|How Tiger terrorism paid off for Tamils
Mark Baker, Herald Correspondent in Pattaya, Thailand September 21 2002
Fast forward seven years. On a podium decked with tropical flowers at a hotel in the Thai resort city of Pattaya, Dr Anton Balasingham, chief ideologue of the Tamil Tigers and powerful deputy of the reclusive rebel commander, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is sitting in suit and tie beside a team of Sri Lankan Government ministers. He is introduced by the hosts as "his excellency", a statesman committed to peace. After three days of talks about ending an 18-year civil war which has killed more than 65,000 people, displaced millions and brought the economy to the brink of bankruptcy, there is a news conference. But it is not until the closing moments that a journalist mentions the unmentionable: can a movement that perfected suicide bombing as a political weapon be trusted when it says it is ready to renounce violence? "We dont use those concepts of suicide attacks," is the curt reply from Dr Balasingham. Tell that to the estimated 1500 young Tamil fighters who have gone to their deaths in the past two decades with their bodies strapped with explosives, to the thousands of civilians killed in waves of bombings in Colombo and across Sri Lanka, and to the families of the former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the former Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa, both blown to pieces by fanatical young women trained and indoctrinated by the Tamil Tigers. This week the desperate hopes for peace of the vast majority of Sri Lankas exhausted Sinhalese and Tamil communities suddenly became a tangible reality. In a historic about-face, the Tigers abandoned their long-standing demand for a breakaway state and said they were ready to settle for an autonomous regional government within the Sri Lankan republic. For its part, the Government confirmed it was ready to negotiate an agreement that granted substantial self-government to the Tamils while preserving the territorial integrity of the nation. The fundamental obstacle that has wrecked a series of peace initiatives in the past has finally been removed. With both sides publicly committed to the same objective, and with a seven-month ceasefire firmly in place, diplomats and analysts believe it is now only a matter of time before the last rites are performed on one of the most vicious conflicts of the late 20th century. But amid the noble words and self-congratulatory fanfare at Pattaya this week, the red carpets could not completely mask the bloodstained trail that has led the once implacable enemies to this point. But as peace looms, an inescapable fact remains: the Tigers have all but won the effective independence of the territories under their control in northern and eastern Sri Lanka - an area embracing almost a third of the island - through the most determined and ruthless application of the tactics of terrorist warfare. Much may have changed in the world since September 11 last year, but the message from Sri Lanka is that terrorism works. The Sinhalese-dominated Government would never have sat down to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the Tigers if their armed forces had not been fought to a bloody stalemate on the battlefields of northern Sri Lanka, and if the countrys economy had not been devastated by an escalating military budget and the heavy toll wrought on tourism, foreign investment and business confidence by the endless cycle of devastating terrorist attacks. Despite their military successes, the Tigers were facing a tougher outlook in the wake of September 11. New global financial controls threatened their vital aid pipeline from expatriate Tamils and there was a danger that the American war on terrorism would result in a boost in support for Sri Lankas armed forces. The Tigers chose to seize the moment to maximise their advantage. Since the formal ceasefire was implemented the Tigers de facto control in the north and east has been given informal recognition with the establishment of internationally monitored boundaries, the reopening of road links, the lifting of an economic embargo and the arrival of Government aid for reconstruction projects. In Thailand this week the inexorable transformation of the Tigers from guerillas to bureaucrats was given a fresh fillip - not least by their anointment as equal negotiating partners.
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