The Liberation Tigers’ airstrike this week on Sri Lanka’s main airbase at Katunayake has understandably triggered shockwaves both in the island and further afield. Whilst the Sri Lankan government insists its aircraft are unscathed, amid a blackout imposed by Colombo, there are persistent reports that a significant part of the Air Force’s strike capability has been knocked out – something some Indian analysts are also insisting. Irrespective of the reality, what is clear is that the LTTE has developed an indigenous air capability. It is the first armed non-state actor to do so, and it has managed it without the support of any state. Moreover the LTTE has achieved this against considerable odds and in spite of determined and extensive efforts by the Sri Lankan government and its allies to constrict the LTTE’s supply lines (hence the begrudging admiration expressed by many commentators, including some of its critics).
Thus it is the institutional growth reflected in this single LTTE airstrike that is of significance. For almost a year, Sri Lanka’s hardline government has single-mindedly pursued a military solution to the Tamil question. In that time, large tracts of territory were captured from the LTTE in the sprawling and thinly defended east. President Mahinda Rajapakse and his cotorie of Sinhala nationalists have trumpeted this as evidence of the inevitability of a victory over the Tigers. Promising a final victory over the Tigers, Colombo has pursued a ruthless and blatantly racist strategy. At least two hundred thousand Tamils have been driven from their homes. They have been starved and bombarded for months. International aid agencies were officially prevented from providing humanitarian relief. And for the past few months the onslaught has been conducted in full sight of the international community.
Interestingly, following the LTTE airstrike Sri Lanka has been vehemently making two contradictory arguments. On the one hand, Colombo’s military spokesmen have been derisively dismissing the TAF as a negligible threat. Yet at the same time, Sri Lanka’s government is shrilly declaring the LTTE planes a threat to “the entire region” and India in particular. Indeed, after a similar bout of agitation by Sri Lanka’s government, international concerns about the LTTE’s air assets were raised with the movement almost two years ago. The LTTE’s response, later repeated to media by the S. P. Thamilchelvan, head of the LTTE political wing was that all the organisation's structures and efforts are aimed at protecting the Tamil people and "was in no way a threat to any other country in general, particularly India.” Sri Lanka has long sought to implicate other countries directly in its war against the LTTE. Its efforts to get India to enter into a defence pact is but the latest of such efforts. Whilst aggressively rejecting – under the rubric of sovereignty – international allies’ offers of help to peacefully resolve the conflict, Colombo repeatedly demands they get involved in its ‘internal’ affair under the logic of ‘fighting terrorism.’
Sri Lanka’s promise of a quick victory over the LTTE – or, for the more skeptical, the promise of a serious weakening of the Tigers – has provided the justification for the humanitarian suffering unleashed on our people. Indeed various rationales have been floated for why Sri Lanka should not be restrained. The most cowardly of these is that Colombo simply won’t listen. The same international community that determinedly calls for sanctions against other (much larger and most robust) states which refuse to accept international norms hides behind notions of sovereignty when it comes to Sri Lanka.
Amidst the deliberate infliction of widespread suffering on the Tamil people, the international community – including the mighty Co-Chairs – merely mouth feeble platitudes for Sri Lanka to pursue a political solution. As well as the war, that is. The peculiar logic is that once the LTTE is under severe military pressure, the Tamils could be persuaded to accept a much lower level of powersharing (it is no accident that these day no one talks of federalism). The more astute international actors are aware of the flaws in this logic: i.e. without the LTTE it’s irrelevant what the Tamils are prepared to accept. Yet international interests are served by an end to the conflict, even in the absence of a just solution for the Tamils i.e. the destruction of the LTTE would suffice.
In short, amidst the rampant violence of the Sri Lankan state, the LTTE has become the convenient whipping boy for a variety of international actors including, shamefully, those who for many years lectured the Tamils on human rights and international humanitarian law. Many of these actors, it shouldn’t be forgotten, weighed enthusiastically into the Norwegian peace process, stymieing the LTTE’s efforts to secure international legitimacy and eventually contributing to the dissipation of the momentum of the peace process itself. Now with human rights violations by the state having become so widespread and blatant as to be impossible to ignore, all they can offer is feeble criticism. The Tamils, however, have to fend for themselves.
It remains very much to be seen if President Rajapakse can deliver the inexorable reduction of the LTTE that he has promised. But what can be guaranteed is that amidst his efforts Sri Lanka will descend into a maelstrom of violence. With its raid on Katunayake the LTTE has demonstrated more than merely its ability to carry out airstrikes in any part of the country. More importantly, it has demonstrated its ability to overcome the considerable international difficulties that have been placed in its path. The continued expansion and refinement of the LTTE's institutional structures, of which its air wing is one, in spite of heightened efforts precisely to prevent this, suggest that faith in Sri Lankan promises of a neat military solution is foolish. But if the international community is not prepared to act against the state, it has no other options.