to the last guerrilla is in nobody's interest. Ending this conflict will require political adroitness as well as continued military firmness.