A review of Peter Stafford Roberts’ “The Sri Lankan Insurgency: Rebalancing the Orthodox Position” and Stephen Battle’s “Lessons In Legitimacy: The LTTE End-Game Of 2007–2009”
by Peter Alphonsus, ‘The Sunday Observer,’ Colombo, May 13, 2018
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in May 2009 the Government of Sri Lanka won the war. This extraordinary turn of events, we are told, resulted from the political carte blanche granted to the Gotabaya, Fonseka and Karanagoda troika. Licence from on high, the story goes, unshackled their hitherto caged military nous and single-minded, perhaps even bloody-minded, focus on military victory.
Occasionally, the Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe governments’ victories survive the simplistic narrative’s hegemony. Here and there we are reminded of Karuna’s defection, the LTTE overseas proscription, acquisition of blue-water capabilities and development of LRRPs. Cumulatively, these events caused the LTTE to split, cut-off their supply lines and succeeded in eliminating a number of senior leaders. Some observers even argue that the revival of the Sri Lankan economy under the Wickremesinghe regime laid the foundations for the government’s technological and manpower superiority in Eelam War IV.
Sophisticated or stupid, the narratives at our disposal place agency in the hands of the political and military leadership in Colombo. That is the true hegemony of our thinking about the war’s conclusion. Almost all English language analysis of the war, including academic texts, suffer from this flaw.
Peter Stafford Roberts’ doctoral thesis, The Sri Lankan Insurgency: Rebalancing the Orthodox Position, is the Kamba Ramayana to these Valmiki Ramayanas. Following Col. Hariharan’s 2009 Frontline cover story, he argues that choices made in Prabakharan’s Wolfsschanze, rather than at MOD-Temple Trees, lead to the Tiger’s extinction after 30 years. In other words, the war ended in an LTTE loss rather than a Government victory.
Roberts argues that there was nothing fundamentally new in the Sri Lankan Government’s strategy during Eelam War IV. J.R.’s military solution, Chandrika’s ‘war-for-peace’ and Ranil’s peace talks all failed as strategies for defeating the LTTE. In his view, the balance of power between the Government and the LTTE also remained broadly stable over time. As a result, he concludes that there is good reason to doubt that Colombo was responsible for the LTTE’s defeat. Instead, echoing Hariharan, he thinks that it was the LTTE leadership’s failure, particularly, Prabakharan’s failure to comprehend and respond to the emerging domestic and international realities that led to the Tiger’s demise.
Interviewing ex-LTTE cadres who escaped the Vanni, Roberts pieces together a narrative of the war from the LTTE perspective. He corroborates and supplements these sources by his unprecedented access to both the Sri Lanka Army Archive and the RAW Archive. Collectively, they tell us a very different story. Cadres who worked closely with the top LTTE leadership, suggest that Balasingham’s death and Karuna’s defection were the primary reasons for Prabakharan’s loss of strategic agility.
Balasingham’s absence, the thesis opines, left Prabakharan without a foil to debate and think critically. Balasingham, Roberts argues, was vital in shaping Prabakharan’s thought because he was (i) uniquely able to critique his assumptions and logic, (ii) sufficiently trusted that Prabakharan could admit mistakes without losing face and (iii) he was the sole senior LTTE leader who had a reasonably sophisticated understanding of politics and diplomacy. He also attributes Balasingham’s apparently exceptional influence to his close personal relationship with the Tiger Supremo; particularly, Balasingham’s singular ability to put Prabhakaran at ease, even inducing him to violate the LTTE code by smoking and playing poker.
After Balasingham’s death Prabakharan increasingly alienated the international community. For example, in 2005 the LTTE deviated from its post-9/11 policy of focusing on military targets. Furthermore, Prabakharan was surrounded by individuals who were either blinded by their devotion or were ‘working towards the Führer’. Therefore, Roberts concludes, Prabakharan’s strategic powers ossified. He was no longer an adaptive, agile leader. As the Government’s strategy and the international environment transformed, Prabakharan and the LTTE failed to develop an effective response, sticking to their doctrine of conventional, territory-holding war, complemented by asymmetric attacks on military, economic and civilian targets outside the battlefield. This remained the case even after it became obvious that this strategy was leading to catastrophe.
Prabhakaran’s rigidity, Roberts claims, was only exacerbated by Karuna’s defection. Prabakharan became increasingly paranoid and focused on matters internal to the LTTE: investigations and trials became de riguer and planning for military operations faded into the background. In a manner reminiscent of Mahinda Rajapaksa in his second term, Roberts concludes that “[Prabhakaran’s] immediate circle, including Prabhakaran’s family, were contributing to his nadir and eventual failure by their blind faith in his judgment and ability. If anything, Prabhakaran had surrounded himself with a group that was reinforcing the failing strategy”.
Nonetheless, the very virtues that endow Roberts’ thesis with its exciting iconoclasm –anonymous interviews, employment of GCHQ technology and access to closed archives – are also the source of its premier vice. The results of Roberts’ thesis cannot be replicated and therefore their veracity cannot be tested. Naturally, there is little Roberts could have done to mitigate these drawbacks. But, it does mean that we cannot take his facts or his conclusions at face-value. All the more so in virtue of Roberts’ reliance on the accounts of a handful of interviewees. Other than his somewhat unpersuasive argument that the strategic balance between the GOSL and LTTE stayed roughly constant over the course of the war (despite significant investment in GOSL manpower and armaments), he also fails to adequately explain why senior commanders, like Pottu Amman, KP and Balaraj, could not play the role Balasingham and Karuna did. Nor is he entirely persuasive in his account of the change in Prabakharan’s psychology and subsequent failure to adapt post-2005. Finally, he does not analyse alternative strategies Prabakharan could have adopted, such as, abandoning conventional warfare to fight a Maoist guerilla war.
Furthermore, as Roberts himself notes, we also need to be aware that, as a participant-observer linked to the Sri Lankan government during the war, he was not a fully independent researcher. The thesis also appears to have been written against a deadline – with minor factual inaccuracies that someone with Roberts’ expertise could not possibly have intentionally made. But, all in all, much of the material is new and Roberts obviously knows more than he can say.
In terms of corroborating Roberts’ evidence, the only other source known to the author that considers the war as an LTTE loss rather than government win is a Master’s thesis by US Army Major, Stephen Battle, titled Lessons In Legitimacy:The LTTE End-Game Of 2007–2009. Battle argues that the LTTE’s dependence on the Tamil diaspora transformed its relationship with the Tamil population in the North and East. Persuasion gave way to coercion.The most emblematic example being ever more demanding conscription to refill depleted ranks. Ultimately, choosing coercion, Battle argues, led to a loss of legitimacy among the Tamil population in the North and East.
The crux of his argument is an inverse relationship between foreign support and domestic accountability. In Battle’s words, as the LTTE became more “famous internationally, among the Tamil Diaspora, they became more infamous domestically, among a greater number of local Sri Lankan Tamils”. In 1983, the LTTE’s dependence on the diaspora was virtually nil. But by the turn of the millennium nearly eighty percent of the LTTE’s operating budget was funded from overseas sources. Concomitantly, the LTTE, which turned away recruits in the 1980s,started conscription in the 1990s. By the early 2000s every family needed to hand-over a child.
Post-2005, as attrition escalated, and the Government of Sri Lanka increased its military-participation ratio, the need for additional manpower from the already depleted North became acute. (For a useful discussion of the military-participation ratio in the Sri Lankan civil war see Sivaram’s 1997 essay The Cat, a Bell and a Few Strategists.)This was naturally exacerbated by the LTTE’s limited ability to exploit Eastern recruiting grounds following the Karuna insurgency. By February 2009, rebel-civilian relations were reaching a breaking point. The US Embassy “received a report from a foreign government that the LTTE killed 60 civilians who were fleeing by boat at night. According to reports received by an organisation, the LTTE then promised to arrest and detain, rather than shoot, those who sought to escape in the future in order to ease tensions between the LTTE and the civilian population.”
Battle concludes that as “ties to the Diaspora increased, the LTTE reliance on local communities for money, guns and legitimacy decreased. And as the LTTE reliance on the local communities for everything except people decreased, ties to local grievances decreased. As the LTTE became less tied to local grievances, they relied on greater degrees of coercion in order to garner human capital to fill LTTE ranks, leading to a spiral of decreased legitimacy.” Ultimately, this may explain a key puzzle Roberts poses: why did the LTTE not change strategy to fight another day? Why did they not melt, Maoist fashion, into the population and move among the people as a fish swims in the sea?
Roberts’ or Battle’s theses are not cast-iron evidence for one view or another. Instead, they are better thought of as an invitation to reconsider our own understanding of the events that led to the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. It also reminds us of how little we really know about our recent past. As Roberts demonstrates, the answers to these questions cannot be found in Colombo, Kilinochchi, Delhi, Geneva and Washington alone. A complex, nuanced account of this pivotal event in Sri Lanka’s recent history requires investigation that spans the globe. But a good start can be made at home by declassifying all documents related to the war. These include national security council minutes, advisory memoranda from foreign military consultants (e.g. the General Nambiar, Sir Michael Rose and the 2002 PACOM reports), operation completion reports, interrogation transcripts and captured LTTE documents.(Redactions must, of course, be made where there are salient contemporary national security or diplomatic interests at stake.)
It is only then that we will be able to weigh up the evidence and debunk myths to learn lessons from our successes, and our mistakes. The result may well unseat the truth so universally acknowledged. But there is no doubt that its replacement – an understanding of the causes of the war and its ultimate closure -will be closer to the messy, complicated and multi-causal reality that is the world. Armed with an understanding of the past that closer resembles the truth, as a country, we may be able to muddle through the remaining decades of the 21st century just that little bit better. And sometimes just a bit better is just enough.
The writer is a Fulbright scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.