“Sri Lanka chose a military solution to solve its ethnic conflict. Few liberal democracies would loathe doing what Sri Lanka did. The Sri Lankan government used the global war on terror to convert an ethnic/insurgency conflict into a war on terrorism where the threat can be eliminated without question so the root causes and grievances are overlooked.”
These were the comments by Major General Ashok Mehta at the Securing Asia 2012 conference which took place last month in London. His comments are again reiterated in his paper ‘Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict: How Eelam War IV’ (pdf), in which he states upon observation of the Sri Lankan model:
“It follows a policy of minimum force applied in good faith, with the use of heavy weapons and air force almost always avoided.”
This paper is one of the most recent and complete account on the Sri Lankan civil war. However it is notable also in what it leaves out. The Major General, Ashok Mehta was the former General Officer Commanding in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from 1987 to 1990. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, the multiple allegations of war crimes, extra judicial killings and the deliberate targeting of civilians by the IPKF are not mentioned.
His piece is similar in tone to Sashikumar’s piece in the Indian Defence review. According to Major General Mehta, the turning point of the conflict was the failed assassination attempt in 2006 on General Sarath Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, President Rajapaksa’s brother. President Rajapaksa believed that as long as the LTTE existed, Sri Lanka would never know peace. He goes on to argue that military coercion rarely works and comes with a heavy cost, and that it does not guarantee that an enduring political solution will result from it. He was also keen to emphasise that although there are lessons to be learnt from Sri Lanka’s military success, this could not be replicated in India as he believes bringing insurgents to the political negotiating table to being the only long-term solution. He also believes that China’s support of Sri Lanka was crucial in India’s decision to support the Rajapaksa administration. In other words India supported Sri Lanka because they felt they had to, not because they thought it was right.
Mehta argues that the LTTE believed that there would have been foreign intervention and had repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Sri Lankan Government. When Sri Lanka denied the media access to the conflict areas, the tigers used it to their advantage to demonise the Sri Lankan Army in the eyes of the international media. Maj. Gen Mehta’s account of the Liberation of the East and the Northern Offensive is informative but he focuses on the final battle from a largely military perspective – without going deeply into the political context and the human tragedy that was unfolding. He concludes the chapter by stating that:
“The cost of victory ignored the international approbation, charges of genocide and war crimes and a humanitarian catastrophe.”
But he too doesn’t dwell long on these issues. He does however emphasise from the beginning that the “cause that led to the insurgency has been brushed aside” and that the “root of the problem has not been addressed”. According to Dr SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda:
“Major General Mehta’s final analysis is incisive and sobering. This reviewer cannot but agree with his opinion that although Sri Lanka has set a new paradigm on the use of force, it was only done so at a huge diplomatic price.”
The Major Gen. provides a comprehensive overview of the conflict, detailing the history of events from the outbreak of the conflict right up to its conclusion. Major General Mehta’s paper sets the stage by going through the historical background and proceeding through the different stages of the conflict step by step and scrutinising everything methodically.
However although it is a good informative piece, he fails to elaborate the mindset of the Sri Lankan Government and the IPKF during the Indo-Lanka Accord and how differently was the war fought since his IPKF days. The paper relies heavily on secondary information despite the Major General’s vast experience and it seems like his account was written from the viewpoint of an academic rather than a military official who was present during the crucial stages of the war. This is of course somewhat convenient as it allows him to sidestep awkward questions of complicity and culpability in war crimes. However it also leaves the paper, and the speech, somewhat poorer – making the piece more a narrative of events rather than an analysis of how we can avoid repeating them.