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Yes, Virginia, There is a Military Solution

May 29, 2009

Now that the territory held by the Tamil Tigers has been overrun, it’s odd to think that Peter MacKay, during his stint as Minister of Foreign Affairs, was insisting just a couple of years ago that there could be “no military solution” to the conflict between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government.

In one trivial sense, of course, this rather clichéd assertion was logical. There is almost never a purely military solution to any conflict: in Sri Lanka’s case, the government was never going to kill every last Tiger and then ensure the compliance of the Tamils through sheer brute force. Sooner or later, there was going to have to be political accommodation. However, the extent of that accommodation was inevitably going to depend on events on the battlefield. Had the Tigers done better, the Tamils might have ended up negotiating outright secession. As things stand, the government may not have to grant them more than token political autonomy.

In  a sense, theTamils failed to find a military solution to their various political grievances, while the more numerous Sinhalese succeeded in finding one (from their opposing viewpoint) to the problem of armed Tamils demanding secession. However, the Tigers were not necessarily wrong to hope for a military solution in their favour when they took up arms a quarter-century ago. Indeed, it was only in 2006, when fighting resumed after a period of relative calm, that the government began to score real military successes.

So what went wrong for the Tigers over the past few years? Jeremy Page, writing in the Times a few weeks ago, pointed to the relationship between Sri Lanka and China. The Chinese have been constructing a major port at Hambantota, Sri Lanka, apparently both as a commercial venture and a potential refuelling station for the Chinese navy. In return, China has been giving Sri Lanka “all the aid, arms and diplomatic support it needs to defeat the Tigers, without worrying about the West.” Chinese aid to Sri Lanka in 2008 was nearly $1 billion (US, presumably), compared to more like $10 million from the US and UK combined.

Admittedly, the picture in Sri Lanka also changed in many other ways during the mid-noughties: a major faction of the Tigers defected, the government developed better tactics, several countries sold Sri Lanka weapons and/or gave tacit approval to the government offensive, and Canada and other nations clamped down on the Tigers’ support from abroad. Nevertheless, China’s influence was an important factor, and one that now limits the ability of Canada and other Western countries to constrain Sri Lanka’s post-war behaviour. Canada has been calling on the government to allow humanitarian access to displaced persons and “accountability for violations” that may have occurred during the fighting, but we can’t expect to have much impact as long as China’s generosity is sufficient to free Sri Lanka from economic dependence on the West. In this brave new multipolar world, the Sinhalese must reckon they’ve found a good military solution indeed.


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