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Sri Lanka: Tamil Tigers on Verge of Extinction?

February 25th, 2009

A Sri Lankan gunner keeps a sharp eye out for Tamils in the jungle down below. (AFP)

A Sri Lankan gunner hunts for Tigers in the jungle down below. (AFP)

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.

Map of Sri Lanka by ethnicity and religion, dated 1976. (Adapted, University of Texas)

Map by ethnicity and religion, dated 1976. (Adapted, University of Texas)

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.

In January the last Tamil stronghold, the town of Mullaitivu, fell to the Sri Lankans. Strategypage.com reports:

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.”

Sri Lanka's Ministry of Defence has produced an amazingly detailed map chronicling the war since 2007. Its accuracy is unknown.

Sri Lanka's Ministry of Defence has produced an interactive map chronicling the war since 2007. Its accuracy is unknown, but the site is worth a look. (Click the image)

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.

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  1. February 26th, 2009 at 01:52 | #1

    yeah

    YOU JUST WAIT AND SEE

  2. assaji
    February 26th, 2009 at 03:21 | #2

    I think this is a very fair and objective article. Those that protest, obviously do so because of partisan feelings. The war must end. It has gone on long enough, and the way to end it is to finish off the LTTE. Anyone with objective rationality will see this clearly.

  3. February 26th, 2009 at 05:37 | #3

    don’t go to these websites

    TamilNet.com
    TamilNation.org
    TamilsAgainstGenocide.org

    ANYTHING that ANYONE says against our Sri Lankan Government is a LIE! and they are all LTTE supporters. So don’t believe them. Only believe what the Sinhala people say. Because they are nice, innocent people.

    Remember, “either you are with us, or against us”!!!

    As the BEST leader of the world, the honorable, intelligent (former US president) George W. Bush said “either you are with us, or against us”. So if you are not ‘with us’ it means you are with LTTE.

    The Sinhala Sri Lankan State is just fighting Terrorism. There are still 200,000 - 250,000 TERRORISTS left in the Vanni area. We have to WIPE THEM OUT! So please let us do it. Then we can live happily every after.

    Don’t forget, we have already killed more than 100,000 Tamil Terrorists. Actually to tell you the truth, it’s got to be more than 150,000 Tamil Terrorists we have killed in the last 25 years.

    We have also chased out of mother Lanka 500,000 Tamil Terrorists.

    We bombed the hell out of a million Tamil Terrorists, and they are all now living safely in our ‘welfare villages’.

    I know, I know, we are SUCH NICE PEOPLE!!!

    But really, let’s be serious, we should really thank our BRAVE, COURAGEOUS, MIGHTY Sinhala Sri Lanka soldiers! They are the Heroes, and deserve our Praise and Gratitude.

    Let’s who’s going to beat our Record now. (Don’t look at the past. Adolf Hitler killed 6 million Jews, who were all Terrorists apparently. Wish we had 6 mil Tamil Terrorists to kill. We could have got into the Guinness book of Records.)

  4. GOTHANDARAMAN
    February 26th, 2009 at 07:56 | #4

    Suppression of any community had led to an uprising .Sri lanka is fighting against LTTE for the past 25 years which claimed several Thousands of lives on both sides. Sri lankan army is reaping what they had sown before several years by making partial policies and laws favouring majority sinhala community to get their votes .Continuous attrocities by majority sinhala community on tamils was the root cause of this problem .India being a super power in this region should play an active role in bringing peace in sri lanka.Intervention of other countries shall affect the stability of this region.Humanitarian needs of suffering civilians should be taken care of by INDIA.India should ensure complete devolution of power and implementation of the same at the ground level.Justice must be done to all the communities living with in the country.

  5. TRUE TAMILAN
    February 28th, 2009 at 08:57 | #5

    @True Sri Lankan

    you bledy idiot you think you can wipe out tamils that easy, REMEMBER YOUR BUDDIST RELIGION WAS SPREAD BY A HINDU WHICH WAS ASHOKA AND GAUTAMA BUDDHA WAS A HINDU BEFORE HE PREACHED HIS TEACHING.ONLY THE STUPID SINHALA LANGUAGE SEPARATED THE TWO REMEMBER. WHAT SRI LANKAN HAVE ACHIEVED COMPARED TO INDIA.

    INDIA HAS A BILLION PEOPLE WITH DOZENS OF LANGUAGE AND THEIR ECONOMY CAN STILL PROGRESS VERY WELL.THEY LIVED PEACEFULLY SINCE INDEPENDENCE.

    THE AMERICANS WHO HATED THE BLACKS JUST BY THE SKIN COLOUR HAVE NOW ELECTED A FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT.

    WHY SRI LANKAN PEOPLE STARTED THE SINHALA ONLY ACT, THE BLACK JULY BECOZ THEY DO NOT FOLLOW THEY RELIGION TEACHIN VERY WELL,REMEMBER A BUDDIST MONK KILLED YOUR PRESIDENT

    I MAYBE A MALAYSIAN TAMIL BUT THE BUDDIST CHINESE IN OUR COUNTRY TREAT US VERY WELL BECAUSE THEY KNOW THE TRUE MEANING OF PEACE NOT LIKE MANY SRI LANKANS LIKE YOU. I ALSO KNOW THAT SOME SINHALESE DID SAVE THE TAMILS ON BLACK JULY AND I APPRECIATED THEIR HELP BUT STILL THEY CANNOT CHANGE OR SAVE THE DISASTER FROM HAPPENING.

    ASHOKA ON THE FIRST PLACE SHOULD NOT SPREAD THE BUDDIST RELIGION IN SRI LANKA………..

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