Commentary: How tiny Sri Lanka defeated terrorism

Frida Ghitis is a contributing columnist for the Miami Herald.
Frida Ghitis is a contributing columnist for the Miami Herald. MCT

VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka — If you think only Muslim extremists have used terrorism to further their aims, you should take a look at the recent history of Sri Lanka.

This would-be tropical paradise, a tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, experienced a wrenching civil war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that had no qualms about blowing up civilians to terrorize the population, make headlines and achieve its goal of creating an independent state for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority. The fighting left at least 70,000 dead, and it shattered millions of lives over almost three decades.

The international community paid little attention to this carnage. When it did, however, it was to categorically lecture the Sri Lankan government that "there is no military solution."

As it happens, the Sri Lankan military did achieve a decisive victory last year, but it came at a horrifying cost.

Much like other terrorist groups, the extremist LTTE somehow became the standard-bearer of a cause built on legitimate claims. Since independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka's Tamils suffered discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. In a world without extremism, a reasonable Sinhalese majority would have worked out a reasonable compromise with the majority of moderate Tamils. But that did not happen.

Instead, the cause was hijacked by extremists, whose brutality gave the government a valid reason to use lethal force, making conditions even worse for the downtrodden Tamils and sparking more brutality from the LTTE.

As it grew into one of the world's most sophisticated terrorist groups, the Tamil Tigers perfected suicide bombings, developing the sickening weapon that soon became a favorite of Palestinians against Israel and of Islamist militants fighting moderate Muslims and the West in New York, Baghdad, London, Bali, Istanbul and elsewhere.

International mediation produced fragile truces over the years. But the LTTE gained control of the North and built a formidable arsenal. The fanatical Black Tigers, the LTTE's brainwashed suicide squads, turned the island into a place of heartbreak, blowing up Buddhist and Christian shrines, massacring civilians in public places and assassinating, among others, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Pramadasa, along with countless other ministers, mayors, civil servants and thousands of others who wanted only to live their lives in peace.

Traveling in Sri Lanka I found a country now tasting the gift of peace, visibly breathing a huge sigh of relief that the war is over. Ever-present military checkpoints offer a constant reminder of the awful past. In the North, even Tamils sounded glad to be rid of the LTTE but also worried about the future and exhausted by the experiences of the terrifying months just before and after the end of the war.

Last year, at about the same time as the world's attention shifted single-mindedly to the war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel, the clash between Sri Lankan forces and LTTE fighters reached its climax.

The fighting exploded with greatest intensity in the de facto Tamil state under LTTE control in the north and in the east of the island. Hundreds of thousands of civilians got caught in the crossfire, many perished. While most fled to displaced persons camps, at least 50,000 ended up trapped in a tiny strip of beach. The LTTE held them as human shields even as the government's offensive continued to the very end.

The International Crisis Group charges that in the final months ``tens of thousands of Tamil civilian men, women, children and the elderly killed, countless more wounded, and hundreds of thousands deprived of adequate food and medical care, resulting in more deaths.''

All of this received little international attention. By comparison, the highest estimates of deaths during the Gaza war, which sparked countless reports, protests, and investigations, don't reach 1,500 people.

When the war ended, the government forcibly held 300,000 Tamils for months in dismal camps as it sorted out the terrorists among them. Human-rights activists might have helped. The international community, which had misguidedly tried to prevent the government from winning the war, might have eased the civilians' plight. But, again, the world paid little attention.

Yes, there was a military solution. The terrorists lost and peace returned. Civilians suffered the worst fate in the years of terrorism and during the war that defeated the terrorists. In the end, the people who allowed their cause to be hijacked by extremists suffered the worst fate while the world looked in a different direction.

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