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Sri Lanka’s stalemated conflict

About the author

I remember Kittu well. Kittu - full name Sathasivam Krishnakumar - was the second-in-command of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE) during the first decade of Sri Lanka's civil war. As LTTE commander from 1985-87 on the Jaffna peninsula - the Tamil heartland in the island's far north - Kittu, born in 1960 in Velvettithurai, a coastal town devoted to fishing and smuggling on the peninsula, led the Tigers' meteoric rise as the civil war intensified. When he stepped down from his command, after losing a leg to an assassination attempt in 1987, he had already achieved mythic stature as a guerrilla leader.

I had many conversations with Kittu in London in the early 1990s, and remember a bespectacled, soft-spoken man of steely resolve. Kittu believed that the escalating discrimination and violence Tamils had suffered as a minority in Sri Lanka since independence from Britain in 1948 entitled them to establish a separate state covering the island's north (which is overwhelmingly Tamil-populated) and east (which is multi-ethnic, but has a Tamil plurality) to guarantee his people's survival, security and dignity. He told me that he decided to join the then-tiny LTTE in 1978 after working as a teenage volunteer in camps established in Jaffna for Tamil survivors, Hindu and Christian, of mob violence that broke out in 1977 in the two-thirds of the country predominantly inhabited by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-Buddhist majority.

Kittu admitted that an outright Tamil military victory that would lead to the birth of "Tamil Eelam" - the sovereign state - looked implausible, especially once the Tamil insurgents lost India's patronage in the late 1980s, when the Tigers fought a bitter and successful guerrilla campaign against an Indian expeditionary force sent to terminate the civil war. But he insisted that the Sinhalese-Buddhist state would never treat the Tamils as true equals, nor concede their decades-old demand for self-rule in the northeastern Tamil "homeland", until brought to its knees by relentless armed resistance.

Kittu died in January 1993, when a ship on which he was sailing to Sri Lanka to rejoin the struggle was intercepted by the Indian navy in the Indian Ocean. After a stand-off, he apparently blew up the ship rather than surrender, and went down with nine other Tigers - mostly officers of the movement's naval wing, the Sea Tigers - after allowing the nine professional crew of the trapped ship, who were not LTTE members, to depart in a lifeboat. The LTTE's warrior code, which asks of fighters that they kill themselves rather than be captured alive by the enemy - the LTTE's fighters, male and female, typically bite into capsules of potassium cyanide worn around their necks to avert capture - dictated this end.

Sumantra Bose is professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His books include Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2002), Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace (Harvard University Press, 2003 (paperback edition, 2005), and Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Also by Sumantra Bose in openDemocracy:

"Contested lands: paths to progress"
(14 May 2007)

"Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip"
(29 May 2007)
The footsoldiers' war

The Tamil Tigers continued to wage a ferocious and ever bloodier war of independence for almost a decade after Kittu's demise, drawing on the thousands of footsoldiers inspired by mahaveerar (great heroes) like the legendary Sathasivam Krishnakumar. I met one such footsoldier in September 2004, at the "immigration and customs" point for travellers seeking to enter the LTTE-controlled zone in Sri Lanka's north.

He was probably in his early 20s, working at the Tigers' checkpoint at Omanthai, ten miles north of Vavuniya, the last government-held town before Tiger territory. As he processed my paperwork, he noticed me looking at a large poster on the shed's wall of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE's founder and supreme leader. "That's Prabha", he informed me, as a warm and innocent smile spread across his face and lit up his eyes. He then went on, in halting English, that he had lost both parents to the war - in either artillery shelling or aerial bombing by the government, he conveyed that some sort of explosion was responsible - while his two older brothers and one sister had all died in combat, fighting for the LTTE.

A generation earlier, Kittu had made a conscious decision to take up arms against a state he viewed as discriminatory and brutal towards his people. But this youth, manning the frontlines of a stalemated civil war, had probably not had much of a choice. Orphaned and bereaved, he is the product of a brutalised society in which the iyakkam (movement) came to represent the only remaining refuge. Between November 1982, when the first LTTE militant fell in battle, and February 2002, when a now-collapsed ceasefire agreement mediated by Norway put a temporary end to two decades of civil war, the Tigers lost 17,780 fighters in action - about a quarter of whom were female and many were children. By November 2006, that figure had risen to 18,742 killed, most since end-2005, when the ceasefire collapsed in all but name and the peace process effectively expired.

The Tigers' turn

In 2002, the Tigers made a strategic shift. They agreed to put the armed struggle in abeyance and participate in a peace process facilitated by Norway. This was not an ideological shift - Eelam remained a sacred concept, and glorification of armed struggle and martyrdom continued. But it was more than an expedient tactical shift.

The strategic shift had three causes. First, by 2001 the war was well and truly stalemated. In 2000 a major Tiger offensive to retake the Jaffna peninsula from government control stalled after stunning initial victories, and LTTE forces were pushed back to the peripheries of the peninsula (in 2001, the Tigers repulsed a government attempt to evict them from these areas, and subsequently launched a devastating suicide-commando raid on Colombo airport to demonstrate their long reach).

Second, the areas held and administered by the Tigers on the northern mainland and the eastern province consisted primarily of jungle and rural hinterlands, their populations cut off from government-held towns like Jaffna in the north and Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the east and trapped in dire economic conditions.

Third, the Tigers were internationally more ostracised than ever, banned in India and Britain and listed as a "foreign terrorist organisation" by the United States. The LTTE leadership belatedly realised the need to recover some international credibility. In late 2002 the Tigers reformulated their agenda to "internal self-determination", based on "regional self-government" and a "system of self-rule...within a federal structure" - specifically "substantial autonomy...for north-eastern Sri Lanka, the homeland of the Tamils and Muslims [Muslims, the country's third-largest ethnic community, are a fifth of the northeast's population and a third in the east]".

Five years on, the conditions that made the ceasefire possible have not changed. The war is still in a strategic stalemate that is unlikely to be broken. The belligerents can score strategic victories over each other, if at all, only at prohibitive cost to themselves - an all-out Tiger attack on the Jaffna peninsula will produce LTTE casualties on a scale the movement cannot afford, while an all-out government attack on the main LTTE military formations and bases located in the Vanni region, the northern mainland south of the peninsula, will produce crippling losses for the army. Neither side may be able to hold territory gained in such large-scale offensives. That is why the renewed fighting has been limited to skirmishing, commando raids, and a few localised pitched battles, in addition to a spate of death-squad killings.

In March 2007 the Tigers unveiled their capacity to wage war from the air with a characteristically daring bombing raid on the government's main airbase just north of Colombo, conducted by two light aircraft which flew in from the Vanni and returned safely to base. The "Tamil Eelam Air Force" repeated the sortie a month later, this time targeting oil and gas installations near the capital, and LTTE light bombers have also been in action once in Jaffna's skies. But while the small LTTE air fleet is a feat for a non-state actor, its effect is to deepen the strategic stalemate, by making the Colombo government's visions of a military victory ever more risky.

Economic prospects continue to be critically dependent on ending the war. The limited reconstruction in LTTE-controlled areas since 2002 is in jeopardy. In the east the Tigers have been forced to let civilians living in areas they controlled leave for government-controlled zones - and subsequently, denied population cover, their fighters too have had to vacate these areas - due to intolerable pressure generated on these civilians by government blockades on essential goods, backed up by constant artillery shelling and aerial attacks by government forces.

But the economic factor cuts both ways. The government's militarist agenda entails spiralling defence expenditures, which threaten to destroy the remnants of Sri Lanka's once outstanding developmental state and exacerbate poverty (a previous Colombo government's "war for peace" between 1995 and 2001 was eventually exposed as not just militarily but financially unsustainable). After the ceasefire, annual growth quadrupled from 1.4% in 2002 to 5.6% in 2003, and tourism revenues soared. All that stands to be undone.

On the international scene, the Tigers made some progress on improving their reputation after entering into the 2002 ceasefire which committed "the Parties" - the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - "to find a negotiated solution to the ongoing ethnic conflict." But after the ceasefire unravelled, the LTTE has been faced with renewed isolation. In May 2006 it was banned by the European Union, in an ill-timed decision whose effect was to encourage warmongers among the Sinhalese and hardliners in the Colombo government and its military. Colombo does not face the same specter of international isolation, since states have a legitimacy in the international system that rebel movements do not.
Also in openDemocracy on the politics of Sri Lanka's civil war:

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka's election choice"
(17 November 2005)

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka: between peace and war" (15 May 2006)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka: time to act"
(11 September 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Sri Lanka: the politics of purity"
(17 November 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Sri Lanka: giving war a chance"
(8 February 2007)

An unwinnable war

If the armed conflict is unwinnable by each side, and the peace dividend so obvious and substantial, what explains the breakdown of the peace process? This is a puzzle, though hardly an inexplicable one, that applies to many ethno-national conflicts.

In Sri Lanka's case, the Tigers have contributed significantly to the breakdown. In April 2003 they suspended peace talks, on flimsy grounds, with Ranil Wickremasinghe, the relatively moderate prime minister then in office, who had signed the ceasefire agreement with Prabhakaran. The peace process never recovered momentum thereafter. In November 2005, with the process in freefall, the Tigers called on Tamils to abstain from a contest for the country's powerful presidency between the dovish Wickremasinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse, a hardliner backed by Sinhalese chauvinist groups, on the flawed reasoning that Sinhalese politicians are uniformly inimical to Tamil aspirations. Tamil turnout was low as a result, and this enabled Rajapakse to beat Wickremasinghe by a razor-thin margin. Rajapakse's ascent to power in Colombo dealt the comatose peace process a mortal blow.

After the ceasefire, the Tigers also continued their practices of recruiting child soldiers, and killing anti-LTTE Tamils. Lakshamn Kadirgamar, the Sri Lankan foreign minister (and a Tamil), was assassinated in Colombo in August 2005. From 2006, LTTE teams have been conducting decapitation attacks on the Sri Lankan military hierarchy - the army commander was gravely wounded by a woman suicide-bomber in Colombo in April 2006. The growing evidence of the LTTE's unreformed nature boosted the anti-peace movement which has steadily gathered strength and momentum among Sinhalese-Buddhists since 2003 (the Tigers cite government provocations, such as the military's use since 2004 of a renegade LTTE militia led by Colonel Karuna in the east's Batticaloa district to murder senior LTTE officers and prominent civilian supporters). Norway, the third party in the peace process, lacked the clout to rescue the process from terminal decline.

Yet the Tigers' foibles have simply provided additional energy to an anti-peace movement that is deeply ingrained in Sinhalese-Buddhist society, and which is essentially opposed to any political settlement with the Tamils. These elements, especially the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front / JVP), an extreme majoritarian-nationalist group, were in 2005 responsible for sabotaging the joint government-LTTE mechanism for post-tsunami reconstruction advocated by the United States and India.

From Sri Lanka to Cyprus and until recently, Northern Ireland, ethno-national majorities harbour powerful forces wedded to ideas of hegemonic dominance. Peace in Sri Lanka is contingent on the defeat of such supremacist delusions, and the reconstruction of the island as a federal state which institutionalises self-rule for a Tamil-majority northeast, combined with a measure of shared rule at the centre in Colombo for representatives of all of the island's communities and a measure of shared rule within the autonomous northeast for its Tamil majority and Muslim and Sinhalese minorities. The extent of self-rule would have to be a compromise between the Tigers' preference for a loose confederation, on the lines of what the Dayton agreement engineered for Bosnia and the Annan plan prescribed for Cyprus, and the moderate devolution favored by Sinhalese doves, whose model is unitary but decentralised states like the United Kingdom and Spain.

Such a solution is contingent on the LTTE's involvement and cooperation. The Tigers are arguably no more ideologically dogmatic than the Provisional IRA had historically been. The Tigers' influence among their people - partly coerced, but much of it genuinely popular - is comparable to that of the Palestine Liberation Organisation among Palestinians at its zenith in the 1970s. In Sri Lanka's last parliamentary election, in April 2004, Tiger-backed candidates swept the Tamil electorates in the north and east. On the Jaffna peninsula, almost entirely under the government's military control, candidates endorsed by the Tigers won 90% of the popular vote. In the multi-ethnic east-coast district of Trincomalee, where most Tamil voters also live in government-controlled areas, LTTE-backed candidates polled 69,087 votes, while a rival Tamil group sponsored by the government and military got 560 votes.

In early July 2007, the Tigers will observe "Black Tigers' Day" - the twentieth annual commemoration of the first attack by the LTTE's suicide-warfare specialists, the Black Tigers, on 5 July 1987. At the last Black Tiger commemoration in July 2006, Black Tiger martyrs stood at 273 - 199 men and seventy-four women. Unfortunately, that number, and those of their victims, looks likely to rise in the foreseeable future.


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