Michael Radu, Ph.D., is Co-Chair of FPRI’s Center on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Homeland Security. His most recent book is The War on Terrorism: 21st-Century Perspectives (ed., with Stephen Gale and Harvey Sicherman, Transaction, 2008); his Europe’s Ghost: Tolerance, Jihadism and Their Consequences is forthcoming from Encounter Press.
After a conflict of more than a quarter of a century of terrorism and civil war that killed 70,000 people, Sri Lankans finally think they have defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), perhaps the world’s most murderous terrorist organization. Why and how a small country of 21 million succeeded in defeating such a group where much bigger powers have failed is a good lesson for those who study terrorism and counterinsurgency. These lessons are primarily political and legal, but also military and diplomatic, and they include both successes and pitfalls in a small country’s road to peace and development.
Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean country the size of West Virginia, has a diverse population—81 percent is Sinhalese, most of them Buddhist; some 11 percent are Tamils, who are generally Hindus, either immigrants from India or native. Eight percent of the population are Muslims. As is so often the case in the former British Empire, the native group most adept to Western education and adaptable to British interests—in this case the Tamils—were disproportionately represented among the educated at the time of independence (1948), and thus resented by the majority. Free elections repeatedly brought to power Sinhalese populists/socialists. Tamils were pushed aside and the majority language declared the only official one. The result was, and to some extent remains, Tamil resentment and demands for autonomy, at least in the northern (Jaffna) and Eastern (Trincomalee) areas where they predominate.
Key to understanding why the LTTE lasted for so long and why India was involved in Sri Lanka on and off at various times is the fact that some 60 million Tamils live in three southern Indian states, primarily Tamil Nadu, and many of those support the LTTE out of ethnic solidarity. Equally, if not more, important, there is a large (ca. 800,000) Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, mostly in Canada, the UK, Australia, the U.S., and southeast Asia. This diaspora is radicalized and, like most diasporas living in safety, more radical than co-nationals in the country of origin. It still provides the funds, propaganda support, and public relations vital to the LTTE’s survival.
The LTTE pretends to fight for a separate Tamil state (Tamil Eelam) in the northern and eastern parts of the island, and it has actually established a de facto state in those areas for almost a decade , complete with administration, courts, taxation, education, etc.—until it lost it all following the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) offensive since the beginning of 2008. What did that “state” look like?
“Though receiving considerable popular support, the LTTE regime was (is) a command state. It has always been a military outfit and the insurrectionary war situation hardly encouraged anything other than dictatorship, but [Vellupillai Prabhakaran]’s personal proclivities and the veneration he received as a demi-god would have accentuated this characteristic. Command state meant (means) command economy. State enterprises in transport, restaurants, etc. augmented the returns from taxation and import duties. A critical dimension of its local resources was the supply of monies from the SL government in Colombo, namely, salaries and pensions paid to a wide range of Tamil-speaking administrators, including health officials, who were employees of the central state.”
To begin with, the LTTE , despite its claims and effective propaganda, does not represent the Tamils. It never submitted itself to elections; to the contrary, it is a quasi-cult terror group, subservient to the whims of one person, Prabhakaran. His decisions, rather than any nationalist goal, send people to their death, train them for death, preferably from childhood, and have long murdered any moderate or nonviolent Tamil politician in the country. In that, and many other respects, the LTTE are similar to other cult-like revolutionary terrorists, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey and Abimael Guzman’s Communist Party of Peru, a.k.a. Shining Path. Compared to those, Stalin and Mao had and officially claimed fewer powers. To comprehend LTTE, imagine Jim Jones’ Temple cult of Guyana in possession of a “navy” and “air force,” as well as (at its height) some 20,000 fanatical and armed zombie followers.
Prabhakaran imposed a blood tax on the people under his control. Each family had to provide a son to the LTTE—a pattern condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN. LTTE made every follower bear a cyanide pill (thus few “Tigers” were ever captured) and established special units, such as the “black Tigers,” for murder and assassination. In fact, until the early 1990s, the LTTE led the world in suicide bombings, with victims including a president and many ministers of Sri Lanka, as well as a former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi (1991). Unsurprisingly, the UN, EU, U.S., and India all declared the LTTE a terrorist group. Still, in the rich West, pro-LTTE groups were allowed to collect funds (and occasional recruits), always illegally and under threat, usually under the pretext of “freedom of expression” but, in places like Canada, for electoral considerations.
The result was that for two decades the LTTE was one of the world richest terror groups, able to create its own “navy” and “air force”—two bad ideas turning against itself as it happened. That wealth and Prabhakaran’s unlimited ambitions led the LTTE to establish a conventional military force, helped, officially and economically by the do-gooders from Norway—a wealthy country with overseas ambitions and best intentions, serving as a “mediator” between Sri Lanka and the LTTE. It was precisely the Norwegian mediation that, for almost a decade, allowed the LTTE to establish its de facto state in the north and east and Prabhakaran to use that for creating his totalitarian “state” there.
With an economy based on tourism, rubber, and tea and heavily dependent on foreign aid, Sri Lanka was obviously vulnerable to terrorism, especially in regard to tourism—and to the influence and sensibilities of Western donors. The latter, as usual, are themselves “sensitive” to the enormously effective, and wealthy, pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora and the international “human rights” lobbies—such as AI and HRW. Each of those, over time and for its purposes, acted to prolong the conflict, protect the LTTE, and thus have more Sri Lankans killed. At no time is that deadly coalition’s impact more obvious than now, when the LTTE is on its deathbed.
By the end of 2007, the Sri Lankan electorate was tired of a war that never ended, of a de facto division of the country; and of the war’s continuing when a major part of the LTTE, under a defecting leader (second in command to Prabhakaran, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, a.k.a. “Karuna”) was ready to cripple the “Tigers.” He did so, and is now the official leader of eastern region—and as a former “Tiger” he effectively controls, legally or not, a key area.
Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa is conveniently the defense minister, and under the very competent military leader Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, the Colombo government decided that the Norwegian-mediated “peace process” only led to more terrorism from the LTTE, the de facto partition of the island, and no solution to the Tamil problem. The result was its formal withdrawal from the “process,” its declaration of LTTE as a “terrorist organization,” and a serious military campaign aimed at the destruction of the “Tigers” as an armed force.
Starting last year, the SLA’s better trained and armed elements—some 50,000 altogether—began a steady offensive against LTTE-controlled areas in the north and northwest (the east, following Karuna’s defection, was already “Tiger “free). By January 2009 Kilinochchi, Prabhakaran’s “capital,” and Mullaitivu, his last major stronghold, fell. From a height of over 7,000 square miles, the LTTE area of control shrank to some 30 square miles– all surrounded by the military, from land and sea. While there are conflicting views over Prabhakaran’s fate, it is most likely he is still in that area—after all, he is a wanted man by the Interpol and most area countries. It is in this environment that the so-called “human rights” NGOs and their political supporters are actively, whether willingly or not, supporting the survival of the LTTE.
Most sources, from AI to HRW, the Red Cross, and even Colombo, agree that some 200,000 or more civilians are trapped in the shrinking LTTE-controlled area. AI’s Yolanda Foster admitted that “We just don’t know what’s been happening in the last few weeks in Sri Lanka. Her HRW colleagues, based on the same information, condemned the Sri Lanka regime for “failing to distinguish between the trapped civilians and the rebels.” The government, she noted, has launched “indiscriminate artillery attacks on civilians” who are trapped in the war zone, shelling hospitals and other designated humanitarian “safe zones.” She also admitted that, “Cornered and desperate, the Tamil Tigers, have responded by using civilians as human shields and forcing others, including children, into service as fighters and porters on the battlefield.”
If there are indeed some 200,000 or more civilians in the 30 square miles under LTTE control (that would make that area one of the most densely populated in the world, at 6,600 people per square mile), how is the army going to separate them from the LTTE cadres? Can any army do that? Obviously not, which is why the “solution” advocated by the NGOs and, more logically, by the Tigers’ propaganda machine in the West and southern India, is a “cease-fire,” ostensibly to allow the evacuation of civilians. That is why LTTE sympathizers are demonstrating in India, England, and Canada, ostensibly in favor of a cease fire—one that would allow the LTTE, once again, to escape final defeat, come back and, of course, repeat the circle again: civilian hostage taking, use, manipulation and indoctrination included, as well as rearming. We have seen this movie before, and many Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils, have paid with their lives for it.
On the other hand, the government intends to establish rehabilitation camps for Tamil refugees from Tiger controlled-areas—and impose security controls as well. Many of those refugees are traumatized by LTTE and war conditions, but some, like a recent female suicide bomber disguised as a refugee, are infiltrators who have to be neutralized, which takes time and individual interrogations. The NGOs’ answer to this common sense? “The LTTE’s grim practices are being exploited by the government to justify its own atrocities…. High-level statements have indicated that the ethnic Tamil population trapped in the war zone can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants, effectively sanctioning unlawful attacks.” What are the government “atrocities”? Temporary camps, with schools and clinics, for some two years for civilians formerly under Tiger control and indoctrination—and plausibly infiltrated by terrorist cadres.
Ultimately, the issue is quite simple, both morally and practically. The eradication of the LTTE, at least as a conventional force, saves civilian lives. Misguided or, in the case of pro-Tiger diaspora groups, dishonest calls for a ceasefire would inevitably lead to more civilian casualties and a revival of terrorism. Reason, rather than pacifist or irrational thinking as manifested by the human rights establishment, would suggest that their efforts should be directed toward aid to Sri Lanka for the reinsertion of Tamil civilians and not toward throwing a line to the sinking LTTE.
For more than a decade Western liberal elites gave the LTTE a pass under the pretext that they represent real grievances of Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Ottawa, Washington, and Delhi closed their eyes to their own Tamil citizens’ being forced or manipulated into paying for the murder of civilians in Sri Lanka, despite officially declaring the Tigers a terrorist group. Military sanctions were imposed on Colombo, aid was conditioned on tolerance of, or “peace negotiations” with, Prabhakaran—and the Tiger cancer grew. All of this pushed the government in Colombo into some dubious friendships (Iran and Venezuela come to mind), counterproductive and unnecessary if common sense in London or Ottawa would have been the main policy criterion.
Ultimately, Western views and policies vis-à-vis Sri Lanka prove that humanitarian feelings and “human rights” are no policy alternative to common sense, and that even small countries, if desperate enough, could solve their secessionist/terrorist problems even despite the powerful human right NGOs pressures to commit national suicide. Second, and most important and with wider implications, short term, obsessive preoccupation with “civilian casualties” is often a death sentence to civilians in a civil war. The longer the war, especially when the victor is obvious, the more civilian casualties. Hence a military solution is, in some circumstances, the best way to save civilian lives. In general, pacifism, disguised as “human rights” or not, always leads to more death, especially in remote, third world, small countries vulnerable to the influence of AI or HRW. Ending a war—by force if need be—protects more civilians than prolonging it under any pretexts.
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On November 15th at the FPRI annual dinner Fouad Ajami was presented with the Seventh Annual Benjamin Franklin Public Service Award. The event was attended by over 360 people.
Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr. was dinner chairman.
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