Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Guerrilla Tactics

How the Tamil Tigers were beaten in an 'unwinnable' war

by Jeremy Page, Guardian, UK, May 19, 2009

Key to that was the acquisition of fighter jets and radar from China and aerial surveillance drones from Israel that allowed the air force to target the Tigers accurately.

The army used guerrilla tactics — moving in small groups through the jungle rather than on main roads — while the Tigers fought a conventional campaign to defend their territory.

Military intelligence split the Tigers by persuading Colonel Karuna, their second in command, to defect in 2004, allowing the army to drive the rebels out of eastern Sri Lanka in 2007. The navy played a crucial role by attacking the Tigers’ supply ships, with help from India and the US.

It was supposed to be the unwinnable war. For almost three decades, Sri Lanka was held up as an example of how a small democratic state with a conventional army could never defeat a well-funded and disciplined guerrilla organisation.

It has proved that to be untrue. But how Sri Lanka won its victory — and whether it should be condoned or copied — is the subject of an international debate that touches on the War on Terror, the UN and the new geopolitical world order.

Opinion is divided about whether Sri Lanka will win the peace by offering its 2.4 million ethnic Tamils an acceptable devolution package.

Whichever side one takes though, Sri Lanka offers valuable lessons for any country facing an insurgency — such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

From a military perspective the campaign of the past two years has been such a success that it is being studied by counter-insurgency specialists around the world.

Key to that was the acquisition of fighter jets and radar from China and aerial surveillance drones from Israel that allowed the air force to target the Tigers accurately.

The army used guerrilla tactics — moving in small groups through the jungle rather than on main roads — while the Tigers fought a conventional campaign to defend their territory.

Military intelligence split the Tigers by persuading Colonel Karuna, their second in command, to defect in 2004, allowing the army to drive the rebels out of eastern Sri Lanka in 2007. The navy played a crucial role by attacking the Tigers’ supply ships, with help from India and the US.

In the international arena Sri Lanka outmanoeuvred the Tamil Tigers by taking advantage of counter-terrorism legislation introduced after the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001.

It lobbied hard to have the Tigers banned as terrorists in the US, EU, Canada and Australia, forcing those countries to crack down on their financing and arms procurement.

More recently it has cultivated ties with China, Iran and other non-Western powers to counterbalance Western criticism of its conduct of the war.

It also secured tacit approval for its campaign from the ruling Congress party in India, whose leader Sonia Gandhi was keen to avenge the assassination of her husband, Rajiv, by the Tigers in 1991.

The result has been paralysis of the UN system, with Western governments unable to put Sri Lanka on the formal agenda of the Security Council.

Britain, the EU and the UN rights chief have called for war crimes investigations and Washington is stalling an application by Sri Lanka for a $1.9 billion (£1.2 billion) emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund.

War crimes will be hard to prove and the IMF will probably grant the loan because withholding funds would be counter-productive now that the war is over.

It is on the domestic political front, however, that Sri Lanka’s strategy has been most questionable. Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to take a hard line against the Tigers and won the presidential election in 2005 in large part because Velupillai Prabakharan, their leader, forced northeastern Tamils to boycott the poll.

Since then the President has joined forces with a Sinhalese nationalist party to stir patriotic fervour that has stifled all political opposition by branding critics as terrorists.

The domestic media have been silenced by the Government’s failure to investigate attacks on journalists, of whom 14 have been killed since 2006.

Access to the front line has been minimal. That has guaranteed support for the war within the Sinhalese majority and a steady flow of recruits for the professional army, which has not released its casualty figures for months.

It also means that there has been no scrutiny of military tactics, which appear to have included shelling civilian areas, and no public debate about a long-term political solution.

Consequently, the army has alienated many moderate Tamils through its disregard for civilian casualties and callous treatment of the 200,000 Tamils in internment camps.

The Government must work fast to rebuild its democratic institutions and reassure those Tamils that they can benefit more from peace than war. It needs vastly to improve conditions in the camps and keep its promise to resettle 80 per cent of the inmates by the end of this year.

It also needs to present a devolution package granting enough autonomy to satisfy Tamils not just in Sri Lanka but also in the large and wealthy diaspora that funded the Tigers.

If it succeeds it may yet add weight to the idea that terrorists such as the Tigers can be beaten only by curbing civil liberties, keeping the media away and using brute force — just as Russia did in Chechnya.

If it fails, however, it will have squandered the sympathy of the democratic world — not to mention billions of pounds — and created a new generation of Tigers.