By Ravi Nessman
The Associated Press
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Following three bloody decades of civil war, Sri Lanka faces the daunting task of trying to reconcile and rebuild after its troops routed the last Tamil Tiger separatist rebels on Monday, May 18, and killed their feared leader.
One of the world’s most sophisticated insurgencies, the Tamil Tigers and their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, were brought down by a string of fatal misjudgments and an unrelenting government onslaught aimed at crushing the rebellion at all costs.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who plans to officially declare victory Tuesday in a speech to parliament, has promised a power sharing deal with the Tamil minority. But the end of the war, in which more than 70,000 people were killed and another 265,000 were displaced, could complicate efforts to forge a lasting peace.
The destruction of the rebels’ conventional forces does not mean the threat is over. Insurgents hiding in the jungles of the east have emerged periodically to attack government forces and civilians, and the rebels had sleeper cells planted in Colombo and other towns.
The Tamil Tigers also retain a vast international smuggling network and the financial support of some of the 800,000 Tamil expatriates. At least one top rebel leader, Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the reputed smuggling mastermind, remains at large.
“Now [there] is a historic opportunity, and hopefully things will change. But the demonstrable record so far is not particularly encouraging,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a political analyst and executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States is “relieved that the immense loss of life and killing of innocent civilians appears to be over,” and he urged Sri Lanka to build a tolerant society and help those hurt by the fighting.
While Prabhakaran was a hero to some, his group was branded a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union. It was accused of waging hundreds of suicide attacks, including the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and forcibly recruiting child soldiers.
In recent months, government forces ousted the rebels from their stronghold in the north and cornered the retreating fighters in a tiny strip along the northeast coast.
On Monday morning, the troops closed in, the military said.
Prabhakaran and his deputies drove an armor-plated van accompanied by a bus filled with rebel fighters toward the tightening cordon, sparking a two-hour firefight, two military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Troops eventually fired a rocket at the van, ending the battle, and pulled out Prabhakaran’s body as well as those of Soosai, his naval commander, and Pottu Amman, his feared intelligence chief, the officials said. Prabhakaran’s son, Charles Anthony, was also killed, along with 250 rebel fighters, the military said.
State TV broke into its regular programming to announce Prabhakaran’s death, and Rajapaksa confirmed the news in a phone call to India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Indian foreign affairs spokesman Vishnu Prakash said.
“We can announce very responsibly that we have liberated the whole country from terrorism,” army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka said.
The chubby Prabhakaran turned what was little more than a street gang in the late 1970s into one of the world’s most feared insurgencies, fighting for independence for minority Tamils after years of marginalization at the hands of the Sinhalese majority.
He demanded unwavering loyalty, gave his followers vials of cyanide to bite in case of capture, and created a suicide squad known as the Black Tigers.
Full-fledged war broke out in 1983 after the rebels killed 13 soldiers in an ambush, sparking anti-Tamil riots that human rights groups say killed as many as 2,000 people.
At the height of his power, Prabhakaran controlled a virtual country in the north that had its own border control, police force, tax system, and law school. He commanded a rebel army of thousands backed by artillery, a navy, and a nascent air force.
Prabhakaran was renowned as a master strategist but made a series of fatal miscalculations that eventually led to his downfall.
The assassination of Gandhi alienated his supporters in India, where millions of Tamils live.
The divergent reactions to the rebel defeat highlighted the challenge Sri Lanka faces in healing its scars. State TV played Sinhalese nationalist songs and many Sinhalese poured into the streets in celebration.
On the beaches surrounding the southern port city of Galle, overjoyed Sri Lankans ignited chains of firecrackers.
“We are happy today to see the end of that ruthless terrorist organization and its heartless leader. We can live in peace after this,” said Lal Hettige, 47, a Sinhalese businessman.
But Tamils feared the government would not be magnanimous in victory.
“The general triumphalist mood is only an indication that Tamils may never get their due place,” said S. Prasanna, a sales representative.
Many other Tamils refused to speak on the record after what they said was years of police raids, harassment, arbitrary detentions, and even abductions.
“I believe the arrests and detentions will only increase from now on,” a 34-year-old Tamil businessman said. “The government will be suspicious with everybody, thinking the Tigers may have come out and mingled with the civilians.”
Though Rajapaksa promised political compromise, the defeat of the rebels leaves a vacuum in the Tamil leadership.
Prabhakaran killed many community leaders seen as a challenge to his authority. Others moved abroad, while many of those who remained active in politics either allied themselves with the government or were linked to the rebels and effectively sidelined.
Diplomats had appealed for a humanitarian truce to safeguard civilians trapped in the war zone, but the government refused. ♦
Associated Press writers Krishan Francis and Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report from Colombo. Jason Straziuso reported from the southern port city of Galle, and Foster Klug reported from Washington.