Transnational Terrorism: Learning from Sri Lanka – II
by R Hariharan on 29 Apr 2018 1 Comment

Indian Influence


India and Sri Lanka enjoy close political, cultural and religious links. Tamils in India with their linguistic, cultural, and family ties have always been sympathetic to the Sri Lanka Tamils’ struggle. The 1983 pogrom against the Tamils in Sri Lanka came as a rude shock to the people of India. Tamil Nadu received thousands of Tamil refugees including militants who came in the wake of the riots with open arms. A sympathetic government of India helped the militant groups with arms and military training.


An India Today article of 31 March 1984 said “Indian intelligence sources estimate that nearly 2,000 armed men, belonging to the various groups of Tamil insurgents were trained.” The Colombo weekly Sunday Times in an article has quoted from terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratne’s book to say 32 camps were set up in India to train 495 LTTE insurgents between 1983 and 1987.


At the same time, India also made efforts to reconcile the differences between the Sri Lanka government and the Tamils. Although the efforts failed, they culminated in the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) in July 1987. Under the agreement, Sri Lanka agreed to devolve limited autonomy to a united northeast province, considered as the traditional Tamil homeland. India agreed to help end Tamil militancy and disarm the militants. Though the Agreement did not meet all the demands of Tamils, it provided a good opportunity for both sides to create a climate of confidence to resolve the issue peacefully.


India dispatched an Indian peace keeping force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka to facilitate enforcing the agreement. All Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE, had initially agreed to conform to the terms of the agreement and handover their arms. However, the LTTE refused to give up its arms because it doubted India’s sincerity in helping Sri Lanka Tamils. It considered the ISLA as a means to keep the LTTE under control. It also doubted Sri Lanka’s intentions in adhering to the agreement to devolve equitable powers to Tamils. Moreover, the agreement did not meet LTTE’s goal of creating independent Tamil Eelam. In a bid to disarm the LTTE, Indian troops were locked in battle with them from 1987 to 1990. The LTTE suffered heavy casualties at the hand of Indian troops and took refuge in the jungles of Vanni.


The political changes in India and Sri Lanka in 1989-90 ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka in 1990. The Indian operations drew global attention to the LTTE as it had managed to survive the onslaught of the Indian army. It was LTTE’s strong political links in Tamil Nadu that influenced the change in Indian government policies that resulted in the pull out of Indian troops from Sri Lanka.


The war with India was a valuable learning experience for the LTTE. With the Jaffna and Mannar coasts in northern Sri Lanka within an hour’s journey by speedboat, Tamil Nadu offered an attractive sanctuary and supply base for the LTTE even during the war. Moreover, about 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils who had taken refuge in Tamil Nadu enabled the LTTE to operate clandestinely. The LTTE built a strong asset base in Tamil Nadu ever since it gained a foothold in 1983. It also established contacts to garner support from politicians and officials of Tamil Nadu. Therefore, it was comparatively easy for the LTTE to merge with the population and operate with some impunity in Tamil Nadu. 


Status of LTTE in 2002


After the Indian Peace Keeping Force (1987-90) mauled the LTTE, it was too weak to face conventional forces, resulting in loss of control over Jaffna to the Sri Lanka forces in the Eelam War II in 1990-91. For example the LTTE’s bid to capture Elephant Pass in 1991 ended disastrously with the loss of 1,100 cadres. Perhaps this made the Sri Lankan forces a little complacent in 1991.  

However, based on its experience, the LTTE re-organised its cadres into military formations under the middle level leadership which had shown strong motivation and battlefield innovation operations. Fire power was augmented with mortars and anti-tank weapons. Women’s battalions were raised to beef up the strength. The LTTE naval wing - Sea Tigers - developed innovative techniques to use suicide boats to effectively attack naval craft. Modern technology innovations in communications were introduced to improve operational capability.  

In-house capability for production of grenades and claymore mines was established.  A lot of innovation was introduced in designing and use of improvised explosive devices. This period also saw the firming up of the LTTE’s overseas support network in Canada, Europe and the US to support the LTTE’s growth as a modern fighting force with conventional and unconventional operational capability. 


The Sri Lanka army strength was a little over 16,000 even as late as 1985. However, when Tamil militancy increased phenomenally in the 1990s, military force levels tried to cope with it through additional recruitment. Though the Eelam War III (1995-2002) ended as a stalemate, the Sri Lanka security forces’ performance was far from satisfactory. By then the LTTE’s assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and President Premadasa had earned it the dubious reputation as the most feared terrorist group which put its opponents on the defensive.


While defending Mullaitivu, the army lost 1600 soldiers; similarly it sustained a loss of 204 soldiers when it was forced withdraw from Elephant Pass established as a fortress defence. In the Elephant Pass operation, the LTTE captured three 152 mm guns, two 122 mm guns, 12 x120 mm heavy mortars, and several .50 machine guns, and thousands of automatic rifles. The LTTE also captured several armoured vehicles, tanks, military trucks, bulldozers and high-tech communication systems. The Sea Tigers inflicted heavy losses on the Sri Lanka navy, which lost two naval ships due to sabotage operations.  


The Black Tiger suicide attack on Colombo’s Bandaranaike international airport on 24 July 2001, which killed 18 people and destroyed 11 military and civilian aircraft (including two attack helicopters and three jet fighters of air force and three civilian passenger planes), stunned the Sri Lankan establishment and caught global attention. This attack, coming in the wake of the crushing defeat of Sri Lankan forces in Elephant Pass, demoralized the Sri Lankan leadership as well as the armed forces. 


Peace Process 2002


The LTTE had outgrown its political patrons, including India, when it reneged on the ISLA and went to war with the IPKF. In the presidential elections in 1988, Ranasinga Premadasa of the UNP, who had always opposed the presence of Indian troops, used the rapidly turning public mood against the presence of Indian troops to his advantage. He got elected as president by a narrow margin in December 1988. Soon after assuming office, Premadasa demanded India withdraw its troops from the island. In order to speed up the process, Premadasa went to the extent of supplying arms to the LTTE to fight the Indian troops!


At that time in the South, the government was facing a serious threat from the rapidly growing extremist activities of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a Marxist insurgent group which was staging a strong revival. Apparently, Premadasa felt a negotiated settlement with the LTTE would enable him to focus on destroying the JVP rebels and put out feelers to the LTTE. The LTTE, already weakened by Indian troops, found it expedient to reciprocate the President’s desire for peace talks to find a “Sri Lankan solution.”


However, talks failed as the President Premadasa refused to accept the LTTE demand for the abolition of 6th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution which forbade the advocacy of a separate state within Sri Lanka, although he agreed to the abolition of the Northeastern provincial council and ordering of fresh elections there as demanded by the Tamil Tigers. However, both sides seemed to have failed to create a climate of trust during the talks and this only increased their mutual suspicion of each other’s end goals.  


The failure of Sri Lanka-LTTE 1989-90 talks was not surprising. As events that followed showed, both sides had no intention of a peaceful settlement as they were importing arms in large quantities even as they talked peace. Moreover, even when the LTTE agreed to talk, it rarely went beyond the preliminaries. Usually they floundered upon the LTTE’s insistence on two issues: refusal to accept any political solution other than the autonomy of Tamil Eelam; and to be the sole representative of Tamils at the talks to the exclusion of other Tamil politicians and militant groups. 


The government also had its own problem of political indecisiveness. Whenever the government fought the LTTE, its goal was limited to use the armed forces to whittle down the strength of the Tamil Tigers to bring them to negotiating table. Sri Lanka army had to get adjusted to swings between war and peace which created confusion and cramped strategic planning for operations. It also resulted in lack of coordination of actions between the leadership, executive and military which resulted in failure to mutually reinforce each other’s strength.


Apparently, successive Sri Lankan governments also failed to read LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s overwhelming ambition to use his military prowess to create the independent Tamil Eelam state. He had shown little faith in settling issues through political discourse because of his deep distrust of intellectuals and politicians. The LTTE found peace pauses between wars as useful periods to recoup losses, strengthen its armed forces and consolidate its hold on the territory under its control. 


The daring attack on Bandaranaike international airport, which crippled the air force and the state owned airlines in July 2001, was a moment of truth for President Chandrika Kumaratunga as it highlighted the helplessness of elected governments against terrorist attacks. The global perception of terrorism underwent a drastic change two months later when al Qaeda terrorists hijacked civilian aircraft and attacked the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon to inflict huge causalities on 11 September 2001. The US vowed to destroy al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden and launched the global war on terror.

The international mood sympathetic to the US collective action against all acts of extremism against the state became the watchword. After suffering huge losses in the Eelam War III, Ms Kumaratunga invited Norway’s offer to mediate and evolve peace process with the Tamil Tigers. Anton Balasingham, LTTE’s international representative and close confidante of Prabhakaran, also realised that the world environment after 9/11 was turning against insurgency and terrorism. The international community was tightening a whole range of protocols to check trafficking in arms and men, shipping and container traffic across the globe that would make it difficult for terrorists to transport arms and men across the world.


Considering these developments, Balasingham prevailed upon Prabhakaran to accept the Norwegian mediated peace process. The Peace Process 2002 was different from earlier international efforts at peace in Sri Lanka as it enjoyed wide support particularly from the US and the European Union. For the first time, the LTTE agreed to evolve a solution within a federal framework; on the other hand, Sri Lanka government agreed to accept the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil minority. This created the illusion that both negotiating parties were at par in status, though the government had legitimacy as it was elected by the people, while the LTTE was an insurgent group with marked fascist tendencies. 


Both sides agreed to sign a ceasefire agreement as a prelude to the Norwegian-led peace process which had wide international support. Four co-chairs – the European Union, Japan, Norway and the US – presided over the peace process, while India kept itself in the loop without direct involvement. A ceasefire between the two sides came in force in 2002. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was established with 20 officers from Norway and 10 officers from Iceland. 


However, though the two sides had six rounds of talks between 2002 and 2003, the peace process could make only halting progress in the first three years. After the 2001 elections, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) who were political opponents came to power, frictions developed between them. As a result, the Sri Lanka government was virtually paralysed in the face of LTTE’s large scale violations of ceasefire. The government could neither take decisive action against the LTTE’s ceasefire violations nor respond with a credible alternative to the LTTE’s interim self-governing authority (ISGA) proposal.  


It became untenable for the Sri Lanka government to continue with the peace process after the LTTE assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in Colombo on 12 August 2005. The international community supported Norway’s repeated efforts to resuscitate the process. However, the LTTE stood firm on its demand for parity with the government in all respects and demanded the acceptance of the ISGA it had proposed. The LTTE refused to own up responsibility for attacks that continued against SLSF officers and intelligence operatives. The government could not act decisively on these issues which affected the morale of the armed forces as the ceasefire agreement prevented them from retaliating to LTTE’s suicide bombings and attacks. 

The peace process also lost its credibility among the public who aspired for an end to the cycle of violence and lasting peace. The SLMM also came in for widespread criticism as it could not put a stop to the LTTE’s gross ceasefire violations. As a result, the public lost their faith not only in the peace process but also in the Wickremesinghe government which was elected on its promise to bring peace.


Nationalist feelings were running high against the LTTE; presidential aspirant Mahinda Rajapaksa of SLFP found it expedient to whip up nationalist sentiments to turn public disenchantment with the ceasefire agreement and the peace process in the run up to the 2005 presidential election. The Southern Sinhala masses welcomed Rajapaksa’s call to end the ceasefire and to use the army to eliminate the LTTE. They voted him to power with a slender margin over his UNP rival Ranil Wickremesinghe. In a way, the LTTE aided Rajapaksa’s election as Prabhakaran passed a mindless order asking Tamils to boycott the elections in the areas under its control. The LTTE dictum deprived Tamil votes that would have gone to his rival Ranil Wickremesinghe and helped Rajapaksa’s victory.


(To be concluded…)

Next month, it will be nine years since the LTTE was defeated in Sri Lanka. Written on May 5, 2016, Col Hariharan’s paper is still relevant. The views expressed are author’s own

Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, Paper No 6369

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top