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Sri Lanka: The Last Battle

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Even seen from afar, the bloody end of Sri Lanka's 26-year old civil war is tragic and appalling.

Large numbers of sick, starving, shell-shocked Tamil refugees are being herded into government security compounds. The number of civilian dead caused by the government's final offensive against the last Tamil Tiger redoubt is unknown, but estimates run 6,000-10,000. The government in Colombo blocks all journalists and human rights group from the region.

It seems clear this struggle, which has cost 80,000-100,000 lives since the early 1980s, is over -- at least for now. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been crushed.

Standard wisdom has it that conventional armies can't win guerilla wars. But last week's defeat of the Tamil Tigers shows there are important exceptions to this general rule.

Russia finally managed to crush the life out of the Chechen independence movement after 18 years of cruel repression in which well over 100,000 Chechen civilians were killed by Russian forces. Totally isolated and ignored by the world, Muslim Chechnya's heroic battle for independence was finally snuffed out when almost all of its mujahidin fighters were hunted down and killed, and its population terrorized into silence by a thuggish regime of Moscow's Quislings.

Angola's anti-Communist UNITA movement fought for 27 years, as I saw myself while covering the bush wars in southern Africa. But after Washington decided that Angola's Communist regime would be a reliable supplier of oil, it abandoned old ally UNITA. Savimbi was betrayed and assassinated by foreign mercenaries (reportedly Israeli). UNITA, isolated in Angola's remotest regions, collapsed.

The third example was Ukraine in the 1950s. Its national liberation movement, isolated and unsupported, was ground down and finally exterminated by the Soviet KGB using the most brutal methods and mass intimidation.

I've followed Sri Lanka's bitter civil war between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils since it began. As with those endless disputes between Israelis and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Turks and Armenians, I have great sympathy for both sides and watch these conflicts with deep sorrow.

Oppression of the island's 3.8 million Hindu Tamils by extremists from the 17 million-strong Sinhalese Buddhist majority, and demands for a separate Tamil state, sparked civil war. Britain planted the seeds of this conflict by favoring minority Tamils and putting many into plum positions, part of its standard divide and rule policy that has caused so many troubles to our day. Just look, for example, at Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Sri Lanka's Tamils are part of the ancient Dravidian race that once dominated India before being driven south by lighter-skinned Indo-European invaders. They are part of a rich, 2,000-year-old culture; Tamil is one of India's classical languages.

Sixty six million Tamils live in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and six million across southern India. Tamils are found from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean. Canada has one of the world's largest expatriate Tamil communities.

A portly Tamil militant with no military experience, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, founded and led a guerilla force, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in a struggle for an independent homeland in eastern Sri Lanka. He soon became a renowned military leader, cult leader and even an unlikely sex symbol for Tamils everywhere. Tamil moderates seeking peace were caught in a crossfire between government forces and the ferocious Tigers. Prabhakaran ruthlessly wiped out all rivals and Tamils seeking compromise.

The Tigers, drawn from poor peasants and tea pickers, became one of the world's most formidable fighting forces, repeatedly defeating the heavily-armed Sri Lankan Army.

The Tigers were originally armed and financed by India, which sought to turn Sri Lanka into a protectorate. But Delhi finally turned against the Tigers and sent 80,000 troops to fight them. To everyone's amazement, the Tigers whipped the mighty Indian Army and forced it to humiliatingly withdraw from Sri Lanka.

As a former soldier and war correspondent, I marveled at the courage, determination and tactical proficiency of the Tigers, who even had their own tiny navy.

Their suicidal courage, use of suicide bombers, and attacks on civilian targets led them to be branded terrorists by many nations, including the US and Canada. Tamil Tiger expatriates became notorious for extortion and heroin dealing to finance their war. In 1991, India's late prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was blown to pieces in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu by a female Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

Tamils are not "terrorists," as Western governments and Colombo claimed. Nor are their opponents, the Sinhalese. Charges by Tamils that Sri Lanka's government is practicing genocide are untrue, though it has caused high civilian casualties. This has been an ugly civil war with constant atrocities committed by both sides. Aside from small arms, the Tamil's primary weapons were often bombs strapped on their bodies. This was a poor man's struggle against massive fire power and modern weapons. Civilians were targeted by both sides.

As the old saying goes, "war is the rich man's terrorism; terrorism is the poor man's war."

This week, the US and Britain criticized the Colombo government and demanded it cease military operations in civilian areas. The same US and Britain that just encouraged Pakistan's brutal attack on the Swat Valley that has so far created 1.5 million refugees.

The Tigers were relentlessly hemmed in by superior forces. Government forces finally cornered the Tigers on the northeast coast and ground them down with heavy artillery, tanks and air strikes. The Tigers fought to the bitter end until leader Prabhakaran was killed.

The Tigers were finally defeated because they ran out of maneuver space. Money, men and arms for the Tigers from the outside world had to run a Sri Lankan and Indian naval blockade. The world turned against Sri Lanka's Tamils.

History teaches it's imperative that Sri Lanka's government in Colombo avoid triumphalism or revenge and be magnanimous in victory. Tamil should be afforded a high level of autonomy -- as in India -- and ample power sharing in Colombo. There should be no prosecutions of Tiger leaders.

The bitter civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua that I also covered were eventually settled by wise and generous political concessions. Sri Lanka needs a similar process.

Unless Colombo is magnanimous in victory, it risks rekindling a low-level insurrection. India's 70 million plus Tamils are angry at the defeat and suffering of their cousins in Sri Lanka. Many are calling for Indian military intervention.

If Sri Lanka's Tamils are subjected to a Carthaginian Peace, there is a risk that India's millions of sympathetic Tamils could become the source of new woes on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka.