The conventional military game is up for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or very nearly so. That is the message sent out to the world by the capture of the Tigers’ main garrison town of Mullaithivu, situated on a sliver of land between a lagoon and the Indian Ocean, by the 59 division of the Sri Lankan Army three weeks after the 57 division took Kilinochchi. With the territory controlled by Velupillai Prabakaran’s organisation shrinking from 15,000 square km in August 2006 to 350 square km today, with its fighting cadre strength believed to be down to about 1,000, with its senior leaders hiding in pockets of jungle or on the run, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was not exaggerating when he announced that the 25-year war was “95 per cent over.” Desperate actions such as blowing up a tank bund to flood a section of the A-35 Paranthan-Mullaithivu main road and adjacent areas, and laying landmines to prevent civilians from fleeing to government-controlled areas say it all about the LTTE’s plight and character.
For the secessionist organisation, the last 30 months have been one unbroken series of miscalculations and military debacles. The Sri Lankan armed forces have been on a roll ever since they tasted success in the Mavil Aru operation — provoked by a severely weakened LTTE’s foolish act of shutting the sluice gates and denying water to more than 30,000 civilians — in the Eastern Province. The real surprise has come in the Northern Province where, beginning in March 2007, the Sri Lankan army, air force, and navy have simply decimated the Tigers. The army’s offensive has come on several fronts. It currently involves five offensive divisions and three task forces rapidly closing in on the top LTTE leaders and fighting cadres who have nowhere to escape. What residual fighting capability the organisation retains in the guerrilla mode and through urban terrorism remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that politically speaking, the game is up for Mr. Prabakaran and his organisation — which is banned or designated as terrorist in about 30 countries, including India, the United States, the United Kingdom, and in the latest instance Sri Lanka. It is certainly too late for any bailout package, if that was ever on anybody’s practical agenda. The immediate priority must be ensuring the safety of Tamil civilians, officially reckoned to be in the range of 100,000 to 200,000, who the LTTE evidently has no compunction in using as a human shield. That is the most sensitive humanitarian challenge before the Sri Lankan government. Assuming it will be met successfully so that the offensive military operations, including the final mopping up, can end in a few weeks, President Mahinda Rajapaksa — whose political stock in Sri Lanka’s South can be expected to be sky-high — must ensure that there is no triumphalism. Most important, he must seize the moment to build a national consensus on an enduring political solution based on substantial devolution of power to the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka.