Editorial: 4 November 2007
The death of Tamil Tiger political leader S.P. Thamilselvan in an air raid Friday is not in fact the triumph the Sri Lankan government would like us to believe. This is the first time in the Tamil separatist campaign that one of its top men has been killed while the rebels have frequently struck senior politicians and government officials with deadly accuracy. But in the final analysis, however, the death of Thamilselvan is likely to deepen the conflict rather than bring it any closer to an end.
The plus side for the government in Colombo is that the Sri Lankan military has proved that, despite the devastating rebel attack last month on a major air base which apparently destroyed all the country’s intelligence-gathering drones, it is still capable of mounting a devastating air attack. It is also unclear how the air force knew where Thamilselvan and five other senior rebel leaders were meeting. Do they still have aerial intelligence capability? Is some other power providing them with it instead? Or did they receive information from within the ranks of the Tamil Tigers themselves? Sri Lankan security forces have also been making progress in flushing Tamil rebels out of territory but the fighting has been bloody and the casualties high. Since the 2002 peace deal collapsed early last year, 5,000 more have been added to the toll of more than 70,000 since the rebellion began in 1983.
The debit side includes the certainty that the Tamils will not let Thamilselvan’s death go unavenged. The authorities are bracing themselves for a Tiger spectacular, very probably aimed at a top government figure. The security to guard against such an assault is already disrupting normal life. Yesterday motorists trying to drive into the capital had to wait for several hours while vehicles were searched at police roadblocks. A further problem is that Thamilselvan was the key negotiator with the Norwegian mediators. The loss of his experience may not be as serious as it seems at first glance; the reason is that his successor, the Tigers’ “police chief” P. Nadesan, was alongside him during much of the unfortunately abortive negotiations. It is perhaps just possible that the killing of this top rebel leader may shock his colleagues into some new appreciation of the sacrifices they are asking others to make. Certainly the Tiger’s leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has always appreciated the danger and so hardly ever appears in public. But it is more likely that Thamilselvan will be turned into a martyr and used to stiffen the resolve of the Tigers.
This will further obscure the truth that this is a conflict in which neither side can win militarily. The only way to end the violence is by a negotiated compromise. It was the Tigers who balked at the degree of autonomy on offer from Colombo after the 2002 cease-fire and walked away from the talks. This may have given the Sri Lankan government the moral high ground but wars are not won from such positions. There must be talk and dialogue. Shutting the mouth of the Tigers’ main negotiator may not have been the best idea.