Sri Lanka: Tamil Tigers on Verge of Extinction?
The separatist movement known for recruiting child soldiers by the thousands, pulling out of peace talks, allegedly inventing the suicide belt, experimenting with explosives on dogs, targeting civilians, and shattering the glass ceiling by promoting female suicide bombers looks like it is on its last legs. The Tamil Tigers may have less than 1,000 soldiers left and its air force — if one can call fewer than 5 single-engine Zlin Z-143’s an air force — was virtually annihilated last week in a suicide raid over the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.
Civil war has ravaged Sri Lanka since July 1983. Tamils, the largely Hindu ethnic minority in the north and east, and the governing Sinhalese, the largely Buddhist ethnic majority, are the primary players. (The Muslim minority –also known as the Sri Lankan Moors — tries to stay out of the way, which amounts to siding with the government.) The Tamils basically want their own country and have support from fellow Tamils in nearby India, but terrorist tactics employed by the Tamil Tigers have not made them many friends in the rest of the world. A ceasefire was struck in 2002. Casual news readers may recall speculation after the December 2004 tsunami hit South Asia that the end of the 20-year-old civil war was at hand. With so much destruction, the argument went, the two sides would have to cooperate in the aftermath. Indeed, the Tamils did postpone the armed struggle — but the assassination of the Sri Lankan foreign minister in August 2005 ended all that. The long-simmering conflict, which has so far claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people, reignited and in 2008 the Sri Lankan government scrapped the ceasefire and decided to finish the Tigers. (Click here for a more complete timeline.) Since then, the Tigers have been fighting a losing battle.
Our friends at Strategypage.com report that the setbacks the Tigers are facing are actually crippling blows from which they may not recover:
As the army has advanced over the last year, the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] has moved key assets to prevent capture. But now, many of those portable assets have nowhere else to go, and they are being captured. This includes printing presses, artillery, communications gear and the trucks used to move it all. A large weapons factory was also taken, along with tons of raw materials for landmines, booby traps, mortar shells and so on.
There is now less than 100 square kilometers of LTTE controlled area in the northeast. It’s a narrow coastal strip. The army is taking 5-10 square kilometers a day, and encountering more young teenagers, recently conscripted and armed by the LTTE to “defend the homeland.”
Even so, the Tigers are pushing hard for a ceasefire — a call flatly rejected by Colombo. The United Nations and human rights organizations are also pushing for a ceasefire, citing civilian casualties. The Sri Lankan government has rejected these urgings, as well, labeling the Tigers’ proposal “hilarious.” Indeed, Bellum is reminded of Edward Luttwak’s 1999 article in Foreign Affairs, equally hilariously entitled “Give War a Chance,” in which he argues:
War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat.
In other words, civil wars end when one side wins and the other side loses.
But is peace really at hand? Bellum notes that the Tigers’ claim to fame is suicide bombing. You don’t need to control territory to wage that kind of campaign. The same goes for assassinations. Even after the Tigers are defeated, the Tamil problem will remain. As with Iraq, the solution must be political: the Tamils have to decide they don’t want to fight anymore.
On a broader note, it is important to realize that separatist conflicts have always been with us. What, then, has changed? The Sri Lankan civil war gives us some clues.
- The media environment is vastly different. Throughout most of the 20th century, most Westerners rarely heard news of separatist conflicts unless dead Westerners resulted from the conflict.
- Small arms are incredibly cheap because of the drawing-down of Cold War-era stockpiles.
- Separatist movements are relatively easy to finance, given the drug trade, counterfeiting, and Diaspora remittances that can prop up a violent campaign for decades.
- Human rights organizations — and their access to worldwide media — make it more difficult for governments to crack down on rebels. (We note, however, that the Sri Lankan government has declared a media-war of sorts against Human Rights Watch.) This is not necessarily a bad thing, just an observation.