Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ending terrorism in Sri Lanka

The New Yorker had a fascinating and disquieting article by Jon Lee Anderson a few weeks ago about the brutal defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan army: "Death of the Tiger" (partially gated).

The article makes clear that the army indiscriminately shelled LTTE strongholds, knowing full well that these also contained tens of thousands of unarmed civilians. Indeed, the army apparently designated "no-fire zones", told civilians to assemble there, and "then shelled those zones repeatedly, while issuing denials that it was doing so." This brutal strategy was, in the end, successful in conquering the LTTE, albeit at a very high humanitarian cost.

The LTTE was a pretty despicable group, with its frequent use of suicide bombing, among others. Its soldiers also shot civilians that were trying to escape their clutches towards the end of the war, thus behaving no better than the Sri Lankan army. And its leaders, in the end, attempted to get free passage for themselves and one thousand of their fighters, leaving the civilians on whose behalf they claimed to fight to their own devices. (True leaders would have offered to give themselves up in exchange for free passage for all the remaining civilians under their control.)

Still, that does not justify the Sri Lankan army sinking to their level. Anderson suggests, disconcertingly, that "the Sri Lanka option" for counter-insurgency is now discussed with admiration in military circles around the world. It is to be hoped that governments think twice about Sri Lanka's example. The country's government claims that it has "ended terrorism," but that is of course silly. The LTTE may be dead, but the way the government is treating Tamils in the North of the country has produced an excellent petri dish for growing new terrorist groups. Moreover, by the literal definition of terrorism, one might argue that the Sri Lankan army is doing a pretty good job of spreading terror among the Tamils.

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