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The Tamil Tigers are beaten but it isn't over yet

Commentary, 20 May 2009
Central and South Asia
The Sri Lankan Government is claiming victory but no insurgency is ever beaten by force alone

The Sri Lankan Government is claiming victory but no insurgency is ever beaten by force alone

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI

This article first appeared in The Times, 19 May 2009

The Sri Lankan Army is celebrating victory as its elite forces occupy the Tamil Tigers' last refuge at the Mulathive Lagoon, thanks to Chinese military aid. Since 2007 China has equipped the Sri Lankan Government with all the weapons and support the rest of the world had denied it, in return for permission to build a strategic port at Hambantota in the south.

For the Sri Lankan Government, this bloody victory means facing down international outrage at the civilian suffering it has caused. More than 100,000 people have died in this war, at least 30,000 in the past two years alone. But Sri Lanka's Government will live with that. It calculates that history will recognise a stunning military victory, after 26 years, against an insurgent force that had been a model of ruthless determination.

The Tamil Tigers were unique in blending fear and terror with a successful campaign in the world's media; not to mention running their own significant navy and a small air force that was unstoppable, until the Chinese gave Colombo half a dozen F7 fighters. For the Sri Lankan Government, the end of an insurgency that once controlled almost a third of its territory on behalf of the Tamil fifth of the population is an end that justifies the means.

This cynical calculation, however, is based on a number of assumptions that the Sri Lankan Government is only guessing at. It portrays the Tigers as alienated from the Tamil population. This is not necessarily untrue - the Tigers were cruel - but the Sinhalese chauvinism of the majority gave the Tamils plenty to resent. And this sort of ruthless military victory always creates stories of atrocities - the raw material for breeding new fighters. It is not clear that the Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has the will or skill to break the cycle of fear and hatred that is passed down the generations.

The Government also assumes that the military campaign is over. But there are no convincing examples of serious insurgencies ever being eradicated by military force alone. Around half the insurgencies since 1945 have ended with the insurgent groups achieving some greater measure of autonomy. Less than a quarter of insurgencies end up in successful secession or governmental takeover.

Most insurgencies make some political impact, but then get trapped within their own liberation myths, criminality and incipient violence to become like a grumbling appendix in the body politic; until they burst or else history catches up with them to create a new political situation.

The nearest example to the Sri Lankan victory would be the Russia campaigns in Chechnya. A second, decade-long war has ground to a halt, leaving Chechnya devastated, cowed and resentful under the control of an unstable puppet president. Moscow claims the war is over, but violence continues; that the violence isn't more intense is more to do with exhaustion than acceptance of the Moscow-dominated status quo.

Successful counter-insurgency campaigns are fundamentally political rather than military. Force has an indispensable role to play if a terrorist or guerrilla group is making territory ungovernable. But military force is a necessary and not a sufficient condition for victory. As David Petraeus, the successful US commander in Iraq, is fond of saying: the target of American actions is the insurgency, not the individual insurgent. So the military must be subordinate to a political authority that aims to make the insurgents irrelevant in the eyes of those people who might otherwise support them. The legitimacy and effectiveness of the government has to displace the appeal or the fear of the insurgents.

This was successfully achieved by the British against a communist insurgency in Malaya. But 10,000 insurgents required more than 40,000 Commonwealth troops, a quarter of a million local police and 12 years of painful campaigning to bring an essentially political end to that emergency in 1960. Even then, another smaller insurgency flared up seven years later and lasted until 1989.

In Northern Ireland the military had a poor start and the IRA set the pace. But by the late 1970s the soldiers had learnt painful lessons and were operationally on top of the IRA. There was no more that they could do; the 1980s were a period of stalemate, waiting for a political settlement to take shape - which exhaustion and generational change gradually achieved after the ceasefires of 1994. Fifteen years later those ceasefires still cannot be taken for granted.

Mr Rajapaksa's Government should not be so confident that it has won. After a shaky peace broke down in 2005 it committed itself, partly out of exasperation, to outright offensives against the Tamil Tigers. It gave up entirely on the “hearts and minds” aspects of the problem. So the Tamil Tigers may be beaten in the audacious military guise they adopted but Tamil nationalism is not dead, even if it is stunned by the defeat. It will not be surprising if it finds new, and probably violent, ways of expressing itself again within the next couple of years.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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