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The LTTE's Military Debacle

A postmortem

by Sachi Sri Kantha, July 4, 2009

Currently, opinion is divided on the issue of whether the LTTE succeeded in its objectives. Those influenced by the IBMs tend to favor the hypothesis that the LTTE miserably failed in its objectives. Forget about what Sinhalese or Indian Brahmins or Americans think about the LTTE, or about globalization. Think about what Eelam Tamils view about the LTTE.

‘Some people distort things consciously, others just don’t take the trouble to check their sources. It is remarkable, and it makes me ashamed of journalists.’

  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in an interview to Time magazine (July 24, 1989)

Come to think of it, there is much sense in the above quote of Russian author Solzhenitsyn delivered two decades ago when it comes to interpreting the LTTE’s recent military debacle at the hands of Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) army. In the coming months and years, professors and pundits of all shades and standing will pollute the pages of academic journals such as Asian Survey to write their version of history. Already I have read some ephemera paraded by the likes of Mia Bloom and Ramesh Takur, whom I recognize as academics who are illiterate in Tamil language and cultural history.

What I present below is my interpretation of the LTTE’s military debacle. The reasons are manifold. What playwright Arthur Miller noted in his autobiography “There was never a lack of reasons to wonder on fate’s capriciousness.” [Timebends –a Life, 1987, p. 19.] applies to the LTTE as well.

Item 1: military angle

First, I present the two paragraphs of what Newsweek International magazine carried in its June 1, 2009 issue, under the byline of Christian Caryl.

“Last week the Tigers admitted defeat in their two-and-a-half decade insurgency after the death of their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, at the hands of the military. Sri Lanka’s strategy relied on a few key tactics. First, the government created heavily armed village militias to protect civilians – mostly civilians who belonged to the majority ethnic Sinhalese population. Second, whenever it cleared an area of rebels, it quickly moved in enough professional soldiers to hold the ground. Third, Colombo used highly trained commandos to snoop out guerrilla bases deep in the jungle, where they used GPS to call in airstrikes. Many of these tactics are replicable elsewhere – in fact, they should sound especially familiar to Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus, whose military surge in Iraq relied on just such techniques.

But other parts of Sri Lanka’s victory will prove harder to replicate. Tim Fish of Jane’s Defence Weekly in London says that the government’s naval blockade, which cut off the Tigers’ seaborne supply lines, proved critically important.”

So, the LTTE lost out on advancing military technology, and global positioning systems (GPS) proved to be lethal. Is that all? There have to be other compounding factors. Here are five items, whichwere left out inadvertently or indulgently by Christian Caryl and Newsweek’s editorial overseers.

Item 2: Trust-busting betrayal by Karuna.

Col. Karuna, aka Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan, officially designated himself a Tamil turncoat in March 2004. Though initially the LTTE leadership considered Karuna as a ‘one man issue’, it was mistaken in its initial evaluation and grip of handling the problem. Karuna’s trust-busting treason was a blessing out of all proportions to the LTTE’s adversaries (Sinhalese political and military leadership, global and regional gumshoes). Shakespeare’s lines for Marc Antony said it all for Caesar in 44 BC and for Prabhakaran in AD 2003:

“For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitor’s arms,
Quite vanquished him. Then burst his mighty heart,
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statue
(Which all the while ran blood) great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourished over us.”

[Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 186-194]

Item 3: Tripe propaganda by Tamil traditors

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (6th ed., 10th impression, 1980) defines the noun traditor as ‘Early Christian who to save his life surrendered copies of Scripture, or Church property, to persecutors’. Eelam Tamils have had traditors among them, and it’s unfortunate that some of them turned out to be more vocal in their denunciation of the LTTE to paint a distorted image at global podia and media. A list of these traditors include, Lakshman Kadirgamar, the Hoole brothers, Rohini Hensman, Rajani Thiranagama and D.B.S. Jeyaraj. The themes of tripe propaganda included child warriors, human right violations and militarization of the Tamil society. For survival reasons, the same Tamil traditors turned a blind eye to the deeds of the Sri Lankan government. The worst culprit in this category was Lakshman Kadirgamar.

Item 4: Tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004

The damage done by the Big Tsunami of Dec 2004 to LTTE’s infrastructure (personnel and resources) cannot be underestimated. According to one published count, the death toll in Amparai district was highest, 10,436. Though this district had significant proportions of Muslims and Sinhalese, Tamil deaths in Amparai cannot be discounted. The death toll in the LTTE’s other influential districts Mullaitivu (3,000), Batticaloa (2,836), Jaffna (2,640), Trincomalee (1,078) and Kilinochchi (560) were numerous (Science, January 28, 2005, pp. 502-504). Though for tactical reasons, the LTTE didn’t release a cumulative estimate of its losses, it was patently obvious that LTTE suffered deadlier losses compared to its adversary in the battlefield.

Item 5: Terrible norms set by ‘Little’ Bush administration (2001-2008) officials

I’d like to identify alpha male guys like Richard Armitage and his coterie such as Ashley Wills, Jeffrey Lunstead and Robert Blake as ‘Little’ Bush administration officials. All were white Christians who projected an image of having a mindset of color-prejudiced, colonial era exploiters, despite university education. In their book, they worked on one formula: the LTTE and its leadership (‘Black’ ethnics from colonized territories) were “terrorists.” Equating blacks with devil and terrorism has a long-standing history and tradition in the color-prejudiced and paranoid USA. A 210 year-old cartoon print of the ‘Paris monster’ presented adjacently shows that a ‘Negro and the devil’ were feasting with Jacobins (the French terrorists). For the uninitiated, Jacobins were the middle-class radical advocates of terrorism during the French Revolution (1789-1794).

In the post-cold war phase, American militarists and bureaucrats had to search for new enemies and new issues badly. ‘Terrorism’ became the new issue, and non-Christian, non-white ethnics became the ‘new enemies’. The LTTE came to be tainted as ‘surrogate devils’, working in tandem with Osama bin Laden and Al-Queda. Note that the LTTE and its leadership never ever advocated violence against the USA and had never attacked any American citizen or American property anywhere in the world.

For a clear perspective on the mindset of ‘Little’ Bush administration officials, I provide below (as appendix) a readable commentary authored by Michael Kinsley (the then editor of Slate electronic magazine) that appeared in the aftermath of Sept.11, 2001, on the questionable issue of defining the war on terrorism. Some dimwitted Sinhalese commentators like Rohan Gunaratna and Palitha Kohona have attempted in vain to tag Prabhakaran and the LTTE with Osama bin Laden and Al Queda. This commentary by Michael Kinsley refutes such half-baked comparisons.

One more issue noted by Michael Kinsley deserves recognition here. He noted that the casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 vastly exceeded that of the Sept.11, 2001 terror attack by Al Queda, though Americans for chauvinistic pride wouldn’t dare to recognize the two atomic bombs as terrorist bombs. I have proof for this. The venerable National Geographic magazine published an article ‘World of Terror’ in its Nov. 2004 issue. It contained some information on the LTTE. I submitted the following letter to the National Geographic magazine:

“I’ve been a subscriber to the National Geographic for more than a decade, and this is the first time I thought of writing to you. As a long-term resident in Japan, I wonder why is it that you failed to recognize the nuclear terror in your ‘History of Terror’ box lines [pp.76-77, 80-81], which accompanied Walter Laqueur’s selectively partisan feature ‘World of Terror’ (Nov. 2004). By any yardstick of the definition provided by him [“the systematic use of murder, injury and destruction, or the threat of such acts, aimed at achieving political ends”, p. 76], the use of two atom bombs by USA on unarmed civilians living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 in 1945, deserves inclusion in your ‘History of Terror’ listing. Your bias is showing.

Also, CIA is quoted as a source on Al Queda by Laqueur. For balance, isn’t it proper to record CIA’s own covert deeds in instigating and supporting terrorism in so many countries since 1945? For a sample, Iran (1953), Indonesia (1965), Chile (1973), Afghanistan (1980s) would suffice.”

All I received was a courteous, form e-mail “Thank you for contacting the National Geographic Society. This automatic reply is sent in response to all e-mails…” Understandingly, my letter did not appear in the ‘Letters’ feature of the National Geographic magazine. Walter Laqueur (b. 1921), the author of National Geographic essay, is one example of the ‘Jewish terrorism experts’ who has smeared the LTTE (based on second or third hand sources), without clearly understanding the ethnic frictions of Sri Lanka.

Item 6: Antagonism and apartheid of India’s Brahmin Mafia (IBMs)

The caste-conscious India’s Brahmin Mafia (IBMs) never came to appreciate the rise and prominence of the LTTE led by Prabhakaran. Recent Indian history reveals that the IBM mafia in all its manifestations (politics, media, law, business and academics) has a penchant to associate itself with power-wielders of any color and tribe, and to castigate militancy promoted by non-Brahmin leaders. The early years (from 1919 to 1932) of Bania caste- born Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign for India’s freedom provides numerous examples of how the House of Hindu folks disapproved and violated Mahatma’s non-violence campaign in spirit and action.

The attitude and hypocrisy taken by the House of Hindu journalists (the likes of Narasimhan Ram and Malini Parthasarathi) is an example of how their scale of freedom fighters and terrorists was error-prone. Whereas the mainstream American media and public viewed Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) and Hafez al Assad (1930-2000) as ‘terrorists’ (for employing some specific battlefield strategies against the Israelis), the House of Hindu journalists treated them as ‘freedom fighters’ and their deaths were eulogized. But, the LTTE and Prabhakaran, though viewed by the mainstream American media as ‘terrorists’ (for employing similar battlefield strategies against the Sinhalese), was never eulogized by the House of Hindu journalists as ‘freedom fighters’. It was as if the scale used by the Hindu journalists on terrorism was different for Muslims (nominal outcastes by Brahmin standards) and Hindus (led by a non-Brahmin leader). The worse scenario was that the House of Hindu used the Sri Lankan Christian Tamil traditors (Kadirgamar, Jeyaraj, Hensman et al.) profusely to bad mouth the LTTE and its leadership for the past 20 years.

To sum up, apart from the GPS, the reasons for LTTE’s military debacle include a natural cause (big tsunami of Dec. 2004), and four human causes (trust-busting betrayal by Karuna, tripe propaganda of Tamil traditors, terrible norms set by the ‘Little’ Bush administration officials and the antagonism of IBMs).

Did the LTTE succeed in its Objectives?

Currently, opinion is divided on the issue of whether the LTTE succeeded in its objectives. Those influenced by the IBMs tend to favor the hypothesis that the LTTE miserably failed in its objectives. Forget about what Sinhalese or Indian Brahmins or Americans think about the LTTE, or about globalization. Think about what Eelam Tamils view about the LTTE. I bring to my defence Bertrand Russell’s logic to answer this question. I cite below a passage from Bertrand Russell’s thoughts in his work Power (1938). Though more than 70 years have passed since it appeared first, the British polymath’s clarity is what we need at the moment.

“A creed never has force at its command to begin with, and the first steps in the production of a wide-spread opinion must be taken by means of persuasion alone.

We have thus a kind of see-saw: first, pure persuasion leading to the conversion of a minority; then force exerted to secure that the rest of the community shall be exposed to the right propaganda; and finally a genuine belief on the part of the great majority, which makes the use of force again unnecessary. Some bodies of opinion never get beyond the first stage, some reach the second and then fail, others are successful in all three.

The Society of Friends [i.e., Quakers] has never got beyond persuasion. The other nonconformists acquired the forces of the state in the time of Cromwell, but failed in their propaganda after they had seized power. The Catholic Church, after three centuries of persuasion, captured the State in the time of Constantine, and then, by force, established a system of propaganda which converted almost all the pagans and enabled Christianity to survive the barbarian invasion. The Marxist creed has reached the second stage, if not the third, in Russia, but elsewhere is still in the first stage.”

Dimwitted analysts have painted a dismal picture about the LTTE’s performance. But, by Bertrand Russell’s three criteria, I infer that after a 25 year of struggle, the LTTE had brought the Tamil consciousness for a separate state to the second stage, and even to the entry range of the third stage. How the third stage will play out depends on now unpredictable factors such as how (1) the dumb Sinhalese political leadership accommodates Tamil aspirations, (2) the young Tamils growing in the diaspora would integrate the notion of Tamil statehood into their hearts and minds, (3) a ‘Prabhakaran’ born in the 21st century may arrive, unannounced? The last one may appear like wishful thinking. But nobody predicted or foresaw in the 1950s and 1960s, the arrival of the military-savvy Prabhakaran among the book-wormish Jaffna cowards who cringed at the hollering of the racial epithet ‘panam-kottai’ (literally, palmyra-seed)!

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Appendix

It is Time to Define the War Aims

by Michael Kinsley

[courtesy: International Herald Tribune, Oct.6-7, 2001]

Now may seem like an odd time to be worrying that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If ever there was a man of violence who didn’t pose this issue, it is Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Bin Laden is triply easy to classify. First, the attack of Sept.11, assuming he was responsible for it, was on a murderous scale that makes quibbling over definitions seem absurd. Second, his political vision is the opposite of freedom: a repressive clerical state. Third, his method is terrorism in the narrowest definitional sense. It is designed to spread terror, almost apart from any larger goal.

Nevertheless, the definition of the word terrorism is a problem in that we’d better start calling the war effort. It’s a problem for journalists: Reuters has banned the word in reference to Sept.11 and CNN officially discourages it.

The definition of terrorism is a problem for law enforcement and civil liberties. If Americans are to compromise their liberties over it without turning into a police state, they want the definition to be as narrow as possible and still do the job.

Above all, the definition of terrorism is a problem because President George W. Bush has chosen to define the mission as a war against terrorism, not just against the perpetrators of the particular crime of Sept. 11. And he has promised victory.

The advantages of defining the war as one against terrorism, not just Osama bin Laden, are obvious: It helps in rallying both the American citizenry and other nations, and if things go well it creates an opportunity to take care of other items on the agenda, such as Saddam Hussein.

But the disadvantages are also obvious. First, unlike a war against Osama bin Laden specifically, a war against terrorism cannot be won. Terrorism is like a chronic disease that can be controlled and suppressed, but not cured. By promising a total cure, Mr. Bush is setting America and himself up to turn victory into the appearance of defeat.

Second, using terrorism to win the support of other nations can backfire unless you have a definition you apply consistently. And there is no such definition. Defining terrorism was a major industry in Washington during the 1980s, when a definition was badly needed to explain why Americans were supporting a guerrilla movement against the government of Nicaragua and doing the opposite in El Salvador.

So what distinguishes terrorism? Is it the scope of the harm? Most terrorist actions are fairly small scale compared with the death and destruction committed by nation states acting in their official capacities. Even Sept.11 killed fewer people than, say the bomb on Hiroshima – an act that many Americans find easy to defend. So can terrorism mean acts of violence in support of political goals except when committed by a government?

The difficulty is that looking for practical ways to get at furtive and elusive terrorists inevitably leads to the concept of state-sponsored terrorism. This provides someone to attack – and is often factually accurate – but is a hopeless conceptual muddle if non-government is the key to defining terrorism. ‘State-sponsored’ also fails to distinguish the anti-Taliban rebel groups that America is flooding with help from other groups that the United States is trying to destroy.

So can terrorism be defined as gruesome practices that are unacceptable no matter what the cause? As tactics aimed at civilian noncombatants rather than professional soldiers? As strategies literally designed to create terror – fear, panic, despair – as their primary purpose?

All these notions are carted out regularly, but none does the trick. All, in fact, are double inadequate: They leave out people some wish to include, and they include people others don’t think deserve the label ‘terrorist’.

The most accurate definition of terrorism may be the famous Potter Stewart standard of obscenity: ‘I know it when I see it.’ Unfortunately, that kind of frankness would rob the term of its moral power of course, of most of its propaganda power as well.

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