Home Opinion Op-Ed How the 26-year-old Tamil Tiger Insurgency was Defeated

How the 26-year-old Tamil Tiger Insurgency was Defeated

Tamil Tiger
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Sarmad Ishfaq |

The article deliberates how Sri Lanka militarily bested the Tamil Tigers with what is known as the Rajapaksa or Sri Lankan Counterinsurgency (COIN) Model. The Model is brilliant yet polemic due to its brutality; the main point of contention being the indiscriminate use of violence that the Sri Lankan forces engaged in – killing thousands of non-combatants. The Sri Lankan’s, it seemed, read the Western take on the COIN, which focuses on winning hearts and minds, and threw it out the window. Western COIN presumes that an insurgency cannot be quashed without the support of the population and that military operations are a means to an end.

Contrastingly, the Sri Lankan Model used concerted and indiscriminate military force as its primary modus operandi to overwhelm and dismantle the insurgency – making it a non-population centric model. Notwithstanding the indiscriminate violence, the Model left a bold impression, as it is one of the few instances where an insurgency was defeated militarily and so it should impart vital caveats for future and existing COIN discourses. Before I begin reflecting upon the facets of the Model, some history of the insurgency and actors must be highlighted briefly to fully appreciate and comprehend it.

The Tamil insurgency’s roots have an unfortunate yet not uncommon association to the British Empire and its divide-and-rule policy. While the Empire ruled the island, it favored the minority Tamils in civil service appointments, educational institutions, and other key positions at the expense of the majority Sinhalese. The British, therefore, sowed the seeds for a future ethnic clash between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Post-British departure from the island and subsequent independence in 1948, the Sinhalese reversed their fortunes but now at the expense of the Tamil minority.

Western COIN presumes that an insurgency cannot be quashed without the support of the population and that military operations are a means to an end.

The Sinhalese adopted nationalist policies and laws – such as making Sinhala the official language of the country, granting special status to Buddhism (the religion of most Sinhalese), and preferring Sinhalese people in important positions to the dismay of Tamils. Fast forward to the 1970s, a plethora of Tamil separatist groups began rising up due to the ill-treatment of their people. In 1972, Velupillai Prabhakaran (VP) took charge of a group called the Tamil New Tigers, which eventually became the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) or Tamil Tigers in 1976. The LTTE and the insurgency had ethno-nationalist proclivities instead of religious, as the group’s main demand was the creation of a Tamil homeland in the island’s north and east.

By the late 1980s, VP’s LTTE had destroyed or absorbed other Tamil separatist groups and had become the principal avenue for Tamil separation desires. The Sri Lankan civil war erupted in 1983 and resulted in the deaths of thousands of combatants and non-combatants alike – some died in ethnic riots between Tamils and Sinhalese, while others in the battles between the government and the LTTE insurgents. The LTTE was initially funded, trained, and supported with arms and equipment by India. The Indians, however, changed their policy when they discerned that the civil war in Sri Lanka could disrupt its own national security and in turn sent a peacekeeping force.

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The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the LTTE engaged in several battles and this bad blood eventually led to the assassination of India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE. The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) fought four wars with the LTTE, which spanned almost 3 decades. The LTTE’s infamous reputation precedes itself. Known as one of the most deadly terrorist groups the world has ever witnessed, the LTTE were masters of suicide warfare as well as being adept in conventional and guerrilla tactics. According to Ahmed Hashim, author of When Counterinsurgency Wins, the group’s suicide squad, the Black Tigers, partook in more suicide attacks from their inception until their demise (1983-2009) than any terror group in history. The group even had a navy and a rudimentary air force.

The Sri Lankan Model

There are seven main facets to the model. These facets have been determined through the analysis of academics and experts. The Model is also known as the Rajapaksa Model (named after then President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Defence Secretary Gotoboya Rajapaksa – brother of the President).

1) Political Will

2) Adapting Armed Forces to the Threat

3) Regulating Media

4) Engaging Internationally

5) No Negotiations or Ceasefires

6) Ignoring International Pressure

7) Indiscriminate Violence

1)    Political Will

Where the previous three Eelam Wars failed due to political ambiguity, Eelam War IV was successful because the political backing received by the military was absolute. Mahinda Rajapaksa took charge of the country in 2005 on a nationalistic platform backed by supporters and parties that wanted an end to VP’s Tamil Tigers. With the support of a huge chunk of the Sinhala population, Rajapaksa knew that he could be heavy-handed as long as it brought forth the eradication of the insurgency – even if Tamil civilians die in the process (they were not his political base after all). His team consisted of like-minded individuals – the main players being his brother, the Defense Secretary, and General Sarath Fonseka, the Army Chief. Both brothers assured the General Fonseka unconditional political support and that the government would absorb any local and/or international pressure. The Army Chief is on record for stating that it was the first time ever that the military received such unyielding political support and that the military commitment backed by political leadership led to the expunging of LTTE.

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2)    Adapting Armed Forces to the Threat

T.E. Lawrence, The Lawrence of Arabia, stated that fighting an insurgency is slow, untidy, and akin to “eating soup with a knife”. In other words, it is extremely challenging for a conventional army, even with more men and superior materials, to go against an enemy using guerilla, hybrid, or unconventional tactics. The examples of America in Vietnam, America in Afghanistan, and France in Algeria etcetera are a lesson of exactly this. The Sri Lankan Army suffered for the same reason from Eelam I to Eelam III.

Sri Lankan Model used concerted and indiscriminate military force as its primary modus operandi to overwhelm and dismantle the insurgency – making it a non-population centric model.

Their army was just not primed to handle an insurgent war. To overcome this, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces went through an overhaul in order to become a more adaptive fighting force. The army’s size increased from 10,000, before the war began, to 200,000 by the insurgency’s elimination in 2009. Some of the major changes include creating a more innovative and flexible army, giving the soldiers medical and jungle survival training to create an anti-guerilla force, increasing the military budget to strengthen troop numbers etcetera. Specifically speaking the army gave a renewed impetus to smaller units that were skilled in distinctive tactics – for example, night operations, room clearing and bunkers busting.

The SIOT (Special Infantry Operations Team) concept was introduced and these smaller 8 man teams were specially trained and enforced to carry out long missions. The army also delegated tactical responsibilities and more autonomy to on ground commanders.

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The air force and navy were also improved and had a heightened responsibility in Eelam IV – the army, air force and navy were all used simultaneously in Eelam IV. Sameer Lalwani notes that the air force supplemented the ground units and aided them by providing aerial fire while the navy blocked LTTE arms and ammunition stockpiles. The navy also adapted using large but fast action vessels to counter the LTTE’s own naval boats. This joint and concerted effort of all three institutions led to the defeat of the insurgency.

3)    Regulating Media

Indeed controversial, but Rajapaksa saw the international media as a deterrent to the anti-insurgency struggles his country was engaging in – so he banned them from entering the battlefield. The main reason was not to invite international scrutiny via the worldwide media which would insist on stopping the war. Stopping the war, in turn, would benefit the LTTE as it had done in the past as they always used any breaks to regroup themselves.

The examples of America in Vietnam, America in Afghanistan, and France in Algeria etcetera are a lesson of exactly this. The Sri Lankan Army suffered for the same reason from Eelam I to Eelam III.

The government cleverly created the Media Centre for National Security and Defense website, which disseminated the government’s own propaganda and narrative about the war efforts. Moreover, the messaging by the official website of the Tamils, Tamilnet, could not be verified independently since the government had impeded access to the warzone. During the last phase of Eelam War IV in the northern Vanni region, there was virtually a blackout for international monitors and internarial media – this was the phase of the war where many civilians were killed due to indiscriminate attacks by the Sri Lankan’s.

4)    Engaging Internationally

Sri Lanka did not achieve their objective of ending the Tamil insurgency by themselves. In fact, many strong countries like Pakistan, China, and India aided the Sri Lankan endeavor. Pakistan provided 22 Al-Khalid tanks; the country’s most deadly, to the Sri Lankan war effort. Neil Smith mentions that the Chinese provided $1 billion in 2005 in economic and military aid to the Sri Lankans in exchange for major contracts vis-à-vis seaports and other economic initiatives. Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and Russia also provided lines of credit for arms purchases and oil to the island nation.

The official Sri Lankan version of the Rajapaksa Model itself mentions a facet called “Keep your neighbors in the loop”. Drawing from this phrase, the country improved relations with India, who once supported and trained the LTTE. India aided the Sri Lankan Navy by sharing critical naval intelligence with respect to the movements of LTTE naval boats. Relying on intelligence reports by third parties, the Sri Lankan Navy blocked the LTTE’s lifeline (arms and equipment) via the sea.

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5)    No Negotiations or Ceasefires

The Sri Lankans prior to Eelam War IV had a legacy of initiating ceasefires or negotiations with the Tigers. The LTTE had used these periods of abstinence to rethink, rework, and regroup their organization and its labors. This does not mean that the Sri Lankan’s would not do the same during these times but since negotiations and ceasefires never led to lasting peace, but only an impermanent halt to violence,  there was no motivation to carry out these futile exercises now.

In a study by Beehner, Collins, Ferenzi and Jackson, they assert that ceasefires protracted the violence since it allowed both sides to rearm themselves and also helped a weaker LTTE from being completely shattered. Ironically, the LTTE would also use periods of non-violence brought to conduct acts of chaos and terror. For example, the LTTE killed Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister and tried killing the Army Chief during a ceasefire between both parties. Rajapaksa and his team learnt from these past mistakes and ensured that no negotiations or ceasefire would come in the way of delivering a decisive blow to the LTTE.

6)    Ignoring International Pressure

The above-mentioned ceasefires and negations were usually an end achieved by international actors. This time the government would not succumb to the pressure exerted by these forces. The official Rajapaksa Model phrases this crudely as “Go to hell”. Rajapaksa thought that previous governments had shown weakness by caving into the demands forwarded by the international community. These demands led to a cessation of fighting which as mentioned would prevent the complete destruction of a downed LTTE and would also reinvigorate them for future battles.

The main reason was not to invite international scrutiny via the worldwide media which would insist on stopping the war.

This strategy was on full display when the Sri Lankans turned down the British and French foreign ministers when they suggested negotiating with the Tigers during Eelam War IV. In February 2009, during the last war, human rights groups, Japan, America, UK, and others wanted a temporary halt to the fighting to allow humanitarian access in the warzone due to civilian casualties. The government ignored these calls until April 2009 because it knew it was close to destroying the LTTE militarily.

Read more: Sri Lanka: Fear and Chaos

7)    Indiscriminate Violence

This brings us to the last and clearly most controversial aspect of the Model. Albeit egregious, immoral, and illegal, indiscriminate violence did put the final nail in the LTTE coffin. It would be unfair to single out the Rajapaksa government as the only Sri Lankan administration to use these kinds of despicable tactics. Ironically, where in Eelam War IV indiscriminate violence worked for the Rajapaksa government, previously this strategy backfired for former administrations and actually emboldened the Tamil insurgency. Nikolas Biziouras explains that due to past governments using indiscriminate force, many Tamils migrated to northern parts of the island – this population increase led to more recruits for the Tigers’ cause.

Not to mention killing innocent Tamil civilians would have turned even the most moderate and neutral Tamils against the government. The last phase of Eelam War IV, in northern Vanni, witnessed the most civilians being killed. Although, due to the media and humanitarian blockade, it is extremely challenging to give an accurate number of civilian infrastructure destroyed and non-combatants killed, there are still some reputable numbers present. Human Rights Watch states that 30 indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities took place in northern Vanni since December 2008.

United Nations estimates a shocking 40,000 civilians died due to the Sri Lankan Army’s indiscriminate shelling. The UN estimates that between January to May 2009, 7,000 civilians died and more than 13,000 were injured, while other estimates suggest 20,000 non-combatants died. Although, legally and morally repugnant, this strategy allowed to maximize the deaths of LTTE cadres including their leader Prabhakaran’s. It ended the LTTE insurgency. It must be noted that the LTTE themselves also caused the deaths of many civilians as they were notorious for using human shields and travelled in tight units with Tamil family members. Although, there is little doubt that the government used indiscriminate violence, they have obviously denied all such accusations.

After concluding his Masters and receiving the Top Graduate award, Sarmad continued his passion for writing and became a researcher for a Lahore based think tank. Sarmad has several publications in international journals and magazines in the fields of Terrorism/Counterterrorism and International Relations. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.


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