Transnational Terrorism: Learning from Sri Lanka – III
by R Hariharan on 30 Apr 2018 1 Comment

Eelam War IV and the defeat of LTTE


Mahinda Rajapaksa did not end the ceasefire agreement immediately on coming to power; but he promoted an aggressive, explicitly nationalist strategy for ending the conflict. It set off a new cycle of violence and retaliation – including attacks on security forces, extra-judicial killings, suicide bombings and military action. This left the peace talks with no takers. A LTTE suicide attack on the army commander Lt General Sarath Fonseka, on 25 April 2006, provided an ideal opportunity for Rajapaksa to hit at the LTTE in strength. Sri Lanka air force carried out heavy air strikes on the LTTE headquarters. This heralded the unofficial beginning of Eelam War IV. 


However, in real terms the Eelam War started only in July 2006, when the army was asked to get rid of the LTTE which had closed the sluice gates of a weir at Mavil Aru in the eastern province, cutting off water supply to downstream Sinhala villages under government control. Though the SLMM claimed success in the negotiations with the LTTE to open the sluice gates, the government ignored it as it considered basic services non-negotiable. After the army evicted the LTTE from Mavil Aru weir in “Operation Watershed,” it systematically proceeded to clear the entire LTTE deployed in the province. The army established total control over the eastern province when it captured the LTTE stronghold of Thoppigala on 11 July 2007. 


Though the army took nearly a year (from 21 July 2006 to 11 July 2007) to wrest control of the eastern province from the LTTE, its success gave a big boost to its morale. After the army made a dent in the public image of ‘invincibility’ of the LTTE, President Rajapaksa’s national popularity soared.  For the first time after Eelam War III, military initiative swung in favour of the army. The victory in the east also helped the President to sell the idea of a “military solution” - launching a full scale war to defeat the LTTE - to the public who were not confident of its success. On the political front, the government called the war in the East a “war for liberation of Tamils” and the President promised to restore full powers to Tamils promised under the 13th amendment of the constitution to the newly “liberated” eastern province. 


The President seemed to have decided to launch the operation in the north keeping three core aspects in mind: no peace talks till the LTTE’s military power is crushed, international community (particularly India) to be kept at bay till victory is achieved and allow no local or external pressure to affect the war plans. All his political and diplomatic actions during the entire period of war were conducted within these three parameters. This enabled him to stick to his goal of destroying the LTTE and take internal and external actions required to thwart any internal or external pressure interfering with military operations.


The President’s plans were put into action by his executive team consisting of his brothers Basil Rajapakse and Gotabaya Rajapakse, who were inducted as Presidential Advisor and Defence Secretary respectively, and Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, the Army Commander. While Basil Rajapakse provided the political interface to facilitate operational requirements, Gotabaya Rajapakse provided the government interface for the military operations. Thus almost all government initiatives during the period of war were coordinated to facilitate the military operations. As the defence ministry also controlled law and order and public security, paramilitary forces, civil defence forces and the police were seamlessly coordinated with operational requirements of the army.


President Rajapaksa seemed to have given a free hand for the Army Commander in planning and conduct of operations in coordination with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was a veteran with shared experience in earlier episodes of war. As a result there was good coordination between the army and the ministry of defence particularly in processing the demand for raising new units and importing additional military equipment on real time basis.


Inevitably, concentration of such power in the hands of a few persons led to misuse of the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and human rights violations resulting in absence of rule of law and curtailing of fundamental freedoms of the citizens and the media. This caused concern both during and after the war among the international community, civil rights groups and international NGOs working on human rights issues. After the war these issues snowballed into a major problem for Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council which sought accountability for alleged war crimes and human rights violations committed during the war.  


Sri Lanka forces made significant efforts to rectify past mistakes when they went into Eelam War IV. Despite this, the euphoria of victory in the initial phases in the east probably clouded the army’s ability when it made an abortive attack on the LTTE forward lines, cutting off the Jaffna peninsula in October 2006.

The army suffered 129 killed and 515 wounded in the LTTE counter offensive. On April 23, 2008 another military offensive against the LTTE defence line in Muhamalai failed, resulting in the loss of 165 soldiers. After these failures, Lt General Sarath Fonseka tackled three weaknesses that had affected operations: inadequate force levels, better coordination with naval and air forces and of operations on multiple fronts, and flexibility in battlefield strategy to overcome bottlenecks.


At the same time he exploited the inherent weakness of the LTTE: inability to fight on multiple axes, limitations of reserves, and inadequate artillery support. His strategy for the northern offensive envisaged keeping LTTE troops pinned down in the frontline in the areas under their control while the army launched offensives along two broad axes: along the west coast of northern province to cut off A32 road running from south to north which would block supply boats from India’s southern coast reaching the LTTE, and along the eastern coast from south to north to cut off supplies reaching from the eastern sea front. 

As the Sri Lankan operations successfully progressed, LTTE supply chain which had worked in the past was ripped. Naval and air operations coordinated to maximise support to ground operations ensured military success. Air operations using helicopter gunships and fighters to destroy the LTTE support infrastructure and prevent free movement of cadres crippled the LTTE from reinforcing its strong points. 


The army employed Special Forces units effectively to penetrate the front line and soften up LTTE defences prior to the main offensive. Similarly, long range reconnaissance patrols struck in depth to take on opportunity targets. Special Boat Squadrons patrolled lagoons and offensively carried out special missions against targets in the coastal areas.


The army expanded strength phenomenally to meet the requirements of war in the North. In 2008 alone it recruited 40,000 persons to raise 47 infantry battalions, 13 brigades, 4 task force contingents, and two divisions. By the time the army went in for the final phase of operation in February-March 2009, it had 13 divisions, three task forces, and one armoured brigade. It deployed nine divisions, three task forces and an armoured brigade between Jaffna and Wanni in the Northern Province, while three divisions were deployed in the east.


The LTTE fought a defensive battle; it had long gaps between strong points which were undermanned due to inadequate force levels. To overcome this limitation, it used locals to construct strong bunds between strong points to delay the advancing forces. The LTTE during 2007 and the first six months of 2008 managed to successfully carryout a series of bomb blasts and unconventional operations mainly in the vicinity of Colombo and Anuradhapura. In six months of 2008, the LTTE carried out as many as nine blasts, killing 76 civilians and injuring 454. After this, it could not effectively break heightened security measures.


In the preparatory stage of the main offensive, the army destroyed as many as 250 bunkers in LTTE defences particularly along the salient joining the Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the Northern Province. The army launched the main offensive in strength only in the second quarter of 2008, after building up adequate strength. The offensive to clear LTTE strongholds along the western coast started in July 2008, was completed by October 2008, and threatened the LTTE administrative capital Kilinochchi. 


The offensive on the eastern half had a more difficult time as LTTE’s Charles Anthony Brigade inflicted heavy casualtis between October and December when the troops were caught in the monsoon rains. But the army offensive astride main A9 road linking Jaffna with the rest of Sri Lanka, dividing the province into two halves, managed to drive a wedge between Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass. 


By first week of January 2009, the LTTE lost Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass, the key stronghold linking Jaffna peninsula. The international community notably the US tried to intervene, suggesting a ceasefire, which was firmly rejected by Sri Lanka. The US even offered to send Marines to extract the LTTE leadership from the operational area, which irritated the Sri Lankan leadership as it was nearing total victory. The LTTE’s back was broken when it lost Pudukkudiyiruppu west of Mullaitivu. The army finally captured Mullaitivu area, the last LTTE bastion in January 2009.


However, by April 2009 operations were slowed down to allow over 200,000 civilians to get out of the war zone. By then the remnants of the LTTE forces including its top leadership and civilians were confined to a narrow strip in the eastern coastal front. The security forces stepped up the use of artillery including multi barrel rocket fire and air power causing heavy casualties among civilians trapped in the war zone. Sri Lanka was prevailed upon to declare no war safety zone to enable civilians to get out from the LTTE controlled areas which were shrinking every day, but the LTTE would not allow them; the UN critically commented upon the cynical strategy which had little concern for avoidable deaths of civilians. Despite this, 196,000 people fled the conflict zone according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), while at least 50,000 were trapped there.


Future of Tamil separatist insurgency 


From the remnants of the overseas network, the LTTE militants who want to keep the LTTE and the cause of independent Tamil Eelam alive are now organised into two groups which operate covertly. According to Sri Lanka army, P Sivaparan alias Nediyawan based in Norway leads a covert group that has established cells in various Western countries. Former LTTE intelligence operative Vinayagam, based in Paris, leads the Headquarter Group. He is aided by the LTTE’s underworld members and criminal elements. He is involved in activities like smuggling of people to Canada and takeover of LTTE investments abroad.


Many Sri Lanka Tamil Diaspora organizations actively involved in keeping the spirit of Tamil identity and nationalism alive; most of them are in favour of supporting Tamil political moves in the island to fulfill the long pending demands of Tamil minority. Sections of Eelam sympathizers and LTTE acolytes have organized themselves to keep the quest for Tamil Eelam alive. Almost all Diaspora organisations have been vociferously asking for the prosecution of Sri Lanka leaders and army men allegedly involved in war crimes during the Eelam war. They have been demanding an international investigation to into these allegations under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council where the issue is progressing. The most influential Diaspora organizations are the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), Global Tamil Forum (GTF), British Tamil Forum (BTF) and Tamil Youth Organisation (TYO). 




Sri Lanka has shown how to successfully combat the LTTE, a networked transnational insurgent organization, using the conventional army. President Rajapaksa’s objectives were to end the ceasefire with the LTTE, abort the peace process, retain military initiative at all times to destroy the LTTE. President Rajapaksa highlighted to India and the US the danger of allowing a terrorist organization like the LTTE to continue to flourish and they helped him in their own ways.  Though India could not supply arms due to internal political compulsions, it shared vital intelligence on LTTE movements and procurement of arms and supplies abroad and chipped in with some military equipment like radar. The US provided electronic surveillance equipment and maritime intelligence which were effectively used by Sri Lanka to cripple the LTTE’s international logistic chain during the war.  


President Rajapaksa’s post war strategy showed major weaknesses. He failed to resolve the ethnic confrontation once and for all. He did not care to take meaningful action to address the fundamental demands of the Tamils for political autonomy even after five years of war. He chose to ignore international demand for accountability for alleged war crimes and gross human rights violations during the war.  Instead, he used the bogey of LTTE revival to garner political mileage to strengthen his support base among Southern Sinhala supporters. In the last two years of his rule, he pandered to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist organisations causing ethnic friction. His post war rule was also marred by poor governance, misuse of office, concentration of power within the family, corruption and absence of rule of law. 


This led to Rajapaksa’s defeat in the 2015 presidential elections and his former aide and successor President Maithripala Sirisena has been saddled with all the post-war problems.



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 

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